The turning point: A tell-all conversation with Keep Sydney Open’s Tyson Koh on policy, politics, and more

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The turning point: A tell-all conversation with Keep Sydney Open’s Tyson Koh on policy, politics, and more

Photo: Tim Levy

The lockout laws. There’s so much to say, so much that’s been said, and so much that’s been forgotten. Things that our city has come to accept, adapt, and sadly learn to live with. Things that shouldn’t be happening, full stop. And in this four year period, one of the only bodies fighting persistently to create change based from the perspective of the community has been Keep Sydney Open. 

Keep Sydney Open is a volunteer-run, community-led organisation that has been pushing for not only the lock out laws to be forever banished into a faraway land where Gladys Berejiklian and baby boomers can sleep to the sounds of nothing. But they’ve also been fighting against the dodgy deals of the Liberal government, increasing unaffordability, ever-decreasing livability, the ignorance towards real, data-driven safety policy, and the loss of culture art, and community in the beautiful city that we call home.

And just a few weeks back, Keep Sydney Open gave us the news we’ve all been waiting on for what feels like forever, but in fact, was only just under 6 months – that they are now officially registered as a political party for the 2019 state election. It’s a step that seemed increasingly necessary to take. Whilst Sydney nightlife, arts, and culture have pushed on through the hardest of times, the economic and community damage seems irreversible. From every second young person seemingly moving to cities where they are supported and encouraged in creative endeavours, the loss of jobs and cultural hubs, and the inability for anyone under 25 to look towards owning a property – we’ve become complacent. Even I can’t seem to fathom a night beyond 2AM anymore. Not only that, but their voices, and the voices of the community seemed to fall on deafening ears. Whilst inquiries into music, arts, and culture, and reductions in the severity of the lockouts have been made – the damage has been done. So where to from here? And where to, from this new step into truly change-making territory?

There are even more questions, and of course, the ever-sounding public criticisms.

How will they decide on non-lockout related policy? How will they organise and plan? What are their strategies to bring the movement forward? And of course, will their dive into politics truly work to support nightlife, cultural, and economic revival in Sydney?

That’s what we asked Keep Sydney Open’s leader, Tyson Koh. We wanted to post this unedited, unfiltered, tell-it-like-it-is discussion with Tyson, to shine a light on their progress as an organisation, what led them to a crossroads, their ultimate motivations, political decision-making process, and how they’re moving forward.

We’ll stop talking now, and let Tyson’s words speak for themselves.

Photo Credit: Liam Cameron

SR: Can you tell us a bit about the behind the scenes work of Keep Sydney Open? What have you been working on as an organisation outside of your community events recently?

TK: There are so many angles to Sydney’s nightlife puzzle, it’s hard to know where to start.

Over the years we have been building relationships with stakeholders in the music and nightlife industries, punters, business partnerships, liquor accords and taxi unions — hearing their concerns and doing what we can to strengthen the community. We’ve been across the effort to organise self-sustaining advocacy groups that can better represent venues and precincts to get a seat at the table to discuss legislative change.

We have built a rapport with people in state and local governments to work at addressing flaws in nightlife policy. It’s a constant task to maintain those relationships alongside engaging our stakeholders and keeping the two informed about the ever-changing status quo.

We’ve worked with groups that tackle issues like LGBT rights, violence, sexual violence, sustainability, public and affordable housing.

We rallied around the closure of The Basement and the threats to the Four In Hand and The Bourbon, helping to bring attention to the destructive gentrification of the city. We help other venues that experience licensing issues and other challenges as well.

Right now, we’re focused on the parliamentary inquiry into live music and the arts. It’s an important step forward and we’ve been across the whole process.

Can you reflect a bit on the wins KSO has achieved over the past 4 years?

Our campaign was responsible for making nightlife a mainstream issue. The way we talk about Sydney’s night-time economy has matured because we gave legitimacy to issues that people cared about but thought might be too ‘frivolous’ to take a stand on. Now a community of people from different tribes have come together over nightlife and culture, and rightly so.

Getting asked to sit on the government roundtable was a big deal. It meant that KSO was being positioned how we had planned, which was to offer meaningful input into policy discussions. We were able to meet government agencies and represent all the people who marched with us back in 2016.

The 30-minute relaxation of lockout and cease-of-service times was a win, as minor as it was. As was pushing the take-away booze sales back to 11pm.

There were changes to ‘small bar’ regulations regarding their maximum capacity and a fix the ridiculous rules that meant you had to add coke to a $50 single malt.

Just recently we successfully devised a plan to have the night of the Mardi Gras parade made exempt from lockouts. It was the 40th anniversary plus it was the first parade since the passing of same-sex marriage so it was an important victory.

Being considered enough of a threat to be taken to the Supreme Court by a widely-despised Police Commissioner was, I suppose, something of an achievement.

Then there’s Mike Baird. I know some people in government lay some of the blame for his departure on us. I’m not so sure about that, but he did manage to get a half-hour phone call with me which was as banal as you’d imagine.

