On Commerce and Nightlife

Two of the biggest culture shocks for North Americans who come to Australia (myself included, as well as virtually every Canadian and American I’ve spoken to who has visited) surround the way business is done there, and the use of alcohol and / or drugs.  I recently blogged about drug policy, so I’ll leave that one there.  The other issues are sort of related, at least in the minds of many Australian politicians, so I’ll address them together.  Much of this may be a bit of a primer for North Americans going to Australia to visit, so apologies to anyone who finds this redundant.

[Note: this blog was written while I was in Australia and I’m just finally posting it. “Here” is Australia.]

Hours of business

Things close early here.  It’s become a reality I’ve accepted.  On one extreme is life in smaller cities and towns (i.e., not Sydney or Melbourne), where it’s not uncommon for the entire city to basically shut down at 6, 5, or even 4 on a weekday, and to barely exist on the weekend.  At the other extreme is larger cities (including Sydney) where stores stay open one night a week until 9, and are open limited hours on the weekend.  Of course, big box stores in the suburbs are usually exceptions to this, but not always.

In Canada, I’m used to fairly standard operating hours.  Stores are open from 9 or 10 until 9 at night, and usually 10-6 or so on weekends, often longer.  Restaurants (regardless of the type of restaurant) follow similar hours, often staying open later than that if they serve alcohol and/or attract a late-dining crowd.  Cafés, ditto.  Bars are allowed to serve (in Ontario) from 11 am to 2 am, and generally don’t stay open much earlier or later than that, unless there’s a special event (which often allows them to serve until 3 am), or they’re the kind of night club people do drugs at so they charge more cover and stay open later.

In Australia, though, things are open… less.  Generally speaking, retail shops are open 5 days a week, sometimes 6 or 7.  The days they are closed may or may not be weekends.  They may be closed Monday.  They may be closed Wednesday.  Or Thursday. Or any other random day of the week, and never the same as the other store right next door to it that you’d like to go to at the same time to save making two trips.  On the days they’re open, they usually close anywhere between 4 and 6, with a very (very) gradual trend towards staying open later.  Some cities have one night a week when stores stay open late – in Sydney it’s Thursdays, in Perth it’s Fridays.

Restaurants are generally subject to similar days-of-the-week peculiarities.  It’s also very common for a restaurant to be a ‘lunch’ restaurant or a ‘dinner’ restaurant – being open for only one of those two meals.  Places that serve breakfast would obviously open earlier, and many places that do serve two or three meals often close for an hour or two in between.  Of course, this is more common in smaller places (Hobart, Tasmania, comes to mind), but common enough in bigger places like Sydney.  Fast food chains tend to ignore these trends, too, and many stay open 24 hours.

Gloria Jean's Coffees

Cafés, with the exception of chains like Starbucks and Gloria Jeans which tend to follow the direction of ‘lunch’ restaurants and close some time in the late afternoon, are often open through most of the day.  Unlike cafés in Canada, though, once the work day ends and the early evening begins, many cafés effectively become bars, since virtually all of them are licensed.  There are some cafés that basically stay similar to a Canadian café (Australians: think Starbucks) throughout the day, but most become a place to eat dinner and drink after work (many are this way throughout the day!)

As a side note, most Australians hate Starbucks (possibly because it’s overpriced here, even compared to Starbucks in North America), and Australia has its own set of coffees.  Some translations for anyone planning to travel in either direction:

Australia->North America

Flat white->no-foam (or low-foam) latte
Long black-> cup of black coffee, generally espresso watered down to be less strong – the closest thing to this in North America is an Americano, but a long black is made in reverse (adding espresso to water instead of vice-versa).
Short black-> espresso

Soy flat white

Anyways, back to my original point.  Finally, there are bars / pubs / nightclubs and other drinking establishments.  Until recently, it was fairly difficult for smaller ones to open in New South Wales, so many of these places are quite sizable (apparently this had something to do with the big liquor / beer lobby, which sounds about right).  Compared to Canada, especially Toronto where a lot of bars are far too small for their purpose, this is quite refreshing, though frustrating when you want a small quiet place to hang out with a friend.  Another great thing is that, generally, there are no limitations on drinking hours.  At many venues, they can serve 24 hours a day.  Many others, though, have similar hour restrictions as other businesses – in Woolloomooloo, where I lived, all the pubs/hotels stopped serving around midnight and cleared out very soon after.  This leads to my next topic: alcohol.


Serving 24 hours a day has both ups and downs.  It means that people can stay out as late as they like.  While there are still periods of time where more people are leaving the bars than other times, it’s much less common to have all of the streets fill up with masses of people at 2am because all the bars just stopped serving.  Catching a cab after a night out is still difficult, but not nearly as bad as it is in most Canadian cities.  And, honestly, it’s more fun to be able to go out and drink at whatever pace you like because you’re not worried about getting the right amount of buzz by 2am to have it last long enough for the rest of your night to be ‘fun.’  (Note: I don’t advocate doing this, but after a few drinks, it usually seems like the most obvious and logical thing to do).  And the huge crowd fighting to get to the bar at 1:55 because it’s last call just doesn’t exist – you walk up to the bar, and get your drink, whenever you feel like it.

Of course, there are downsides, though in my view very little of this has to do with drinking hours, and is more of a cultural thing.  Australians like to drink.

