In the story of David and Goliath, guile prevails over might, against the odds. It is sometimes invoked when citizens dare to assert their rights against powerful corporations. However, in our complex world, such battles are rarely won with single, decisive acts. They more often require protracted campaigns and detailed knowledge of the system.
The NSW Land and Environment Court ruled this month against a proposal by the De Angelis Hotels Group to build a 1700sqm pub in Casula, near Liverpool. Remarkably, the Court was not permitted to consider the likely impact of 15-30 poker machines that would operate on the site. Nor could it consider the history of the applicant, whose holdings included a pub with a dreadful record of violence.Nonetheless, the proposed development was deemed “not in the public interest” because of the high level of economic deprivation in the area, and research evidence concerning the likely incidence of harm. Commissioner O’Neill’s judgementnoted:“The existing hot spot for domestic violence which includes the site is a persuasive reason to be concerned about introducing a hotel … where there is currently no liquor outlet”.
CONCERNS HEARD: There is a Newcastle connection to a recent case in which the Land and Environment Court ruled against a proposed pub development in a Sydney suburb.
The decision stymies a development that would likely have increased violence and traffic injury, and harm from gambling. Poker machines are designed to lure users and addict them, extracting as much money as possible per hour of operation. A NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority report showed pokie turnover in Liverpool was $1.8billion in 2015-16, $1.2million a machine (in Newcastle it’s $1.7billion). Research shows that their effect on n communities is devastating, particularly in poorer areas.
De Angelis may appeal, but this decision is significant because it shows that an organised and informed community can make its voice heard. The case was covered in Sydney papers without mention of the Newcastle connection. It required three years of sustained effort from a community of volunteers, with crucial input from Newcastle advocate Tony Brown, the Newcastle Legal Centre, two barristers and expert witnesses.With the exception of the barristers, who acted for a fraction of their usual fee, the other parties made their contributions pro bono. Estimates suggest the case would have cost more than $300,000 to mount.
For me, a particularly satisfying aspect of being involved in this was working with Jacqueline Svenson, the tireless solicitor at the Newcastle Legal Centre who took on the case. Jacquie had to coordinate the efforts of a vulnerable community, a feisty advocate, busy barristers, medical experts, academics, and the demands of the Court, and all of that while using the case to train law students.
More than ever, universities are expected to demonstrate their value to society, to go beyond teaching, by bridging the gap between research and practice. In public health, an applied discipline, we are used to this demand but it is still difficult to meet the expectations of our institutions and funders while responding to the complexity of human problems.Through the Newcastle Legal Centre, the university has demonstrated its capacity for making a difference. In addition to providing a legal precedent, the case could help guide future legal practice and government policy. One of the lessons is that communities can defend themselves against incompatible corporate interests but they need the support of independent experts.
Kypros Kypri PhD is a professor,School of Medicine and Public Health at theUniversity of Newcastle