Baird government backs down on drunk rules after Liberal donors, alcohol lobby complain

The Melbourne Cup is traditionally a high-risk period for drunkenness. Photo: Eddie Jim Plans to further restrict pubs and clubs abandoned: Tony Abbott and Mike Baird. Photo: Supplied

The Baird government abandoned plans to force pubs and clubs to take greater responsibility for preventing drunkenness after being lobbied by industry in the weeks before the March election.

Under draft guidelines prepared by the liquor regulator, anyone approaching a venue while drinking would have been refused entry.

“High-risk” periods for drunkenness, including Australia Day, St Patrick’s Day, Melbourne Cup, Anzac Day, NRL grand finals, State of Origin and the Bathurst motor race, would also incur drink service limits.

A limit of four drinks, or one bottle of wine, could be sold at a time to one person during these periods. Shots and high-alcohol ‘ready-to-drinks’ would be banned. End of year functions would also be classified as high risk.

But at a meeting on February 4 attended by the powerful Clubs NSW, Australian Hotels Association and Restaurant and Catering Australia, the groups argued against the tough guidelines, due to start in March.

A week later on February 11, the Australian Hotels Association met with Premier Mike Baird. The meeting with Mr Baird was the day after the AHA lodged a formal submission with the Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing complaining about the “draconian” guidelines. The contentious proposals were soon dropped.

Correspondence released under freedom of information law shows AHA director Paul Green opposed refusing entry to someone seen consuming liquor. He said drinking in public wasn’t illegal.

The AHA also disputed the use of Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research data showing a spike in assaults during “high-risk events”.

Prominent Liberal party donor John Hart, the chief executive of Restaurant and Catering Australia, complained to OLGR in writing about the impact of the “high-risk events” classification on the restaurant peak season, which he said ran from Melbourne Cup to New Year’s Eve.

Clubs NSW chief executive Anthony Ball “strongly questioned” the high-risk restrictions, which he wrote were “inappropriate” outside of Kings Cross and the Sydney CBD Entertainment precinct.

“We are unaware of any evidence to suggest that instances of permitting intoxication in clubs are increasing,” Mr Ball wrote.

Clubs NSW signed a memorandum of understanding with the Baird government in August that commits the NSW government to recognising that “the vast majority of clubs are safe” and to instead target responsible service of alcohol policies at “unsafe venues”.

The distilled spirits industry said it was unfair to single out NRL and motor racing as being associated with intoxication, while ignoring the Sydney Writers Festival and Opera House.

The Liquor Stores Association, representing Woolworths and Coles, wrote: “Just because a person is observed consuming alcohol prior to entering a licensed premises, does not mean they are already intoxicated.”

After the lobbying, several health measures in the guidelines were also dropped, including requiring venues to promote the availability of soft drink and low-alcohol beverages.

No mention is made of high-risk events, instead, drink restrictions apply after midnight.

The Baird government committed last year to setting clear steps that licensees must take to prevent intoxication, to assist police and inspectors to make prosecutions.

But Greens MP John Kaye said the correspondence shows the proposed rules were watered down to suit the alcohol industry.

“While the Baird government talks tough on alcohol restrictions, the powerful industry lobby can still effectively rewrite its own regulations,” Mr Kaye said.

“Weakening the guidelines will expose patrons to greater risk while helping licensees avoid their obligations to not sell alcohol to intoxicated customers.”

A spokesperson for Deputy Premier Troy Grant said “a draft for consultation is not a formal government position from which we are now resiling”.

“With lockout laws, three strikes, life bans and venue closures the NSW government has a strong focus on community safety,” the spokesman said.

Mr Baird’s spokesman said the detail of any meeting listed in the Premier’s diary was confidential.