The first rally we staged was the first time many people engaged with state politics, particularly younger people who may have only been aware of federal politics. I still get people come up to me and say that the Keep Sydney Open rally was the first protest they’d ever attended, and had been to others since. That makes me proud.

Oh yeah, and becoming a political party! The evolution from a protest group that started on my laptop to a political movement that meets with government and has a shot at NSW Parliament is a huge accomplishment and one that’s still very wild to me.

What drew you and the KSO organising team to decide on forming a political party as the most effective next step? What other options were thrown about?

This is the best way of applying maximum pressure on a government that has shown that it will not listen. In other words, we want to be as much of a nuisance as possible.

We thought we were doing the smart thing by getting petitions signed, having level-headed conversations and garnering high-profile support. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for that, but it’s been four-and-a-half years. I’m sorry, that’s too long for me.

The turning point was around the time when Gladys took over, a couple of months after I spoke with Mike Baird. There was hope that she wouldn’t be as gung-ho about the lockout laws but all that was dashed when she described her position on them as “comfortable”. For us and our supporters it was was like: “Oh shit, she doesn’t get it either — the complexity of the issue.” That was when we started to talk about forming a political party.

When you look at where the concentration of power and decision-making is, it’s in the NSW Legislature. This is problematic for urban centres like Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong, Byron Bay etc. because there’s no accountability — state government is too big and too removed from these very specific areas to govern them effectively.

The state level is the problem, so that’s what we’re addressing. As a political party, we’re forcing a shift in focus come election time and giving our supporters a clear mission. It’s the difference between depending on someone else’s permission to be taken seriously and demanding it.

The other option was to plod along as we had been, staging rallies, lobbying, having polite meetings with government and being ignored. No thanks.

Photo Credit: Ryan James Kenny

How would you respond to criticisms claiming that by moving into politics, with all its strict structures and processes, the democratic/community-driven ethos KSO thrives on will not be able to be upheld?

I’ve seen a couple of comments from people saying that as a political party, we will no longer be a grassroots organisation. That’s just not true. Even at this point, the people who work on KSO fit around my kitchen table! Also, the reason why we formed was to support community interests in the face of big business, and we’re also relying on supporter donations, events and merch to do so. Staying true to our roots is the only way we’ll ever hope to get anywhere.

Whether anyone likes it or not, this has been about politics from day one. When we started rallying the community and protesting, we did it to ask the NSW Government to acknowledge the impact on Sydney and to consider policy alternatives. They didn’t listen. The problem was that as a group, we had nothing to bargain with and therefore weren’t considered a threat. Now we are.

I understand why people think politics is a mug’s game — I think that!  — but isn’t that a reason for more of us to get involved? Yes, there are a lot of rules to running a political party, which is why people give up before even trying, but we’re prepared to take on the challenge.

No one thought we’d get anywhere when we started Keep Sydney Open, but the fact we’ve gone so far as to challenge the government on election day shows you how determined we are to make change. If Barry and Mike and Gladys want to pin their legacy to locking Sydney up, it’s ours to open the city up again. We don’t care how many Premiers we have to burn through.

As far as being democratic goes, if anything, we’re now more accountable to our supporters. You have to remember, for a long time the group wasn’t a group at all, it was just me. I didn’t have to run anything by anyone, and being responsible to others was only voluntary. Now it’s an obligation. Now KSO has members who can turn up to meetings, contribute, shape our direction, even become candidates themselves! And, I mean, we’re fucking asking people to vote for us. It doesn’t get more democratic than that.

How did the application process go down? It seems to have been a long time in the making.

It felt like a long time, but it was only five months from the initial announcement to getting registered. That time was spent talking to people on the street, in venues, at festivals. All up our team and volunteers spoke to around 10,000 people, and it was a unique opportunity to hear people’s concerns about the city and respond to questions about what we’re trying to achieve.

During the confirmation stage, we found the postal system quite frustrating and outdated. We would sign members early on in the campaign only for them to change addresses by the end of it. Of course today, a person changes their home address more often than their email address! Having gone through it all, the system feels stacked against younger and disadvantaged people from getting involved in state politics and starting their own movements.

At this point, what are the non-negotiable points/policies that the party will stand for? Have any non-lockout related policies been decided upon?

Tackling the lockout laws is just the start.

Connectivity is the key to unlocking a city’s potential and enabling 24-hour transport services, particularly on weekends, is high on our agenda. How can Sydney call itself Australia’s number one city when Melbourne invests in 24-hour trains and we don’t?

Planning laws do not adequately allow for and protect music venues and places of entertainment. We’re in danger of having every nightlife precinct and piece of publicly owned land turned over to residential development. Especially since the NSW Government grabbed many planning controls from local councils, we need to plan for the city we want to live in.

