Poor old Oxford Street. If you want to kill a party stone dead, you stop the alcohol, right? People say they'll stay, but once they start sipping water, they remember tomorrow's early start and it's all over. Dead as. Same with a city's nightlife.
Six months into Barry O'Farrell's draconian small hours, inner-city lockout laws, the evidence is still mostly anecdotal. Some say the violence is down, some say it's up (because everyone pours out at once). Others say it has dispersed or gone underground. But even if it's option A, and the legislation has worked, the cost may be more than we should pay.
Answering violence with a lockout is like answering a forest ambush with clear-felling. A street like Oxford Street is far more than a conduit. It's an ecosystem; an intricate interlace of battle and support, a rhythmic diurnal dance of day dwellers, evening meanderers, nighthawks and, yes, predators; waking and sleeping, opening and closing as the Earth turns. O'Farrell's lockout sprayed this jungle with Agent Orange.
And yes, it's that dramatic. Walk up Oxford Street. Club after club is closed; not just after 1.30am, but completely. Permanently.
True, Oxford Street has other issues; specifically Westfield Bondi Junction and online shopping. But shopping is daytime; clubbing is night. Oxford Street has been defined by its capacity to do both. So when a knee-jerk law clears a swath through the city economy, rethinking is required.
I say rethinking but, frankly, any thinking would help. After the king-hit deaths of Thomas Kelly in 2012 and Daniel Christie on New Years Eve 2013, "alcohol-fuelled violence" became one of those phrases. Like "stop the boats". Like "jobs jobs jobs". Like Team Australia.
Dangerously headline-friendly, such one-line, no-brain slogans should never be let into law. Their very crowd appeal shows their vacuity.
O'Farrell described his lockout as "pioneering legislation"; code for, we have absolutely no idea whether this will work. Undaunted by cliché, however, immune to the nuances of urban life, our then Premier blundered through the wilderness to deliver his "tough and comprehensive package".
The new laws included eight-year mandatory sentencing for one-hit deaths, 48-hour bans for troublemakers, $1100 instant fines, 10pm bottle shop closing and 1.30am lockouts with 3am shut-outs. So many measures, so little measuring. And actually, even if we could measure, and violence was demonstrably reduced, we'd have no way of knowing which of the many provisions had done it.
But this is just the start. Even the need for the laws is doubtful.
An ABS paper from July 2013 shows that, over the five years to December 2012, assaults at licensed premises dropped by 23.7 per cent. NSW recorded crime statistics show that from January 2009 to December 2013, alcohol-related incidents were stable in inner Sydney (and across almost the entire state; with significant drops in Blacktown, Liverpool and Wollongong). (Only Parramatta showed an increase).
Plus, as O'Farrell acknowledged in the days after the Daniel Christie attack, neither his nor Thomas Kelly's death would have been prevented by the laws. Both attacks occurred early in the evening, about 9pm to 10pm.
"One am lockouts and 3am shut-outs . . . would have had no impact," O'Farrell declared at the time.
Yet, within the month, he would introduce precisely these measures as law, telling parliament, "more needs to be done to improve the safety and amenity of the Sydney central business district, particularly late at night . . ."
The law created a new entity, the Sydney CBD entertainment district. (The name is Orwellian since what they are not interested in is city entertainment.) The "district" includes all of the Cross, most of Elizabeth Bay, part of Surry Hills and the entire city centre including Chinatown, the Rocks and Walsh Bay. Barangaroo and both casinos, however, are excluded.
Is this simple ineptitude? Or is it a bizarre form of anti-urbanism?
It is conspicuously city specific. When, at a Rooty Hill house party, Hugh Garth allegedly one-punched 21-year-old nursing graduate Raynor Manalad to the ground, allegedly causing a haemorrhage and death; no one put western Sydney on curfew.
You can just see it, can't you? Ban house parties from Blacktown to Mount Druitt. Ten o'clock curfew Quakers Hill to Eastern Creek. It's almost like violence is fine out there. Expected. But when it's inner Sydney, where the bourgeoisie hang, the response is immediate, extreme and partial to government friends.
Perhaps it's just the old wowsers' revenge on the city. Just as 19th century evangelists like William Wilberforce conceived the idea of the suburb as a weapon against the evils of city nightlife, so the Liberal government framed laws designed specifically to destroy the city's nightlife.
Or it could be something more sinister; yet another arrow in the government's get Clover quiver.
The Darlinghurst end of Oxford Street is Sydney's traditional gay strip, Sydney's core clubbing scene and lord mayor Clover Moore's political heartland. It is now devastated. In one block, between Flinders and South Dowling, I counted 16 empty premises, out of 34. Almost half.
To see why, you have to understand how people socialise these days. It's not my pattern, although I do occasionally seek out a late night watering hole. But young people don't even start going out till 10pm or so and then, because of mobile connectivity, it's loose. A leisurely meal with one group, followed by a chilled drink till midnight or one with another, then someone suggests clubbing.
Clubbing doesn't mean you go to one place and stay there. It means you move around, checking out this underground dive, that gay bar or the new cabaret. You change groups, bar hop, split and reconnect, play it by ear. The two core ingredients are density and alcohol. It's about disinhibition and critical mass; small bars, which are theoretically exempt, rely on the ebb and flow to survive.
I'm not pro-alcohol or pro-violence. But good cities need nightlife and this involves risk. Sending revellers to Erko or Crows Nest doesn't reduce violence, it just changes the stats and – good heavens! – the inner-city vote.