John Armstrong on politics

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Nats lose their political nerve over booze law

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Vested interests in liquor and hospitality industries make law changes unlikely. Photo / Hawke's Bay Today
Vested interests in liquor and hospitality industries make law changes unlikely. Photo / Hawke's Bay Today

No sooner had the Law Commission released its painstaking 514-page review of the country's liquor laws yesterday than the Government binned one of its more radical, yet major recommendations.

National's refusal to increase excise duty by 50 per cent to cut alcohol consumption was a reminder that although the passage of liquor legislation through Parliament has traditionally been subject to the conscience votes of individual MPs, party politics still rule when it comes to tangling with the vested interests of the liquor and hospitality industries.

Its recommendations aside, the commission's big challenge to Parliament is its call to end conscience votes on alcohol-related measures.

The commission is dead right. Conscience votes on such legislation have traditionally been granted to MPs on the grounds that drinking is a matter of personal morality.

This is a charade which allows parties to abrogate their responsibilities on things like the drinking age where public opinion unpredictably waxes and wanes on raising or lowering it and the politics get too difficult.

Parties do not give their MPs free rein to vote as they like on measures dealing with social and economic policy.

Yet, as the commission's report amply proves, the harm caused by excess consumption of alcohol is of huge social and economic relevance.

The same transparency should apply to liquor laws. Yet, sensible policy-making is turfed out the window when it comes to liquor legislation.

The Government frames a liquor bill and then tosses it into the bear-pit where it is fought over and subjected to potentially horrendous compromise.

If anything coherent emerges from this process, it is more by accident than design.

The conscience votes are a cop-out which allow governments to shed responsibility for the downstream consequences of the measures for which they essentially set the boundaries. Little wonder the liquor laws have been constantly revisited by politicians.

The Greens woke up to this hypocrisy yonks ago and now take a party line on liquor legislation.

Labour, too, has shown increasing reluctance to allow its MPs conscience votes generally. Its discomfort with dissenters was evident on private member's bills allowing civil unions and the legalisation of prostitution. Labour MPs were subject to the party whip on the anti-smacking law.

The libertarian right is much more reluctant to whip its MPs. National MPs would be philosophically opposed to any curb on conscience votes. And liquor is the king of conscience votes.

National MPs will also have noted that Labour suffered badly from being seen as responsible for the anti-smacking bill becoming law.

National's fears of being labelled with the same "nanny state" tag apply with respect to the Law Commission's comprehensive report and its "paradigm shift" back to an era of more regulation and control, notably in the purging of alcohol-related advertising and sponsorship.

However, many of the commission's recommendations have a powerfully persuasive logic behind them - as you would expect with someone like Sir Geoffrey Palmer chairing the commission.

The liberalisation of the drinking laws he began some 20 years ago as a Labour Justice Minister having failed to produce a more sophisticated drinking culture, Sir Geoffrey is now calling with equal vigour for a retreat.

He pleaded yesterday for politicians to not simply "cherry-pick" those recommendations which were politically palatable. If it was to work, the report had to be treated as an "integrated package".

Sir Geoffrey has done National a big favour by producing a conservative report for conservative times. National has failed to respond.

The Government's scotching of the rise in excise tax is not just a failure of political nerve, however.

It is also a sign that vested interests still lurk mightily in the foreground when it comes to rewriting liquor laws.

- NZ Herald

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