Moral panic over drunken violence covers attack on our rights

The media frenzy over “alcohol fuelled violence” has led to the introduction of sweeping new police powers and alcohol restrictions in NSW, including the introduction of mandatory sentencing. This represents a massive attack on civil liberties that will cause a 50 per cent increase in the prison population, according to research done for Greens MP David Shoebridge.

Contrary to the panic-inducing media coverage, the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research reveals that “alcohol-related assaults” have declined since 2008 to the lowest level since 2002. Part of this is due to previous government measures that threaten to revoke alcohol licenses and limit trading hours to venues with higher reported incidents of violence. The Sydney Morning Herald had to justify its hysteria by looking back further to say that, “over the past decade, assaults have not declined”.

Police recorded incidents of non-domestic assault have fallen in both Kings Cross and Oxford Street. NSW health data shows that the rate of hospitalisation due to interpersonal violence is at an all time low, even for males aged 15 to 44. Although this data does not record specifically alcohol related incidents, it does reveal that far more people sustain injuries from falls and motor accidents.

The O’Farrell government capitalised on the panic by recalling parliament to announce curfews and sweeping police powers.

There are draconian new mandatory sentences for alcohol and drug related violence. One-punch assaults that result in death will now mean a minimum eight years and up to 20 years’ jail. The maximum is 25 years if alcohol or drugs were involved. But the biggest attack on civil liberties is the introduction of mandatory sentences for a range of assaults where alcohol is involved, starting at two years’ jail.

The real victims of these laws will be marginalised people who face routine harassment by police—Aboriginal people, the homeless and the mentally ill. The prison population, already at 96.6 per cent capacity, is set to explode.

Currently less than one third of Aboriginal men convicted of assault go to prison and incarceration rates are already amongst the world’s worst. In the Northern Territory, the introduction of mandatory sentencing for assault in 2008 has seen a near doubling of the Aboriginal prison population and a tripling of the numbers of Aboriginal women in prison.

A 1:30am lock-out at venues will now apply across a newly specified CBD zone including Kings Cross, with last drinks at 3am.

Indicative of the strong ties between business and the Liberals, especially with the Australian Hotel Association, the planned casino complex at Barangaroo is excluded, as are tourist accommodation venues. There is some evidence, such as in Newcastle CBD, that lockouts reduce street violence. But both Daniel Christie on new year’s eve and Thomas Kelly, killed in Kings Cross in 2012, died after blows delivered at about 10pm—well before lockout times.

The laws also create a new set of problems, pushing a large number of people onto the street at the same time, putting pressure on public transport and potentially leading to volatile situations. O’Farrell has promised a free bus service from Kings Cross to CBD to deal with this, but only on Friday and Saturday nights.

Additionally because only a section of Sydney is covered people can move to other areas to access alcohol and late night venues, simply moving the problem around.

More police powers won’t help

Boosting police powers will not reduce violent assaults. But that’s not the point. Instead the government is using the moral panic to extend and legitimise police and sentencing powers—individualising the problem as one of “thugs”. Nothing will be done to provide government services to deal with the underlying factors behind violence of poverty, unemployment or alcoholism.

As Greg Barns, spokesman for the Australian Lawyers Alliance, put it, a “person with serious drug or alcohol dependence who recklessly punches another person…will be jailed for three or four years even though they need assistance, not punishment.”

A 2012 study by the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research found “household income exerted a much stronger effect on crime than the criminal justice system”. A 10 per cent increase in household income produced an 18 per cent fall in property crime and a 14.6 per cent fall in violent crime.

The Greens have pointed to the need to tackle alcohol marketing practices and the high concentration of alcohol sellers. Instead in 2013 the O’Farrell government allowed Woolworths and Coles to rewrite alcohol promotion legislation. Regularly reviewing alcohol licenses rather than the current essentially continuous license system would put pressure on venues not to serve alcohol to intoxicated people. As Greens MP John Kaye pointed out, O’Farrell could also reverse his closure of the Drug and Alcohol Unit within the Department of Education. A media-driven moral panic and increased police powers are not the solution.

By Eliot Hoving


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