Black and white thinking makes for a much easier life. I'm right, you're wrong - end of discussion.

The alternative is so much more demanding.

When I first read about the Whanganui District Council local alcohol policy, it seemed a self-evident good idea. Alcohol causes lots of problems and the council wanted to pull on what levers are available to it, in order to reduce that harm.

I fired off a submission in full-throated support. Yes, I said, do all that - and more.


I've spent hours reading reports and submissions about the use and misuse of alcohol in New Zealand over the past few weeks. It's made me mad, and sad. But the more I've read, the harder it's become to write this piece.

At first I thought it was a story about the failure of central government reforms - that the dreadful culture of binge and underage drinking is a consequence of the liberalisation of laws that make alcohol more readily available and at a younger age.

Later, it seemed like a story about large corporations with deep pockets fighting bitterly against any measure in any corner of their empire that would impact even a little on their profits.

But the more I read, the more complicated it got and I descended into a rat-hole of depressing statistics and facts.

There is a lot that can be done about this and it was outlined in detail in an extraordinary report, Alcohol In Our Lives: Curbing The Harm, produced by the Law Commission in 2010.

The fifth National Government had asked for a review of legislation relating to the sale, supply and consumption of alcohol, and solutions. It then chose to largely disregard those solutions that might interfere with corporate profits - it refused to raise the drinking age back to 20 despite the report's emphatic recommendation and the support of most New Zealanders.

But in 2012, territorial authorities were given the power to introduce local alcohol policies.

Whanganui District Council has approached this opportunity with considerable caution.
It's taken a "wait-and-see" approach and learned from the experience of other councils.


We come in behind 48 other territorial authorities (as of December last year) that have drafted such policies - 37 in total, because some councils collaborated on shared policies across a region.

All but one of the provisional policies have been challenged, more than half by the same three companies - the owners of the major supermarket chains and Super Liquor. Only 12 policies out of 37 were implemented.

At 5pm on Monday, August 5, we'll find out if appeals have been lodged against Whanganui's local alcohol policy. Council are expecting them. What then? If the appeals meet the criteria defined in legislation, the council will sit down with the objectors, again, and if agreement can't be reached, it's off to a court hearing with all the delay and expense that brings.

The onus is on the council, in drafting the policy, to demonstrate that alcohol-related harm exists in Whanganui and that the changes it proposes will reduce that harm. Many people and organisations have been involved in gathering that information and there is quiet confidence that the evidence will withstand legal challenge.

Democratic process does require that those affected by a decision are both consulted and
have an opportunity to respond to decisions they think are unfair.

But it got my back up, reading the 16-page submission on the provisional policy made by Progressive Enterprises, owner of Whanganui's two Countdown supermarkets and SuperValue in Gonville. The Australian-owned company clearly spared no expense on lawyers and sent down a member of its corporate affairs team from Auckland to appear before council.

Progressive's demand for a massive amount of data from police, the council and the Ministry of Health is questionable at best. Wearing down or out-spending an opponent by requests for information that costs time and money to compile is a much-abused and widely used legal tactic.

Then again, perhaps someone at Progressive's head office is genuinely interested in how many drunken assaults happened in Whanganui East on a Thursday in September eight years ago.

One of the few submissions that argued against the whole of the local alcohol policy came from Foodstuffs, franchisor of New World and Pak'n Save supermarkets and Liquorland. It has plenty of business to protect.

Unexpectedly, the manager of our local Liquorland supported an earlier closing time for off-licenses, saying it would "eliminate risk to [her] staff and business given the issues around hold-ups around the country".

I hope Whanganui's local alcohol policy survives the appeals process and that it will reduce the misuse of alcohol and all the misery that flows from that. But I note with resignation that more than 70 per cent of local alcohol policies were watered down during the consultation process and only a third were implemented.

It's not a magic bullet ... I wish it were. But there is much more that must be done - in our homes, communities and as a nation - if we are to deal with our country's messed-up drinking culture.

*Rachel Rose is a writer, gardener, fermenter and fomenter. More reading and sources are online at