Mai Chen

Public and employment law specialist Mai Chen on current events

Mai Chen: Liquor reforms highlight issues of moral bills

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Many people have lobbied to get changes to the Alcohol Reform Bill which is returning to Parliament to be voted on by MPs. Photo / Bradley Ambrose
Many people have lobbied to get changes to the Alcohol Reform Bill which is returning to Parliament to be voted on by MPs. Photo / Bradley Ambrose

Many people have lobbied to get changes to the Alcohol Reform Bill which is returning to Parliament today to be voted on by MPs in its committee stage. But what succeeds will be determined by a mix of conscience votes by individual MPs as well as party votes, depending on the issue and the political party.

That's what makes lobbying on "moral bills" a nightmare, especially given the large number of changes being put up on the floor of the House by the minister and the opposition, let alone snap amendments that politicians could propose that we do not yet know about.

When considering a liquor bill, some MPs take very seriously Edmund Burke's famous dictum, "Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion". Others, however, will canvas and then represent their electorate's "opinion", however they choose to discern it.

Determining which approach each MP intends to take can be a much trickier task than lobbying on your standard government bill where all MPs vote on party lines.

This creates difficulties for coherent law reform; the committee stage can deliver unexpected surprises, which can lead to law-making that is frustrating and ad hoc. For example, an amendment during the passage of the Sale of Liquor Act 1989, which was decided by conscience vote, prohibited liquor sales from dairies, without defining what a "dairy" actually was.

The Liquor Licensing Authority noted in JA & YA Maghzal that "the distinction between a grocery, a dairy, a superette or a mini-mart has become blurred". The result is a proliferation of small stores distinguishable from dairies only because they are licensed to sell alcohol.

This poor drafting defeated the purpose of the amendment. This is one of the problems the Alcohol Reform Bill seeks to fix.

One way of remedying the ad hoc nature of moral amendments is to reform the use of the conscience vote. Before the introduction of the Alcohol Reform Bill, the Law Commission said the continued use of the conscience vote for alcohol issues was no longer appropriate and that removing the conscience vote for alcohol issues would lead to more robust legislation.

There are still moral issues where some argue that a conscience vote is still appropriate. These include Louisa Wall's Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, or Maryan Street's proposed End of Life Choice Bill. But there is a trend to get rid of the conscience vote.

The Gambling Amendment Act 2005 was voted on according to party lines. Even the Alcohol Reform Bill itself is an example of both conscience voting and block voting being used. For example, National Party MPs are block voting on most amendments, but have decided to take a conscience vote on the purchase age of alcohol.

Major changes are also often made at the stage the House sits as a committee of the whole. While technically amendments can be made after this stage, at the third reading, lobbyists know that the committee stage is the best opportunity for major changes to be made to legislation, before third reading and assent.

For example, the Minister of Justice, Judith Collins, has already signalled her intention to introduce Supplementary Order Papers (amendments) to the Alcohol Reform Bill that would clarify rules for restricting alcohol display and advertising in supermarkets to a single non-prominent area; introduce express parental consent and responsible supply requirements for supply to minors; extend the bill's responsible supply requirement to minors to include 18- and 19-year-olds; and introduce a regulation-making power to enable the Government to restrict sales of RTDs at any time in the future.

This is in addition to the announced amendment to the purchasing age to either raise it to 20 years, keep it at 18 or split it to 20 for off-licences and keep it at 18 for on-licences.

And those are just the minister's amendments! The opposition will also be suggesting major changes to the bill.

The Labour Party is proposing a power to set minimum prices by regulation; to strengthen provisions against advertising and sponsorship; reduce the allowable blood-alcohol content for drivers; strengthen local alcohol policies; prohibit off-licence premises within 1km of an early childhood, primary, intermediate or secondary school; introduce warnings and nutritional information on labels and amend trading hours for licensed premises - among many others.

It may well be that by the time the House rises tonight, many MPs will need a stiff drink. And when that happens it is usually the general public that wakes up with the hangover.

Mai Chen is a partner at law firm Chen Palmer and author of Public Law Toolbox. She has advised on the Alcohol Reform Bill.

- NZ Herald

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