Ending the violence takes an open mind

Safe and law-biding though Canberra generally is, the problematic drinking culture revealed by articles published in this newspaper over the past week indicate that official interventions to curb such behaviour may be faltering. Published under the catch-all title "Punch Drunk: fighting violence in the City'', those articles suggest the problems are worst in Civic, where despite an ACT Policing blitz the number of alcohol-related offences in the precinct has increased over the past two years. ACT Chief Police Officer Rudi Lammers claims the increase is due largely to an increased police presence in Civic, and that since government licensing reforms were introduced in 2010, assaults and drink-related incidents across the ACT have dropped by 10 per cent. Not everyone in the community believes the reforms have been as effective as police claim, however, and indeed the alcohol service industry believes they have threatened the viability of some pubs and clubs. As it conducts a review of its liquor industry reforms, the Gallagher Government is under some pressure to ameliorate them, and to introduce other measures.

Since most of the harms of excessive alcohol consumption come from pubs, bars and clubs, it is not surprising that ACT government should have identified liquor license law reform as the best and quickest way to engender a more responsible drinking culture in Canberra. In truth, it has few other weapons in its armoury - other than a tougher law and order approach to public drunkenness - since federal governments show little inclination to initiate action.

The broad intent of the reforms implemented in 2010 was self-regulation: those venues identified as posing the greatest potential risk to public health and well-being were to be levied higher than normal license fees, and new and existing licensees were obliged to furnish risk assessment plans with their license renewals or applications. In addition, police were given increased powers to ensure licensees were observing the new regulations. Far from being embraced wholeheartedly by the industry however, the new reforms have lambasted as unfair, discriminatory and badly targetted. The Australian Hotels Association, the industry's peak body, want fees re-scaled to reward good rather than bad behaviour, suggesting the new laws have been instrumental in driving some popular bars out of business. They also want greater regular scrutiny of off-license venues (and higher fees) to reflect what they assert is the problem of drinkers pre-loading on cheap alcohol before they head to Civic's pubs and bars.

While a review of license fees to eliminate the potential for inequities is warranted, suggestions that off-licenses should be subject to risk-based fee framework ought to be taken with a grain of salt. The AHA's reason for being is the protection of the business interest of its members - and in the past it has not been above nobbling the interests of those it considers to be its competitors, namely bottleshops and supermarkets selling alcohol. Pre-loading undoubtedly contributes to alcohol-fuelled violence in entertainment precincts like Civic, but saddling bottleshops with higher fees is unlikely to result in any appreciable reduction. The safe-guarding of its members' businesses is also the reason the AHA vehemently opposes any reduction in the trading hours of pubs, clubs and bars.

A modest reduction in late-trading hours to 3am in Newcastle in 2008 (along with, 1am lockouts and bans on selling shots after 10pm) led to a substantial reduction in alcohol-related harms in the that city. Despite this, the AHA continues to oppose the adoption of earlier closing times. Other than giving ACT Policing the authority (and the resources) to deal firmly with public drunkenness 365 nights a year - an economic and logistical impossibility - it's difficult to see what other measure might work as well, and it is to be hoped the Government considers this a during its review.

Canberra's problem with is alcohol-fuelled violence is nothing like that of Sydney's, mercifully, and keeping it that way requires all parties to remain open-minded about new regulatory measures.