Tote Reopening: A Brumby Photo Op?

The reopening of Melbourne’s famed Tote Hotel was announced at a press conference attended by Premier John Brumby yesterday (April 11). But was it little more than a photo op from a government under the pump? REN? SCHAEFER* reports. Photos by *MAT GOVONI.

Sunday afternoon is an odd time to hold a press conference. Even stranger was the fact that it was held in the gutted front bar of the former Tote Hotel on the corner of Wellington and Johnston Streets, Collingwood. The word had gone out to the media a couple of days earlier that ?big announcements? were in store from Jon Perring and Andrew Portokallis, current proprietors of Bar Open, Pony and Yah Yah’s, regarding the future of one of Melbourne’s premier music venues and watering holes.

The bandwagon had barely started rolling when rumours filtered through that Victorian Premier John Brumby would be in attendance as well. He would ostensibly be there to show his support for Melbourne’s live music industry, and possibly address issues regarding the potential roll-back of punitive Liquor Licensing regulations that had greatly contributed to The Tote’s [closure](/articles/3850129) in January.

It was a subdued affair as the media contingent filed through the side door of the iconic venue and gathered in a huddle near the spot the famous Tote jukebox used to occupy. The long-suffering Tote documentary crew were there to record the beginning of yet another chapter in the pub’s colourful and turbulent history. Microphones and cameras were poised as Perring nervously scanned the room.

Without too much fuss, he announced that he and Portokallis, collectively trading under the company name ?Seventh Tipple?, were the new licensees of the pub, following extensive negotiations with the owner of the freehold, multi-millionaire Chris Morris and his company Colonial Leisure Group. Perring envisaged that the venue would reopen in approximately six weeks, pending substantial refurbishments. Most importantly, it would continue to operate as a live music venue, along similar lines to those established by previous licensees the Soccio family and later Richie Ramone, Bruce Milne and his brother James.

Asked whether this meant that ?high risk? restrictions imposed by the current Director of Liquor Licensing Sue Maclellan no longer applied, Perring responded that he was applying to have these conditions lifted, but that this process could still take a while. Until these issues are resolved, the venue would operate from Wednesday to Sunday, with a closing time of 1am. Perring also asserted that band booker Amanda Palmer would be reinstated in her previous role, as would one of the more recent bar managers. Whether the pub would be able to retain the iconic Tote brand is dependent on negotiations with Bruce Milne, who legally still owns the name. When contacted by M+N yesterday, Milne declined to comment, but confirmed that talks were going positively and a decision either way would be announced soon.

Then it was time for some spin from Brumby, who trumpeted Victoria as a state of arts lovers. ?It wasn’t a surprise to me to see thousands and thousands of people stand up for what they believe in,? he said in reference to the recent Save Live Australia’s Music (SLAM) [rally](/articles/3882468). At the same time, he emphasised the need to be tough on alcohol-related violence, while listening to concerns from the live music industry. He acknowledged that government policies needed fine tuning, but cannily neglected to mention that no actual changes had been implemented yet.

?One need not be a hardened cynic to realise that both Brumby and Wynne were trying to score points in the lead-up to November’s state election.?

Speaking like a typical politician, the premier equated Melbourne’s live music scene with tourist dollars. He spouted optimistic statements about recent [round-table discussions](/articles/3871403) with representatives of Melbourne’s live music community, including Fair Go 4 Live Music and SLAM representatives, but had to concede that the state government was not able to tell the director of liquor licensing ?what to do?. Referring to the [Live Music Accord](/news/3881352) reached in those meetings, he thought that it demonstrated the need to balance combating alcohol related violence with ?creating an environment in which live music can flourish?. This was all well and good, but his glib platitudes did not gloss over the fact that this media opportunity had precious little to do with anything effected by his government.

Perring had nothing but praise for local Labor MP Richard Wynne in his press statement, saying he had been helpful in ensuring that the voice of Melbourne’s live music scene was heard within government. ?This is a positive outcome for live music in Melbourne,? he continued. ?The premier, John Brumby, listened to the live music industry and took steps to resolve some of the most pressing issues around liquor licensing through the Live Music Accord.?

One need not be a hardened cynic to realise that both Brumby and Wynne were trying to score points in the lead-up to November’s state election; a fact not lost on SLAM founders Helen Marcou and Quincy McLean, who sent the following statement to M+N today:

?On the Tote’s hallowed turf yesterday, the Premier said, ?It’s important that the industry is given the support it requires and this is a really valuable first step.? Where is the support if none of the 700 venues have been contacted by the government in relation to the roll-back; if there is still no help desk; and not one venue has had its ‘high risk’ conditions reversed as yet, including the Tote? Mr Brumby, a photo opportunity is not real action.?

Meanwhile, down the road on Smith Street, former licensee Milne spent the day flogging the remains of his once formidable record collection at the Crate Digger Record Fair. He was hoping to cover the considerable legal costs accumulated while trying to fight Liquor Licensing at the Victorian Civil Administration Tribunal.

Ultimately, it remains to be seen if a revitalised Tote (or whatever it may be called eventually) can recapture its grotty charm and formidable reputation. Some people, intimately involved with The Tote over recent years, have expressed reservations about it continuing under the same name, preferring a clean break from the past. Its new licensees on the other hand, would clearly benefit from associating their new venue with The Tote’s rich and colourful history.

Either way, having the pub reopen can only be beneficial to Melbourne’s live music scene. Some people will be pleased, others will harbour mixed feelings, but in the end the proof of the pudding will be in the tasting. Considering that Perring has mooted the possibility of a grand celebration gig and street party to celebrate The Tote’s rebirth, punters will find out which way things will swing in the not-too-distant future.

Most crucially though, the reopening of one venue should not detract from the fact that no real amendments have been made to government policy concerning Liquor Licensing laws or procedures for licensees to have ?high risk? conditions reviewed. If the Brumby government wants to garner genuine support from the music industry, it needs to do more than pay lip service to its supposedly flourishing arts community and implement real changes.

The Tote’s closure was supposed to act as a catalyst for changes to an oppressive and ill-conceived licensing regime, so given that it’s reopened with little more than a promissory accord in place, are we back at square one? One can only hope that 20,000 concerned punters marching through the streets of Melbourne was not in vain.

As a high profile advocate of Fair Go 4 Live Music, the onus is now on Perring, in particular, to continue the fight for meaningful reforms to legislation, despite securing a unique business opportunity for himself.