Effete? Melbourne? Bring it on!

At breakfast on Saturday I was incensed by John Thorpe’s words in the Herald, so much so that I must confess I spilt my latte all over my ciabatta. Thorpe, who is the NSW President of that august body known as the Australian Hotels Association, is trying to stop Sydney City Council from liberalising liquor laws so that we can have smaller, Melbourne-style laneway bars. Of course, he doesn’t fancy the competition, so he’s doing everything he can to stop it from happening. Including verballing those like me who happen to like Melbourne’s laneway bars. Well, Thorpe, this will not stand. As Jordan from Top Model so eloquently put it, game on, moll.

“We aren’t barbarians, but we don’t want to sit in a hole and drink chardonnay and read a book”, he says. Speak for yourself, buddy. I’m quite fond of books, chardonnay – and, sure, sitting in holes, if that’s how you want to define Melbourne’s lovely small bars.

But Thorpe isn’t in favour of speaking, at least not in pubs. When his precious industry is threatened, you can’t shut him up, but he reckons no-one in this city likes the apparently “effete” art of conversation. I’m sorry, John, I know that you see this as “baloney”, “pie in the sky stuff” and “not what Sydney wants”. From your perspective, it seems that what Sydney wants is to mindlessly feed banknotes into poker machines – after all, that’s how you’re remunerated. But there are exceptions, and for us, your industry offers absolutely nothing.

“There’s a lot more entertainment than sitting there chatting. I think our culture is a little different than Melbourne because they haven’t got this magnificent harbour and the Opera House. No wonder they want to sit in a hole in the wall,” he said.
Firstly, it’s crass to make this a Sydney-Melbourne thing. It’s not just Melbourne that offers intimate places to drink. There are bars like this in New York, Tokyo, Bangkok, Rome, Shanghai, Paris &ndash and even (shudder) Adelaide. The lack of options, in fact, is uniquely Sydney.

And I’m sorry, come again? Entertainment in pubs? Long gone as your members let pokies do the job of bringing in punters instead of bands, except with a very few exceptions. Oh whoops, you probably meant the football.

Which is great. I love watching football in pubs. Just not every time.

And this, of course, is the thing that is most outrageous about Thorpe’s attempts to stop the development of smaller bars. No-one is suggesting we close down Sydney’s mega-pubs. It would just be nice to have a few alternatives. I think it’s called “freedom of choice” or something.

Take the cinema district, home to such wonderful watering-holes as Bar Ace, Moloney’s, the Star Bar and Three Wise Monkeys. Look, if you want to snog a backpacker, or play pool, or get into a fight, or get frisked with a metal detector on the way in because of fears about gang activity, then those venues have it covered. But if you want to, I don’t know, talk, then there’s nothing for you in among all those 24-hour pubs.

Then he starts warning us about prices. “The bottle of wine from Dan Murphy’s at $8 will cost you $50 at this intimate establishment,” he says. I’m surprised he’s heard that Dan Murphy’s charges $8 for a bottle of wine, because the bottle shops operated by his members certainly don’t. And frankly I’d gladly pay $50 just for a place where the music was soft, the atmosphere was reasonably intimate, and there weren’t pokies.

Thorpe promised to visit the office of every minister he could “to inform them that this doesn’t entice investment into the industry”, apparently. No doubt he’ll be listened to, given the AHA’s symbiotic relationship with the NSW ALP. And the rest of us will once again have to suffer from the appalling lack of options in a city that boasts only overly loud mega-pubs and ultra-pricey, over-designed bars with unjustifiable levels of door-bitch arrogance. (Yes, De Nom, I’m talking about you.)

It’s just outrageous. For heavens’ sake, our publicans have a near monopoly on operating gambling in NSW. I can’t imagine why anyone would think it sensible to legalise gambling only in places where you can buy products that reduce their judgement, but that’s the way it is.

Neil Armfield recently compared publicans operating pokies to dealers peddling heroin, and he’s got a point. With their incredible capacity to generate profits from their pokies, the last thing pubs need is protection from smaller operators – especially since these laneway bars wouldn’t have gambling (part of their appeal, of course), which would protect larger pubs’ biggest earner.

There is no conceivable harm to opening smaller bars across Sydney; not even to the AHA members, given that they make so much of their profits from gambling. And really, I would have thought from Thorpe’s dismissive tone that he’d rather tossers like myself didn’t darken ordinary punters’ good old Aussie pubs.

It’s time we liberalised our embarrassing drinking laws. Other than the naked self-interest of a lobby group that already has it far too good, I can’t see any good reason not to allow smaller bars in our inner-city. People don’t binge drink, vomit and get into fights at Melbourne’s intimate laneway bars. Nor do they become addicted to gambling and lose their week’s wages. Get your own establishments in order, Mr Thorpe, and let the rest of us choose where we’d like to have a drink.