By GEOFF CUMMINGS
An elderly man leaving a West Auckland supermarket is accosted by a young man brandishing a leaflet: "Excuse me sir, have you voted yet?" It is not election time - this vote is more serious than deciding who runs the country.
It's a battle for control of liquor sales to thirsty West Aucklanders - whether alcohol can be sold in supermarkets and freely dispensed by private pubs and bottle stores.
It is also about pokie machines and how much of the profits from gambling are fed back to the community.
Waitakere City is one of the last bastions of licensing trust control - an anachronism to most New Zealanders who enjoy the convenience and cost-savings of supermarket wine and beer sales, and the chance to imbibe at swanky watering holes, with or without the wedges.
Yet halfway through a postal ballot to break the trusts' monopoly, it's far from inevitable that locals will shake off this hangover from the dark ages of heavily regulated drinking.
Supermarket giants Foodstuffs and Progressive are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into their campaign to convince West Aucklanders that they, too, can live like the sophisticates of nearby Ponsonby and Grey Lynn - and most other towns and suburbs.
New Zealanders spent $623 million on wine and beer at supermarkets last year and Foodstuffs managing director Tony Carter says it's unfair that supermarket owners in one area should miss out on revenue that others enjoy.
"People come in all the time who can buy wine and beer in other supermarkets. It's a natural adjunct to food, but they can't buy it in West Auckland."
But Westies, no strangers to independent thinking, are rallying behind their two licensing trusts despite their lingering image of booze barns, slack service and even slacker financial management.
The postal ballot - which the trusts portray as "supermarket greed versus community need" - has erupted into a ferocious war of words.
Hoardings are routinely vandalised or engulfed by opposition signs while shoppers at supermarkets and trust outlets are deluged with propaganda.
Both sides accuse the other of mud-slinging, dirty tricks, red herrings and misinformation in a campaign reminiscent of the wild west election battles of old.
The trusts' trump card is that they return the proceeds from booze and gambling to the community, and in recent years they've moved to improve both their establishments and balance sheets.
Their opening salvo was to fight fire with fire extinguishers after the supermarket chains forced the poll with a petition last November.
The distribution of free extinguishers to 70,000 homes was an obvious sweetener but the trusts - Portage, which controls the inner west, and Waitakere - maintain they have extended such largesse for years.
Long accused of running an old boys' network, they have mobilised support from schools, clubs and societies, sending children home with notes about that school pool upgrade or equipment purchase made possible by trust funding.
In the past financial year, they handed out a record $5.7 million to community organisations ranging from hospices and women's refuges to surf lifesaving clubs and fire stations.
This year they have given $2.25 million towards the city's big new indoor sports complex and pledged another $80 million for community purposes over the next 10 years - as long as their "monopoly" remains.
The supermarkets have countered with hints of financial mismanagement and misappropriation.
Their smoking gun was a consultants' report which claimed that supermarket sales will not threaten the trusts' community activities because 98 per cent of donations come from pokie profits.
"It is the community's own gambling losses which are funnelled back to the community."
The report accused the trusts of withholding their annual accounts, and raised questions about payments to their management company.
The trusts say only 85 per cent of donations come from gambling, and dismiss the taunts about disclosure and financial sleight-of-hand.
Chief executive Murray Spearman says he's become weary of countering every aspect of the "misleading" supermarket campaign.
"What do you achieve going through all these things? You end up in a tit-for-tat argument and people just get sick of it. I would rather people understand the issues."
The trusts' campaign is focusing on the potential loss to the community if their bars and bottle stores are exposed to competition.
Spearman says income would drop by up to two-thirds and he raises the spectre of a proliferation of bars and pokies.
"This is about more than supermarkets. Dairies will start selling beer and wine, not just supermarkets. If you change the law there will be many more outlets spread throughout the area."
Spearman says the number of gaming machines per head in Waitakere is a third of the national average, but that will change if private operators gain a foothold.
The trusts return more than 50 per cent of their profits to the community, whereas private pokie operators are obliged to hand over just a third - and not necessarily to locals.
Unlike other areas, he says, many parts of the west are struggling and rely on donations for schools, sports facilities and social services.
The argument has pitched the National MP for Helensville, John Key, into the same camp as Labour politicians and Mayor Bob Harvey, who want the anti-competitive trusts to remain.
But the claims of lack of disclosure prompted Labour list MP John Tamihere to break ranks and demand an inquiry.
Tamihere retracted after the trusts satisfied him they were not withholding the accounts - but he remains a vocal critic.
"They haven't performed as well as they could have over the years in terms of the monopoly they have and their assets.
"I've been gobsmacked by their lack of community interest and the pitiful amounts they've handed out until very recently."
Bob Harvey's support for the trusts dates from 1971 when he devised the marketing strategy to "get the west wet".
