ABC: Newcastle’s lockout laws are set to ease, but has the city’s drinking culture changed?

Thirteen years ago some of the state’s toughest controls on the service of alcohol were introduced in Newcastle’s CBD, where binge drinking and alcohol-fuelled violence were out of control.

Key points:

  • A trial to scrap Newcastle’s lockout laws begins on July 1
  • Many believe Newcastle’s drinking culture has changed
  • But doctors warn it could see assaults spike in the city

Many say it is now time for Newcastle to embrace its night-time economy and prove the city’s drinking culture has changed for the better.

But not everyone is convinced.

The so-called Newcastle Solution included a ban on late-night shots and cocktails, doors being shut to new patrons from 1:00am and closing times moved from 5:00am to 3:30am.

It has been so successful in driving down assault rates, it prompted a similar lockdown in Sydney for several years after two high profile one-punch deaths.

Sydney has now lifted its restrictions and Newcastle is about to introduce a year-long trial to lift its lockouts and restrictions, starting from July 1.

Co-owner of Newcastle bar Coal and Cedar Ethan Ortlipp believes the city’s drinking habits have changed significantly over the past decade.

“They’re well versed in good culture and drinking and food,” he said.

“Newcastle is very food and drink savvy, you can’t pull anything over them.”

Time for change

One Nation MP Mark Latham moved to Newcastle in December 2020 and was recently appointed to chair a committee overseeing a trial of eased restrictions at Newcastle’s small bars and restaurants.

Mr Latham said it was time for a level playing field.

“I think it’s time for Newcastle to have the same rules as the rest of New South Wales,” he said.

“It’s right on the launching pad to really take off and become a very exciting city.”

Warning over assault rates

But a community meeting held in the city this week raised concerns about the trial.

Addiction medicine expert Adrian Dunlop, from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, warned that increasing access to alcohol would have a predictable outcome.

“We will see more people in emergency departments, we will see more assaults, we will see more violence,” Professor Dunlop said.

“It’s very hard to understand how a health perspective could be excluded from such an important decision.”

‘Regulations have saved lives’: police

Over the past decade Newcastle’s assault rate has plummeted but still remains well above the New South Wales average.

Sergeant Ian Allwood from the NSW Police Association said frontline emergency workers would bear the brunt of the restrictions being lifted.

“Our members have always had the position that the Newcastle Solution [alcohol controls] were good, sensible regulations, they have saved lives.”   

For community advocate Tony Brown, the trial is the undoing of years of hard work, lobbying for a safer city.

“They are more interested in allowing pubs to make more profits and to trade later, than the safety of the community,”  he said. 

He does not buy the line that the city’s drinking culture has changed.

“The city is all of a sudden more sophisticated, we’ve got a big red tram, we’re vibrant — all of this is alcohol-industry nonsense.

“It’s no excuse for ignoring the overwhelming independent scientific evidence.”

But for Ethan Ortlipp at Coal and Cedar, the trial is common sense.

“I think it’s about respect. About deserving the same respect you can get in another city in Australia, and not treating the citizens here as lesser citizens.”

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