It took a single Facebook post to turn Mike Baird, leader of Australia’s most populous state, from darling to pariah on social media.
The New South Wales premier’s page was flooded with comments, almost all negative, after he mounted a defence of controversial “lock-out laws” that many say have killed off Sydney’s night-time economy.
Mr Baird says the laws are reducing assaults, and that a number of small bars have opened since the laws were introduced.
But questions have also been raised about why the city’s Star Casino and another planned casino are exempt – the Star falls just outside the zone – leading to the premier being mocked with the hashtag #casinomike.
An assault on assaults
Since February 2014, bars and clubs within parts of Sydney have been required to shut their doors to new patrons from 1.30 in the morning and stop serving drinks at 03:00, with severe penalties for bar owners who breach the conditions.
Sales of takeaway alcohol from hotels and liquor stores are banned state-wide after 10 PM.
The origin of these laws can be traced to July 2012, when 19-year-old Kieran Loveridge walked up to Thomas Kelly in the entertainment precinct of Kings Cross and, without provocation or warning, punched him in the head.
Mr Kelly, 19, fell to the ground and later died in hospital.
Kings Cross saw its second “coward punch” death on New Year’s Eve in 2013, when bodybuilder Shaun McNeil, 27, killed 18-year-old Daniel Christie with a single blow in an unprovoked attack.
Both attackers were jailed.
Public outcry over these incidents was immense, and the NSW government responded by designating Sydney’s most popular party zones a “CBD Entertainment Precinct”.
But it had a devastating impact on businesses that depended on late-night trade, particularly around the Kings Cross area.
Some of Australia’s best known bars and clubs shut down. Among them Hugos Lounge, which had operated for 15 years and was voted best nightclub in Australia six times.
Owner Dave Evans said the laws caused a 60% drop in trade, forcing him to close his doors and put 170 staff out of work.
‘Turn out the lights’
Frustration over the laws’ impact on Sydney’s nightlife catalysed last week with the publication on LinkedIn of an 8,000-word essay by businessman Matt Barrie.
Mr Barrie’s passionately denounced the impact of the laws and pushed a philosophy of personal responsibility that touched a nerve with many Sydneysiders.
“You’ve been tricked into thinking that you have done something wrong, in some way that you are genetically an idiot, or that somehow you have to feel responsible for a couple of random tragic, yet unrelated, events that occurred in the vague proximity of having fun,” he wrote.
“Two young men that would be turning in their graves if they knew that their deaths had been hijacked to beat up some moral outrage over the sort of human tragedy that sells newspapers to put up a political smokescreen, push a prohibitionist evangelical agenda, sell a suburb to developers, and boost the coffers of a couple of casinos.”
Reaction to Mr Barrie’s piece prompted Mr Baird, a conservative and Christian, to respond on social media, where he had previous success live-tweeting amusing responses to the finale of reality television show The Bachelor.
“Alcohol-related assaults have decreased 42.2% in the CBD since we introduced the ‘lock-out laws’. And they are down by over 60% in Kings Cross,” he wrote.
“But didn’t we achieve this by shutting down the whole city and killing its nightlife?… The number of small bars in Sydney has more than doubled in the same period.”
“Doctors right across the city are now telling us they are seeing far less emergency room presentations on the weekends.”
But this time the move appears to have backfired, with the post attracting more than 12,000 comments, overwhelmingly negative.
“I am not proud of our city and embarrassed to invite guests here from overseas,” said one.
Another said the state was “treating us all like kids because of the actions of random street scum”.
“Sydney has a rich history of the inner city pub which you are destroying,” said another. “Thanks mate #casinomike.”
Popular Australian DJ and musician Alison Wonderland was one of the many who responded to Mr Baird.
“Words can’t explain how embarrassed I am that my home, the most beautiful and once most vibrant city in the world has become a laughing stock internationally,” she wrote.
“People are asking me if it’s true Sydney has become a nanny state and voice their genuine concerns about visiting it.”
Another commenter was Justin Maloney, owner of the restaurant Jimmy Liks, which closed last month after 14 years.
“You said you wanted to ‘eliminate drinking ghettos’ – well, Mr Baird, my award-winning restaurant was no ghetto but you certainly eliminated it,” he wrote.
Even Mr Baird’s “cherry picked” assault statistics were called into question.
The lock-out laws are almost two years old now and due to be subjected to a detailed review.
But Mr Baird indicated he was unlikely to change the policy, which he believed was “so clearly improving the city”.
But it remains to be seen if the popular premier will hold his ground if anger at the lockout laws continues to gather momentum.