Government up to old tricks with World Cup law change for bars and dig at Greens.

Before last week, we had a bunch of laws that, while far from perfect, attempted to mitigate just some of the harmful effects of free and easy alcohol purchasing and consumption that combine to cost the country's health system more than a billion dollars a year.

They are, on the whole, incredibly soft laws anyhow, moulded in no small part by a vociferous liquor lobby and its many attack dogs, in concert with a Government I'd argue is more than amenable to corporation-friendly legislation.

Nevertheless, we had a system whereby bars generally had to close at 4am, although - and this is the critical part - they've always been able to open longer for special events after applying to the District Licensing Committee. They've had four long years in which to do exactly that before this current Rugby World Cup competition was upon us.

However, some bars were noticing pushback from police to their plans to extend serving hours. Others hadn't got around to it. Luckily for the hospitality and liquor industries, they've an incredibly powerful lobby group. And so it went that last Tuesday, when Act Party leader David Seymour introduced a bill to allow pubs to open outside of legal trading hours to show these matches from the Northern Hemisphere, the cause was dutifully and vigorously taken up by the current Government.


Far from being hesitant about introducing legislation that opens the door to rolling back the very few curbs on the liquor industry we retain, our Government went at it with bells on, and is now set to ram through fast-tracked legislation on this matter of huge national import. It couldn't just do that either; it also had to have a pop, calling the Greens "spiteful", "wowsers" and "party poopers" for their opposition.

According to John Key, the Greens are "always opposed to anything that's vaguely good fun". (He's right; they didn't like him pulling the pony tails of unwilling young women either.) But that wasn't the end of it. The Government cheering squad took up the cause, calling the Greens - you guessed it - "wowsers", "party poopers" and "the fun police". They all piled on until the Greens were forced to back down and let this absolutely critical bit of lawmaking proceed.

The ridiculous circus may have been funny for most involved, but it masks the usual way National works in concert with industry to undermine any party looking to try to protect public health.

This issue is not about "shutting New Zealanders at home for this event" as Seymour absurdly suggested. As noted, bars could extend their hours - they just needed to go through the correct channels. Where they've been refused permission, the police undoubtedly had their reasons. Secondly, Prime will broadcast live coverage of all important games involving the All Blacks (and most importantly, the final), so few will be seriously hampered by not making their way to a Sky-enabled bar.

The most important reason this is a total nonsense is one of context. The country is simply unable to enact any kind of meaningful, local or national, tightening of liquor laws -- even when measures like more restricted advertising, a higher excise tax and reduced hours and concentration of liquor outlets have been conclusively proven to save the taxpayer money and heartache.

In 2009 these very ideas were chucked out or severely watered down by the Government; in 2012, in response to calls to tighten the access young people had to RTDs, then Justice Minister Judith Collins said the Government had decided to "give the alcohol industry the opportunity to introduce its own measures to limit [their] harm to young people".

Oh yeah, because I can really believe an industry ringing up more than $5 billion in liquor sales a year is more likely to have the best interests of public health in mind than doctors, medical specialists, women's refuge, police, emergency services, the Law Commission, and even the Prime Minister's own science advisor, Peter Gluckman, who have all urged the Government to take firmer action against the highly expensive and ruinous toll taken on society when (particularly young) drinkers can buy cheap grog without restriction.

All that doesn't mean that the current law being rammed through the system will necessarily destroy public health. People should be, and certainly are, free to drink as they please, for the most part. But in my opinion it does signal a winding back of the few remaining restraints on liquor industry profit-taking, and for that reason, should be treated with all the scepticism we can muster.

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