The blame game: What's next for Kings Cross clubbing?

The middle-aged make-up of the panel was largely reflected in the audience, with a string of “long-term Kings Cross residents” lining up to make statements vaguely disguised as questions. One woman who organises tours of the area compared the Saturday night scenes to The Day of the Locust, which climaxes with the streets of Hollywood becoming a war-zone. The mood of the forum swung from sober analysis to finger-pointing.

One point on which there seemed to be consensus was the need for better transport options out of the Cross. Currently there's a gap between the last train at 1:44am and the next at 5:14am that leaves the only option of roving the streets in search of a cab. Licensed venues in the Cross, however, were a contentious topic. Paul Nicolaou, whose role as CEO of AHA puts him squarely in the corner of the bars and clubs, stressed the wider issues. “There has to be a level of personal responsibility,” he said, more than once. “A lot of people are coming into the Cross area already pre-fuelled on alcohol and drugs. I'm not here to defend alcohol. Most people drink alcohol. We have to say there needs to be a zero tolerance on any crime.”

A few days earlier the Herald had run a front page feature with the title 'Top cop's grim warning for Kings Cross' above a photo of NSW Police Assistant Commisioner Mark Murdoch looking dutifully grim. His pull quote read: “Those who stay out after midnight are either going to become…a victim or an offender.” On the panel, Murdoch suggested his comments had been shaped into a sensational soundbite. “What I also said, as has been borne out by the data, Kings Cross is as safe as it has ever been, notwithstanding the tragic circumstances of Thomas Kelly's death,” he told the room. “I did say that if you're out after midnight, it's highly likely that you would be a victim or an offender, if – and this is the qualifier that didn't get into the article – you're affected by alcohol.”

Holding his line, Nicolaou cut in: “Mark, you and the coppers do a fantastic job, but to say it's just alcohol when it's not just alcohol – it's drugs as well.” Don Weatherburn, Director of the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics, seemed to have the final word on that line of argument. “The honest answer is nobody really knows what proportion of the drinkers in Kings Cross are affected by amphetamines or any other drug,” he said. “We do know from general population surveys that the vast majority of heavy drinkers don’t use amphetamines, but on the other hand, the vast majority of amphetamine users are also heavy drinkers. For my money, any reasonable person would assume alcohol plays the dominant role in this, and amphetamines play, if any role, a secondary role.”

Questions from the floor led the discussion back to licensed premises, with Clover Moore pressed on the 19 venues in the Cross with 24-hour licenses. “24-hour trading was introduced in 1989 by the Greiner government, was extended by the Fahey government, and continued,” she said. “I really think the conversation we need to be having now is, do we want to continue in perpetuity? Other cities around the world aren't trading 24 hours.” So where does all this talk lead for Kings Cross clubs? I sat in the audience half-expecting the announcement of a curfew. Instead, Hospitality Minister George Souris said he was set to launch a four-day compliance audit of 58 venues in Kings Cross. By the forum's end, this was the only firm plan announced.

In a seven-minute segment, The 7:30 Report's trip to Kings Cross does show some ugly scenes. Its title, 'What does a night in the Cross look like?', works on the assumption that the target viewer hasn't set foot there in recent memory. The ABC's reporter Adam Harvey lingered around the area until after 3am, observing the movements of a Saturday night: bleary groups spilling along Darlinghurst Road, disordered taxi queues, a few arrests, and two irate girls who probably woke up Sunday afternoon hoping their grandparents aren't devotees of The 7:30 Report. Then it's off to St Vincent's Hospital to see the aftermath of fights and seven-drinks-too-many. If transcendent moments happen on darkened dancefloors, the waiting room at St Vincent's is definitely the flip-side.

I asked a friend who until recently worked behind the bar at one of the Kings Cross strip clubs for her impressions of the weekend traffic. “Friday and Saturday nights were horrendous to work,” she said. “It was always packed over-capacity full of aggressive drunk guys and bikies. It never felt out of control, but there were many fights between everyone: dancers, security, the patrons, but never involving the waitresses, so it always seemed you were looking from a distance. The younger guys had usually been previously denied entry to any other clubs. Sunday was for all the people who had not stopped from Saturday and were coming down but didn’t want to call it a night."

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