Each state and territory of Australia has laws concerning times when alcohol can be sold. As Queensland considers new laws, several policy experiments that have occurred in recent years can provide valuable lessons.
The Newcastle experiment
Newcastle was the setting of what is arguably a turning point in a decades-long trend of increasing availability and promotion of alcohol in Australia.
In March 2008, following complaints from the community and police about late-night violence and disorder, the NSW Liquor Administration Board required 14 pubs in the Newcastle CBD to close by 3am. Previously, they’d been allowed to open until 4.30am or 5am.
The board also imposed a 1.30am “lockout”. This was a uniquely Australasian intervention that permitted patrons to remain drinking in premises until closing but not to enter other premises.
It was a landmark decision; such restrictions had not previously been applied across an entire precinct. The scale of the intervention and the fact that late-trading pubs in neighbouring Hamilton were not included in the decision created an opportunity to study the kind of policy experiment governments frequently undertake, but rarely learn from.
The outcome was a one-third reduction in assaults in the 18 months following the restrictions. There was no sign of displacement to earlier in the evening or to Hamilton, where the assault rate continued increasing.
The usual chorus of vested interests and commentators claiming effects would be short-lived followed. But assault rates remained lower in the Newcastle CBD for years afterwards. They’re now half what they were before 2008.
Reducing hours of drinking works; lockouts alone probably don’t
Notably, there has been little if any improvement in Hamilton, despite the introduction of a 1am weekend lockout there in 2010. This finding is consistent with other studies that show no benefit of lockouts when they are used as a sole measure.
‘Freedom to’ versus ‘freedom from’
In February 2014, the O’Farrell government in NSW introduced 3am “last-drinks” laws and 1.30am lockouts in the Sydney CBD and Kings Cross.
Requiring premises merely to stop selling alcohol rather than close was a step forward from the Newcastle experiment. If patrons wish to eat, listen to music, or watch a striptease, it should not be for government to decide whether premises are allowed to provide these services.
The aim of government regulation must surely be to strike a balance between what philosopher Isaiah Berlin termed “freedom to” versus “freedom from” – in this case, the individual right to drink in public in the early hours versus the public right to safety. Whether businesses remain open when they can no longer sell alcohol should be up to them.
New limits for Queensland?
The Queensland parliament is set to consider whether the state should adopt a 2am last-drinks limit – except in entertainment precincts, where 3am last drinks and a 1am lockout may be approved.
This is a further advance in the evolution of these laws, bringing them closer to the scientific evidence. The proposal advances the public interest by extending the policy state-wide, affording citizens in smaller centres and towns the benefits enjoyed by those living in major cities. It also limits the reliance on lockouts, whose efficacy is at best uncertain.
The Queensland bill would be better still if it applied the 2am limit across the state and required that alcohol consumption (rather than sales) cease by 2am (“last drinking”, as happens in the US state of California).
A second reading of the bill when Queensland’s parliament resumes in February will reveal whether the government has the numbers to pass the legislation in a precariously balanced parliament.
Meanwhile, the NSW government is considering the merits of continuing with the Sydney conditions, which have dramatically reduced harm in the CBD and Kings Cross. It would be wise to take note of the openness to evidence and focus on the public interest north of the border.