Editorial: Council set to serve serious hangover

Filed in Key Issues, Recent News by March 22, 2023

I’VE just learned that the Upper Hunter Shire Council now has a liquor license to sell alcohol at the airport museum between 10am and 12am Monday to Saturday and 10am until 10pm on Sundays. Not a licence for special events, not a licence to serve alcohol with food, not even a ‘small bar’ licence, but an on premises licence and an approval to sell packaged alcohol (yep even a bottle shop).

UPDATE: Council’s liquor licence has changed since this story was published. It now does not include the sale of packaged alchol (bottleshop), but trading can now continue until 4am. Read: Editorial: Liquor licence good/bad news.

The staff member who put their name on the licence application has since left and I am further advised a new staff member is being sought to be the on-premises licensee. My first concern is for any staff member who may feel compelled in any way to be the person who becomes liable for any incidents on behalf of these operations. I do not think it is reasonable that a staff member be approached to sign their name, as they may feel in some way coerced in terms of losing their job if they don’t comply with a request from their boss. The only staff member who should take on that personal risk is the General Manager, who is currently Greg McDonald. I’ve sat in coronial enquiries and watched highly experienced licensees explain their every decision and action to the court and I would not wish it upon anyone.

I was made aware Council had a liquor licence by a resident who has run pubs and was highly concerned, in fact downright angry. This was not a decision that came before Council to be discussed and voted on. The General Manager, Greg McDonald decided it was an operational issue and did not need to go to a decision of Council.

If the decision had come before the Council, I would have asked the following on behalf of residents and myself:

  • Do I agree with the plan of management submitted with the application?
  • What risk does this place on the ratepayers of the Upper Hunter Shire?
  • What risk does it pose for Council as an entity?
  • Is running a pub Council’s core competency and something Ratepayers should be doing?
  • Why are we applying for such an extensive licence when it is only a function centre?
  • Should we not at least consider a lesser licence such as for events, only with food, or at least just a ‘small bar’ licence?
  • Why can’t we run it like other function centres and have alcohol service provided by local community groups, with the relevant licence, trained staff and help those local groups generate a small amount of revenue to continue their work in the community?
  • If there is a (wild) projection that there will be events there several times a week and we need a more permanent arrangement, why wouldn’t we put it out to tender to a local pub or club with the expertise?
  • How will Council manage patrons leaving the venue, when there is not even footpath on that side of Bunnan Road?
  • What transport will Council make available for patrons? Do we now need to invest ratepayer money in a mini-bus? Because in a coronial enquiry they will be asking us what transport measures we took to keep patrons safe.
  • If the General Manager is the person who takes personal legal liability for this, how will they perform their duties as the GM, while also ensuring nobody under 18 is at the bar, or someone is not stumbling out onto the road intoxicated on a Saturday night?
  • How many other Councils in NSW have such an extensive liquor licence?
  • Is this really what ratepayers want us to be doing as a Council, with our time and their money?
  • Since licensees are paid commensurately for the personal liability they take on, how much will that person be paid by Council to perform the role?
  • Where is the business plan underpinning Council running such an extensive liquor licence?
  • How do local pubs and clubs feel about having Council as a competitor?
  • How will Council manage conflict of interest when assessing development applications from other licensees, who are also now a competing business?

I don’t understand why Council has taken on such an extensive licence and such considerable risk.

I don’t understand why the General Manager viewed this as operational and not a decision to go before Council and on which ratepayers could be heard and consider the plan of management.

If we can’t build roads properly, have a ruined runway, are selling a childcare because it’s not core business, have had censures in the aged care sector and have a saleyard haemorrhaging money; why are we now looking to have such an extensive liquor licence and take on such risk, with no core competency or demonstrated need?

The stakes associated with selling alcohol are far higher than any other projects this Council has failed at doing.

While it was tempting to write lots of quips about Council’s literal ability to run a piss up, or this Council is enough to drive you to drink, this is way too sobering. Observing coronial inquests will do that to you. And nobody should be a licensee unless they have felt the palpable weight in a coroner’s court investigating when things have gone wrong, and someone has died.

I am personally very concerned to be a Councillor, on a Council who has just got a liquor license and did it without informing me as a Councillor or putting it to the vote. I am even more concerned as to what the worst-case scenario is if Council fails with this in anyway.

Kind Regards,

Cr Elizabeth Flaherty

All of the above are my perspectives, opinions and beliefs as a Councillor on the Upper Hunter Shire Council, are my own, which may not (in fact probably don’t) reflect Council’s position, but which as an elected representative I am supported in law to freely express.

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