EXPANDED: Calm Newcastle night backs alcohol strategy

THERE was drinking, there were drunks, there were disagreements.

But there was little trouble when Herald reporter SAM RIGNEY and photographer MARINA NEIL spent a night on the town in Newcastle this week.

Some years after the city was forced to accept earlier hotel closing times and still earlier lockouts – and as Sydney now faces similar restrictions – there is general agreement that restricting access to alcohol and the regulation of problem punters through a co-ordinated licence-checking system is making the city a safer place to party. 

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‘‘WHAT did you say? You wanna go?’’ screams one man at another over the blaring sound of Aerosmith’s Walk This Way. 

It’s 11.50pm on Wednesday night and the pair, face-to-face in the packed main bar of the Argyle House, are gesticulating wildly and screaming obscenities. 

The taller of the two raises his arms as his adversary approaches within a few inches of his face and things look destined to get physical. But within a few seconds the disagreement is squashed, another punter intervenes and the pair go their separate ways. 

The club, considered the most popular destination for Newcastle’s weekly student night, is near full, the main dance floor is pumping and an assortment of tall, slim blonde and brunette bar girls hurriedly prepare drinks and are handed cash. 

The confrontation, which occurred just a few metres in front of me, is a distant memory.

There were no further threats, no promises of revenge, just a disagreement or misunderstanding that was settled without violence. 

That was the closest thing I saw to a fight or brawl during the six hours – between 9pm and 3am – that I spent on the streets, in the venues and in taxi and fast food lines in the Newcastle CBD on Wednesday night. 

The city’s nightlife was in the national spotlight on Tuesday after Premier Barry O’Farrell announced the state government would effectively borrow from the ‘‘Newcastle solution’’, implementing 1.30am lockouts and 3am last drinks at Sydney CBD pubs and clubs as part of a suite of new measures to tackle alcohol violence.

While the decision was met with ire from Sydney club owners, industry workers and partygoers, the restrictions are something the people of Newcastle have become more than used to.

For more than six years, our licensed premises have had lockouts, early closing times, a ban on shots and doubles and a limit on drinks per patron imposed on them by the NSW Liquor Administration Board. 

Since then, the city’s major venues have teamed up and introduced a system of linked identification scanners, and while anti-social behaviour and alcohol-fuelled violence still exists, the vast majority of punters, security guards, bar staff, licensees, taxi drivers and fast food vendors tell me Newcastle is now much safer at night, assaults are down and troublemakers are fewer in number. 

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It’s 8.45pm and the streets around the Great Northern Hotel, Customs House and the Newcastle Railway Station are dead. 

Two girls, Shena Saxby and Bonnie Jaeger, are celebrating Shena’s birthday and her first night out in Newcastle. 

They’re drinking from bottles of beer and tell me they’re headed towards Finnegan’s Hotel in Darby Street. 

I deliver the bad news; Finnegan’s is closed on Wednesday nights. 

‘‘Are you serious?’’ they shriek as one.

‘‘Well what’s open and what’s good?’’

I’m interested to see what Shena has heard about the nightlife in Newcastle and what she’s expecting.

‘‘I think it will be safe,’’ she said.

‘‘My parents were freaking out, they were like ‘don’t accept drinks from anyone, you’ll get spiked’.

‘‘But as long as I stay in a group and don’t wander off I should be OK, I’ve got my phone. 

‘‘I’ve heard about the lockouts and I think it’s bullshit.’’

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It’s 9.45pm at The Queen’s Wharf Brewery and I’m speaking to a group of very honest 18 and 19-year-olds. 

‘‘I’ve been kicked out of every club since I turned 18,’’ Jayden Stanborough, 18, tells me.

His friends around him laugh, but I get the feeling he’s not telling me to brag.

‘‘That’s because, honestly, the bouncers are really good here, if you are stupid or too drunk then they will get you out straight away and they won’t let you back in, that’s good.’’

Jayden tells me he was once the victim of a king-hit after he was caught dancing with the wrong girl and said he welcomed stricter punishments for ‘‘coward punches’’.

Outside, Matt Johnson is scanning licenses and checking prospective patrons for signs of intoxication.

‘‘I think the licence scanning works,’’ he says.

‘‘They only get one chance and if they mess that up, they’re out.’’

He shows me the inventory of the scanning system and pulls up a photograph of a young man who has been banned for 1000 years – the equivalent of life – for being involved in a fight on the premises. 

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At the Cambridge Hotel, I speak with Newcastle Taxi’s driver Garry Burgess, who has worked nights in the city for about six years. 

‘‘There are certainly less fights in the streets,’’ he tells me. ‘‘I don’t get a lot of bad behaviour in the cabs, maybe I’ve got a bad memory. ‘‘I’ve only been physically threatened once, it’s not as bad as people think.’’ 

Cambridge Hotel manager Kalon Milne says underage people between the venues contributed significantly to Newcastle’s ‘‘bad run’’ of assaults that led to the 2008 restrictions. 

The Newcastle West hotel was considered one of the most dangerous in NSW a few years ago. Now the venue, as well as the King Street Hotel and Finnegans, have been removed from the state’s most violent venues list.

