In this week’s instalment of citizen journalism, New Zealand’s Minister of Justice, Simon Power, tells the Hospitality Association of New Zealand that there are no easy answers when it comes to reforming a country’s liquor laws.

“Thank you for inviting me to speak to you today. I would particularly like to acknowledge Law Commission President Sir Geoffrey Palmer and HANZ Chief Executive Bruce Robertson.

As both the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Commerce, I tend to view liquor law reform through a wide angle lens.

My role in reforming New Zealand’s liquor laws is to develop a regulatory model that achieves equilibrium between the harm caused by alcohol and the social and commercial benefits associated with responsible alcohol consumption.

Sir Geoffrey knows better than most that this is no simple task. It’s no exaggeration to say that I view liquor law reform as one of my biggest challenges in 2010.

The Law Commission’s recent ‘Alcohol in our Lives’ Discussion Document has provided the Government with a foundation for liquor law reform. I thank Sir Geoffrey and the Commission for the significant amount of work they have put into this project.

As alcohol industry stakeholders, the discussion document will hold special significance for you. Like you, I have been carefully considering the Commission’s Discussion Document. I have also been monitoring the submission process – including the public meetings that Sir Geoffrey has been holding around the country.

You’ll understand that while the public submission process is under way, I’m constrained in terms of what I can say to you about the substance of liquor law reform.

So, instead of prematurely delving into substantive issues, I’d like to use this opportunity to outline some of the guiding principles that will underpin the National-led Government’s approach to the reform of our liquor laws.

Alcohol is a challenging issue for any government, because any attempt to ameliorate the negative impact of alcohol abuse must be balanced against the freedom of the majority of the adult population to drink responsibly.

Those who cast their minds back to the so-called “sherry tax” of 2003 will recognise that liquor reforms must be targeted and relevant if they are to help fix the problem without punishing the innocent.

However, the problems caused by excessive drinking are undeniable. Earlier this year, Hon Dr Pita Sharples and I hosted a Ministerial Meeting on the Drivers of Crime. I was interested to hear the participants at that meeting conclude that alcohol isn’t so much a driver of crime, as it is a lubricant.

In the area of criminal justice alone, it’s estimated that approximately 60% of offenders were under the influence of alcohol at the time they committed their crime.

Police estimate that 50-70% of their work is associated with alcohol, including disorder, assault, criminal damage, family violence, drink driving, taking drunk people home or detaining them for detoxification.

These grim statistics were brought home to me recently as I sat in the back of the Family Violence Court in Auckland. Almost without exception, every case before the Court that day involved alcohol.

So I feel justified in saying that our current liquor laws are insufficient to protect our communities from the harmful effects of alcohol.

This brings me back to my point about the need to balance the benefits associated with responsible drinking against the damage that alcohol causes.

The fundamental question posed by the Law Commission’s review, and the question that we, as a country have to ask ourselves is this: Have we achieved an appropriate balance between the benefits consumers have enjoyed from the liberalisation of liquor laws and the harms associated with the abuse of alcohol?

In my opinion, the answer is no. I believe we have some way to go before we reach that balance.

I also believe we must re-work the regulatory and legislative framework if we are to have any chance of achieving this balance.

Let me be clear: I’m not going to be the grinch who stole Christmas – I will not go into New Zealanders’ homes and tell them that they cannot have a beer with their 17 or 18 year old while they watch the rugby.

I also acknowledge there are many positive elements to the Sale of Liquor Act 1989. At the time of its enactment, the Act provided a cohesive and comprehensive regulatory framework; dramatically changing our drinking culture. New Zealand’s thriving café and bar scene emerged as a direct result of the liberalisation of the ‘89 reforms.

However, over time, piecemeal and inconsistent legislative change has eroded the principles that underpinned that Act. At current count, the Sale of Liquor Act has been amended 13 times since its enactment.

It’s become increasingly clear to me that New Zealand urgently needs to take a wholesale look at the Sale of Liquor Act.

I will take some convincing that the Act should not be rewritten.

That’s why I’ve asked the Law Commission to speed-up their review of our alcohol laws. In response to my request, the commission brought the release date of their discussion document forward to the 31st of July and are now working to have a final report finished by March 2010. This is over a year earlier than originally planned.

Since the release of the Commission’s Discussion Document, I’ve instructed the Ministry of Justice to work closely with the Law Commission in order to gain an in depth understanding of the issues being raised in submissions. These issues are being regularly fed through to me.

The message that you should take from this is that the Government intends to act swiftly after the Law Commission’s final report back in March 2010.

I’ve also met with many stakeholders in the alcohol industry including the breweries, NGOs and public health organisations. Some of those I have met are here today.

My meetings with stakeholders were not intended to cut across the Law Commission’s submission process, but were aimed at helping me frame up in my own mind a matrix of issues that were most likely to be in contention.

In each of these meetings, the same issues continue to come up – licensing, hours, age, minimum pricing, and excise tax.

These are areas that I know you will have strong and informed views on. I encourage you to feed your collective knowledge into the submission process, if you have not done so already.

While I will await the outcome of the public submission process before publicly commenting on the substance of reform, I can tell you about several overriding principles that the Government will use to guide reform.

The first principle is that this Government will tackle changes to liquor laws as a single package of reform. Put simply – we will reform liquor laws once and we will do it properly.

As many of you will be aware, there are currently two separate liquor law reform processes in train – the Law Commission’s Review and the Sale and Supply of Liquor and Liquor Enforcement Bill, which is currently at Select Committee.

We will incorporate both of these pieces of work into one reform package because I intend to tackle this issue once. As I alluded to earlier in this speech, I am giving actively considering repealing the current Sale of Liquor Act and starting again from scratch.

The second guiding principle is that the Government’s reforms will have a regulatory focus.

In my opinion, to avoid confusing and blurring the debate as is often the case with conscience votes, this issue has to be framed as regulatory issue.

A regulatory focus will reduce the likelihood that a rational consultation and drafting process will be distorted at the eleventh hour by an irrational political process.

The third principle is that one Minister will be responsible for liquor law reform. That Minister is me.

One of the reasons our liquor laws are in disarray is because the issue has traditionally been allowed to fall in between the cracks of the Justice, Health and Education portfolios.

This approach clearly doesn’t work and that is why the Prime Minister has decided to charge just one Minister with overseeing this reform.

The fourth and final principle is that I will not allow this issue to descend into a lobby fest. I will deal with this matter in an open and direct manner. I will maintain clear lines of communication with all affected parties.

And before the Government announces its position, I will get all the players in one room and steer a course through the proposals. I hasten to add that that doesn’t mean that everyone will agree on the final shape of the reforms.

These principles will ensure that the Government has a transparent and coherent process to guide it through the vexed issue of liquor law reform.

Of course, both the Law Commission’s review and the new Sale of Liquor Bill will only deal with the laws that govern the sale and supply of liquor.

There are, quite rightly, no laws that govern how we drink.

That is a product of our culture, and will only change gradually over time.

But that does not mean that we should not try.”

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The Shout Team

The leading online news service for Australia's beer, wine, spirits and hospitality industries.

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