The closure of iconic rock venue The Tote provoked a groundswell of opposition to Victorian Premier John Brumby’s draconian liquor licensing laws.
The Tote has been slugged with an increase in licensing fees this year of several thousand dollars, as well as increases in the requirements for security guards and reduced operating hours - two security guards required before, during and after each show, be it a late night rock concert or a lazy afternoon of acoustic folk. The total cost of the new regulations for The Tote was reported to be around $75,000.
These new costs, coupled with the legal fees incurred during the constant battles between the owners and VCAT, have resulted in a slow and painful strangulation of the small pub in Collingwood.
As the venue housed live music, it was automatically considered “high-risk” under the Brumby government’s guidelines, despite having a pristine record of lawfulness. This is the same category as a King St nightclub, and, paradoxically, any alcohol-serving venue open before 9am.
The new costs, however, do not represent the entire regulatory burden on licensed venues. Governments force venues to prohibit smoking in bars. Venues that house live music require Place of Public Entertainment permits. Building inspections are relentless. Governments force new venues to stop serving alcohol after 1am. And in recent years, there was a 12-month freeze on all new liquor licenses.
On Saturday, fans of live music from all over Melbourne descended on The Tote to bid farewell to the venue that has housed international acts and local up-and-comers alike. The scene was reminiscent of the film The Boat That Rocked, where rock fans sail out to save broadcasters of a pirate radio station, shut down by an all-controlling government.
The closure of The Tote is symptomatic of the ideology of the nanny state.
In a bid to curb alcohol-fuelled violence, the state government has introduced new measures which, rather than targeting violence, target venues that sell alcohol. The brunt of these measures has fallen hardest on live music venues.
Bruce Milne, publican for The Tote, claimed that government bureaucracy and regulation had the Australian live music scene “dying a death of a thousand cuts”. This is particularly painful in a city like Melbourne, where the abundance of live music is not only popular with tourists, but is an integral part of our culture.
Indeed, this is not the first time that this situation has happened. Last year, the New South Wales government imposed tight restrictions on liquor licenses. Many smaller venues were forced out of business due to this heavy-handed approach. And yet the Victorian government seems to be either oblivious to this, or simply apathetic.
Sadly, it seems that this is part of broader trend towards nanny-state policies in recent years. The Victorian government has attempted to implement the notorious 2am Lockout policy. The Victorian opposition has proposed a ban on bongs. The Federal government has increased taxes on alcopops. The Federal opposition has proposed increasing taxes on cigarettes. And then, of course, there is the Federal government’s attempt to censor the internet.
These policies all come with the proclaimed intention of protecting people (from violence, supposedly obscene viewing material, harm due to drug misuse, etc.), but they always seem to come with unintended consequences.
Furthermore, they are all grounded in the ideology that says that the government is a better manager of our lives than we are.
The huge regulatory burden seems to hit the smallest players the hardest. Higher prices that are required to cover these costs mean that young people go to fewer concerts. Small venues do not have the money to pay these costs and still maintain profitability. Small bands that use small venues no longer have anywhere to play. And this is killing our culture.
My first local concert was at an underage afternoon at The Tote. I saw a small band that has since gone on to release two albums and tour the world. If the nanny-state ideology is allowed to continue, this may be confined to the dustbin of rock and roll history.