It’s a safe bet Mike Baird absolutely loathes the nickname “Casino Mike”, which despite his best efforts has stuck to him like a pokie addict sticks to a machine during a winning streak.
The character, famously rendered on a Chippendale wall by Scott Marsh with a glass of wine and cigarette in one hand, kebab in the other, surrounded by gambling chips, is the antithesis of the image Baird likes to cultivate of a clean-living Christian surfer who finds himself in politics more due to a calling than a career.
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Lockout laws have saved lives: Mike Baird
NSW Premier Mike Baird says that while he remains open-minded, the Sydney lockout laws have already saved lives and prevented brain injuries.
So there he was this week on Facebook posing in front of the offending piece of street art, one eyebrow arched at the camera in disdain. This is not me, he seemed to be saying.
Well actually, Premier, on the available evidence many people find it easy to believe that it is.
Not that Baird is a secret gambler and drinker who regularly hits the high roller tables at The Star, because that’s not the point of the “Casino Mike” tag.
Rather, it’s the way The Star and James Packer’s planned casino at Barangaroo are treated under the state’s liquor laws that has convinced many that Baird is showing them favourable treatment.
When in early 2014 Barry O’Farrell unveiled maps of the zones in the Sydney CBD and Kings Cross where his newly announced 1.30am lockout and 3am last drinks laws would come into effect, there was a glaring anomaly.
Carefully carved out of the CBD zone was Barangaroo – the then proposed site of Packer’s casino, which was expected to be seeking permission to operate its gambling floors, bars and restaurants for 24 hours a day.
Nor did the zone extend across Darling Harbour to The Star at Pyrmont – another 24-hour casino packed with late-night bars, nightclubs and restaurants.
As a consequence, while pubs and clubs in the city have been required to abide by the new laws, which have had great success in driving down alcohol-related violence, The Star has been free to welcome guests seeking a drink long after 3am.
The Premier has never given an explicit reason for this, but it is most likely because the casino argues serious gamblers demand a 24-hour operation.
The argument goes that changing that would see them flock to the competition, either at suburban registered clubs or worse, to Crown casino in Melbourne.
But with the advent of the lockout laws the obvious concern for regulators has always been “displacement” – whether the violence would shift from Kings Cross and the CBD to places like The Star.
And for a while it seemed the answer was that it wasn’t. A Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research analysis of police incident reports in April found violence levels had not increased significantly.
But this week’s revelations that The Star might have been under reporting violent incidents to police raises serious doubts those displacement figures.
It begs the question whether The Star – and Packer’s Barangaroo operation – should be drawn into the lockout regime given the apparent number of assaults occurring there.
It’s not just the lockout laws. The Star is also exempt from the two other policies used by the NSW government to combat alcohol-related violence – the three strikes regime and the violent venues list.
The Three Strikes law carries the threat of loss of a venue’s liquor licence for repeated breaches of the Liquor Act.
The violent venues list is a name and shame exercise that imposes lockouts and drinks restrictions on venues that have more than 19 annual assaults.
Yet because The Star and its bars and restaurants are regulated by the Casino Control Act and not the Liquor Act, it escapes each of these regimes.
If the 111 incidents in a six-month period at The Star revealed this week in leaked internal documents from the casino regulator is a guide to the actual annual figure for alcohol-related assaults, the venue would easily top the violent venues list.
This would automatically make it a level 1 licensed venue and subject to a 1.30am lockout and a post-midnight ban on glass containers, shots, doubles and ready-to-drink mixers over 5 per cent alcohol.
It’s also highly likely that, given the number of licence breaches that have been reported in the regulator’s annual report, The Star would have copped at least one strike to date.
The argument that casinos are a special case has been weakened significantly by how they have evolved in recent years.
Thanks to a proliferation of bars, restaurants, accommodation and retail they now market themselves as “integrated resorts” with a heavy emphasis on international tourism.
If the business model has changed so radically, there is a strong case to argue that so must the way they are regulated.
Baird should be seriously thinking about bringing The Star and Crown’s casino at Barangaroo under the Liquor Act. Failing to do so risks “Casino Mike” becoming a permanent part of his legacy.
Sean Nicholls is state political editor.