One of Sydney’s largest councils has launched legal action to close an underground brothel. To win, it not only has to prove that sex is being sold on the premises – but lots of it.
North Sydney Council is understood to have paid for at least one private investigator to go undercover inside the White Cat at Crows Nest and have sex in order to try and convince a magistrate that its two previous closure orders were flouted. The court action follows an investigation by The Sun-Herald in October which found that the same business was promoting a two-tiered pricing system in which Asian workers were being offered for $90 less than the standard $250 hourly rate charged by caucasian women
But the court case, which commenced on Wednesday, is expected to hinge on how much sex the council can prove takes place within the building after a landmark decision went against neighbouring Hornsby Council, in almost identical circumstances, in February.
In that matter, the council spent almost $100,000 attempting to close an alleged illegal parlour located next door to a children’s learning centre. A magistrate, however, ruled that council had not proved there was enough sex being sold on the premises for it to fit NSW’s definition of “brothel”, which requires more than one prostitute to be providing services on site.
North Sydney mayor Jilly Gibson said councils across Sydney were monitoring what happens next: “We are aware that this is now being viewed as something of a test case,” she said.
“The spread of illegal brothels has become an enormous problem for all local government. It is impacting on residential areas, schools and small business precincts. The community is telling us it has had enough.”
Cr Gibson said unlike legal brothels that provide workers with “rights, protection and a safe work environment”, underground vice dens were “breeding grounds” for “exploitation.”
“We, as a council, are not prepared to sit back and let this one go.”
In 1998, the White Cat at 5 Falcon Street, Crows Nest, received council approval for an on-site “massage therapy studio”. But three years later, a series of complaints triggered a North Sydney Council investigation which found workers were providing “sexual services or related sex services”.
A closure order was served, followed by a second notice in October 2013.
However, in September last year, a Sun-Herald investigation found that not only had the underground vice den ignored both orders, it had set different fees for workers according to their ethnic background. “For the Asian girl $160 for one hour…for the Aussie girl $250 for one hour,” confirmed one manager during a customer phone inquiry.
The situation represented an alarming development in an industry that the present state government has been promising to fix since it won the 2011 election. While anecdotal evidence had previously indicated that sex workers, in some Asian-only brothels, were receiving considerably less money than their caucasian counterparts elsewhere, the White Cat remains the first example in Australia of a parlour peddling discriminatory fees under the same roof.
For more than a year, Hornsby Council tried to shut an alleged illegal brothel that is still located directly next door to a tutorial centre for primary school children – and 50 metres away from Hornsby Girls’ High School, But after sending a private investigator inside to bolster its legal challenge, a magistrate ruled it was not enough. The outcome, in theory, means both Hornsby – and other councils – would have to fund multiple trips inside illegal premises to gain a result.
Cr Gibson said “In terms of burden of proof, this is very difficult, time consuming and expensive for councils.
“It is wrong that this issue has been dumped on us by the State Government. But until they fix this mess, these are the extraordinary lengths councils must go to.”
In the lead up to the March State election, Premier Mike Baird said he would ask the NSW Parliament to establish a “full parliamentary inquiry” into the regulation of brothels across the state. The announcement made him the third consecutive NSW premier to have made a pledge relating to the industry – and cleaning it up. On Friday, a spokesperson for Premier Baird said: “Details of the Parliamentary inquiry will be announced shortly.”
No plea was entered on Thursday when the North Sydney Council case came before Hornsby Local Court. It is listed for mention at Sydney’s Downing Centre Local Court on June 2.
Dated: May 24, 2015