More on The Tote closure

Well-wishers line up outside The Tote hotel, 5.30pm, Sunday 17th January. The line strecthed several blocks. Image: Sarah-Jane Woulahan.

Yesterday, more than 2000 people attended the public protest over the closure of The Tote hotel due to the vastly increased licensing costs mandated by Liquor Licensing Victoria. I was there, as you can see above. The protest was peaceful but passionate, with many placards and some speeches, all making the point that live music was being penalised over so-called “high risk” provisions in new licensing laws that bear no correlation with the actual safety record of Victorian music venues.

But don’t expect the Victorian government to take notice. Showing her typical tone-deaf approach to media management, Liquor Licensing Victoria’s Sue McLellan opted to attack the Tote’s Bruce Milne in an interview with the Herald Sun. Asking for a meeting with Milne to discuss mediating an issue that has quickly mushroomed into a public relations disaster was clearly not on McLellan’s agenda.

Let’s get personal here. The salary for a senior public servant like McLellan would comfortably cover the annual running costs of a low-profit venue like the Tote. We can’t expect her to understand the appeal of sticky carpet or rock music, but wew can ask her to get out of her air-conditioned office and actually engage with the issues at hand. Or maybe not.

Today’s Crikey has an article by Andrew Crook with further details on the Tote story. Crook reveals that a consortium of small bar licensees have offered to take over the license from Bruce Milne, with Milne reported interested:

A trio of white knights look set to assume control of iconic Melbourne rock pub The Tote, which was scheduled to close its doors for the last time today.

In a prima facie offer posted late this morning on music website Mess and Noise, the current proprietors of The Old Bar, and the former managers of After Dark in High Street Thornbury, wrote of their willingness to assume the licence, following a public plea from current proprietor Bruce Milne.

“Joel [Morrison], Singa [Unlayiti] and myself would dearly love to sit down with you at some point and talk about this further. As you know we are running a very similar venue (although on a smaller scale) with very similar licensing.

“I think that if there is a baton to be passed along that the three of us would consider ourselves a sincere and reasonable group of guys to accept responsibility of The Tote,” wrote Liam Matthews on the online forum. Milne responded minutes later:  “You guys would run it with the love and respect it deserves. If you can find a way, I’m there for you.”

Milne, a stalwart of the Melbourne music scene, had previously spruiked for a new licensee to keep the venue open: ”If someone can work out a way to keep the place open and deal with liquor licensing, I will work with them to make it happen. But it needs to be the Tote, not some lame-o version.”

Milne told Crikey that he would be “happy” if the trio took over the venue but that it would need to be removed from the “high-risk” category that has led to  liquor licensing fees and compliance costs skyrocketing.

In an article in this morning’s Australian Financial Review, The Tote’s millionaire landlord, Computershare mogul Chris Morris, said he was happy to keep the venue running under a new licensee. Matthews told Crikey he had contacted Morris but was yet to receive a response and a jump in running costs could still see the doors closed for some time yet.

An increase in liquor licensing fees of about $1600 was dwarfed by a requirement in Milne’s licence to have two security guards stationed at the Tote’s doors at all times — a near-doubling of his  current annual expenses of $60,000. This came on top of the installation of “quality” CCTV cameras. Attending the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to revert the licence away from the high-risk category would slug Milne with about $15,000 in lawyers’ fees.

The “high-risk” ruling puts the venue in the same category as several King Street nightclubs, leading to calls for a more nuanced approach from Liquor Licensing Commissioner Sue McLennan.


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