Despite a spanner in the works with the potentially restrictive laws revealed this week in NSW, anybody who’s been to Sydney recently has inevitably comes back raving about the bars. Lord Mayor of Sydney and former MP Clover Moore’s dogged pursuit of establishing a “Melbourne-style” bar culture in the city’s CBD has paid off in spades and innovative small bars, crackling with energy and packed with excited punters, are popping up all over the place, aided and abetted by sympathetic planning and licensing legislation.

The same thing is starting to happen in Brisbane, Perth and even Adelaide. But in Melbourne, ground zero for Australian small bar culture since we changed our licensing rules in the 1990s, something is noticeably amiss.

We’re losing our edge. “It made me sad coming back to Melbourne,” says Michael Madrusan, owner of Fitzroy’s multi award winning cocktail bar The Everleigh after a recent sojourn in Sydney. “The energy and the enthusiasm and the buzz is amazing up there at the moment. Melbourne’s sleepy, like it’s given up.” If anybody had said 10 years ago that we’d be looking enviously at the small bar scene in Sydney, they’d have been laughed out of town. But for those who care about Melbourne’s bars and their small but vital influence on the city’s creative culture, it’s no longer funny.

The truth is starting to hurt.

So why are these eccentric, eclectic engine rooms of creative ideas and meetings of minds, not to mention great drinks, soundtracks and brilliantly lubricated behaviour, feeling so anaesthetised? Why is so much of our valuable bar talent fleeing Melbourne for Sydney, Perth and Brisbane? And why is this culture of small owner-operated businesses, once the holy grail of the licensing regime as a civilising antidote to the violence-ridden beer barns and mega-nightclubs being lumped in as part of the problem?

The explanation may be multi-pronged but the licensing laws in Victoria, in particular the “freeze” (AKA ban) on new licenses for businesses wanting to serve liquor later than 1am, must shoulder a substantial part of the blame. The freeze – covering the Cities of Melbourne, Yarra, Stonnington and Port Philip - has been in place for three years now and in June this year, the State Government extended it for two more years until June 2015. And the reason for this blanket ban? The apparent “correlation between anti-social behaviour and the operation of licensed venues that supply liquor after 1am”, according to Victorian Government’s decision-making guidelines.

No one is going to argue that Australia doesn’t have a problem with alcohol-fuelled violence. The stats are all there: alcohol-related ambulance attendances tripling in the last 10 years, alcohol related assaults up 49 per cent in the same period. It’s real – just ask any of the people at the coalface: the emergency room workers, ambulance paramedics and police.

Statistics and harrowing anecdotes, accompanied by a backbeat of often-hysterical media coverage, make it hard to argue the pro-small bar case. It leaves little room for nuance or to suggest that blanket bans, great for governments wanting to be seen to be ‘doing something’, are not achieving much other than placating the tabloids. When you throw another statistic into the mix, that nearly 80 per cent – $2 billion worth – of the alcohol Victorians consume each year is bought to take away from an ever-increasing number of bottleshops and liquor barns, you might conclude that small bar culture is becoming collateral damage in a much larger and more complicated war.

Without nuance being brought to the table, we’ll continue to see a unique part of Melbourne’s culture being needlessly trashed; a part that’s not contributing to the problem and, infuriatingly, is constantly, endlessly used to spruik the city’s virtues to tourists.

The ‘let’s tar everyone with the same brush’ approach of the freeze on new late licenses brings to mind 2010 when the then Licensing Commissioner decided to label any venue in the city featuring live music – be it a trad bouzouki player in a Greek taverna or a folk duo in a Northcote cafe – as high risk, requiring security squads that smaller acts and venues couldn’t afford and which threatened the viability and livelihood of one of Melbourne’s important cultural assets. The eventual reversal of that misguided, ignorant decision (helped by the headline grabbing 20,000-strong SLAM rally) proves that nuance is actually possible for governments, that they are capable of distinguishing between a high volume King Street strip joint and a tiny bar specialising in obscure tequila or high end burgundy.

