Rationality and Power and Sydney’s Lockouts

This week’s episode of Humidum plays into the current flare about the Lockout Laws in NSW. The question is about rationality and power.

BOCSAR data showed one thing, then there was a high profile case that provoked a moral panic and an emotional reaction, a policy was put in place without proper consideration, and then major powerful bodies in NSW lined up to redefine the terrain of rationality: the focus exclusively on violence.

Director of the Emergency Department at St Vincent’s hospital, Gordian Fulde, was quoted in the paper saying: “Some voices call for the laws to be removed, to go back to the way things were … as time passes it’s harder for people to remember just what those days were like — but those of us who work on the frontline, we remember. Quite simply, it was a war zone,”

To be fair though, that is what you would expect working in a hospital — just as soldiers in the Middle East experience a war zone. Yes, we want presentations to the ED to be reduced, but if you are the ones WORKING in the ED, your concerns don’t necessarily extend to other impacts these laws have beyond a reduction in violence. Providing some of the most rational commentary at the time, Assistant Commissioner Murdoch noted: ‘’Our reputation is already muddied because of the violence, we wouldn’t want to see it tarnished further. You’d never get me to argue against protecting the safety of the community — that’s what police officers are there for — but that also needs to be balanced against the ability of the city to function and promote itself internationally.’’

A rational policy would also consider the massive social, economic, cultural and employment impacts of the lockouts. An 84% reduction in foot traffic to Kings Cross doesn’t necessarily justify the 25% reduction in violence (Baird quoted 45%, but that doesn’t account for the 20% trend decline that was already happening) — EXCEPT in a world where the rationality is articulated purely in terms of violence. The way his response on Facebook was framed “who wouldn’t argue that’s a good thing” makes this absolutely palpable: the implication is that anybody who thinks about factors other than violence — or even a more nuanced approach to the problem — is being irrational.

Not so. If your sole concern was the prevention of physical harm to people, then you would ban private cars and have only public transport, you would ban alcohol and tobacco outright, ban sports, and never cut funds from public health and education programs.

A galaxy poll taken during the height of the moral panic indicated that of all the possible options suggested, the Newcastle model was the least popular option. Yet this is what was adopted:

What should be done?
Increase penalties for 89%
alcohol-fuelled violence
Increase police 86%
More CCTV 83%
More public transport 79%
Last drinks 30 minutes 77%
before closing
Latest closing 3am 71%
Lockout 1am 70%
Newcastle Solution 69%
ID scanners 68%
Last shots 10pm 60%

The best OpEd at the time was provided by The Australian on the 22 January 2014, which argued:

NSW’s changes would not have prevented recent deaths
IT should go without saying that we deplore the senseless violence of an alcohol or drug-fuelled punch against an innocent stranger, especially when it leads to a death. Yet kneejerk reactions to individual incidents should always be avoided. Governments govern best when they act in a calm and considered way, informed by a rational assessment of the facts.
Government intervention, extra regulation and restrictions on the free choices of law-abiding citizens are best avoided unless a clear case is made for the greater public good. In this instance, despite the infuriating injustice of young lives cut short by the senseless violence of strangers, the statistical evidence suggests the incidence of drunken assaults is actually either in slight decline or, at worst, relatively stable in Sydney. So the first question that arises is whether — apart from justice in each particular case — there is a problem to be resolved here or whether what we have seen is more akin to a moral panic generated by publicity around these cases. If current regulation and policing is reducing the overall occurrence of violent crime then the first instinct would be to continue on that course

Part of the wickedness with this debate has been the ongoing recourse to the arguments put by parents of the boys killed in these attacks. Mike Baird deferred to how transformative his meeting with Thomas Kelly’s parents were, and they have spoken in the press of their horror at the ‘light’ four year jail sentence their son’s killer received. Speaking to the SMH, Ralph Kelly explained:

“People can still go to nightclubs and gain entry prior to 1.30 and stay there until early in the morning. We don’t need to pull the lockouts — it doesn’t make any sense at all, and we’ll see an increase in violence again if that occurs.”

Mr Kelly also said Premier Mike Baird “categorically” assured him in September last year that the laws would not be changed before February 2016. Lets leave aside the fact that February 2016 is now essentially passed, or the ludicrous situation where the Premier of the entire state of New South Wales is making a promise to ONE MAN regarding legislation that effects seven and a half million people. Think about Mr Kelly’s words — ‘it doesn’t make any sense at all’. This is what I mean by individuals trying to shape the rationality of a debate. It may not make sense to someone who has suffered immense tragedy, but that circumstance is the radical exception, not the rule, and there are in fact MANY sensible ways to prevent it happening in the future without the sort of blanket, asinine approach.

Similarly, an article critical of the anti-lockout movement was published in the Sydney Morning Herald this morning claiming that the ‘silent majority’ backed the laws. Invoking the Silent Majority should be suspect enough — what polling has been done? Why is this majority silent? What rational data can be produced to show that the opinion of this majority is right? And deeper ethical questions are also raised: sometimes the opinion of the majority is in fact deeply oppressive to minorities (see: stolen generations, slavery, civil rights, gay rights, etc).

In terms of proper legislative and judicial process, allowing these emotional players disproportionate voices is bad for good policy. The emotional state of a victim’s parents, while of course tragic, should have absolutely zero bearing on policy. Of course they are devestated, they have every right to be. However the point of the justice system is to remain impartial and rational, and the best public policy is made the same way. Claiming that ‘the endgame is the prevention of violence and the saving of lives’ is, frankly, emotional hysteria. That’s the start game. If the endgame is simply existing, well, we achieve that at birth, and we might as well all be hooked up to food tubes like in the Matrix. The ‘endgame’ of human life is something richer — joy, fun, friendship, cultural, moral and intellectual growth. All of which are enabled, for some, by participation in the nightlife of a city.

The opinions of emotional players in this debate should be considered, but they should carry no more weight than the opinion of any other individual — mine, Mike Baird’s, John Ibrahim, whoever. We all have a stake in this debate, and our motivations and understanding of the circumstance are all different.

Our activities — cultural, social and sporting — come with inherent risk, and what Sydney needs is a culture of personal responsibility. Violence is disgraceful, and those who perpetrate it should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. The principal of law, however, is the deterrence of criminality and the smooth functioning of civil society. It is not the blanket lock-down of decent citizens, nor the denial of personal liberty in excess.

James Morrow wrote in the Daily Telegraph:

Given that the current regime of lockouts — along with rules on what time you are no longer trusted with an actual grown-up glass and need a plastic sippy cup, and restrictions on buying a bottle of wine after 10pm — started under Barry O’Farrell and have been strengthened under Mike Baird, it is fair to ask just how “liberal” is the present NSW Liberal-National government.

This is an excellent question. But I’d also ask one more: is this government more concerned with rationality…or just power?

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