Sydneysiders -- you members of the biggest city in famously laid-back, can-do, bold and brassy Australia -- see if you agree with the following statement: If you want to go into a pub for a beer, it is entirely fair, reasonable and normal that someone should take a copy of your driver's licence, and a photo of your face, before allowing you in.
It's too ridiculous for words, isn't it? But it's happening. Right here, in free and easy Sydney, the storied home of that harbour, that big coathanger, the wondrous opera house, and massive feel-good parties like the 2000 Olympics, the annual New Year's fireworks, and a good time for all.
It happened on a recent Wednesday night, to this 50-year-old and his mate. We were inside a pub, a well known one in the Darling Harbour area. It's open 24 hours. That suggests that they're possibly not going to be all that fussy about their clientele at, say, 4.20am.
Having been there two hours and had all of four beers, my friend and I popped outside for a cigarette. You can't smoke inside, of course. That's fair enough. It harms other people. There's a cramped little sectioned-off smoking area on the footpath of this pub, but we didn't fancy it, so we went down the road (leaving our beers inside of course).
Still more gobsmacking was the reaction of the fourth member of our group. A man in his early 20s, he thought the situation was entirely normal and not, for example, "outrageous", or, say, "completely f***ing insane".
When we returned the bouncer asked: "Where have you guys been?" That didn't really stop me at first, but in hindsight it's become known as Outrage No.1. How was it any of his business where we'd been? We could have gone to make a phonecall, use an ATM, or to pop outside for a minute to mind our own business.
We told him we'd gone for a cigarette. He seemed unperturbed by this, but then asked us for ID. This was surprising, for we are old. But it became clear it wasn't for the purposes of age-checks, but to take our details, our names and addresses, if we wanted to achieve our goal - or, as it was starting to seem, our nefarious scheme -- of going inside for a pint.
A machine had been set up. It wasn't there before, but it was there now at 11.30pm. The bouncer scanned our licences. Then we had to look into a camera, as he took our mug shots. He returned our licences and announced his verdict: We could go in. We could enter this 24-hour pub (which is short for "Public House" by the way), and, thank our lucky stars, we would be allowed to consume alcohol.
It seemed something that was a bit silly, a pain in the arse. "The things you have to go through these days, eh! Tch!" If you get yourself worked up about yet another entry in the bulging file marked "Nanny State Bullshit", it can ruin your existence in today's over-policed, over-governed, over-reactive Australia.
But then the enormity of what had just happened sank in. This wasn't Nanny State. This was, with no doubt about it, Police State stuff.
I've just had seven years in China -- Communist China, no less. It's a place condemned for its lack of personal freedoms, its crushing use of force, its many layers of law enforcement watching over its citizenry. And you can guess what's coming next, but that makes it no less chilling:
What happened to us in Sydney, Australia, on Wednesday night does not happen in Communist China.
Think about that. In China, where there are no free elections, no free press, where the government call tell you where to live and, until recently, how many kids you can have, you don't go out for a drink and have your personal details and photo recorded. You don't step out from that bar and return a minute later and have some door goon demand to know what you've been up to.
There was a third member of our party, a non-smoker who doesn't drive. Had he popped outside he wouldn't have been allowed back into this 24-hour public house because he didn't, in the vernacular of 1930s Germany, have his identification documents on him. Presumably, as a non-driver, if he wants to go out for a beer he should carry his passport.
Still more gobsmacking was the reaction of the fourth member of our group. A man in his early 20s, he thought the situation was entirely normal and not, for example, "outrageous", or, say, "completely f***ing insane". Likewise the other 20-somethings calmly, smilingly, going through the same process (or processing) at the door behind us.
Even worse, our young friend thought the whole thing, this most insidious and intrusive drip-down from the state's lockout laws, was, in fact, a good idea. Though nearly speechless, we old blokes put to him there was a cart before a horse there, asking what happened to "If you do something wrong, then we'll ping you". His response showed what we're up against, and will continue to see to steeper degrees if we're not careful in today's utterly changed Australia.
These steps would weed out the bad apples, our young friend said, and if you've got nothing to hide, no potential atrocities to commit, you've got nothing to worry about. Yes it was a Nanny State, and the Nanny State was good.
Where have you gone, George Orwell?
Who knows onto what data base, and for how long our details and photos were recorded?
We all know why the lockout laws were imposed, as a guileless, ham-fisted attempt by the New South Wales government to reduce alcohol-related violence. Some stats say that, in certain areas, that has come down, but at what cost to civil liberty? Governments aren't going to eliminate the chance of people getting hurt, banning this, that and the other potentially dangerous thing like it's a game of Whack-a-Mole. Life is potentially dangerous.
Likewise, it's not the role of governments to keep telling us to be very, very careful, as they do through Australia's countless list of "public service announcements" coming out of our TVs and telling us how to live.
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What's arisen through the lockout laws is this often oppressive atmosphere in pubs of suspicion, that we're all being watched like naughty children. If you put a foot wrong, you'll be turfed out (literally the case for a friend who, going for his first beer at 6pm, stubbed his toe on a piece of dowel on the pub's floor and was refused service for being clearly out of control). And if you do find yourself shut off, usually by some 20-year-old pint-puller using all their worldly experience to judge everyone's tolerance levels, good luck getting past the henchmen guarding other pubs from that lurking threat to hotels everywhere -- people wanting to get inside and buy drinks. How the hell is inner-Sydney's pub industry surviving?
It's not just oppressive. It's embarrassing. While I was once proud of my city's standing in the eyes of the world, I recently had a young Japanese waitress tell me she couldn't wait to get out of "boring" Sydney and "go somewhere where you can get a bloody drink".
I could list many other manifestations of these depressing, overbearing, lockout laws and their attendant effects, like when a group of us were refused service in another seedy (journalists') hang-out, by a 20-year-old pint-puller who'd determined that several middle aged men standing in a corner talking sport posed a clear and present danger to the joint's other, gentrified, patrons. Or when I saw three 20-something men, mildly tipsy at worst, refused entry to a pub. They just stood there considering where else they could go. They weren't outraged. They weren't even annoyed. They just seemed to accept that this was the new normal.
Having your ID recorded if you want a drink is not normal. It is also not acceptable. Will someone please make all of this stop?
For if you tolerate this ...