Welcome to the new world

Drink to forget about old, dull liquor laws.

Drink to forget about old, dull liquor laws.

The states are catching up with Victoria after new liquor laws mean drinking and dining are no longer conjoined. Kerryn Ramsay finds it’s good for patrons and proprietors.

Melbourne’s thriving restaurant and bar scene—a cultural utopia envied by other states for more than 20 years—is no longer an Australian anomaly. Recent liquor law reforms in other states have delivered a boost for small business, a creative outlet for innovative restaurateurs and more choice for consumers.

This year, NSW and WA led the way with their implementation of progressive liquor laws. Tasmania has also introduced recent reforms, which will be followed by Queensland in 2010. South Australia, unfortunately, remains in a bit of a muddle.

It’s worth evaluating how far Victoria has come since the hospitality reforms of 1986. Professor John Nieuwenhuysen, currently an economist at Monash University, introduced freedom of choice in the industry, offering liberated European-style drinking options to restaurants, cafes and bars. The Age journalist Claude Forell called it “the most sweeping and sensible reform of liquor licensing law since the abolition of the six o’clock swill”.

Before the deregulation of the industry, restaurants had to submit to a lengthy, expensive application form for a liquor licence. Today in Melbourne, a cafe can get a liquor licence in three weeks for about $500 with no requirement to serve meals alongside their drinks. The regulation change spawned the transformation of a plethora of unused laneways into designer bars.

In NSW, Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore and Premier Morris Iemma joined forces to instigate the Liquor Act 2007, which came into effect on June 30. Restaurants and cafes can now serve customers liquor without meals and the $15,000 Drink or Dine Authority has been replaced with nominal processing fee.

Winemakers and breweries can now charge for tastings, while surf clubs can apply for a licence to sell alcohol at private events.

“The great achievement of these new laws,” says Larkin, “is that it lowers the barrier for entry into the market. People can run bars that are more inventive; while cafes can be more targeted to a niche market. Now anyone with a good idea can make a go of it in the industry.”

One of Sydney’s first boutique bars, Vini in Surry Hills, is run by chef Andrew Cibj and manager Kristen Allan. From its debut as a 24-seat venue in November 2005, it was soon extended with an intimate bar at the back of the restaurant.

“Andrew envisaged a cosy Italian enoteca but we couldn’t do it because of the licensing laws,” says Allan. “Now the fees are cheaper and we can use the bar more effectively. We don’t offer bookings, because we find more people pop in for a drink, then smell the waft of food coming over the bar and so then stay for dinner.”

Western Australia has had the most significant package of reforms to liquor licensing in 100 years. The first stage of the Liquor Control Act came into effect in December 2006, allowing city liquor stores to begin trading on Sundays. After this reform, the Northern Territory is the only state limiting Sunday sales of liquor to shops attached to hotels.

More reforms in WA were introduced in May 2007. Under the Small Bars Bill, those catering for up to 120 customers pay just $500 for a licence, rather than $15,500. Like NSW, the legislation also relaxes the laws on patrons purchasing liquor without food. Before the reforms, restaurants could obtain a permit to sell liquor without a meal, but only in a designated area of the restaurant, which didn’t exceed 20 per cent of the seating capacity. It also allows cafes to branch out, offering a good cappuccino in the morning for a quick pick-me-up, then serving a fine pinot noir or a cool beer in the afternoon.

Lobby groups—such as the Liquor Licensing Reform and Goodbye Dullsville—were made up of various industry members, including Kate Lamont of Lamont’s Restaurant. “There has been a dearth of smaller venues to drink,” she says. “The significant change is the opportunity for the development of small bars and spaces within restaurants where people can have a drink without food.” Lamont also forsees a positive cultural impact. “A small bar or intimate venue can bring a real sense of soul to a community.”

Another key reform in WA is that patrons can take home opened, unconsumed bottles of liquor from restaurants and hotels, as long as they buy it with a meal. It may sound like a simple rectification, but in South Australia, the issue is a bugbear for the industry.

R&C SA chief executive Sally Neville calls the existing law “draconian”, while Jeff Clark, proprietor of The Lord Lyndoch in the Barossa
Valley, often has to placate cranky customers.

“People come in for an anniversary or special event, so they choose a good bottle of wine,” he explains. “But if they just want a couple of glasses, it becomes very sensitive. You should be able to take an $85 bottle home.”

Despite the friction, the state is still ahead of the game compared to other states—at least in this respect. SA restaurants and cafes can already legally serve liquor without meals.

“Clause 34C allows people to consume alcohol as long as they are seated at a table,” says Clark. “Patrons don’t even have to eat—they can come in for a glass of wine, which is quite common in the Barossa.”

Queensland Premier Anna Bligh is proposing sweeping changes to the Liquor Act, including the introduction of a small bar licence for premises of up to 60 seats. The license costs $1000, but if the bars are low-risk with respect to the annual fees scale, the renewal fee could drop to $500.

The Bill went to Parliament in June, and all reforms will be implemented by January 2010. The new laws also take a hard line on pubs and clubs, harking back to the ’80s with a return to 10am-to-midnight trading. No early-morning pokie-playing will be allowed in the Sunshine State.

But Peter Summers, who owns C-Bar and The Brewery in Townsville, claims some parts of the legislation on with harm minimisation are mutually exclusive.

“The Government says the primary purpose of the Act is harm minimisation. How can you have that as the primary purpose of the Act when they want to expand the boutique bar industry that encourages drinking?” asks Summers.

“The reforms do not introduce any controls to restrict the number of licences being approved.”

Summers supports the idealistic scenario—“trying to introduce little bars that have live music, nice wine and a beverage list with a niche appeal”—but he also understands that without controls, it can pave the way for abuse by some unscrupulous operators.

“We want governments to introduce all relevant measures to ensure the Act’s primary objective of harm minimisation is achieved.”

The same aim is also a orimary concern in Tasmania, with amendments to the Liquor Licensing Act being implemented last May. Under the new laws, hotel licensees can be fined $12,000 if they are charged under the Liquor Licensing Act with serving alcohol to a person who appears drunk. Staff members can be fined $6000. The changes also support compulsory training of hospitality staff in Responsible Service of Alcohol and provide new penalties for the illegal sale and purchase of liquor.

“Policy needs to be in place to protect against the rogue element, which is always going to be a part of any industry,” says Summers.

While each state grapples with the devil in the detail, updating of the liquor laws and amendments are now close to fruition. It may have been a long time coming, but the future promises a much-needed shake-up to the restaurant industry.

This great content is produced for members of the Restaurant & Catering Association. Find out about becoming a member here.

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