An Obituary For Sydney’s Lockout Laws (2014-2021)

Here lies Sydney’s lockout laws (2014-2021): dead and buried all too late for a city in cultural decline.

The remainder of Sydney's lockout laws passed away yesterday, just weeks after their seventh birthday. Their demise was gravely confirmed by the NSW government, who said "Kings Cross has transformed" from the violent precinct that birthed the laws. As such, last drinks would be pushed to 3:30am in the precinct, completing the citywide relaxation. Lockout laws were given a terminal diagnosis in January 2020, when they were ditched by Premier Gladys Berijiklian everywhere apart from Kings Cross. 

The death marks the end of a brief, legal-political life that further mainstreamed the right wing-adjacent term "nanny state", eviscerated nightlife culture and economics and spawned a useless political party. They will not be mourned, but they will also not be forgotten. From here, does Sydney rebuild or settle into the eternal stasis of thinking about moving to Melbourne?

Born as a one-size-fits-all moral panic solution to alcohol-related violence in January 2014, lockout laws were divisive from the moment of conception. Then NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell could not abide any more incidents like the king hit death of teenager Daniel Christie in early 2014, or Thomas Kelly two years earlier. The ministry swiftly instigated a regime which designated different areas of the Sydney CBD as entertainment precincts, allowing the following conditions to be imposed: no entering new venues after 1:30am, all venues must close at 3am. The holes in the cynical rules were immediately apparent – The Star Casino was exempt from lockout laws, despite being Sydney's most violent venue.

The lockout laws spawned the "Keep Sydney Open" movement just a month after the legislation passed – a protest group cobbled together by "a variety of key Sydney live music and performance venues, cultural organisations, artists and music industry stakeholders" that sought to highlight the damage the laws would do to venues, live music, and the fabric of the city's nightlife. Successful protests held from 2016-2018, hosting up to tens of thousands of people, transmogrified it into a fully-fledged political party. They began to attach themselves to the attendant issue of the NSW government plotting to charge music festivals prohibitive fees for more police to stop drug overdoses – launching the "Don't Kill Live Music" protests.

Crime statistics in the years succeeding the institution of lockout laws showed that although overall figures of alcohol-fuelled violence reduced, there was a distinct increase in the so-called spillover suburbs next to the lockouts zones, such as Newtown and Bondi. Gradual change came in 2016 in the form of a half-hour relaxation for live music venues, from 1:30am to 2:00am, but many hospitality venues had already begun to close, claiming lockout laws had driven them into the mud. 

Keep Sydney Open lacked ambition. The party was essentially fighting for a return to the status quo; a continuation of Sydney's previous nightlife which was already shackled by other, long-standing draconian laws. Until 2020, "entertainment conditions" prevented disco balls in venues that were not night clubs, regulated where certain kinds of music could be played, and allowed encroaching residential developments to dictate noise restrictions. Sydney had long paled in musical activity to Melbourne, where the Victorian state government had actively fostered the local scene with grants and special permissions – simply because they recognised it was economically beneficial.

Instead of looking to campaign on these points in addition to advocating for the repeal of regressive new laws, Keep Sydney Open stank of rank civil libertarianism. They galvanised people over the idea they were being over-policed but as writer Nayuka Gorrie pointed out in the Guardian, did so in the name of self-interest. The campaigners, by and large, did not use their popular platform for reform to advocate for meaningful changes to accessibility, safe spaces, or to rail against the over-policing of Indigenous peoples in nightlife.

The death of Sydney's lockout laws and more recently, entertainment conditions, are here now but it doesn't quite feel like a new dawn. Kings Cross will be reinvigorated as an entertainment precinct, after years of languishing foot traffic – an exercise The Committee for Sydney describes as finding a balance between "naughty and nice". I might describe it as contrived and cringeworthy.

The cynic would say the accelerated "rehabilitation" of Kings Cross is economic desperation from the NSW government, trying to recover the economy of Australia's largest state post-pandemic-lockdowns. Of course, political convenience is fine if it brings about substantial change – but it's hard to imagine Sydney gaining a reputation as an international nightlife hub through merely government-backed effort. The real task is reversing the impression of cultural decline; convincing the younger generation that they wouldn't be better off chasing their musical dreams in other states. No press release about "reinvigoration" is going to do that. 

Sydney's lockout laws are survived by their longtime partner, cultural cowardice.

Written by Josh Martin, a Melbourne-based freelance music and media writer with words in MTV Australia, NME, Junkee, Crikey, etc. Follow him on Twitter @joshuamartjourn.

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