WELLINGTON - Parliament was told yesterday that lowering the drinking age to 18 would be like shooting 75 young Maori.
Mauri Pacific MP Tukoroirangi Morgan said he had seen on marae and at hui the results of young people drinking and driving.
"It would be a tragedy if this House was to say, 'Yes, we will lower the age to 18.' You may as well go and shoot 75 young Maori."
But MPs supporting the change argued that 18-year-olds, who could already vote and marry, should be trusted with being able to drink responsibly and be given the chance to drink in a safe environment.
Most MPs cast a conscience vote on the issue apart from those in the Alliance, who bloc-voted to lower the age, and in New Zealand First, who bloc-voted to keep it at 20.
Some MPs, including Prime Minister Jenny Shipley, revealed that they had been under-age drinkers in pubs, and there were pleas from some Maori MPs to hold the age at 20 because of drink damage to Maori.
Minister of Health Wyatt Creech said he had supported lowering the age, despite health sector lobbying. "If we say to people that you can vote, you can marry, you can fight for your country and you can die, then ... you shouldn't say to them you shouldn't drink in a public bar."
Labour justice spokesman Phil Goff argued for a tightening of the 20-year age limit, quoting public opinion polls showing opposition to a lower age.
He also cited overseas evidence linking younger drinking to increased road deaths.
But other speakers rejected the research as irrelevant to New Zealand. Act justice spokeswoman Patricia Schnauer said the evidence she had heard during the select committee process was that exemptions to the 20-year age limit had caused the problems.
"Eighteen is, in fact, the de facto drinking age in New Zealand. What this bill does is simply make legal what our young people are doing today."
Yesterday, the first day of a marathon 20-hour debate, MPs agreed in a conscience vote that photo identity cards could be included among proof-of-age documents acceptable under the Sale of Liquor Amendment Bill (No 2).
Under the change, drinkers can use a driver's licence, passport or other card carrying a photo as legal evidence of age.
Concerns have been raised over the emergence of a de facto national ID card. But Minister of Justice Tony Ryall said there was no compulsion on anyone to carry such ID under the changes agreed to.
The aim was to give publicans or liquor-sellers a defence against charges of selling alcohol to minors.
Other changes approved yesterday included removing restrictions on liquor sales on Sundays, letting supermarkets and grocery stores sell beer as well as wine, and various options relating to club licences, charters and sales in off-licence premises. - NZPA