Is Sydney’s Nightlife On Life Support?

You don’t have to be a sociologist to see and feel that the lockout laws have smothered something once bristling in Sydney. Our nightlife suddenly appears sick. It feels to be yearning for a resurgent blood-transfusion of local soul. The once ebullient feeling of Sydney’s nightlife suddenly feels muffled and controlled.

The nightlife of any place makes up a large chunk of its social fabric. It is the time and space where a city’s population often expresses itself most. It’s where a city relaxes, unwinds and let’s go whilst revelling in some of its raw instinct and spirit. The night is a communal time to experiment with personality. So to leash it up or to chain it down, is not without much sacrifice. After all, the midday white of the ‘Yin’, has forever been entwined with the midnight black of the ‘Yang’.

Having lived overseas, I’ve been lucky enough to experience the nightlife of numerous different cities. When you juxtapose the night of the places you visit, the cultural differences between them can quickly be identified or felt.

Where London can be gritty, New York nights shine like a neon bulb. Paris evenings are smooth, where Roman nights are unpredictable. Berlin is famed for its avant-garde club scene. Sao Paulo, Rio and Santiago feel like melting pots with edge. Nothing happens before midnight in Buenos Aires and Madrid. And in most big Asian cities too, the night is an essential part of any day.

And where there is diversity, there is also much consistency across the nightlives of the world. It’s the time when people meet, laugh, shop, share food, have fun and relax after a busy day working. It’s a place to observe others as well as to express yourself. A place to re-energise, let go and feel alive. It provides us with a place to “Dance first. Think later”. With a daily grind that is riddled with work, bills, commitments, obligations and convention - a healthy nightlife can often be an important societal unguent.

So if one of the world’s big cities - perhaps New York, Tokyo, Rio or Rome - were in some way to have their nightlife weakened or watered down - wouldn’t the international community be disappointed at that and see the cultural loss?

Why then are we so complacent about this threat to our own nightlife? Why aren’t we more angry about its sanitisation? Why the hell aren’t we more sad?

Fifteen years ago, Sydney had one of the most exuberant night life's in the world. It seethed with energy. That night time culture was effervescent, sun-infused and excitingly awake. It better mirrored our local personality. Indeed, much of the success and charisma of the Sydney Olympics were driven by that same spirit. The after parties were legendary and the camaraderie on the streets at night, exultant. It was a local celebration of life and we were proud of the way we expressed ourselves to a curious world.

However today, where the inner-city energy once thrived, the same streets seem quiet and sedate. Where Oxford Street once teemed with weekend life, it is now peppered with ‘for lease’ signs. Where Crown Street was once a walking and bustling conduit, it now feels eerily toned down.

And this new nightlife, that is rapidly replacing the old, is bringing with it a culture of fear. I’m not talking about a fear of violence or of ‘king hits’. I’m talking about the fear of reprimand when your behaviour is nothing less than ‘obedient’. Suddenly, it's all about rules, limits, keeping an eye on, self restraint and constant judgement.

Hoteliers these days are scared. They’re intimidated by the strict new laws and by the massive fines associated with breaking them. And all of this fear gets passed down through the chain. From the owner, to the bar manager, to the bar staff, to the bouncers, to the patrons.

Go into any bar in the city centre these days and it’s a little like walking into a government-sponsored mini police state. It can feel like trying to relax with one of Orwell’s telescreens from 1984 sitting surreptitiously on the wall, watching your every move. Security staff often have the final say. They comb every movement, look in every eye, watch for the smallest signals of inebriation. How is a city meant to let go, express itself, have fun, perhaps even be a little crazy - underneath this blanket of paranoia?

Our need for the night is by no means new. Primitive man had the campfire where the tribe came together to share stories, to laugh and to eat. More than that though, it was the place where creative outfits and makeup were donned before dancing wildly to the deep beats of the community drum. The nighttime has always been a place of mysticism and bacchanal. A sacred place to set your raw soul free.

I think everyone understands the objectives of the new lockout laws. I don’t know if they have managed to improve the statistics on night-time violence. However, I am positive that they (and their ensuing culture) have managed to squeeze much of the life and energy out of the inner city night time.

These laws feel to me a little like the ball that gets confiscated by the principal at school, because one little idiot kicked it out onto the road. It didn’t feel fair to everyone else then, and it doesn’t feel fair to everyone else now.

Good local government is not just about road-blocking problems with some hardcore laws. Good local government is also about understanding the personality of its constituents and creating ways that allow their unique charm to breathe and thrive. It feels to me that the lockout law needs more thought, dimension and creativity than the one we’ve all been slugged with. More maturity, tolerance and wisdom. There needs to be more community discussion, education in schools and hearty local debate.

Sydney people are not a moderate, sedate and quiet bunch. History tells us that we never have been. We’re hard working, energetic and still very much discovering who we are. We love life and we want to celebrate that.


It’s essential for us to have an expressive nightlife where we feel comfortable enough to stretch out. We should be very wary of anything that threatens that right or in anyway, dilutes it. And ultimately, if we are having to increasingly ‘Think first. Dance Later’ - then surely there must be something that is worryingly wrong.

Published in GQ Australia - 02.09.15
Published in the Daily Review - 01.09.15

Joseph O'Donoghue

Discussion and comment about Australia's young, vibrant and emerging culture - our own blank canvas.

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