Will the tough New South Wales drinking laws work? Wayne Tritton, in this guest post doesn’t think so and presents a strong argument as to why they won’t.
The phrase ‘mandatory sentencing’ immediately sends shivers up my spine. While not condoning the abhorrent behaviour of the ‘one-punch’ louts, I think the issue of ‘alcohol-fuelled violence’ requires much deeper consideration than the simplistic knee jerk reaction of Premier Barry O’Farrell’s ‘mandatory’ sentencing, and ‘earlier/restricted’ operating hours.
Mandatory sentencing has long been a favourite stand-by for beleaguered governments desperate to be seen as ‘listening to the community’ who, ironically, have been ‘fuelled’ into a fervour of fear and outrage by the screaming, sensationalist headlines of the mainstream media. In NSW it’s been, unsurprisingly, that paragon of unbiased ‘journalism’ The Daily Telegraph screaming the loudest, ably abetted by the usual suspects of talk-back and the commercial networks ‘current affairs’ programs. It’s been grand front page and opinion column fodder for weeks now, and if you took them at their word, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d be better off just staying home and having a few quiet ones in front of the television, rather than venturing into the ‘mean streets’ of inner Sydney. I note, also with no small amount of irony, the number of ads relating to alcohol in said publications and on the networks in question.
So, are our streets really unsafe to walk at night? Nick Evershed provides some interesting stats in his Guardian article ‘Alcohol-related violence: numbers don’t always tally with media attention‘ relating to assaults in NSW.
I am in no way attempting to say alcohol-fuelled violence is not an issue. I am a musician and have spent the better part of my working life in clubs and bars and seen things I would rather not have, but simply declaring mandatory sentences for offenders and ‘curfews’ will achieve little, if anything, in terms of prevention. Mandatory sentencing, as a deterrent, is premised on the belief that:
” . . . people are rational actors who weigh the costs and benefits of committing a crime before deciding to commit that crime” (Australian Institute of Criminology).
Obviously that’s why our local magistrates courts are chock full of people who made a ‘rational’ decision to get behind the wheel after eight schooners and a brandy night-cap. Pretty sure most of us have experienced the ‘I did WHAT last night?’ morning after. Alcohol does odd things to the brain, which is why we like it, but rational thinking isn’t generally one of them so I don’t see mandatory sentencing in anyway affecting the decision-making process of someone who has had too much to drink and is feeling belligerent. (Ask a door guard at any club/pub you like). And yes, there is no question that certain elements do go to the pub with the sole intention of getting smashed and causing trouble, but like the VLAD laws, this just tars everyone with the same brush. Should an otherwise upstanding, first time offender be given no lee-way or have no allowances made for mitigating circumstances? Are all assaults now to be dealt with under these new laws or just those where alcohol is considered to be a contributing factor? What if the victim of the assault is the one ‘intoxicated’ and the offender isn’t? Mandatory sentencing is a black and white ‘solution’ in an increasingly grey world.
Does O’Farrell seriously believe that cessation of service won’t mean people will leave a venue? Not in my experience. Once the booze stops, it’s generally ‘party over’. You think it’s a good idea to put that many people on the street, in various stages of intoxication, at 3am cab change-over time? You’re just asking for trouble. Ever seen footage of the infamous ‘Six O’clock Swill’? And once again, the onus of responsibility is being shunted off to the venues/clubs, most of whom already have gone above and beyond, in consultation and compliance with local authorities, police and the State Government, to ensure their venues are safe and operating in a responsible manner (i.e. following RSA guidelines in limiting the amount of drinks patrons can buy at any one time, no shots after midnight, RSA Marshalls, CCTV, security etc.), and keep in mind that not one of the recently reported incidents occurred on licensed premises. This response from one of the city’s more popular late night venues, Goodgod Small Club, makes some very valid points about pre-loading, and the real risk of simply moving the problem to different precincts, an opinion echoed by Lord Mayor Clover Moore.
And if I’m not mistaken, it’s been successive governments, of both persuasions, that have basically forced venues and patrons into one district via a multitude of noise abatement laws and regulations.
During a recent social media conversation I received this statement:
More intoxicated people on the streets? How did they get intoxicated? Oh yeah, licensed venues served them booze, possibly in breach of RSA guidelines! Mate honestly, STUFF the venues. They are largely the root of the problem and they have fostered the very ‘cultural problem’ you identify.
