"I'm not a wowser," Labour MP Phil Goff announced when he stood to speak on the Alcohol Reform Bill this week. "I drink," he said, before going on to explain that he was also aware of the harm the demon drink did when in the wrong hands.

MPs are not averse to using alcohol to exude the image of a good, keen man. David Shearer's first pledge as Labour leader was to take to the pubs, clubs and marae of New Zealand. True to his word, his days travelling the provinces invariably end at a pub or RSA for a beer.

Prime Minister John Key, too, is not averse to photos of him clutching a beer - whether at a barbecue with Prince William or touring a boutique beer factory at 10am on a weekday.

So Goff's initial remark encapsulated the critical point that has underlined the long and winding road of the Alcohol Reform Bill - the shifting balance between the need to clamp down on binge drinking and concern that one might come across as Parliament's Biggest Wowser.


The Law Commission reported on the need for alcohol reform back in April 2010, but gradually its core recommendations were chipped away. The drinking age stayed at 18 despite brave talk about raising it back to 20 or introducing a split age. So too, the Government backed away from former Justice Minister Simon Power's plans to clamp down on alcopops despite depicting them as the devil incarnate bottled and disguised with sugar and food colouring.

Instead the promise to deal with alcopops has been reduced to a provision that will allow a future government to act on them at some unspecified point down the line.

Minimum pricing and hefty alcohol taxes never made it on to the agenda at all despite the screeds of evidence that price is an effective deterrent - just as it is with tobacco.

The only really significant thing left was the ability for local councils to restrict the availability of liquor via licensing policies - a proposal which has the considerable added benefit to the Government of passing the buck so councils cop the flak for any puritanical excess.

The watering down happened because expert evidence was nothing compared with the weight of political danger in getting between middle New Zealand and its glass of plonk.

Justice Minister Judith Collins was pragmatic about the issue, saying what was needed was a balance between dealing with alcohol abuse but "not penalising those many New Zealanders in the vast majority who do not abuse alcohol".

The debate in Parliament was revelatory. Collins said the attempt in 1989 to instil a "European cafe-style drinking culture in New Zealand" by passing alcohol laws had failed.

The Maori Party MP Te Ururoa Flavell pointed out that much earlier attempts to instil a European alcohol drinking culture had been more successful - he claimed there was no alcohol in pre-European society in New Zealand and the Maori word for it was "waipiro" - or "stinky water".

Collins ended by saying although it did not go as far as many hoped, the bill was simply a start. Whether there is a middle and an end is up to some future government.

Labour is putting on a good show of feigning disapproval at the lack of ambition in the reforms. Despite Goff's disclaimer, Labour's line-up of purse-lipped amendments includes minimum pricing, warning labels, bans on advertising before 9pm, bans on liquor outlets near schools, a lower drink-driving limit and Goff's own amendment - limiting the alcohol content of alcopops to 5 per cent, just as Power originally proposed.

Andrew Little's amendment had apparently time-travelled all the way from the 1920s and proposed off-licences shut at 8pm rather than the proposed 10pm.

The explanation for this early "lights out" was such a masterpiece of delicious, pious absurdity that it requires repeating: it was because people buying alcohol any later than 8pm were likely to be already a bit tipsy "and may not have the judgment and self-control necessary to make cogent decisions".

Whether Labour will actually move on these amendments when it returns to the Government benches is doubtful. It is quite happily falling in with the line that the reforms are a "once in a generation" opportunity, which effectively buys it a good decade or two.

The alcohol reforms are going through Parliament just as that other famous nanny, Mary Poppins, hits the stage in New Zealand. The makers of alcopops learned a thing or two from Poppins - the most notable being that a spoonful of sugar helps the stinky water go down.

National is already in danger of being accused of running a nanny state for encouraging Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia's crusade against tobacco.

Taking booze reforms to the extent proposed by the Law Commission might reduce the harm caused by alcohol, but it will also risk increasing the harm at the ballot box in 2014.