Jan Fran at Sydney Unlocked: How did we get here?

July 1st 2016

Jan Fran at Sydney Unlocked

This is Jan Fran’s opening speech for Sydney Unlocked: Charting a course for Sydney’s cultural future at Vivid Ideas in June 2016. We recommend listening to it. It’s funny. 

We’ll be sharing more speeches, ideas and questions raised at the event over the coming weeks, hoping to continue the conversation about improving our city’s vibrancy. 

  • Jan Fran :: Sydney Unlocked opening speech


“For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Jan. I host a show called The Feed on SBS 2. It’s a satirical current affairs program watched nationally by tens of people.

I’m here to give some context. Hopefully it goes some way to answering a question that I’m sure many of you have asked yourselves at some point in the last few years.

Namely: what the actual fuck is happening to Sydney?

Or, to put it more diplomatically: how did it come to this?

By ‘this’, I mean more than not being allowed into a venue after 1:30am, or no shots after 3. It’s more than police whining about wine lists, or sniffer dogs at the pub. It’s more than being what I can only describe as “SWAT teamed” out of a venue because you walked back in to take a leak at 1.32am, and even though you were hoeing into hors d’oeuvres at the same place an hour ago, you are now a trespasser.

It’s more than the unbridled embarrassment you feel when your German cousin says “let’s buy some wine and watch Netflix!” and you say “we can’t!” and she says “what do you mean we can’t?” — and you have to calmly explain that purchasing a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc after 10pm in Sydney is a crime.

And she looks at you like you’ve just shat in her shoe.

It’s more than all of these things, because individually, all of these things are relatively trivial grievances. But collectively, they are nails in the coffin of a vibrant, global city. Collectively, they are the workings of a state that is suspicious of its citizens and in turn has made its citizens suspicious of their state.

And while all this is happening, presumably just to kick us in the dick, Melbourne is pushing for a 24-hour liquor license. I draw this to your attention because it’s a perfect example of the fact that there is nothing inherently wrong with an ongoing supply of alcohol. There is, however, something wrong in Sydney, and if you want to work out what that is, you can start at the heart of the city – Macquarie St – with the Premier.

We’ll come back to Mike because, to be fair, the lockouts were introduced by his predecessor, Barry O’Farrell, and they were introduced swiftly; just two months after the second one-punch incident happened in Kings Cross. Daniel Christie was king hit on New Years Eve 2014; by February, the lockout laws were in place.

They were a very easy sell, both to and by the press. You had grieving families who were willing to be interviewed, you had CCTV vision of the incidents, and you had all the stock footage necessary of 20-year-olds either hurling or brawling freely on the streets of Sodom and Gomorrah.

And so, to the fictitiously real Betty from Blacktown who religiously watched Seven News right after Deal Or No Deal, the lockout laws were a necessity. Sydney’s nightlife had become inherently violent and as such required the decisive action of a man who could implement complex legislation in one fell swoop –but just couldn’t for the life of him remember where that three-thousand dollar bottle of 1959 Grange had come from. Understandable, we all get a little forgetful after a bottle of wine.

Perhaps in his forgetfulness, though, Mr O’Farrell also forgot that the incidents he was so stridently seeking to stamp out happened at 10 and 9pm respectively – and thus, closing clubs at 1.30am was questionable at best, deceitful at worst.

Regardless, two months later he was booted from office and we ended up with Mike: Casino Mike, known for his penchant for profile pics, pokies and Packers. In a move as inexplicable as a $3,000 bottle of wine on Barry O’Farrell’s desk, Mike chose to exempt the casinos from the lockout laws, and proceeded to justify that choice by deflecting concerns, cherry-picking statistics, and pointing at far flung objects in the distance before diving into nearby shrubbery.

But it wasn’t until someone ruefully taught him to use Facebook that we learned just how out of touch Mike Baird really was. NSW was no longer the Premier State; it was the Premier’s state.

