As a co-owner of the Cherry Bar, for some six years now, my understanding of the responsibilities of a Licensee have radically changed.

At first, I thought owning a Bar was all about hospitality and liking music. In time I learnt that greater than 50% was actually about administration. This includes regular attendance at various Liquor Licensing meetings and the developing relationships with Department of Justice, City of Melbourne and Police. Without these things, for example, Cherry could never be able to host its annual CherryRock Festival in AC/DC Lane, which requires more permits than a Presidential visit.

Two years ago, things were ugly. Violence and anti-social behaviour on the streets of Melbourne were the central focus of media and subsequently Government and Police. At first instance Licensees were identified as the key problem and an unhealthy ‘Us versus Them’ attitude prevailed between venue operators and Police.

There was very little meaningful dialogue. The then Director of Liquor Licensing Sue McClellan, whose statutorily defined job was to ‘represent’ Licensees, was instead collaborating unilaterally with Government and Police to introduce hurried band-aid solutions such as the 2am Lock-out and the controversial categorisation of live music venues as ‘high risk’. This led to the requirement of costly security, the closing of live music nights and indeed venues themselves i.e. The Tote. This was the inspiration for the SLAM (Save Live Australian Music) Rally that toppled McClellan and the Brumby Government.

In time, dialogue grew and a sense of shared responsibility and shared goals was realised. Things were much better. From my perspective I would sometimes be disappointed by certain Licensees who appeared to have watched too many episodes of ‘The Sopranos’ and insisted on constantly fighting against Police and Government rather than compromising, so that we could work towards the self-regulating model I favoured. One example was when Licensees were being compelled to offer free water to patrons from now on. We have always done this at Cherry, so no big deal I thought. For some Licensees you’d think they’d been asked to close on Saturdays, such was the outcry.

All in all things have been pretty good lately. Rogue operators are being put to the sword and legitimate operators who are extremely mindful of responsible service of alcohol and respecting their amenity are being visited regularly by Police, but not hassled. Alas, I worry that we may be about to see a return to the bad old ‘Us versus Them’ days due to some proposed legislative changes by the Baillieu Government.

I used to be a lawyer, but I’ll endeavour to hone in on the present main issue quickly.

A new Demerit Points Scheme is being introduced where the accumulation of Demerit points can lead to a venue’s trade being suspended or permanently halted. On the positive side, if you can avoid Demerit points your Licence Fees will reduce.

The Liquor Control Act 1998 has had its definition of ‘amenity’ changed so that incidents occurring INSIDE a licensed premises will be deemed as affecting the amenity of the area outside the venue. Controversially within the new concept of ‘incidents’ is included “using profane, indecent or obscene language”.

What this means is that if someone swears inside your venue Police can penalise your venue with Demerit Points. The concern from the Nightclub Owners Forum is that this gives Police unprecedented authority over an already over-regulated legitimate business sector that contributes strongly to the local economy.

Vandalism is also mentioned. Does this mean that if someone has graffiti-ed in the bathrooms that Police can issue Demerit points?

All proposed changes have been developed by Government without consultation with Licensees.

So, the shit is about to hit the fan. The Nightclub Owners Forum has written to Premier Baillieu and Minister for Consumer Affairs Michael O’Brien demanding urgent amendment of the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation Bill 2011 alleging that new liquor laws will destroy our hospitality industry.

What do I think? I think the Government and Police were pissed off that their continued efforts to close Bar 20 were thwarted at VCAT, so they are changing the Law, so they have more powers and can win that battle.

But, should we trust Police with these new sweeping powers across the board?

Will Victoria be changing its Car Licence Plate slogan to “Nanny State”?

And will this current issue un-do all of the good work of the past two years, as both Licensees and Police revert to the unhealthy old model of ‘Us versus Them’, constantly at one another’s throats instead of collaborating on a group solution?

I hope for dialogue, because I want Melbourne to remain a globally revered 24-hour City, recognised for its creativity, culture, freedom and safety.

Rock on.

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