Sebastian Raeburn has worked in the Melbourne bar scene now for, he says, “longer than I would care to admit”. He has both owned and managed bars and has worked as registered training officer in the Responsible Serving of Alcohol (RSA) courses that are mandatory for licensees and staff selling and serving liquor in the state. “If we’re talking about alcohol related violence and harm minimisation, then well run small venues with good operators are the safest option,” he says. “Small venues actually change the culture of the way people drink because you’re talking about businesses whose longevity relies on providing a safe and enjoyable place for people to come. It’s not about ‘get ‘em in, get ‘em pissed and get ‘em out’ anymore, it’s about taking people through a night guided by trained staff who understand the nature of the product that they’re selling.” One of the major problems with the current licensing system is that there is no case-by-case assessment process.

Nobody’s getting glassed in Melbourne’s small bars but they’re being treated as if they were. James Broadway, co-owner of the Gertrude Street Enoteca in Fitzroy says, “Liquor licensing is working against its own goals”.

“My biggest issue with the licensing is that it’s incredibly inflexible and takes no account of the actual business vying for the license,” says Broadway. “We’re a small osteria licensed for about 45 people with a tiny premium bottleshop attached but we’re categorised the same as a pub that’s licensed for up to 300 people. And because we trade to 1am three nights a week, a ‘risk factor’ comes into play that costs us nearly $3000 extra a year.” “In nine years of trade we’ve never had a problem but there’s no recognition of that. It’s a model that doesn’t encourage small, safe businesses. Because of the extra fees charged it’s ostensibly saying it’s a better business model to have a bigger place that sells more drinks so that you can recoup that money.”

Michael Madrusan, who under the freeze cannot get a 3am license for The Everleigh, a world-renowned shrine to great cocktails with table service and a strict no dickhead policy, agrees. “There are no special cases, there will be no individual places looked at,” he says. “We all fall into the same basket and those big damaging clubs that had their licence prior to the ban can keep theirs, while the new kids that are trying to make a difference and lift the drinking culture along the way get hurt.” Part of what keeps any business model viable is opportunity. The exodus of talented, Melbourne trained bar professionals to other cities is evidence that the current system is also failing on that count. Former Black Pearl bartender Rob Uldis Lebecans recently decamped to Sydney to manage CBD bar Baxter Inn (a bar with owners with a Melbourne pedigree) “because of the lack of opportunity in Melbourne”. “With no new licenses being granted you either have to wait until a licensed place comes up for sale and rehash that or you have to go somewhere else,” he says. “There’s a lot of energy up here at the moment and with the Sydney City Council actually offering grants to help people set up small businesses like bars, there’s opportunity for people to do something new and innovative that’s no longer available in Melbourne. It’s why so many of us have moved here.”

Owner of Carlton’s The Beaufort, Dave Kerr, was only able to open his popular dive bar because he bought a pub with an existing license. He agrees that the “barrier to entry is so high that there’s no young fresh blood entering the market.”

“When I was looking to get a new licence, the cost of due diligence in terms of both planning and then moving onto licensing was pretty prohibitive but it’s also the time factor as well. The time taken to make a decision on a licence can be longer than 12 months and that’s just not feasible if you’re paying rent on a property and not making an income.”

He also says that despite the ban being on new licences for trade after 1am, “the reality is that there are very few places getting licences beyond 11pm and that’s not a sustainable business model for a bar.”

What’s maddening is that the grievances of small bar owners were echoed to an extent in an audit from the State Attorney-General’s office last year entitled Effectiveness of Justice Strategies in Reducing Alcohol Related Harm. Among its findings were that the current alcohol initiatives “have been largely fragmented, superficial and reactive” and it also pointed to “inconsistent and cumbersome liquor licensing processes and legislation” as hampering any effective initiatives. And still the freeze was extended by two years.

Of course the culture of any city changes over time and the fact that Melbourne has had a small bar culture since the mid 90s whereas Sydney’s is a young pup is an obvious factor in the differing levels of excitement about bars in the two cities. We have to ask though, could part of the problem be as simple as people here becoming blasé about bar culture?

New bars like Brunswick’s combination bar/pub/bandroom/theatre warehouse venue Howler (in the City of Moreland and so not scuppered by the freeze), would seem to prove that there’s still room for original, enthusiastic, innovative saloons in this town. The popularity of the roving People’s Market says the same thing. Our unique and specific bar culture shouldn’t be taken for granted, but with clunky one-size-fits-all laws placing a well-meaning pillow over its face, cutting off the oxygen it needs to keep reinventing itself, apathy could become the default position. And then we won’t just lose our edge; we might topple over it completely.