Story & photos Eve Jeffery
A parliamentary-committee hearing in Byron Bay yesterday looking into ways to reduce alcohol abuse by young people was told that more police, better lighting in the CBD, public transport and a cap on liquor licences would help stem the problem.
Up to a dozen people gave evidence to the five-member panel of the NSW parliament’s Standing Committee on Social Issues, chaired by MLC Niall Blair and including former Byron Shire mayor Jan Barham, who is now a member of the Upper House.
The committee hearing at the Byron Regional Sport and Cultural Complex is looking past the effectiveness of alcohol-harm minimisation strategies targeted at young people and measures to reduce alcohol-related violence, including in and around licensed venues.
It has already received more than 50 written submissions and heard evidence from more than 20 witnesses in earlier public hearings.
Tweed-Byron police commander, Superintendent Stuart Wilkins, told the hearing that Byron Bay has a reputation for violence and the problem of alcohol abuse has increased over the past 10 years.
Superintendent Wilkins suggested several ways to curb antisocial issues: improve lighting in the town’s CBD, better public transport out of there, and more police.
‘I honestly think wholeheartedly that the main part of Byron needs lighting up: it is dark. I would like to see a well-lit, well-organised transport hub out of that main area of the CBD,’ he said.
‘Byron Bay could certainly use more police. If I had more police, I would use them. If they [police administrators] said, “We’ll send you 12 more staff next weekend,” I’d be happy.’
Grog a big issue
Supt Wilkins said that when he first arrived at the Tweed Byron Local Area Command about three years ago, he could see straightaway there were issues with alcohol in Byron Bay.
‘From that time we have been working in collaboration with the community, with Council and the Liquor Accord to develop strategies to reduce the incidence of alcohol-related violence in Byron,’ he said.
He said that initially he met opposition, ‘resistance and ignorance’ in trying to develop a process to respond to alcohol-related crime.
‘But I believe we are all on the same page now. We understand that there is an issue and we are moving forward with steps to work together to ensure that we are trying to reduce that.’
Supt Wilkins said Byron Bay ‘is a violent place at times and clearly over the last ten years there have been issues with the consumption of alcohol here’.
‘It’s attributed to a whole range of factors. It’s not only licensed premises; it’s also about backpacking people coming in; it’s about the environment.
‘We have developed strategies with the Liquor Accord. They have been well represented; we had some reluctance at the beginning, some teething problems, but it appears down the end of the six months’ trial with self-regulation conditions, we’ve got 100 per cent compliance with those conditions.
‘It’s my personal view that I think there is more that can be done by everybody.’
Supt Wilkins said the issue of ‘pre-loading’ [people drinking excessively before attending licensed premises] was hard to police and creating many ‘sticking points’.
‘The Accord have agreed to refuse entry to anyone approaching premises with alcohol,’ he said, ‘but it’s difficult for us to take action, even in an alcohol-free zone; if it’s closed, we can’t do anything.’
Diverse Accord leaders
The town’s Liquor Accord chair Hannah Spalding said that as a result of a changing of the guard in the Accord leadership earlier this year, there was now ‘for the first time’ a ‘serious collaboration about venues who are part of the executive’. A new breed of executive was voted in.
‘We have a restaurant, a nightclub, hotels and a bottle shop represented, which is the first time we have ever actually had a cross-section of licenced venues in the Byron Accord,’ Ms Spalding said.
‘We have a large amount of tourists. Byron is unusual. No other place attracts such a diverse range of tourism in the numbers that Byron Bay does.
‘This is one of the things about Byron that we need to continue. We want to have young people here.
‘We want young people here as long as those young people are respectful. We want middle-aged people if they are respectful.
‘What we need to look at is not turning away a demographic, or an age group; we need to turn away a behaviour,’ she said.
Byron Youth Service (BYS) manager Di Mahoney said ‘there needs to be a cap on the number of licences and that the issue of pre-loading is a big factor with few effective strategies’.
Ms Mahoney said also that for her organisation to help educate youth there needed to be more financial assistance for services.
‘We have done a lot of education in schools with young people but we are not funded very well to do that, so it becomes something that we chase money for,’ she said.
‘It concerns me that the Liquor Accord and OLGR [licensing authority] have developed some education materials and want to go in to educate young people.
‘I think community workers and youth workers and educators are better placed to do that education in a more balanced way than liquor industry representatives.’
Longtime BYS youth worker Deborah Pearse says that she sees that ‘much of the time young people are scared in the town’.
Ms Pearse said the BYS Street Cruise service was a point of contact for youth.
‘Most of those young people are local and I know them. They are in my groups or I am working at the school with them or doing individual support and I can follow up.
‘I might not be able to do much with them on the night when they are vomiting in the gutter or we are taking them to the hospital or talking to the police about the best way to deal with the situation, but when I see them in the week, when they are sober and they are at school, then we can talk about the behaviour, the consequences.
‘We can put a safety plan together and encourage consequential thinking,’ she said
~ Photos Eve Jeffery