opinion Features January 20, 2020

Match report: First weekend in Sydney, post-lockouts

Match report: First weekend in Sydney, post-lockouts
Kings Cross / Wikimedia Commons

Were you out in Sydney this weekend? If not, you missed quite a show.

Hundreds of cops marching through the streets like stormtroopers. Violence spilling onto the sidewalks, a sheen of blood and vomit coating every surface. Saucer-eyed zombies lurching around, piles of bodies lying in the gutter, having succumbed to the evils of drinking shots after midnight. Glass shards piercing the skin of passers-by, now that drinks are once again being served in dangerous, deadly glass.

Actually, none of that happened. The removal of the lockout laws – the draconian rules that gutted the once-lucrative and lively Sydney night economy, turning our supposed alpha global city into a tumbleweed-strewn ghost town – resulted in a wild weekend that prompted the following statement from a police spokesperson.

“Nothing out of the ordinary happened.”

And there you have it. A guy was handcuffed and pinned to the ground by cops after he tried to force his drunken way in the Establishment Bar. A woman was punched in the face by another woman on Oxford Street. Nothing out of the ordinary for a city of millions.

Liquor and policing director John Green told AAP on Sunday that the hope for venues in the city is a slow increase in traffic, as word spreads of the lockout being lifted.

“Over a period of time we hope to see an increase in people going out to Sydney CBD rather than other areas,” he said.

“We want to see them have a meal, see a show, come and experience what the Sydney CBD is like.”

At the moment the experience of “what the Sydney CBD is like” isn’t too flash.

NSW Tourism Minister Stuart Ayres, who, I’ll admit, has bigger things on his mind at the moment, mirrored the nanny state feel of the lockout laws in his attitude.

“We’ve seen what happens when Sydney vacates the field in terms of responsibility,” he tssked. “We want people to enjoy themselves, but to do so responsibly. This is an opportunity for Sydney to really shine.”

He dodged questions of an increased police presence, calling it an “operational matter” for NSW Police, saying “I expect, like any Friday or Saturday night, people will be able to see a visible police presence.

This isn’t about flicking a switch and going back to Sydney five years ago, no-one wants to go back to the way it was five years ago,” he concluded.

If only it was that easy. Of course, those whose income relies upon a thriving night economy do want things to go back the way it was five years ago – but most aren’t that naive. Those who consider culture and art to be a vital part of a functioning society also wish for such a switch to be flicked.

The lockout laws have decimated the culture of the city, and it will take some time before this is reinstated. Increased police presence will help keep people away. Given the current fire devastation, Ayres, as Tourism Minister, should actually be praying that things quickly resemble Sydney five years ago. That version of Sydney was alive.

As Ayres promised, those partying at Harpoon Harry in Surry Hills were certainly able to see a visible police presence.

On Saturday night, the cops came through the venue on three separate occasions before 2am. Harpoon Harry was hosting Keep Sydney Open’s official end of lockout law party, which doubled as a fundraiser for NSW Rural Fire Service and WIRES. Despite the rain, numbers were good and goodwill was aplenty, according to Carly Roberts, director of Picnic Touring and Events, who booked the night.

“The rain definitely affected us – which is so Sydney and disappointing after everyone praying for rain,” she told me. “But we had a great night and one of the biggest pluses was the opportunity for the door to run later – we had people coming through until 2am.

“There was a great vibe and there was rejoicing in the venue. I’m looking forward to being part of positive change.”

This morning, I spoke to Mark Gerber, founder and general manager of Oxford Art Factory. OAF is the only dedicated live music venue on Oxford Street to survive the lockout laws. He is more than aware of the damage done, and is both hopeful and pessimistic about the future of the once-lively strip.

“Personally, I saw a rise in people being out in Oxford Street on the weekend which is definitely heartening to see.

“That said, we are a long way off from it resembling Oxford Street pre-lockout times. I do think there needs to be much more effort from government to enlighten people on the lifting of the lockout laws, turning the tide doesn’t just happen by itself. People need to be told and told often.

“If the state government is truly serious about making this work for the people of Sydney and NSW, they need to accompany the lifting of the laws with a dedicated campaign to educate/re-educate people on the positives of the newfound freedoms they’ve been handed and the do’s and don’ts that come with that freedom.”

This is an important point. The ferocity in which the laws were enacted and the (trumped-up) narrative of violence and alcohol abuse that was spread now needs to be met with a similarly fierce counter-message. Put simply, the government needs to work hard to reverse the damage they did. They need to change the messaging that declared Oxford Street and Kings Cross akin to the Wild West, and lure people back. It’s not going to be easy. Half a decade of going negative, and hyping up dubious statistics and danger on every corner will be hard to undo.

“People need to know it’s ok to have fun at night again, that meeting new people is easiest done in person, more often than not that’s at night,” Gerber explains.

“If nothing is done, it could take years, if not generations, before we get back what was lost, at least in terms of the invaluable benefits, the vibrant and diverse music and art cultures the Sydney CBD had to offer.

“I’m optimistic and hopeful that positive change will come sooner than I anticipate,” he concludes, “but experience tells me that cultural art forms take time to establish themselves.”

Roberts agrees with this sentiment.

“The damage has been done, and there are costs, whether it be financial, physical or mental, that will never be accounted for or reimbursed. I know that this has been a bit of a trigger for some people who’ve not had the luxury of indulging in anything other than hard work. But we’re here and personally I’ve always been about what we can work with and how to overcome.

“Now we’re working with more – but we’ve got a long way to go.”

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