Taming the Gong: the war on booze and violence

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For all the talk about instituting Newcastle-style venue restrictions in the Sydney CBD, it is an Illawarra roundtable forum that is being praised around the country, hailed as a huge success by licensees, and credited with reducing Wollongong's alcohol-related assaults by more than a third in recent years.

The Wollongong Precinct Liquor Accord is a group made up of representatives from local bars and hotels, police and other bodies with a stake in alcohol.

In 2008, the Wollongong local government area recorded 260 alcohol-related assaults, and 253 in 2009. In 2010, the year the Liquor Accord came into practice, the number fell to 183, a 28 per cent drop in just 12 months. That number fell to 165 assaults in 2012, a 37 per cent reduction in just four years from the 2008 high.

Alcohol-related assaults have steadily fallen since 2010.

In the 2500 postcode, which encompasses the Wollongong CBD, the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research figures show alcohol-related assaults on licensed premises dropped from 135 in the 2007-08 financial year to 85 in the 2012-13 financial year, again a 37 per cent drop.

"The accord is a strong, co-operative and consistent approach where hoteliers, police, community groups and local government engage with a common goal," said Andy Hannelly, licensee at the Warilla Hotel and president of the NSW sub-branch of the Australian Hotels Association.

"The relationship we as hoteliers have with police and council is as strong as it has ever been. We're working together to reduce crime."

The liquor accord is chaired by Phil Driver, of Thirroul's Ryan's Hotel, and David Renehan, of Collegians Leagues Club - both of whom were unavailable for comment - and meets every three months to discuss concerns held by any party.

Wollongong police were also approached for this article but declined to comment.

Wollongong's 2008 alcohol-related assault figures were the highest since at least 1995, and the liquor accord has been near-universally praised by pubs and clubs in bringing that number to its lowest level in 16 years.

"There's a sense of everyone wanting to work together to make sure our venues are viewed positively in the community. We're working hard to shed that reputation of violence that we had a few years ago," said Katie McKenzie, owner of The Little Prince.

Raz Dema of Wollongong Night Life said recommendations came from police and the Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing about the best way to keep incidents at a minimum.

"We all have a say, which is a great thing. It's not just police and council, it's also about us as stakeholders," he said.

The Newcastle approach - blanket restrictions across the CBD including a 1am lockout, 3am close and a ban on shots and cocktails after 10pm - has been hailed as the solution to so-called "coward's punches" and violence across Sydney.

However, Ashley Doran, who operates both the Unity Nightclub in Newcastle and Industry in Wollongong, says the consultative, collaborative approach of the Wollongong liquor accord is much more satisfying to all parties.

"From our experience in Newcastle, those rules don't work. If you look at statistics, violence in Wollongong has gone down more than Newcastle, but Wollongong hasn't introduced those laws," he said.

"In Wollongong, police are more helpful. In Newcastle they are more out to show people they're doing something, they just issue fines and breaches. They don't really work with the venues like they do here."

The Wollongong liquor accord meetings allow all parties to voice opinions, raise issues, make suggestions and debate ideas. All parties obviously have their own interests at heart, but many members have talked of the collaborative "happy medium" that has been established between stamping out troublemakers but also not restricting the vast majority of patrons who do the right thing.

"Council and licensing police are very helpful and happy to give advice," Manny Mavridis of Howlin Wolf said.

Mr Hannelly said the reforms from the liquor accord had been key in reducing incidents.

"The police should be applauded for their efforts in working with hoteliers," he said.

That is another common theme discussed by bar owners - the work done by licensing police in finding that balance between keeping the peace but also maintaining a fun night out.

Mr Dema said he was not surprised by the steady drop in local alcohol-related assaults, attributing it to a new licensing division willing to work with, and not against, venues.

"When the new licensing division came in, the attitude changed. We all started working together, and it's been getting better ever since," he said.

"If an issue comes up, we get together and find a solution. They don't come in and start yelling and screaming. I've been in clubs for 30 years and the last few years have been the best licensing team I've seen."

Since the introduction of the liquor accord, assaults in every category recorded - club, pub and on-premises - have dropped.

Mr Hannelly and the AHA had continually praised Wollongong's collaborative community approach to curbing alcohol-related violence, and said it could be a model to be rolled out across the state.

"Some other places are doing the same as us, and it's working. We've proved that a consistent, very strong stance against anti-social behaviour is the best remedy," Mr Hannelly said.

Mr Dema explains it in even simpler terms.

"We have a business, the police have a job to do, and neither of us is going anywhere. We may as well work together," he said.

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