‘‘So something is working, it’s having an effect,’’ Kalon says.

A security guard tells me there will be no trouble here tonight.

‘‘It’s not the lockout either, it’s the ID scanners,’’ he says.

‘‘I love the ID scanners.’’

Inside, Zeb McKrell, Josephine Ronne and Ashley Manney have a different perspective.

‘‘Newcastle is not that safe, especially walking between venues, but it is better than it used to be,’’ Zeb says.

‘‘The lockout, the plastic cups and the no shots are great, but you still see people getting served alcohol when they shouldn’t be.’’

Ashley agrees. 

‘‘If you walk between The Cambridge and The Brewery let’s say, you’re guaranteed to encounter a problem,’’ she tells me.

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‘‘Seriously, it’s my birthday,’’ I hear a girl’s voice say.

‘‘It is my birthday today, I’m not lying, can you take me to the front of the line.’’

It’s 11pm and the girl, standing on the road in Argyle Street, is speaking with a Responsible Service of Alcohol officer and, like everyone else in line, wants to go ahead. 

The queue snakes from the front door in Centenary Road around to Wharf Road and it will take 40 minutes before I reach the front.  

A group of girls - aged 19-22 - join the line behind me. 

‘‘It’s worth lining up for this long tonight,’’ one girl says. ‘‘It’s ‘90s night, so they play all old music.’’

They often go out in Sydney but say the Newcastle lockout doesn’t really bother them.

‘‘We’re used to it, if you get somewhere good you’re going to stay there for the whole night,’’ says one. 

‘‘We don’t walk between venues often, we just go to one place and stick there, if it's bad then the lockout means that you just sort of go home.’’

Despite having no problem with the city’s restrictions, they’re not happy that Sydney could meet the same fate as well.

‘‘In Sydney we can have that experience of going out later, having shots, everything is closer and there are more options,’’ the first girl says.

‘‘I personally don’t like [O’Farrell’s announcement], but I understand why they did it.’’

It’s smoky as I step inside Argyle House and the heat hits me like stepping out of an air-conditioned airport into a country in the tropics. 

The club’s clientele are young – mainly aged between 18 and about 23 or 24.

They drink and dance, chat and laugh, but there is still an underlying feeling of aggression and bravado among the men. 

They knock into one another and at times the packed dance floor is like a powder keg ready to explode.

But it doesn’t.

The masses trickle out in small groups and, luckily for punters, the rest of the pubs and clubs are reasonably quiet, meaning a row of about 20 taxis line the street outside the Argyle Hotel and Brewery.

The influx of cabs means there is very little walking between venues and no large groups congregating out the front, a key indicator, I’m told by security, for an incident-free night. 

Outside the Argyle, I overhear a guy reinforcing this point to his female friend.

‘‘Hey listen to me, walk by yourself and you’ll get bashed, you’ll get killed, it’s Newcastle,’’ he tells her.

‘‘Catch a taxi, it’s a much better idea.’’

A guy standing outside the Argyle sums up the point of view of many revellers. 

‘‘There are those couple of dickheads that ruin it for everyone, that’s all it is,’’ he says. 

‘‘When this was Fannys it was loose, now its the Argyle it’s one of the strictest clubs in Newcastle. 

‘‘They’ve got a strict dress code, if you don’t look the part or you look like you’re going to cause trouble then they won’t let you in.’’

While waiting outside, I see two police cars pull up and speak to a male and female in the car park opposite the hotel. 

After a few minutes they head back towards their paddy wagons, one officer telling another ‘‘well that was nothing’’. 

One punter is told to move on, at least 50 metres from the venue, but doesn’t want to comply. 

He leans against a fence and argues with security before a number of other guards come over and he eventually relents, slowly pacing away from the hotel and out of the area.

The hotel’s entry and exit systems are a well oiled machine, revellers are funnelled towards the front door where they are met by three people to scan IDs, another three to check IDs and intoxication, a girl inside a window who collects their admission and another man who stamps your wrist. 

There is also a guard and a smartly dressed man who controls the line, clipboard in hand. 

Later on, as people leave they are ushered out of the gutter or off the footpath by RSA officers with bottled water in hand. 

One RSA officer constantly does the rounds - checking on one man at least five times - and asks punters if they have organised a lift home.

I do see a security guard lose his cool briefly, when a man wanting to get in stands in front of him smoking a cigarette. 

With the smoke blowing in his face the guard gets a bit menacing. 

‘‘Put that cigarette out mate,’’ the security guard asks for the fourth or fifth time.

‘‘I said put it out.’’

He swipes a hand at the man’s face, dislodging the cigarette from the man’s lips and onto the ground. 

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The late-night food vendor can often provide a good gauge of the city’s nightlife and the owner of Oasis Village Kebabs on Darby Street tells me since the lockout he’s seen less troublemakers. 

‘‘It’s been all right, it hasn’t been too bad,’’ he says as he rolls a chicken kebab. 

‘‘People come, they eat and they go. We don’t normally have too many dramas, but you do have your bad days.

‘‘I tell people who come late at night to stay around near the shop where it’s safe and if girls are a bit too drunk then we try and call a taxi for them.’’ 

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