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Afraid of drunks? Lets whack liquor suppliers then to feel better

  • July 8th, 2013

Wellingtonians have until 2 August to let Wellington City Council know what they think of its draft alcohol policy, to ban supermarket alcohol sales after 9 pm and fix bar closing times, among other worthy irrelevancies.

Councillors are pretending they have evidence to show their obsession with suppliers of booze might work this time. Thirty years ago we dumped our laws against drunkenness. We replaced our effective laws on under-age drinking with ridiculous laws against under-age supply. We thought we’d become "mature" continentals by making grog a normal part of life, with on demand 'civilised' drinking in restaurants and cafes and free sale in shops. But instead of turning into idealised French sophisticates many of us unleashed the sodden inner Russian or morose Scandinavian berserker.

Bar owners are reported to be looking at court action to stop the Council’s proposed interference with their businesses. As a lawyer I think they could win, if they focus on the new duty of Councils to be efficient and to perform their “regulatory functions in a way that is most cost-effective for households and businesses”.

It is clear what people worry about. We want aggression stopped. We want low and high level drunken criminals taken off our streets. We don’t want to see, “teens puking up or asleep in Courtenay Place” as Taiki Waititi told the Youth Parliament. Many of us are ashamed that our public booze culture reinforces and propagates a climate of indifference to self respect, and respect for others. We suspect there is a difference between disgracing oneself in private, and doing it in public. The National Business Review recently reprinted a Salient (VUW student newspaper) article by Henry Cooke, who vowed to spend an un-lubricated Courtenay Place night with friends.   Town through sober eyes  says “Town reeks. The sweat; the urine; the booze; the cologne….This has been the worst night of my year, but it’s just that, a night. Not my life. Not my livelihood”.

But for many of us ensuring our entertainment zone remains attractive, is our livelihood.

 Nothing the Council has laboured over will address those worries ‘efficiently’ or in the most ‘cost-effective way’. Several years ago my firm researched (unsuccessfully) for evidence of success (at anything) in feeble supply restrictions. The only clear outcome is wealth transfers among suppliers, from those handicapped by restrictions, to those who are not.

Nevertheless I’ll be surprised if bar owners proceed with action to force the Council to do what is efficient and cost-effective. Many will find they can live better with what is proposed, as long as it applies across the board.

Whatever the case if you value your time, don’t waste it on this empty consultation ritual.  The draft policy approved on 20 June followed ‘consultation’ from February to April this year, a specially commissioned Colmar Brunton public opinion survey, and a dedicated web-based (Loomio) feedback service. That of course followed years of agitation and submissions and opinion polling as Parliament pretended to be anxious about binge drinking and drunken crime while making sure that Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s report changed nothing much, just as Councillors are now.

Go to the Council websites and look at the consultation material. Ask yourself whether the wet opinion poll questions tell you anything you could not guess. Wonder why there were no questions exploring how to regenerate more personal responsibility for drunken behaviour. And then examine the Council response – restricted to loading more restrictions on suppliers. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I’d think the booze barons had all politicians in their pay.

But in fact, the booze business wanted more direct enforcement.  In Parliament the Hospitality Association's Bruce Robertson bravely asked "Why not focus directly on personal responsibility for the behaviour we don’t want?" He got no answer.

It is not hard. Underage drinking is against the law in many countries. They enforce it with penalties on the underage drinkers. Not us now, though we did here, until 32 years ago. We also thoroughly enforced law against drunken oafishness, littering, breaking glass, foul language, threatening behaviour.

Now instead we get round after round of symbolic law, almost all aimed at people who supply liquor.

For some it will not much matter whether whacking suppliers works. They don't like them. But many of the restrictions will be welcomed by the industry, because they may lower their costs, without materially affecting consumption. Almost all the rest of the industry would love to see the supermarkets take a few for the team. I doubt that supermarket owners will recognise it, but as the targets all the others will happily combine against, the supermarket chains should be investing the most in ensuring that liquor law is more effective, and better targetted.

If it is worrying the pre-loaders that they will have to buy their discount bulk supplies before 9 pm, they are not squealing about it.

The supermarket chains should seek reinstatement of the offence of public drunkenness? They should be highlighting the lack of law against underage drinking? Because they are the most visible target now for the kind of policy makers who've promoted a whole string of laws, from dog control, to fireworks bans, that pretend to be tough by targeting the law-abiding with new restrictions. Above all they  fear tackling real  wrongdoers.

Sir Geoffrey was quite frank about the reasons for not focussing on personal responsibility in the Law Commission report -"because the Police tell me it is too hard to enforce". The Law Commission report did not explain why it was not too hard up until 1981.

  In my view we will get no material change, whether toward a more European civility, or otherwise, without a return to treating people of all ages as responsible for what they do, as they do in Europe, and the US, without allowing them to blame alcohol, or the person who supplied them.

That won’t happen for so long as the law patronises the young, and is besotted with whacking suppliers.

[This first appeared in issue two of Wellington's great new Capital magazine]




“because the Police tell me it is too hard to enforce”

Excellent – let’s not bother with any kind of enforcement, that should make the life of the Police a lot easier.

  • paul scott
  • July 8th, 2013
  • 9:50 pm

know what you mean Stephen, I walk into the local New World supermarket where you can buy some really nasty products in plastic.
I picked up a big supply of booze, and the girl maybe 20, said at the check out.
“yes but were you not in here before Sir” doing the same thing, buying cheap booze, and she said also we are not allowed by law to sell to drunkard”
And I say to her don’t worry about a thing, this is for the kids, if you think I am a drunkard you should see these bastards, thank God I asleep when they come home

  • Colin
  • July 10th, 2013
  • 11:13 am

Your spot on Stephen about the solution I have said the same for years. This posting should be widely circulated.

  • Philob
  • July 16th, 2013
  • 10:25 pm

When I read Geoffrey Palmer’s report it seemed to me a template for the prevailing govt attitude to all social ills. That is, it does not matter what the problem is – the remedy is always the same – more govt bureaucracy. The general approach is to clobber the business; personal responsibility is ignored or dismissed.
Difficulty of police enforcement is not an excuse. The police cannot arrest all burglars and car thieves either, but nobody says that therefore these offences should be legalised.
I suggest that Personal Prohibition Orders be introduced to deal with drunkards. West Australia does this. Modern digital images make it easy and cheap to update bar managers on who has been banned.

  • Michael Mckee
  • July 23rd, 2013
  • 9:40 am

My submission said the same thing incl a similar quote on car theft and burglary.
As usual you hit the nail on the head.

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