Over a thousand gathered on January 17 to protest the enforced closure of The Tote hotel, a victim of changes to Victoria’s liquor licencing laws that have seen the popular inner-city music venue upgraded to a “high risk” venue.
The change in licencing from January 1 meant that the owner, Bruce Milne, felt he could no longer afford to keep the venue open. "The high-risk conditions they have placed on the Tote’s licence make it impossible to trade profitably," he said in a statement. The new state laws, supported by the ALP and Greens, are ostensibly to reduce alcohol-fuelled violence on the city’s streets.
Local councillor Stephen Jolly of The Socialist Party ridiculed the new laws, speaking to the rally. “The Tote is a safe place and has iconic status in this area,” he said. “If you wanna get beaten up, you go to King Street or Crown Casino and not The Tote.” The venue does not have a history of violence.
The Age reported on January 20 that local ALP MP Richard Wynne had met with the venue’s landlord, and was lobbying for changes to the licencing laws, in a bid to save the venue. There is a possibility that a new consortium of local bar owners may step in to save the venue, but nothing certain at this stage.
The Tote was one of the few remaining venues where up and coming rock and alternative bands could secure public gigs. Another venue, the Arthouse in north Melbourne, has also announced it will not renew its licence and will close in May.
The closure of The Tote echoes the 2002 closure of the Punters’ Club, in nearby Fitzroy, which was due to rising rent. Gentrification and licencing laws are not the only villains of course. Veteran Melbourne musician Dave Graney reminds us that “The hoteliers kicked the bands out of the big rooms as soon as they could see that poker machines were more lucrative.”
Even if The Tote receives a last minute stay of execution, Milne still has a message for live music fans. “It’s too late to save the Tote but not too late to try and save other inner city venues that are feeling the same pressures” he said.