So this is where we’re at. But in order to chart a course for Sydney’s cultural future, we’ve actually got to go back a decade – if not more – and look at what helped form the fertile ground from which such draconian laws were able to spring so sprightly.

This on Kings Cross from 2012:

“Come Friday and Saturday nights, locals close their doors and pull curtains tight against those they call the “M” people. That’s M for the motorways that bring them here in their thousands from the suburbs.”

That’s R.L Stine there writing in The Daily Telegraph! Now, I’ve read a bunch of stuff about the lockouts, but this one really stood out for me because, you see, from 2002 to 2006, friends, I myself was an M person. Travelling over bridges and through tunnels from the western suburbs.

The article goes on to describe my people…

“When their local pubs close down for the night across the city’s suburbs, Kings Cross is the only place where something, anything, is still happening. If it’s open, they will come. They’re not here for a peaceful stroll, an intimate meal or a quiet nightcap. They’re drawn to Kings Cross because of its reputation, for everything that reason would tell them they should stay away from; the strip club spruikers, strong-arm doormen, ferals, druggies, drunks, dealers, bikies and wise guys.”

I was there to have fun – but okay!

The most tone-deaf part of that paragraph, believe it or not, is actually the first sentence: “when their local pubs close down for the night.” … Which local pubs? The Three Swallows Hotel sandwiched somewhere between a BBQs Galore and the last remaining Sizzler (possibly on earth)? The leagues and RSL clubs that bust out the best of Barry Manilow as rows of weary-eyed punters feed fifties into poker machines?

Which local pubs?! I’m genuinely curious, because when I was growing up out west, we didn’t go to Kings Cross or the CBD because we particularly wanted to, we went because we had to because there was nowhere else to go.

And when you get thousands of people who perhaps feel as though there’s nowhere else to go, who are prepared to brave the M5 twice for a night out, and you put them in large-scale clubs across a small area, with 24-hour liquor licenses and no adequate public transport, then you will get – to unfortunately have to quote the Daily Telegraph again – “Australia’s busiest and drunkest place.”

And a lot of pundits and pollies were very quick to label Kings Cross as such, and dismiss it as the single greatest gathering of dickheads in Australia after poker night at Cory Bernardi’s.

But no one really bothered to ask why. Kings Cross didn’t wake up like this. It evolved like this. And it evolved because other places – Western Sydney, for example – didn’t.

And while Kings Cross was evolving, so too were other parts of the city – albeit, delicately. Sydney’s relationship with live music over the last two decades has been precarious. It ebbs and flows, but establishments have constantly been at the mercy of council regulations, poker machines, unviable liquor licenses, and residents: the very people who once presumably sought a suburb for its vibrancy are the same ones who, a decade later, are declaring it too vibrant and lodging noise complaints.

People who, as my mother likes say, drink from the well then take a dump in it.

I remember an SMH article not long after the Hopetoun closed that argued we should protect places where music, entertainment and nightlife have been buzzing for decades, similar to a heritage listing. If we can protect our Opera House and our theatres, why not our music venues?

The obvious answer to that right now seems to be because Sydney kinda doesn’t really give a shit about music, or comedy, or art. It’s got other priorities. Because when a “cosy” one-bedder with no bathroom and a dead body sells for a record price, it’s hardly surprising that one man’s fledgling hotel is another developer’s wet dream.

And sadly, we are all in that developer’s wet dream. And it’s disgusting. You’re there, I’m there, and the lockouts are there.

So how do we get out of there? How do we make Sydney more vibrant?

That’s the question that we’re trying to answer, and that’s hard. Is it better public transport, affordable housing, greater cultural investment in the suburbs, long term public health campaigns? It is greater protection for our musical venues, is it government grants and subsidies that ensure our musos, comedians, artists, actors, drag queens don’t leave? Is it extended retail hours? Is it 4am burritos?

Dare I say it’s probably all of these things at once, and that’s why it’s hard because where do you start?

Well, the MCA on a Saturday morning is a pretty good place.”


Stay tuned for further discussions from Sydney Unlocked as we continue the conversation about our city’s cultural future.



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