John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Alcohol reforms too diluted for public taste

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Justice Minister Simon Power. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Justice Minister Simon Power. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Simon Power will surely be disappointed by the public's less than ecstatic reaction to his proposals for tackling the harm caused by heavy drinking.

But the Justice Minister shouldn't be surprised.

The package he announced on Monday has been heavily panned for failing to use such devices as excise tax or minimum pricing to knock back alcohol consumption.

There has also been criticism that the Government is merely tinkering around the edges with regard to restricting opening hours, while the split-age proposal for raising the drinking age is viewed as a cop-out that allows politicians to avoid making the hard call.

Power's officials in the Ministry of Justice had earlier warned him that a package which excluded such "levers" as a rise in alcohol excise and failed to confront the thorny questions of alcohol advertising and alcohol-related sponsorship would "be perceived not to have adequately addressed alcohol-related harm".

Power's stated modus operandi for the review of the liquor laws - the fourth time in 20 years that MPs will get to vote on the drinking age - was that in tackling "heavy episodic drinking" he didn't want to "unduly inconvenience" low and moderate drinkers.

This attempt to strike a balance looked like a case of trying to satisfy everyone. The danger is that he now satisfies no one. Polls suggest the weight of public opinion has shifted drastically. People now want a much tougher regime to tackle binge-drinking head-on.

If Power has misread public opinion, he still has time to rectify things. The legislation incorporating his proposals will not see the light of day until October.

He is already making noises about progress being made on minimum pricing when the new liquor bill is in front of a select committee, thus dealing with complaints about alcohol being too cheap or being sold at below cost by supermarkets to entice customers into their store.

Moreover, although Power has set a cracking pace for reform in his Justice and Commerce portfolios, he is not going to rush this one.

Any rewrite of the country's liquor laws is probably the toughest assignment a Justice minister can set for himself or herself.

The liquor debate pits vested industry interests against a noisy lobby of health groups and social agencies who have to pick up the pieces from alcohol abuse.

No one is neutral in this argument. The public holds passionate views on the subject. Everyone is an expert. Yet proving that supposed solutions do work is extremely difficult when there are a multitude of contributing factors to alcohol abuse.

That means whatever the minister recommends will be shot down by one side or the other. The collision of views even extends to conflicting advice from public servants.

The Cabinet paper released by Power on Monday shows the Treasury tried to put the whole review exercise on hold pending "quantification" of the costs to the industry of raising the drinking age and reducing opening hours.

This produced a caustic response from Power's officials who pointed out the industry continued to be unwilling to share commercially sensitive data on alcohol sales and deferring legislation was unlikely to change that.

Power put a lot of thought into how he would initiate reform. He has developed a so-called "integrated package" of measures designed to improve drinking habits. National MPs have agreed to bloc vote on this package, while retaining the right to cast a free vote on the traditional conscience issue of the drinking age.

This way the package's contents, which deal with licensing, opening hours, the banning of certain products, enforcement and parental consent for supply to minors, will retain its coherence and not be unpicked as the legislation goes through Parliament.

Or so Power hopes. More likely, there will be a rash of amendments from Labour, the Greens and the Maori Party trying to strengthen the bill, while Act will endeavour to neuter it where it breaches individual rights. Power's bill, however, may well survive largely intact as National sits in the middle relying on the votes on one side to help knock down amendments moved by the other.

At the same time, the other parties will be trying to make it as difficult as possible for National to vote against their amendments.

What will be interesting is whether those parties will make use of the one significant ingredient largely missing from Power's package.

That missing element may go some way towards explaining the lukewarm reception accorded Power's proposals which spring from the thorough and meticulous review of the liquor laws undertaken by the Law Commission.

What is lacking in Power's package are measures predicated on the belief that people should accept some personal responsibility when they become intoxicated - and that they be punished accordingly.

The Cabinet paper detailing the Government's decisions on the 150-plus recommendations made by Sir Geoffrey Palmer and other law commissioners devotes just one-and-a-half pages to whether such things as an offence of public drunkenness, which was abolished nearly 30 years ago, should be resurrected.

That is not going to happen. Just as the commission's suggestion of a cost-recovery regime which would bill intoxicated people detained overnight in police cells the sobering sum of $250 has been kyboshed because of administration costs.

The Cabinet paper has Power insisting he supports proposals that foster personal responsibility, only in the same breath to suggest a cost-recovery scheme could stop people seeking police assistance when they need it.

There is one proposal where personal responsibility comes heavily into play - the requirement that anyone serving alcohol to a minor have the consent of a parent. Anyone caught breaching that law would face a fine of up to $2000 - a sum which should focus minds.

Such measures - were there more of their kind - sit easily with National Party ideology.

Power, however, is from the more liberal end of the spectrum of National Party justice ministers.

Inevitably, questions will be asked as to the degree to which Power and Sir Geoffrey are of like minds - or as some may think, too like of mind.

- NZ Herald

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John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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