Sydney's night owls march against alcohol restrictions

Bars and musicians are launching fierce critiques against late-night alcohol rules they accuse of hurting business and culture. Politicians and doctors argue that the new rules are lowering rates of assault.  

Jason Reed/ Reuters
Patrons visit Sydney's Star Casino complex at night on February 15, 2016. The casino is exempt from some of the city's new alcohol restrictions, one of opponents' many complaints with new rules meant to reduce alcohol-fueled violence.

Up to 15,000 Sydneysiders rallied downtown on Sunday to "Fight For Your Right (To Party)," protesting a series of 2014 laws in New South Wales intended to curb alcohol-related violence. 

Although the defense of late-night fun was a focus of the march, which targeted limits on bars and clubs downtown, such as rules not to permit new customers in after 1:30 AM, stop serving alcohol at 3 AM, and a statewide ban on take-home alcohol sales after 10 PM. Yet many fans of the Keep Sydney Open movement have argued that more serious values are at stake: the vibrancy of the city's homegrown music industry, and a worrying tendency towards "Nanny state" policies. 

Despite intensifying criticism, however, complaints have failed to win over a majority of New South Welshmen, or state Premier Mike Baird, who say that public safety demands that Sydney rethink a previously freewheeling attitude towards drinking.

After a series of highly publicized drinking-related deaths, particularly from "one-punch" attacks, former Premier Barry O'Farrell implemented so-called lockout laws in January 2014. Mr. O'Farrell also announced tougher mandatory sentencing laws for one-punch deaths.

But it is current Premier Mike Baird who has borne the brunt of increasing fury at the laws, which opponents see as an overzealous and perhaps hypocritical overreaction: Casinos, for example, are exempt from some of the laws. Meanwhile, business owners and sympathizers say that reduced nightlife and a temporary freeze on new bar licenses has turned formerly popular hubs into a dead zone, and risk making Sydney an international embarrassment, dashing the hopes of becoming a global hotspot which residents have cherished since the city's 2000 Olympics.

Opponents have criticized what they call extreme measures, like a broad definition of "high risk venues" that has shuttered kebab and pizza shops, and accused the premier of infusing religiously inspired prohibitionism into districts known for carousing. 

But many of the complaints have also lent themselves to the premier's characterization of them as "hysteria." One much-circulated letter captures the debate's blend of detailed analysis and more strident warnings about the supposed death of Sydney. In it tech entrepreneur Matt Barnie decries the laws as totalitarianism, and writes "This is what it must have felt like living in Kabul, Afghanistan before Sharia, Fanaticism, and the Taliban came along."

However, a medical professionals group, the Last Drinks coalition, has stood behind Baird's claims that the laws are reducing injuries, although rates of assault were already on a downward trend before the new regulations. The laws did "accelerate" that trend, NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research Director Don Weatherburn told a radio station. Alcohol-related assault has dropped in one of the city's most popular nighttime districts by 40 percent. 

The laws are up for review in 2016, and an independent team will deliver the report to NSW's parliament this summer. 

A majority of NSW residents support the measures, according to a small poll from the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, which showed 80 percent were worried about alcoholism in Australia. More than 60 percent approved each of the main three tactics (1:30 AM lockouts, a 3 AM stop to alcohol sales, and the 10 PM ban on take-away alcohol sales), but other strategies received even higher support, such as increased police presence and better late-night transport.

But for many of the Sunday rally attendees, who were serenaded by Sydney artists and a recording of the Beastie Boys' "Fight for Your Right," safety and after-hours fun should be able to coexist. 

"It was just amazing for me to see people come together, not only fighting against the lockouts, but fighting for the cultural vibrancy of this city," organizer Tyson Koh told Mashable Australia. 

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