Drug policy is something we know our community cares about. It’s an immediate aside to nightlife policy, and a discussion that shares similarities to the one around lockout laws, i.e. hysteria and a disregard for evidence. Call us pill-popping munters if you like, but we’re tired of the war on drugs contradicting evidence-based policy. They’re tying up the judiciary, the prison system and taxpayer funds, not to mention harming both addicts and recreational users. How much more evidence do we need before pill-testing becomes no big deal in NSW?

We also want to work towards winding back the sniffer dog program, first by pushing through a parliamentary inquiry. There is no way the program will stand up to scrutiny.

Housing affordability has to be a priority. Rent is now easily more than half of what a lot of young people earn. Money that could be spent on gigs, dining out, retail and elsewhere in the local economy is going towards someone’s next investment property. You can feel the impact of this when you walk around the city. There’s an absence of young people compared with other places around the world because, simply put, they can’t afford to be out.

It’s no secret the lockout laws raised questions about the state government’s true intentions, when the laws excluded two casinos and handed a windfall to a slew of developers. The community cares deeply about corruption and being sidelined for special interests, so we’re advocating for strengthening the corruption watchdog, ICAC.

Also, this is completely unrelated, but compulsory helmets for cyclists has to be abolished. Sorry not sorry!

And of course the lockout laws — they have to go. Cease of service times should be determined on a case by case basis. If a venue can serve patrons until 6am without fuss then what right or need does the government have to prevent that?

Tell us more about how the party will come to a decision on non-lockout related policies.

The beautiful thing about this whole adventure is that we’re building it from the ground up. We can do whatever we want! To be truly grassroots though we need to listen to our community and supporters, and we are through meetings with our members, the first of which will be a couple of weeks after our launch party.

It’s fair to say we’re a progressive party. We have to be, really. Nightlife is a progressive space whether you like it or not. Night-time culture has been at the forefront of change for at least the last century, from jazz clubs in the prohibition era to funk and psych-rock during the Vietnam War or discos when the gay scene came of age.

We can also use the same ethos behind designing a perfect nightlife to other areas of society. In many ways, it’s just rigorous economics to achieve desired outcomes. Fairness, philosophy, ethics and evidence get left behind in the political process, and we aim to restore those pillars. We’re spending the year ahead seeking counsel in a range of different areas, from transport, planning and health experts to gender, disability and Indigenous advocates.

There is no shame in taking decisions on a case by case basis as long as it’s guided by fact expertise and genuine consultation. One of the main problems with politics is that it’s become about warring ideologies instead of problem solving. It perpetuates this notion that for there to be winners, there must be losers. I genuinely believe that’s rubbish.

Can you tell us a bit more about your primary party members and their roles, beside yourself?

We come from diverse professional backgrounds and are drawn to the cause for different reasons.

Our officers are Stephan and Maddy, who work on the many aspects of running a party from our website to compliance and bookkeeping. Eoin and Joe work on media and Iyanoosh works on policy. There are only six of us and we all work full-time so we’re constantly stretched and working across each others’ responsibilities. For a small team we’ve been able to achieve quite a lot!

We also have volunteers and other networks of people who contribute and give us counsel. It’s time to expand the team though, so we want anyone with passion, ideas or expertise to step up and help shape our direction. As it’s all still very new, anyone can get involved!

What would you say to those who are satisfied with (or perhaps complacent in) the state of Sydney’s nightlife, 4 years on from the lockout introduction in 2014?

I haven’t come across anyone who’s pleased with Sydney’s nightlife. Everyone is frustrated, from people in the industry to punters and tourists. Sure, you can have a decent night here and there and occasionally you’ll go to an amazing illegal party or whatever, but that just masks the reality of how beaten down the city is.

Sydney has recorded a net loss of 176 licensed premises since lockout laws were put in place. Meanwhile, the State Government is encouraging young adults to go out to casinos. Does that sound acceptable to you?

Our political party isn’t just about satisfaction with going out, it’s about planning for a dynamic and inclusive city, knowing that a top shelf nightlife is a byproduct of that.
The fact is, all the issues you were angry about three years ago are still there. The government’s strategy was to let the lockout laws sink in so that people would adapt. Don’t let them succeed.

Any words to the supporters of Keep Sydney Open?

This movement will go as far as you want it to. We have a real shot at addressing all those things we complain about but never had the power to change. I’ve heard a minister say they almost always ignore petitions, well losing power is something they can’t ignore.

I started doing this because I was pissed off and wanted to do something about it. There’s not much more to it. Take advantage of the work we’ve done, get involved and use your vote to send the government a message.

Finally, where are your favourite places to have a great night out in Sydney?

I knew you’d ask me that! Look, I really don’t have as much time to shimmy as I used to. That said I love gigs at The Lansdowne, Botany View and Oxford Art Factory. And I can chase that with heading to Freda’s or Harpoon Harry’s. Parties by Vibe Positive, Mad Racket, Picnic or House of Mince usually hit the spot too. There’s so much potential begging to let loose!

Keep Sydney Open’s Party Party will be held on June 30 from 9pm at Kings Cross Hotel. You can find out more information right here. 


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