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Wednesday, 16 October 2002
Page: 5262

Senator GEORGE CAMPBELL (12:56 PM) —Today I would like to draw the chamber's attention to a local suburban drama that is playing out on the North Shore of Sydney. I draw your attention to it not because the dispute is world changing, nor is it vote changing, but because it goes to the heart of what it should mean to live in a democratic and tolerant society. The dispute in question revolves around the Hillside Tavern in the Sydney suburb of Castle Hill. Most people would never have seen it or heard of it. It is simply an unremarkable small business that is little different from thousands of other pubs and clubs around the country. It wants to expand its licensed operations to cater for a maximum of 131 people. That is less than one-twentieth the capacity of Sydney's largest licensed venues.

What makes the Hillside Tavern special is that a highly organised and conservative residents group has been waging a campaign for several years to limit its operations and prevent any plans for expansion. Their campaign successes, and I use the term loosely, include banning live music and preventing more than 20 people being allowed to stand in the tavern at one time. The group in question is called RUACH, which stands for Responsible Use of Alcohol in Castle Hill. It should be called `Wowser', because that is the effect of all of its actions—to prevent law-abiding citizens from engaging in law-abiding activities because they do not conform with RUACH's narrow moral viewpoint.

This group is not a grassroots residents group as its name might suggest. It is in fact a subcommittee of a Christian ministers' fraternity in Castle Hill. This is a group who managed to prevent the Hillside Tavern opening for extended hours during the 2000 Olympic celebrations and who are so mean spirited and obnoxious that they oppose the tavern staying open for New Years Eve celebrations. And, if you want to drink in a beer garden, forget it; that is not allowed. RUACH even took the owners of the Hillside Tavern to court when they wanted to introduce alfresco dining.

What symbolises the vigilante nature of this group, however, is the Daily Telegraph report that Castle Hill restaurant owners do not even bother to approach NSW government bodies for alcohol licences anymore. They first seek permission from the group before proceeding with an application. So much for the rule of law. But do not take my word for it. You just have to open the pages of one of the local newspapers: the Hills News or the Hills Shire Times. One furious local, Michael Tuckerman of Castle Hill, wrote last week:

How many more young people must resort to unsupervised backyard binge drinking because their choice of social areas has been so limited by a minority of right wing Christian fundamentalists.

This brings us to the consequences for communities when organised minority groups like RUACH try to enforce their will on everyone. The Hills area in Sydney is rapidly expanding. It is an area of growth comparable to the chunks of Western Sydney that were developed following World War II. Just as Western Sydney was allowed to grow without proper investment in infrastructure, the Hills area has also fallen victim to inadequate planning processes. Public transport in the Hills is privately owned, expensive and sporadic at best.

The lack of facilities for young people is of great concern to many residents, so when groups like RUACH want to force their fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible down other people's throats it genuinely affects the social and cultural options of all Hills residents. When the church leaders and members who run RUACH speak out against development proposals they are very effective at shutting them down. There are more than 60 churches in the Hills district. Many are evangelist and fundamentalist in nature. With significant resources and the cloak of religion to hide behind, these churches are extending their influence into what ought to be secular laws and decision making processes.

The popularity of churches in the area is not the issue in question, however. The issue in question is whether those churches have the right to stop other people from participating in legal entertainment and social activities, which is the effect of RUACH's actions. RUACH has put itself on the public record in local and state-wide newspapers as wanting to keep children in the hands of God rather than in the hands of alcohol. While there might be good intentions behind those statements, they show a lack of grip on reality.

One group affiliated to RUACH, the DaySpring Christian Fellowship, told the Daily Telegraph they took the position that they did because they wanted to promote `wholesome, happy families'. The first reality check RUACH needs to take is that wholesome, happy families do not come about through excessive social control of children, reminiscent of the start of the last century. Wholesome, happy families come from a secure society that supports its youth with a good education system that encourages children to understand different points of view and the law and to make choices about the way they can live their lives.

The second reality check RUACH needs to take is of the simple fact that New South Wales has strict and enforceable laws governing service of alcohol to minors and people who are intoxicated. Young people living in Castle Hill who are over 18 can make their own minds up about whether they want to drink alcohol or not. As for people under 18, the suggestion that adding a beer garden to the Hillside Tavern is somehow going to lure innocent under-age schoolchildren into drinking alcohol is ridiculous. This is a small venue that hosts local Rotaract meetings. RUACH's concerns also ignore the fact that across the country many young people already engage in binge drinking. This is a well-known fact, documented in publications by the New South Wales Department of Health and the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.

Three significant reasons that contribute to the binge drinking phenomenon are: (1) young people rebelling against the control of their parents, (2) young people drinking because there is little else to keep them occupied, and (3) a lack of options for supervised drinking in licensed establishments. RUACH's focus on stopping legitimate small businesses like the Hillside Tavern from operating will address none of these three issues. In fact, RUACH's approach is more likely to perpetuate the problems. If RUACH's actions do not amount to hypocrisy then the actions of RUACH supporters, like the Hon. Alan Cadman, member for Mitchell, do. Alan Cadman has been very vocal in supporting the work of RUACH to stop the development of the Hillside Tavern. What he does not tell us is that his local branch of the Liberal Party held a fundraiser at the Hillside Tavern in 2001 and the Senate should take note that Alan Cadman was very happy to spend the $8,000 that was raised for his campaign at the fundraiser.

Another thing the public ought to know is that Alan Cadman and state Liberal MPs Michael Richardson and Wayne Merton are patrons of the massive Castle Hill RSL complex and attended its recent redevelopment launch. The redevelopment in question is massive in scale. Among other multimillion dollar expenses, it involves the creation of a sports bar and a lounge bar. On the one hand, you have got the Liberal Party saying alcohol is bad and must be kept away from the community. On the other hand, you have them supporting and taking credit for a licensed facility down the road from the Hillside Tavern that publicises itself as `six levels and five hectares of entertainment and dining experiences'. What an insult to Alan Cadman's constituents! What an insult to their intelligence and their lifestyle!

In the Hills Shire Times newspaper, the local mayor, John Griffiths, cites a nearby religious school and a bus stop as reasons why the tavern development should be stopped. What he does not mention, however, is that the Castle Hill RSL sits directly opposite the local high school. This is a disgrace. Is the Baulkham Hills mayor saying it is okay for the 1,092 students of Castle Hill High School to be lured into drinking establishments but it is not okay for Seventh-Day Adventist students to face the same situation? Are he and Alan Cadman suggesting that the parents of public school students do not care for their children with the same love and compassion that parents of students from private schools do? I cannot draw another conclusion from this statement and I certainly hope there is another explanation, because that view is wrong and should be treated with the contempt that it deserves.

Finally, I wish to make the public aware of the fact that, in just one day last week, 900 community members signed a petition in support of the Hillside Tavern's development proposal. The petition was, incidentally, circulated at a local food and wine fair attended by the state Liberal MP Michael Richardson. A democratic and pluralist society is about embracing diversity, and it concerns me that RUACH and the member for Mitchell are forgetting that. Their current campaign against the young people of Mitchell and the Hillside Tavern is about dividing the community and subjecting it to the views of fundamentalists who are by far the minority of the community.

This is not a question of stopping these churches from existing and practising their faith. I am not a hypocrite. This is a matter of ensuring that these groups do not infringe on the rights of all citizens in the seat of Mitchell. These are rights that are protected by the rule of law and by this chamber. Whether it is in our local communities or on the world stage, in this time of uncertainty it is the values of democracy, freedom and diversity that we need to cling to. I praise the residents of Castle Hill who are upholding those values.