The people of West Auckland have spoken decisively. Nearly 60 per cent of voters in a licensing poll have elected to leave the sale of liquor in the area in the exclusive control of public trusts. The response to the postal ballot was certainly respectable: 81,701 of 145,000 eligible voters. The supermarket chains that wanted the right to sell wine and beer in the West must accept the verdict.

So must the minority of voters who wanted the convenience of being able to pick up liquor supplies when they are at the supermarket. They have been outvoted by those who were persuaded by the Portage and Waitakere licensing trusts that without a monopoly in their respective districts they might not have funds to distribute to community causes.

We can still ask why not. Licensing trusts do not have shareholders to satisfy as the supermarkets do. There seems no logical reason that a competitive public trust could not pay out the same proportion of profit to the community that supermarket liquor sales return to shareholders. The reason must be that their prices are not competitive with supermarkets and will not be competitive unless they lower their internal costs. That means savings on staffing, wages and work practices, more strain and fewer privileges for managers and trust boards.

The difference between companies in competition and a public monopoly is not, as usually presented, a choice between private profits and community benefits. Both systems provide public benefits, through taxation or direct grants. And both provide private benefits. The difference is that one declares a profit paid to investors and the other hides its private benefits in the form of a fatter payroll, easier working conditions and a more comfortable existence for managers and trustees.

The members and employees of the trusts are the real beneficiaries of the decision West Auckland voters have made. The various community groups who rely on the trusts' grants could otherwise expect assistance through the taxes and rates that competitive companies pay. Local mayors and councils are naturally happy to see licensing trusts relieve them of those demands. But democracy is not well served when bodies whose elections normally attract low turnouts have the power to allocate public wealth.

For all these reasons most of the country did away with licensing trusts long ago. Trust monopolies survive only in Ashburton, Geraldine, Southland and, alone in the North Island, West Auckland. They are an anachronism - and so are licensing polls. By what right should a majority be able to prevent anybody trading in a lawful product? The days of regulating the number of competitors in any trade are well gone.

Supermarket sales scared specialised liquor traders everywhere at first. But supermarkets have not driven dedicated dealers out of business. Good wine shops have survived the price competition by improving their service. They ensure staff are well versed in wines and able to give customers reliable advice. That is the kind of benefit competition can bring - a benefit unlikely to come to West Auckland for a while.

Having campaigned strenuously against supermarket competition, and winning by a convincing margin, the trusts must now live up to their promises. If they can return $80 million to the local community over the next 10 years it will require a marked annual improvement on the $5.7 million they distributed last year. Without competition to check the trusts' performance it will be up to the public to hold them to account. Those who voted for continued monopoly will need to keep a close eye on it.