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Sydney nightlife is at death’s door. Auckland could be next

Opinion: Last month’s early-morning street brawl has renewed police calls for earlier closing times in the Auckland CBD and beyond. That’s precisely the sort of overreaction that has decimated the nightlife industry over the ditch, says Tom McGuinness.

At around 4:30am on Sunday 20th March, a street brawl erupted on Fort Street in Auckland’s CBD. A widely shared cellphone video that goes on for a pretty disturbing 4 minutes and 11 seconds shows a woman being thrown to the ground, bystanders attempting to intervene and, in true “bro-culture” fashion, tops being removed before combat. It’s a distressing video for any number of reasons, but there’s one that hasn’t received the attention it deserves: not a single police officer is in sight.

And that’s key. With at least 10 licensed premises and a large number of late night food and convenience outlets within 100 metres, the Fort Street / Fort Lane precinct is easily one of the busiest areas in the entire city – so much so that it was earmarked as one of only a few Auckland Police Priority (police-speak for “high-risk”) areas during the 2013 Local Alcohol Policy (LAP) development.

Yet when hundreds of people were forced out onto the streets at 4am, there was not a single police officer present to de-escalate a potentially explosive situation in what police have admitted themselves is a “high-risk” area. Ironically, the fight happened just a stone’s throw from the now-shuttered Downtown Police Station. When it closed in 2013 the police said it would have no effect on the way the Fort Street area was monitored.

Fort Street brawl, Auckland, 20 March 2016

Around a dozen men were involved in the Fort Street brawl on March 20.

Auckland Police reject any implication that resourcing issues contributed to the Fort Street fight, even going so far as to say that their presence has little effect on situations like this anyway – surely an admission that they fail at one of them primary tasks asked of them by society. According to security guards, licence holders and venue owners I’ve spoken to, inner city police patrols at night have actually decreased since the implementation of the LAP,  which allowed Auckland Council to set its own licensing rules. That’s despite the rapidly growing CBD population and in marked contrast to other cities, in New Zealand and beyond, where patrols are increased around closing times.

Meanwhile, the police are spending less time monitoring what goes on inside bars and clubs: from 2013 to 2014, there was a 10% decrease in licensed premise visits between 12am and 6am.

 

As well as putting multiple people in hospital, the fight is having another unfortunate effect: it’s being used by the Auckland Police to bolster their argument for stricter opening hours. Saying they were “disappointed but not surprised” by the brawl, the police have reiterated their call for a reduction of licensing hours in the CBD to 3am, and 1am throughout the wider city.

For years now Auckland Police have pushed the idea that “nothing good happens after 3am” – a phrase that in reality means very little, but to a person with limited knowledge of late-night culture passes for piercing insight. One look at the comments on Stuff and NZ Herald Facebook posts proves as much: “What the bloody hell do you need to be out at 6am for? Go home and go to bed!”

As someone who has been involved in this city’s late-night culture for the best part of a decade, the police’s “nothing good” line sounds not only ignorant and short-sighted, but genuinely frightening. What else can you call it when you hear the police proclaim the existence of a night-time war zone that can only be resolved by the most extreme of measures?

Two men fight on Fort Street, March 20. Seconds later the woman was thrown to the ground.

Two men fight on Fort Street, March 20. Seconds later the woman was thrown to the ground.

However, there is some truth to the police’s claims. New Zealanders have an astonishingly bad reputation when it comes to alcohol and violence – ask anyone who has been to Oktoberfest or the Rugby Sevens if you need proof of that. But if the goal for all involved is to minimise harm, why are we getting it so wrong?

There’s an old saw that goes: “The less access to alcohol, the less alcohol-related harm will occur.” The police repeat this almost as much as they repeat the “nothing good happens after 3am” line. It is of course true to an extent, but it’s comparable to the logic of “the fewer cars on the road, the fewer car crashes” – it works, but it’s an incredible over-simplification that can’t be your sole basis for writing effective policy.

For evidence of how this “restricting access” theory works in practice, just look across the ditch. In 2014 the NSW Government implemented their own changes to the way alcohol sales are regulated in the centre of Sydney. All venues within a zone, including the long-time clubbing areas of Kings Cross and Oxford St, were to implement a “one-way door” from 1:30am and call last drinks at 3am.

Two years on, according to NSW Premier Mike Baird, the new laws have been a phenomenal success; around a 40% decrease in assaults across the “lockout” area, with around a 60% decrease in the Kings Cross precinct alone.

It sounds impressive and in a sense it is – any decrease in assaults is obviously a good thing. But dig into the results, and consider how they’ve been portrayed in the media both there and in New Zealand, and it’s not so black and white. In fact in reality it’s actually a lie of omission to draw the conclusion the Sydney successes that the police (and others, such as Nigel Latta) claim.

The once bustling night-time precinct of King’s Cross has seen an 84% decrease in foot traffic (82% in the nearby Oxford Street precinct). What this really means is that assaults have actually increased per capita, rendering Kings Cross more dangerous than ever before. Meanwhile, the licensing changes have contributed to the closure of at least 42 bars, venues and small businesses and the loss of thousands of jobs. All of which the NZ Police fail to mention in their press releases lauding Sydney’s licensing changes.

As the LAP comes up for review and appeal in the coming months, the police are rallying their efforts to further restrict opening hours – and using events like the March 20 brawl as key evidence in their crusade. But closing bars and clubs earlier is heavy handed, lazy policy that punishes the majority – those who are capable of conducting themselves responsibly in Auckland at night – for the actions of a tiny violent minority. That belief was the motivation behind Dance Till Dawn, the nightlife advocacy group DJs Rob Warner, Greg Churchill and I formed in 2014 (you can read our submission on the Auckland City Council LAP here), and the issue remains just as vital today.

Regardless of whether it is 7am, 4am, 3am or 10pm, where there is alcohol there is going to be some level of risk. The question is how we minimise that risk, while protecting the nightlife which contributes enormously to the culture of this city. As Auckland councillor and former policeman George Wood put it, “the police have got to get with the realities of life in Auckland as a modern city”. And until we start to tackle the machismo culture in this country that leads to events like the one in Fort Street and start weeding out those responsible for propagating violence, we are simply putting band aids on broken arms.

All around the world there are shining examples of cities that embrace and nurture their night time economy. From the vibrant nightlife of Melbourne, where city-funded all-night street festivals promote and expose art and music talent, to the “Night-Mayors” of Amsterdam and Paris (and now potentially Berlin and London), these are cities that value nocturnal culture rather than seeing it as something to grow out of, as Lizzie Marvelly suggested in her recent Herald column.

This city’s night-time culture is something I and many others care about immensely. For all its faults, Auckland has an extremely creative and open nightlife industry. From the weekly shows featuring a raft of internationally renowned DJs, musicians, bands and artists, to the incredibly talented local music and dance scenes that populate various spots around town, we are now more than ever before an international city in regards to our night life. That’s something that needs to be protected and nurtured – not sacrificed by taking the easy road as laid out by people who have no understanding of, or care one bit about, such culture.

To argue for early closing and a one-way-door based on the results seen in Sydney – achieved by almost halving the amount of people going out – is to argue that closing most of Auckland’s nightlife is the only way to reduce alcohol-related harm. It is a policy that has gutted something of real cultural value and has seen the once world-leading nightlife industry of Sydney diminish to something resembling little more than a ghost town. Let’s not allow the same thing to happen to Auckland.

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