‘The day of street marches is over.’
So goes the timeless slogan of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the closest thing to an autocrat in living Australian memory. His reign as premier of Queensland spanned nearly twenty years and more restrictions of civil liberties than you can wave a placard at. He was, naturally enough, met with public outrage and widespread protest in the northern state, and his premature obituary for activism earned him an early political demise.
In the last two weeks, similar ire has been vented at the poster boy of New South Wales state-sponsored capitalism, Mike Baird, whose innocuous, smarmy self-congratulation is thinly masked by a smile that just screams ‘abiding father figure’. But like any detached dad, the NSW premier has shown himself to be severely out of touch. Since taking office two years ago, he has roused the anger of Sydney youth by targeting one of the few institutions many care about: the piss-up.
This weekend, there will be a rally against young Australia’s new bedtime. It’s telling of activism in NSW that thousands turn out to a march protesting the restriction of their capacity to drink, as opposed to, say, systematic oppression and economic inequality. Seems like all it takes to create a sense of disenfranchisement is to ruin a kid’s night out.
The same could not be said for the students of Bjelke-Petersen’s day. Radical and widespread protest walked the streets of the conservative premier’s Brisbane following his direct assault on civil rights. The freedom of assembly and the right to freedom of political expression were the main casualties of his reactionary politics. These are, as a rule, intrinsic to a healthy democracy. This is what separated young people in the 1970s and 80s from young people today. When the Parameters wrote ‘Pig City’ in 1983, theirs was a defence of political justice rather than the right to get wrecked.
But there was something else that characterised the reaction to Bjelke-Petersen.
The ‘rebellion’ of liberal MPs against his war on freedom led to a disintegration of the coalition in Queensland. Liberal MPs crossed the floor to protest the corruption of the Nationals, and dissent was rife.
In Baird’s case, political opposition at the party level is mute. He himself is no National (state liberals think of the Nationals as ‘Maoists’, if that’s any reflection of the divisions at stake). Yet, despite his traditional commitment to what he might call the freedom of individuals, Baird is happy to hack away at important liberties. So what does it take to turn a liberal into a Maoist?
Unfortunately, the answer is not ‘growing up’. The reason that Baird’s lockout laws need to be resisted, and the real reason that we should be protesting, is simple: lockouts are neither isolated, nor reactive. They play their part in a longer narrative of state-led privatisation and corporate sell-offs.
Baird spent his tenure in state treasury clearing the way for large-scale corporate takeovers. Approving Barangaroo and the Bays Precinct project, and okaying the destruction of Miller’s Point were all products of Baird’s time as treasurer. He wasted no time continuing on his merry way after becoming premier His first political manoeuvre was the sale of poles and wires on the basis of dodgy numbers. He followed this aperitif with the $3bn sale of public buildings. For the premier of a state boasting a revenue crisis, ‘quick fix’ Baird seemed to be on the warpath.
This might seem beside the point when it comes to lockout. As tireless young capitalists have pointed out, lockout laws are bad for small business. From nightclubs to kebab joints, doors are shutting in the centre of Sydney. So the accusation of Baird’s collusion with private interest seems bizarre.
But the devil is in the lockout laws’ details. Sixteen venues within the lockout boundaries are excluded from the restrictions. What they have in common is one thing: poker machines.
Baird’s interest is not so much in supporting small business as paying off the big stakeholders in Sydney development. Cromwell, the international property developer, have already yielded huge profits from the sale of Bligh House (which they bought off Baird and O’Farrell in 2013). The Kuok family, heavy hitters in the Asian market, have bought up the Sydney Shangri-La to form part of their continental Shangri-La chain. The dereliction of local business has, as its ultimate goal, the consumption of Sydney land and business by international capitalists.
This makes sense in the context of a party that supports various free-trade agreements geared towards dismantling domestic labour regulations. Baird’s attack on ‘nightlife’ has its justification at an ideological level. The more closed nightclubs in quasi-residential areas of Sydney, the more scope there is for development. The erosion of worker protections and domestic business is easy when local investment can be outcompeted by international developers.
All this is enough create a sense of paranoia. You might forgive me for suggesting that limiting recreation is also a strategy that facilitates the rise of the seven-day work week. Casualisation of the workforce has long been a problem in NSW (see page 5 of this Insecure Work Inquiry for startling details). Giving punters limited scope for revelry on designated weekend periods allows for the maintenance of a primed and ‘dexterous’ workforce at all times.
So there’s a double-negation when it comes to Baird’s lockout approach. That which is apparently bad for business is in fact good for business. It’s good for a big end of town that is indifferent to Sydney’s cultural and economic welfare. It’s good for large-scale employers that care little for the wellbeing of their workers. It remains to be seen whether places like Hugo’s and Soho will be gutted for residential rebuilding, or whether they’ll be added to the growing list of Merivale bars monopolising the recreation industry. Either way, the victim is not just Sydney’s cultural scene: it’s the standards that public life must be held to by a democratic country.
A lot of time and ideology separates Mike Baird from Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The NSW premier is certainly not so crass as to announce a war on ‘communist sympathisers’. He’s a political operator, and uses quieter means to his ends.
Like any neoliberal, Baird works through the market. While the freedoms of assembly and expression are not his obvious victims, basic rights are invisible to the march of capital. It’s telling that Peter Costello retrospectively accredited Queensland’s economic prosperity to Bjelke-Petersen. The only rationale that the Liberal party (and indeed its unfortunate Labor counterpart) understands is that of the market.
If we allow the triumph of Baird’s lockout logic, it’s not only your night out that will suffer. It’s the capacity to participate, demonstrate and, ultimately, to sustain secure employment.