I hardly notice it anymore, but anyone who is freshly-landed from North America (I’ve actually had multiple people say this to me) makes the observation that people are often shit-faced drunk and practically falling over by 10pm.  Of course, these people have likely been drinking since they finished the work day at 5, and were hopefully headed home.  It’s very common for Australians to go for a drink (or more) with mates or co-workers after they finish work for the day.  I, for one, think it’s a very social thing to do, and wish we had more of that culture in North America.  Let’s not pretend North Americans don’t get wasted – we do.  I think what throws people is that often Australians do it earlier in the day, even on a weekday, and then go home.  Some, of course, will stay out and become a total mess – but I think that’s reflective on these individuals rather than the culture or its laws as a whole.  And, really, there’s a whole new set of people that come out later in the evening, and stay out late and do just the same – or who stay out quite late and get home buzzed but happy.

Another upside is that alcohol is a little more widely available – and drinking is much less uncomfortable.  Something I’ve noticed since moving to BC is that in BC, like in Australia but very much unlike Ontario, counter-service food establishments are frequently licensed.  If you want a drink and food, you’re not forced to go to a pub or nice restaurant like you are in Ontario, you can just go to the local noodle bar and it’s all available for you.

Even bigger is something I frequently forget in Australia – you can usually drink on the street.  Rather than a blanket no-drinking rule like Canada has, the rule is that you can drink unless there’s a sign saying you can’t.  Often these signs are in the places that have the most bars, and in some states the no-drinking zones are actually based on proximity to licensed establishments… but still, it means you don’t have to down that drink before leaving the apartment for a walk to the bar, you can just finish it along the way.

The cultural downside of a strong drinking culture, though, is that not drinking is often looked down on.  Many Australians get legitimately suspicious of you if you’re not drinking – why wouldn’t you drink? What are you trying to pull?  It can make an alcohol-free night out virtually non-existent.

There are also real problems.  It’s not talked about much, but alcoholism is a problem.  (Stats are sketchy, at least online, and based on cirrhosis of the liver deaths.  It’s actually worse in Canada – 8 deaths per 100,000 in Canada vs.  (5.5 + 1.5) / 2 = 3.5 deaths per 100,000 in Australia).  What gets the most attention here, though, is more short-term.  Alcohol-related violence gets all sorts of media coverage, as does “drink driving” (what Canadians would call “drunk driving”).  I’ll spare the stats, but MADD compiles some here that are informative (and show some Canada-Australia-UK-US comparisons), and there are some fatality stats here from Australia.  I’ve never seen alcohol-related violence here (Australia), other than the occasional shoving of mates on the street, which rarely escalates.  That said, people here seem convinced that it’s a problem.  Driving after consuming alcohol, like everywhere else I’ve been, happens more than it should.  There are all sorts of public safety campaigns out about both (some of which are beyond graphic, others of which are virtually laughable).  And neither, I suspect, is driven by drinking hours.


Regardless, state governments have come up with funny ways to try to solve these problems.  The most absurd, and one that affects some of Sydney’s gay bars, are the lockout rules.  They’re more formally known as “Alcohol restrictions for violent venues,” and are sometimes rather bizarre.  Venues with 19 or more reported incidents (of alcohol-related violence (in 2009) – which is self-reported, so venues that lie to the authorities get away with more than honest ones) have specific restrictions put in place.  Namely: no one can enter the venue after 2 am (until 6 am, I believe), even if they’ve already been in and just went out for a smoke.  The venue must stop serving 30 minutes before it closes, if it closes.  After midnight they cannot serve shots, doubles, or anything in glass containers.  And the most ridiculous: they can only serve for 50 minutes out of every hour after midnight (alternatively they can ‘actively’ distribute water and/or food, but surprisingly most venues opt for the 10-minute time out).  So you can buy a drink at, say, 12:49, or 1:01, but not 12:50-1:00.  If anyone can explain to me how this could possibly prevent alcohol-related violence, I would love to hear it.  Magically, the rates are dropping.  Of course, this could have everything to do with incentives not to report, and nothing to do with the rules.  Or maybe somehow these Draconian measures have accomplished something.

IMG_1647Govt Imposed Time Out

What I think is most significant in alcohol-related violence, which is frequently ignored by politicians trying to serve NIMBY constituents, is the density of licensed establishments. In Toronto and Vancouver, as well as Sydney, the areas with the most violence are also the places where there are heaps and heaps of bars practically (and often literally) on top of one another.  In Toronto, and to an extent Vancouver, this has resulted from municipal by-laws forbidding new licences anywhere but the designated entertainment districts.  This has forced people who want to drink to travel further to do it (causing bigger problems for the taxi services, public transport, and drunk driving)… and leads to far too many people in a small area – all to keep a few people who live in a big city from complaining about, heaven forbid, a little bit of noise.

Sydney has tried to counter this by doing the opposite: denying new licenses in problem areas, such as Kings Cross / Potts Point, and encouraging the establishment of smaller licensed establishments throughout the city.  Unfortunately, in my view, this was done a little heavy-handedly and has killed a number of businesses in KX – as bars have gone out of business and not been allowed to be replaced, so in turn have disappeared the food establishments, sex shops, and convenience stores that served their customers.  Something in between – allowing bars to open wherever they like (within reason) – seems to me the balanced solution.
No Alcohol in Public Between 8PM and 9AMIMG_2231DSCN4210


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