As Sydney begins to reopen and crowds seek ways to blow away the lockdown blues, the city’s hard-fought late night policy reforms introduced late last year are finally being put to the test.

As monumental as the reopening is, whether the reforms are a success and are able to rebuild or reimagine the dynamic and exciting nightlife that made Sydney a true global city will ultimately depend on how much of a priority the state government is willing to make them and, how strongly they stand up to those who oppose a vibrant night economy.

Even when you have a supportive Premier, reforms can be weakened by the smallest and most unexpected influences. As implementation and management guidelines are being drawn up, it’s important that the state government, which holds most of the levers that control the sector, doesn’t start to relax or look to hand-ball responsibility onto local councils and business owners alone.

It would be fine to leave it to the councils who have lined up to support the reforms, if they had the power to enforce and fully act on them. It’s hard enough dealing with the usual issues that can weaken any late-night policy agenda, let alone when you are trying to rebuild a devastated sector while navigating a number of loop holes that could empower policy inertia.

For Sydney to truly reignite, the state government needs to be a committed partner and champion the people and ideas that can make the spirit of the reforms a reality.

As frustrating as it is to watch from afar as Sydney wades through a mire of bureaucracy in order to implement the reforms, the opportunities are palpable. If the government is open to fully realising the sector’s potential the reforms could not only save an entire industry struggling to survive, it could inspire an explosion of activity, enable new people and ideas to enter the market place and create whole new destinations, scenes, choices and jobs.

An increasing demand to get out and amongst it, coupled with an untested regulatory frame work, presents Sydney with an exciting opportunity to experiment, rewrite the play book and reimagine its CBD and beyond.

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Instead of the culture of conflict that has long overshadowed live music and late-night policy, governments can move from seeing themselves as gate keepers to instead asking ‘how can we help’, ‘how can we enable activity and try out new ideas’.

There’s no shortage of examples where governments have supported activating the night economy rather than blocking it and have prospered as a result. Other global cities like Amsterdam and London have embraced their after-hours culture and they have equally complicated problems to overcome.

Amsterdam, Netherlands
Amsterdam, Netherlands. Credit: Sebastian Pociecha

Closer to home, both Melbourne and Adelaide have transformed through policy innovation and strong government support. If anything, the reopening would allow the state to develop and test uniquely Sydney responses to the traditional road blocks of gentrification, noise and violence.

As Australian cities continue to sprawl and more people work from home, it is essential that the conversation looks beyond their CBDs and includes ways to activate outer suburbs and the regions.

Although essential to traditional late-night economies and suffering from their own set of issues, a solely CBD focus misses a huge opportunity to reimagine and activate tired main streets and public spaces, provide greater choice and jobs closer to home, and, foster unique cultures, destinations and experiences.

This isn’t to say the problems that affect cities after dark are easy, but they are impossible if state governments, who hold most of the levers, don’t see themselves as active partners, and enable new ideas or change. The NSW government’s broad-brush approach to curbing after-hours violence may have had an effect on paper, but it did so by punishing everyone.

It closed businesses, ended careers, fettered an important part of its cultural economy, and tarnished Sydney’s global reputation.

Image of a Keep Sydney Open rally protesting Sydney's lockout laws
Keep Sydney Open rally protesting Sydney’s lockout laws

Glasgow managed to tackle its entrenched culture of violence without decimating its live music and late-night economy. The long-time murder capital of Europe transformed and became a European centre of culture by admitting it wasn’t going to arrest its way out of trouble and started treating violence as a health problem.

It wasn’t weak on crime, but it became smarter, more empathetic and more engaged with communities. It went to the heart of the problem instead of focusing on the outcomes.

Sydney’s live music and late-night economy has suffered for so long and the hard-fought reforms deserve the ongoing support and attention essential if they are to become a reality.

The willingness of the state government to partner with councils and the sector as they navigate what is traditionally a complex set of hurdles will ultimately determine how successful the reforms will be.

Sydney’s post-COVID recovery represents a huge opportunity to rewrite the play book, uplift a city in need of some joy and inspire an explosion of cultural and economic activity. Without strong state government support, Sydney will return to a state of conflict and inaction and its once vibrant night life will continue to suffer.