February 23, 2016

Horse 2078 - Lockout Laws Are Probably The Best Policy

About 8,000 people have gathered in Sydney's CBD to protest against the New South Wales Government's lockout laws in the inner city. The Keep Sydney Open rally started at Sydney's Central Station at 12:30pm before making its way to the CBD.
The NSW Government introduced the laws in 2014 in response to antisocial behaviour in the CBD.

They impact venues in Kings Cross, Darling Harbour, The Rocks and parts of the CBD, and mean no shots after 10:00pm, no new customers after 1:30am and no alcohol served after 3:00am.
Protesters called for the restrictions on trading hours to be lifted and the NSW Government to consult with venues before making further decisions. They claim the laws were putting Sydney's reputation as a global city in jeopardy.
- ABC News, 21st Feb 2014.

Roughly 8000 people marched through the city at the weekend protesting the NSW State Government's lockout laws. The laws officially close the doors to licenced premises after 1:30am and impose official closing times of 3:00am.
The people who usually object to an imposition of law such as this are businesses who wish to remain open longer and people who also wish to stay out longer. The most common argument that I've heard on the radio and by reading social media over the past few days has been that people are smart enough to make informed decisions about what they do with their time and that government shouldn't have the right to legislate against morality. Meanwhile on the other side of this debate are people like the police and hospital staff, whose job it is to patch up the results of having lairy drunk people at the weekend.
As it is, in Sydney the number of assaults have fallen by 20% in the CBD and as much as 45% in Kings Cross since the lockout laws were introduced. That should be more than enough to convince people that the laws have done something useful.

I find it interesting that in this particular debate, not one person from the the NSW Hoteliers Association or Clubs NSW, has actually acknowledged that the sale of alcohol by their members, might in some way contribute to an economic cost which has to be borne by the taxpayer.
There is a market based solution to the problem but I guarantee that the NSW Hoteliers Association and Clubs NSW would vociferously protest it at every turn. The State Government could issue licences which allow opening beyond the standard doors closing time of 1:30am and lockout of 3:00am and charge the full economic cost of patching people back together. I expect that nobody would choose to accept such terms and immediately everyone would start screaming blue murder.
Negative externalities such as this bear a striking similarity in spirit to say tailings from a mine spilling into the water table or smog being produced by factories. As they have never in the past ever had to pay for the effects of their goods and services, it simply isn't seen as a problem at all. It is all very well to advance the wishes of your membership but to refuse to acknowledge that private profit comes at public cost in this case, is at very least myopic.

Lets be honest about this, Sydney although it claims to be a world city is really just a regional centre that got out of hand. Just about everyone who lives in this swirling mass of humanity will openly admit that Melbourne with its laneways and cafés, is a far better city. Instead of cafés in laneways, Sydney has coward punches and fights on George Street.

One of the reasons for Sydney's problems with drunken violence is that after 6:00pm on any day of the working week and especially at the weekends, everything in Sydney is shut. There is no opportunity for a spot of evening retail therapy if all the shops have closed. Following on from this, at 10:00pm, all the restaurants close down as well. Having catered for the theatre and movie crowds, the restaurants proper and all of the bistros all start turning out the lights. As a result, some people go home and others stay on. Between the hour of midnight and 1am, the trains begin to shut down as well. Here is where our story really starts to get interesting.

Sydney is a massive place. It measures 80km north to south and maybe 70km east to west. After all the trains have stopped running, this leaves a lot of people wandering around the CBD with no real way to get home other than to wait for the bus; which may come once every hour.
There are several solutions at this point. The NSW State Government could choose to run trains through the night at the weekends and this would almost certainly reduce the amount of drunken violence in the city as people had the chance to go home. This is the most expensive option and a government which is already strapped for cash isn't very likely to ever pursue it.

It could choose to extend trading hours for pubs and clubs in the city, however this has been empirically tested with some 24 hour licences in the past and there reaches a point where establishments just don't hire people. The net effect in economic terms for the state government isn't markedly improved.
As a result we have the lockout laws. Universally hated by those who have licences, they are probably the most pragmatic solution to the problem.

Maybe the government could look into other initiatives that would change the character of the city; in the same way that other cities around the world have done. Physically limiting the size of venues is an interesting suggestion that might produce worthwhile outcomes but I think it would be rather difficult to coerce licence holders into reducing the size of existing venues. This could be a solution if it is applied to the issuing of new licences but it might very well create a premium for larger venues which are preexisting if they are on sold.

I'm not personally sure how I feel about the lockout laws. Sending people out into a cold night in the middle of winter in at Sydney all at once isn't perhaps the best solution but I reject the perspective that people's liberty is absolute. As a taxpayer, it is me who pays the on costs of pubs and clubs remaining open to the wee small hours; not the pubs and clubs. Whatever solution that the government came up with, would have been derided by someone and so they were on a hiding to nothing. I think that what we have ended up with is one of the least worst solutions and so I don't think that piling on the government when they've been trying to do their best and govern the ungovernable makes sense. I think that the protest march through the city looked more than just a little silly.

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