Yes, they were served booze at a licensed venue (where else?). Why were they on the street? Usually for one of three reasons:
a) they simply left one venue of their own volition to find another venue to try and continue the party
b) because they were intoxicated, they were informed that, while they could stay on the premises they would no longer be served alcohol, so left to find someone who would serve them
c) they were acting in a manner that warranted them being asked to leave.
That’s what RSA is! There are big posters all over every venue in Sydney that say ‘This is what will happen, because it’s the law, and you will be fined a sizable amount if you don’t leave when asked’. So a venue does as much as it possibly can, follows the law, and then gets lambasted for doing it! If I have 3 schooners in an hour and get behind the wheel, I am legally ‘intoxicated’ to the point where I will be arrested for doing so, but does that mean I’m ‘drunk’, and should have been refused service? Is the barman who served me held accountable for my bad decision making?
This is an extract from the NSW Responsible Service of Alcohol Training Course:
The liquor laws contain a definition of intoxication to assist industry comply with their responsible serving obligations and enhance enforcement efforts by police and inspectors.
For the purposes of the liquor laws, a person is considered to be intoxicated if:
- the person‘s speech, balance, coordination or behaviour is noticeably affected; and
- it is reasonable, in the circumstances, to believe that the affected speech, balance, coordination or behaviour is the result of the consumption of liquor.
In addition to this statutory definition of intoxication, the Director General, Department of Trade and Investment, Regional Infrastructure and Services must also issue guidelines to further assist the industry determine whether a person may be intoxicated. Those guidelines are attached in Schedule B.
The Director General‘s guidelines for determining whether a person may be intoxicated include the following:
Speech – Slur words, talk in rambling or unintelligible sentences, are incoherent or muddled in their speech.
Balance – Are unsteady on their feet, stumble or bump into people or objects, sway uncontrollably or cannot stand or walk straight.
Coordination – Fumble to light a cigarette, have difficulty in counting money or paying, spill or drop drink, have difficulty in opening or closing doors. (Responsible Service of Alcohol Course Notes – November 2012:22)
Behaviour – Become rude, aggressive, or offensive, are unable to concentrate or follow instructions, become boisterous or pester others.
Notwithstanding the prescribed definition and the availability of the Statutory guidelines, a degree of judgement is still required by licensees, serving staff and security officers in determining whether a person is intoxicated, or approaching the point of becoming intoxicated.
This judgement should be based on observations of the person‘s behaviour, coordination, appearance and speech. Further information on the common indicators of intoxication is outlined in element 4.
If we really want to make an impact on alcohol related violence, education is a good place to start. The liquor industry spends millions advertising their product, doing its best to make it look fun, glamorous and generally cool. But apart from small, almost invisible ‘Drink Responsibly’ signs, it does sweet FA in terms of educating people, especially the most-at-risk (i.e. young males) about the consequences and dangers of binge drinking etc. Then again, it also generates enormous amounts of tax revenues for the government, so perhaps there’s a ‘don’t-bite- the-hand-that-feeds-you’ mentality at work here. Nor does the government do anything to encourage and support venues to provide better transport options for patrons of late-night venues. Tried getting a train out of the city after midnight on a Saturday/Sunday recently?
As a culture, alcohol is embedded in our psyche whether we like it or not. Be it sponsoring our national sporting teams or mythologising and glorifying an ex PM for his exploits with a yard-glass, we like a drink. But the vast majority of us do not drink to excess and become violent. The threat of a mandatory jail sentence is not going to prevent heinous acts of unprovoked violence against innocent bystanders from happening, nor will ineffectual ‘lock-outs’ and drinking curfews (what a wonderful success prohibition was!). I firmly believe that these new laws, like VLAD, can and most probably will be used for far more than what they were originally intended to do, while really doing nothing to prevent it.
Lastly, a quote from a manager of one of the venues I regularly work at:
If cigarettes were glorified and advertised again like liquor is, the world would be in uproar. Thirty years has made a huge difference to how that vice is perceived. The smart solution would be to take the same approach with drink – allow it, tax it, protect our kids from it, protect community from passively being affected by it, tolerate it but don’t glorify it, and make legislation to ban others glorifying it. (Damien Irvine, Bald Rock Hotel – Balmain).
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