NSW response to alcohol-related violence is an important first step

NSW premier Barry O'Farrell has announced a suite of measures to combat alcohol-fuelled violence. Will they work? AAP/Dean Lewins

Major changes to a range of liquor licensing and sentencing laws in Sydney’s CBD have come at the end of the media storm that emanated from the senseless attack on Daniel Christie and his subsequent death.

The reforms announced by NSW premier Barry O’Farrell show leadership and courage, and offer a shining example to other state and national leaders. They can serve as the beginning of real change to Australia’s culture, which has created an environment where we hear of senseless bashings, rapes and killings week in, week out.

The measures

The measures introduced by the NSW government are closely linked to those that achieved substantial results in Newcastle. The key measures include:

  • 3am end to bar sales in the Sydney CBD and Kings Cross;

  • 1.30am lockouts (small bars/restaurants exempt);

  • 10pm closing of packaged liquor outlets;

  • Risk-based licensing scheme;

  • Freeze on granting new licenses;

  • Eight-year mandatory sentencing for alcohol-related king-hit deaths;

  • Increased on-the-spot fines for anti-social behaviour (for example, from A$150 to A$500 for offensive language and from $200 to $500 for offensive behaviour);

  • Increase from two years to 25 years’ maximum sentence for the illegal supply and possession of steroids.

Will they be effective?

The key element of this package of reforms is stopping the service of alcohol at 3am. This is a measure that has been found to be very effective around the world.

Ideally, the measure would have been implemented state-wide. This would have eliminated the chance of any type of displacement effect, where people can simply move from a closing licensed venue to an open one.

However, the reforms still send a clear message that restricting trading hours is on the agenda. Communities will be able to lobby for this response in the future. Local government and the state and federal politicians who represent these communities will now have to explain why they don’t have the same courage O’Farrell does to stop this violence.

Lockouts have less evidence supporting them. This measure has been found to cause a few problems, such as favouring larger, later trading venues and creating conflict at the door. The exemption of small bars, however, goes some way to helping with this. On the other hand, we found this significantly reduced pre-drinking, a major predictor of being involved in alcohol-related violence.

Risk-based licensing and increased on-the-spot fines for anti-social behaviour have shown good moderate effects and have important added benefits.

Risk-based licensing effectively introduces a “user pays” system whereby pubs and clubs that are likely to experience more harm pay higher fees. Linking the system to venues’ record of breaches means good venues pay much less and those with a bad record pay substantially more for their liquor licence. A recent evaluation of this system in the ACT found promising signs.

Increased on-the-spot fines for anti-social behaviour can have a significant impact on assaults and emergency department attendances. They also serve an important role in terms of sending a clear message that heavy intoxication and anti-social behaviour are not acceptable.

Far beyond the obligatory education campaigns, to which the public are largely immune and which normally can be interpreted as the default way to do nothing, these fines have an unequivocal message.

The O'Farrell reforms came as a result of a strong public and media-led campaign. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

Closing bottleshops is an important acknowledgement of the impact of these players and the negative impact they have. Unfortunately, it will only really affect “side loading”, where people have a final drink just before entering venues or top up inside venues with hip flasks or the like.

What don’t the measures address?

In the end, alcohol price reforms need to occur to tackle the gaping price differential between pubs and the large bottleshops and supermarkets. Setting a minimum price has been found effective in Canada and is soon to be introduced in Scotland - despite heavy industry opposition and a clear hijack of the British government on the issue.

Measures to tackle other drug use are also something that shows a willingness to act, even though we still need more evidence. Research has found that people who use illicit drugs are more likely to experience all forms of harm and more likely to be involved in assaults.

Recent research has also shown that methamphetamine users were roughly three to nine times more likely to be engaged in violence when using the drug.

However, our research has also shown that while this matters at the individual level, alcohol is still the main predictor of violent behaviour. Unfortunately, we did not ask about steroids in that project and testing is unlikely to accurately pick up rates of use, but like other drugs, it is likely to contribute. Acting on these other substances is a necessary part of a package of measures.

The other key element of the reforms is the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences. However, the mandatory sentences announced don’t have strong evidence to support their introduction.

Such sentences are probably unlikely to have an impact on people’s actions in the heat of the moment, especially when alcohol or other drugs are involved. However, they may well influence broader attitudes towards violence and start to have a bearing on some longer-term issues.

Mandatory minimum sentences are also expensive and fill already crowded jails. Smart but tough justice options, such as stopping repeat offenders from drinking, can and should be explored. This has been found to have massive benefits in crime reduction at no cost to the community.

But the measures announced do reflect the political reality of community sentiment. They also send a very clear message that the community does not accept this behaviour, regardless of any reasons.

Next steps

The measures announced represent a landmark in alcohol policy. With some tweaking, they will have a very substantial impact on alcohol-related violence in NSW. There are two key next steps to ensure these measures have the greatest impact.

Bars in Sydney’s Kings Cross now face a mandatory 3am closure. AAP/April Fonti

Firstly, these measures are a response to the situational factors involved. To make longer term and more substantial reductions and prevent more senseless injury and death, we need to expand on these initiatives to incorporate a whole-of-government strategy to prevent and reduce violence at both the state and federal levels.

Alcohol and violence permeate our society and feast on each other. Family violence and other forms of domestic violence, child abuse, gang violence, sexual assault, bullying and many other forms of violence erode our community day by day and destroy lives.

All of these experiences create subsequent cohorts of people who have learned violence as a form of communication. Boys who are abused physically by their fathers, who normally do so when drunk, are twice as likely to be perpetrators of bar-room violence as adults, often destroying their lives before they even really begin.

By not acting on this cycle of violence we allow the problem to continue growing.

Our society is clearly no longer willing to pay the huge financial and devastating emotional costs associated with violence. The costs to governments, communities, employers, individuals and productivity will become an increasing and crippling financial burden.

There are solutions at hand and an international framework ready to adopt. The leadership of the O’Farrell government and the success of an extraordinary public campaign for change should serve as an inspiration for other Australian leaders and their communities.

Real action is now firmly on the agenda. Australians are no longer going to accept do-nothing approaches from their governments.