Alcohol Reform: A Band-Aid Solution?

By Daniel Kwarcinski, Science (Advanced) / Law II

Violence. Few of us experience it there. Some of us have seen it there. All of us know it will be there. And yet, thousands of us end up there on the weekend. King’s Cross remains a paradox; a luminescent beacon of good times, and intoxication fuelled tragedy (and Coca Cola).

Alcohol fuelled violence regularly rears its ugly head into the media and (subsequently) the minds of the Australian public. The problem is not new, though recent escalation of media coverage and an increase in the intensity of aggressive attacks, labelled by Tony Abbot as the rise of the disturbed individual,  has highlighted it as a concern, with public outcries for the Government to take action. Reforms introduced early in 2014, including liquor licensing restrictions and mandatory sentencing in relation to aggravated offence,  represent a movement to battle vices plaguing the party culture of Australia’s youth.  Whilst targeting alcohol fuelled assault, the reforms have inevitably received mixed commentary. Whilst some celebrate them as success, others comment that they are incoherent and devoid of principle; a knee jerk reaction to an ongoing problem. As a UNSW law student, BWS employee and avid clubber, these reforms are prevalent in my life and their relevance a fruitful source of contemplation. This essay argues that whilst there is merit behind the reforms, they are likely to fall short of their goals due to logistical issues and the unaddressed need of focus to correct the drinking culture of Australian youth.

Catalyst for Reform

The tragic death of Thomas Kelly in 2012 sparked an intensive media and public movement to curb alcohol fuelled violence. This was amplified after Justice Campbell sentenced Kieran Loveridge to 7 years and 2 months for the manslaughter of Kelly and other assaults, resulting in public, media and NSW Government outrage. Media agitation such as SMH Safer Sydney campaign and the Kelly family petition were backed by the populace, and intensified after the death of Daniel Christie. This exerted pressure on Government to take action to curtail alcohol fuelled assaults. The legislative action taken claims to adhere to the community’s call for action to make streets safer.The Liquor Amendment Act 2014 established changes to alcohol services, such as a 1.30am club lockout, 3am cease of alcohol service in CBD and ban of takeaway alcohol service after 10pm. The Crimes and Other Legislation Amendment (Assault and Intoxication) Act 2014 introduced stricter penalties for alcohol-related crime, including an eight year mandatory minimum sentence for offenders charged under new “one punch” laws.

Discussion

The response to Justice Campbell’s judgment in R v Loveridge is an example of the public’s lack of confidence in aspects of the NSW Criminal justice system.  It highlights the power of progressive populism in exerting change, compelling Governments to enact reform to achieve community expectations. The necessity to address alcohol fuelled violence is irrefutable. But the question raised is whether these complex reforms are a step towards a safer NSW, or Governmental knee jerk reactions aimed at quelling public outcry and securing voters. Should the legal system be annexed every time there is public outcry?

Mandatory Sentencing

Kelly’s father echoed support for mandatory sentencing reforms as a means to reflect community standards, praising them as good news for the community, for families. Mirko Bagaric, Professor and Dean of Deakin University Law School, saw it as a step towards a more transparent legal system, claiming that mandatory sentencing is a positive move towards injecting fairness into sentencing. Contrastingly, Alexander Ward, former president of the Law Council of Australia, labeled mandatory sentencing as unfair, arguing that it is logistically detrimental for the legal system due to increased case load and because it impedes judges from passing judgment based on the unique circumstances of each case. Neil Morgan, a professor from University of Western Australia, critiqued the mandatory sentencing reform by questioning Governmental rationale – capturing crims or capturing votes? He emphasises that hidden under the guise of pro-community movements, the reforms are a tool for selective incapacitation steer[ing] away from justice. As a law student, I can see merit to both arguments, despite the notion that these reforms seem to be driven by political motives. We want the populace to be confident in our judicial system; we want it to be expedient and fair to all involved. Due to the recent nature of the reforms, it is hard to gauge whether they fulfill this criteria.

Liquor Licensing

An investigation by Park, Davey and Freeman suggests that lockout initiatives are beneficial for public safety, granting scope to the government’s initiatives. However, the reform received criticism from club and bottle shop owners, claiming it will encourage earlier, heavier drinking, more people on the streets – essentially creating more harm than good. With minimal academic commentary, the question of relevance relies on personal opinion. As a bottle shop employee, it seems absurd that there should exist such a pivotal difference between serving someone at a minute to ten compared to a minute passed ten. What was once considered great customer service, letting someone in just at close, is now a crime. Why? If people intend to get intoxicated and be aggressive, a 10pm bottle shop curfew or 1.30am club lockout is likely to be irrelevant, as shown in R v Loveridge – the deadly assault occurred before 10pm.

A Band-Aid Solution?

The demand from the populace indicates merit behind the changes and thus that the Government and judicial bodies must listen. The response however, should not be a band-aid solution concealing underlying problems, it must be properly diagnosed; determined on merit, precedent and logistical reasoning. Are these new legislations band- aid solutions? How long will the band-aid last until a different remedy comes along? Or until it is torn right off?  Will the justice system again be annexed by progressive populism? Only time will tell. It seems to me that amongst the hasty legislative process and controversial debate over its effectiveness, the most important aspect of the problem has been neglected prevention.  Dramatic changes to our drinking culture, tackling individual psyche and proper social conditioning are the required medicine to curb alcohol fuelled violence. It is not a band-aid solution, but a time consuming, long term process that must be taken.

Final Thoughts

Heading into the Cross, we are all aware of the risk of violence, however muffled behind bright lights and good times. As an avid clubber, I want to be safe on a night out. So regardless of the controversy, and regardless of its likelihood to fail, I hope that the new reform does make a difference.

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