Freedom from assault trumps 24/7 public drinking

In this second part of our series on the so-called ‘lockout laws’ making headlines in Sydney and Queensland, we look at the philosophy behind the laws – why your right not to be injured trumps your right to drink in public every hour of the day and night. 

Over the past week, both social and mainstream media have been overtaken by people frothing with outrage. It’s all around action taken by the New South Wales and Queensland governments to reduce the incidence of late night alcohol-related violence.

Although this issue is represented as ‘the lockout’ in both traditional and social media, the lockout is only one part of licensing reform. Extra conditions placed on licensed venues in NSW include the earlier closing time of 3am and bans on shots after midnight, and closure of package liquor at 10pm. Opponents suggest the new regulations are an attack on people’s rights and civil liberties.

It’s worth remembering why this package of reforms was brought in. They were introduced to save lives, because of the violence in and around licensed venues, because hospital emergency rooms resembled battlefields.

At the heart of this issue is a conflict between the individual’s right to behave exactly as they choose (in this case to drink as much as they want, for as long as they want, in a licensed venue) and the community’s right to manage behaviour and produce the most agreeable outcomes.

Drinking in a licensed venue is public, and is more tightly controlled than drinking in a private place. That’s because public behaviour can easily impinge on others, and restrict their capacity to enjoy their freedom. Antisocial behaviour, including one-punch assaults and sexual assault, occur more frequently when people have consumed large amounts of alcohol.


It’s the community’s right, even responsibility, to do what it can to curtail violence and other antisocial behaviour. In so doing the community advances the rights of citizens to enjoy themselves – protecting freedom, not restricting it. The ‘right’ of people to drink alcohol does not overrule the right of people to enjoy their social life without being impeded. The social contract requires the individual in a democratic society to give up some aspects of individual agency to gain the protections offered by the collective community. To quote Thomas Hobbes, human life ‘in a state of nature’ without a social contract, would be ‘nasty, brutish and short’.

As part of the social contract in Australia, people are taken care of when they need emergency health care, regardless of how they were injured. The worst argument against the Sydney reforms was put by Senator David Leyonhjelm in the Financial Review 19/2/16. Senator Leyonhjelm objected to medical doctors supporting the ‘lockout’ because they are tired of patching up the broken bodies of people hurt due to excessive drinking. He said: “Yes, violence causes injury and doctors are paid to treat the injuries. But their involvement is a matter of choice … they don’t have to do trauma or emergency medicine, or even medicine at all … They should do their jobs or find something they’d rather do.”

But the doctors aren’t objecting to doing their job. They’re objecting to the preventable waste of human capacity inherent in alcohol related injury – the loss of life, disability, loss of employment, and the cost of the beds and the time of the medical staff who otherwise could attend to the health needs of people on hospital waiting lists. The idea that doctors should not try to prevent ill health is a novel one. It overturns centuries of medical practice in which doctors have tried to prevent disease as well as curing it.

Medical doctors act on evidence rather than opinion, and the evidence is clear. Dr Tony Sara of St Vincent’s Hospital said since the alcohol reform package, assault cases have dropped by 32%, there has been no deaths from alcohol-related violence, and only three patients admitted to intensive care for alcohol-related violence, whereas prior “it was scores every year.”

The licensing reform in NSW doesn’t remove people’s ‘right’ to drink alcohol late at night, but it does keep people alive and saves untold heartache and anguish. Isn’t that a contract that trumps libertarian ideology?