In this week’s instalment of citizen journalism, CEO of the Australian Hotels Association (AHA) QLD, Justin O’Connor, argues that small bar legislation is not the cure-all that the media wants it to be.

“It has been both intriguing and disturbing to witness the media’s enthusiasm for the growth of a small bar sector in Queensland in recent weeks. As a regular participant in media interviews, I am routinely assailed by journalists’ commentary in support of a ‘new, eclectic, intimate’ Queensland bar sector, with the implication being that such venues are not currently available, and that smaller venues somehow offer a consistently better experience than larger venues.

Under Queensland’s revised Liquor Act provisions, suitable persons may apply for a Commercial Other liquor license type, based on a small bar with a maximum capacity of 60 patrons and no obligation to serve meals. In effect, a small bar venue for up to 60 patrons. This is supposed to foster and promote a ‘new’ form of licensed trading which will be somehow more intimate, more private, more enjoyable, and less mainstream than the existing range of licensed venues. Some journalists have even claimed that there is a new group of potential patrons out there, simply waiting at home for these new bars to become available, after which time these ‘new’ people will leave their homes and frequent the new bars!

Back to the real world. Any half-experienced liquor industry person knows that it is almost impossible to run a profitable licensed business based on a 60 patron economic model. This is particularly the case when the venue must be located in a higher rental area to attract passing custom. With such a small customer base, profitability can only be achieved by either breaking the law and habitually serving more than the permitted 60 patrons, or by cutting costs including training, compliance, service levels, entertainment, and venue amenity. Either way, the law will be broken sooner rather than later. Of course, as we know from recent history of licensed restaurants trading as bars in Queensland, when such businesses fail, there is always some up-and-comer all too ready to step into the premises, and also go broke using the same formula.

For the hotel sector this is a common sense issue not a competition issue. We welcome diversity in the marketplace, and the ability of patrons to choose from a range of venue experiences. However, as an industry we fail to see how the principal objective shared by the government, the community and the liquor industry, that of improved harm minimisation, can be served by further deregulating and softening the license application process in favour of small bars.

Our argument is simple, you don’t solve liquor-related concerns by approving more bar outlets. The truth is that there is no new ‘eclectic’ customer group waiting for this to happen.  More bars simply means more competition, downward pressure on prices, skilled labour spread thinner, and further momentum in the race to the bottom. 
Deregulation of bar and licensing conditions have not worked in Australia. Victorian license numbers have increased 300% from 6,000 to 19,000 over the last fifteen years, and Victorian licensed industry leaders are dismayed that Queensland would consider following their example.

In this public debate to date, the Queensland Hotels Association (QHA) has consistently argued that all licensed businesses should be legally obliged to have basic and minimum standards of amenity such as toilets for both genders, and be required to meet the same standards of training, security, supervision and compliance. Regrettably, this advice has been ignored and the advent of relaxed licensing arrangements for small bars will simply add to the range of public safety and amenity issues with which we are all familiar. The end result of course will be future and further ‘crack downs’ on licensed venues as these new bars simply become another element of the late night economy, and journalists and politicians will be asking ‘What went wrong?’

At a time of heightened community concern about the misuse of alcohol, deteriorating standards of public behaviour, and significant reduction in economic activity, now is not the time to be experimenting with small bars.”

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The Shout Team

The leading online news service for Australia's beer, wine, spirits and hospitality industries.

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