As I kept visiting my friends’ little bar, I discovered that violence was a regular occurrence on Bayswater Road. Brawls were commonplace, and more often than not, I saw cops dragging pissed idiots into their paddy wagons. On more than one occasion, the entire street was closed down. I soon learned to walk the long way around and bypass the Bayswater Rd strip completely – walking up a dingy alley alone felt far safer than walking along a street that was often full of hundreds of people.
This contrast between megavenues and an embryonic small bar is why I was so bemused by NSW Hospitality Minister George Souris’ suggestion that small bars had contributed to the violence in Kings Cross. I’ve visited around half of Sydney’s small bars since the government finally allowed the city to have sensibly-sized watering holes like those which revitalised the Melbourne CBD, and they simply aren’t places where people go to get punchy.
Small bars are not above criticism, of course, but if you’re going to fault them on something, make it the prices or the trendiness or the clientele. In small bars, the weapon of choice is not the broken beer glass but the sneering putdown, generally because another patron is sporting last season’s style of corduroy jacket or an insufficiently ironic trucker cap.
Of course, the debate over drinking and violence isn’t a new one, and nor are the legislative attempts to solve it. I remember being in Melbourne when they tried a 2am lockout, which hardly seemed necessary at the cushion-filled Gin Palace bar I was in – the only physical danger that loomed was of a pillowfight. They quickly abandoned the lockout, presumably because it made no meaningful difference while ruining the experience for law-abiding patrons, and have tried “time out” zones, among other things.
What I can’t understand about the problem is this: it’s illegal to serve intoxicated patrons. Bars can be hit with hefty fines if they do so, or potentially lose their licenses. So how is it that Kings Cross in Sydney, Swanston St in Melbourne, Rundle St in Adelaide, Fortitude Valley in Brisbane and the main street of Surfers Paradise are predictably crammed with dangerously drunk people every single weekend? Perhaps the drinkers of Australia are such brilliant actors that they can feign sobriety long enough to order another round of shots? Or perhaps there simply isn’t enough enforcement.
If we’re serious about fixing these areas, we should force venues to fund an independent enforcement team (think parking inspectors) with the power to ban any punter from being served drinks and evict people if they’re too far gone, not just from venues but from the entire area. (People buying rounds for drunk mates is part of the problem as well, despite its dinki-di Aussiness.) All patrons would have their photo IDs scanned on entry, and the grog inspectors would be able to share their lists of soft drink-only and evicted patrons so that after one punter was banned, they couldn’t get entry to or be served alcohol at any other licensed venues in the area. If a punter wanted to challenge the inspector’s ruling, they could voluntarily take a breath test.
Here’s the thing: we have cheap breathalysers, and we have laws that ban drunk people from being served alcohol, and it’s time we put the two things together. Because anything that isn’t actually measuring whether people are too drunk and then comprehensively banning them from being served more drinks simply won’t work. And furthermore, I don’t see why people who drink responsibly should be punished by earlier closing hours or other draconian rules.
I’m not talking about imposing a limit of 0.05, but I’m suggesting that we impose whatever experts decide a sensible maximum limit is. If you want to exceed it, drink in your lounge room. The reality is that excessively drunk patrons are making Australia’s inner city areas unpleasant and dangerous. Too many people can’t control themselves, and so it’s time that the government got serious about stepping in – not only to prohibit violence, but to ensure that those of us who like to drink within sensible limits are able to keep doing so.
This piece originally appeared at Daily Life