He says Waitakere has thrived on the generosity of the trusts ever since, particularly sporting facilities and the arts.
"The supermarkets would not give us a better deal at all. They sell products - they don't necessarily care about customer service."
Wine and beer sales add about 7 per cent to supermarket revenue, and the west's 14 supermarkets are hungry for their share.
NEITHER Foodstuffs nor Progressive will reveal how much they are spending on the campaign, which includes television, radio and newspaper advertising, consultancy fees and public relations advice.
But they concede it is far more than in any previous bid, such as Progressive's fight three years ago to rid Grey Lynn of its "dry" status.
Foodstuffs' Tony Carter says the campaign has "snowballed" because of the misinformation spread by the trusts.
"It's about freedom of choice and the community [funding] should be unaffected."
Progressive managing director Ted van Arkel accuses the trusts of "massive bribery" and says they will have to introduce hundreds more gaming machines to honour their $80 million funding promise over the next 10 years.
He says the rest of the country copes with gambling donations from private operators.
Twenty-one licensing trusts ranging from single pubs to rural districts remain in New Zealand, but most bowed long ago to public demand and allowed competition.
The last to do so was Birkenhead, which voted for supermarket sales 18 months ago.
Beyond West Auckland, only Geraldine, Ashburton, Invercargill and Mataura retain single-trader status, meaning only trusts can operate pubs and bottle stores.
None shows any sign of calling time.
A year ago, the 16,000 voters of Mataura, in Southland, voted to retain their trust after Foodstuffs' South Island supermarkets forced a poll.
Ashburton has survived two challenges while Invercargill has proved impregnable. It has an enviable reputation, contributing $9 million to the Stadium Southland project and listing plush motels among its assets.
The Waitakere ballot is an opportunity for locals to pass judgment not only on their trusts' generosity, but on the standard of their bars and bottle stores. In both regards, the trusts have a chequered past.
Old charges that the trusts use their privileged position to thwart competition have resurfaced.
As recently as 2000, locals suspected trust involvement in the closure of the Thirsty Rooster in Glendene for operating as a tavern rather than a restaurant. The venue was subsequently bought by the Portage Trust.
Spearman says licensing laws are enforced by the police, not the trusts.
He rejects claims that they operate as a monopoly, pointing to the increase in licensed cafes and bar-restaurants in Waitakere since liquor laws were liberalised in 1989.
"You can refer to us as a monopoly as long as you refer to the supermarkets as a duopoly. Of approximately 250 liquor licences in West Auckland, we have 41 of them."
Its drinking establishments still suffer from the legacy of the Flying Jug (aka the Potter's Wheel Tavern), the Pioneer, the Westward Ho and the Inner Circle.
These dim, smoke-filled taverns were gang hangouts and locals still recall the occasional dog-fight in the sunken garden bar at the Westward Ho.
The booze barns have given way to shopping malls and apartments, and Spearman says more recent establishments such as Origins and Brick Lane would not be out of place on Ponsonby Rd or at the Viaduct Basin.
Bob Harvey says the west's notorious bars have gone the same way as traditional westies - "they don't exist any more".
But many locals say the trusts have only recently "woken up" and offered customers better service in a more convivial atmosphere. And the improvements have come about only since the advent of gaming machines.
Says one insider: "Alcohol only pays the management costs and always has. There's something wrong if you can't make money out of alcohol. "
THE trusts earned $93.2 million last year from alcohol sales, but most was swallowed up in payments to suppliers and staff.
There are plans to further improve services, with the "old-style" Te Atatu Tavern next in line, but Spearman warns: "We are talking about West Auckland.
"It is not an affluent area where people pay a lot of money for services."
At the Westgate shopping centre, "Vote for Freedom of Choice" posters occupy spaces which normally plug the weekly specials.
Checkout operators wear freedom badges and pack groceries in plastic bags with freedom messages. Outside, an employee hands out leaflets and bends shoppers' ears about the convenience of supermarket wine buying.
He says 90 per cent of customers support competition, but the Weekend Herald observed a mixed reaction.
Those that don't drink seem unconcerned about increased availability of alcohol.
"It's everywhere already," says one retired man, shrugging his shoulders.
A man with a beer belly claims to be the first to have cast his vote for the supermarkets.
But a young father says supermarket sales would end community funding, so he's sticking with the trusts. He doesn't mind the extra trip to the bottle store where he says there's more variety and friendly service.
A car pulling a trailer with licensing trust hoardings circles the carpark, hotly pursued by a pro-supermarkets car and trailer.
Up the road, pro-trust signs obstruct views of a "freedom of choice" hoarding.
For West Aucklanders, the choice seems anything but clear.
By GEOFF CUMMINGS