The New South Wales Premier, Barry O’Farrell, has announced new laws to tackle alcohol-fuelled violence. For opponents, it is a knee-jerk reaction that potentially worsens things. For supporters however, it is a long overdue step.
Alcohol-fuelled violence has attracted considerable concern recently. There have been 15 fatalities from king-hit punches in Australia in six years. Two deaths have been especially prominent; that of Thomas Kelly in July 2012 and Daniel Christie earlier this year. Both incidents happened at King’s Cross, Sydney’s notorious nightspot.
O’Farrell’s strategy addresses both criminal justice and licensing dimensions. Fatal attacks involving drugs and alcohol will result in a mandatory minimum sentences of eight years. Additionally, mandatory minimum sentences would apply for other drug or alcohol-related offences including reckless wounding, assaulting police, affray and sexual assault. On-the-spot fines for anti-social behaviour will almost double.
Mandatory sentencing raises eyebrows politically and legally. Politically, it counters Attorney-General Greg Smith’s view that mandatory sentencing is an “expensive and ineffective crime-fighting tool”. Additionally, mandatory sentencing has been criticised by the legal profession because each case is considered unique. Preserving judicial discretion in sentencing therefore ensures that the punishment fits the crime.
This is perhaps the most basic principle of criminal justice. Mandatory sentencing also plays on the perception that judges are ‘out of touch’ with the community. This is despite various studies demonstrating that community views aligned with judges when fully informed about cases. As Attorney-General Smith himself noted, mandatory sentencing also reduces the incentive to plead guilty, increasing costs, and exacerbating the trauma for victims and families. It also increases the prison population. However, shifting voluntary intoxication from a mitigating to an aggravating factor in sentencing is fair. Recklessness in increasing the potential risk one poses to themselves and others should not reduce their liability.
Various licensing-related reforms are also mooted. Premises in Sydney’s CBD will have to lock new customers out from 1:30AM and cease serving alcohol by 3AM. Bottle shops will have to close after 10PM. These measures are supported by medical bodies including the Australian Medical Association NSW and the Public Health Association of Australia. Some may complain that they infringe revellers’ enjoyment of a night out. However, people can still have water or soft drinks to quench their thirst. Given that the no-alcohol rule only applies from 3AM, this is not unreasonable. Surely, there is more to a good night out than just alcohol. In terms of the lock-out, again, all this requires is that people settle on a location prior to a fairly late time.
However the policy’s execution is questionable. The main challenge is ensuring that people can actually get home. This is complicated by the fact that the taxi shift changeover coincides with the 3AM last drinks mark. Public transport out of the city in the early hours of the morning is also inadequate. As well as leading to commuter frustration, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore has expressed concerns that alcohol-fuelled violence may just be pushed into the suburbs.
The government’s strategy is also incomplete. Greens Parliamentarian John Kaye has accused O’Farrell of ‘cherry-picking’ solutions while avoiding measures requiring confrontation with the powerful alcohol industry. Other measures may include include tackling ‘preloading’ (drinking large amounts before going out to save money), and restrictions on discounting, advertising and sponsorship.
Ultimately though, the law can only do so much. Cultural change is sorely needed. As O’Farrell notes, “binge drinking…has taken root among the young, as if this were a rite of passage, or some sort of sport with no consequences”. We need to stop glorifying alcohol as the measure of a good night. Alcohol may be a ‘social lubricant’, but it has almost become the raison d’etre for people going out. Even though O’Farrell’s policies are incomplete, they are a milestone in a community-wide dialogue about binge drinking and related violence.
Some may complain that this is just the ‘nanny state’ interfering with freedom. However, these policies arguably impose minimal and reasonable constraints that can help ensure we all have the freedom to safe streets. Even if it does not result in violence, excessive drinking burdens public authorities and results in other anti-social behaviour. It might seem unfair that all are being ‘punished’ over ‘just a couple of deaths’. However, even one death from this kind of sheer senseless and preventable stupidity is one too many. If the community is so strongly opposed to such restrictions, the simplest response would be to prove that we don’t need them. In short Sydneysiders, it’s time to grow up.