It’s a question that has popped up many times over the years, and is making news again now, with a focus on Tasmania.
In recent months, the rejection of a liquor licence for a Caltex petrol station in Moonah, as well as other rejected and pending applications for general and convenience stores across Tasmania, has resurfaced the question in the state.
One group in support of these applications is the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores (AACS). Its CEO, Jeff Rogut, said the debate on this topic is not new and not confined just to Tasmania either.
“AACS would like to see convenience stores nationally being able to sell select ranges of alcohol,” Rogut told National Liquor News.
“Convenience store operators are proven responsible retailers. We sell age-restricted products such as tobacco and lottery tickets and, with the appropriate training in place, we can safely and responsibly sell packaged alcohol too, as convenience stores around the world do.”
The AACS also importantly outlines that it is not seeking to apply its current operating conditions and hours to the sale of alcohol.
“We do not propose to sell alcohol 24 hours a day, and would instead observe the trading hours that other retailers in local areas follow. Our staff would be fully trained in accordance with the responsible service of alcohol. We have offered to make separate areas in our stores available for alcohol purchases,” Rogut explained.
The rejected and pending applications also show that they’re not intending to mimic the offering of the off-premise industry, rather, to use alcohol products to complement their own unique offering. For example, a rejected application for specialty grocer York Asian intended to only stock a small range of Chinese liquor that is usually not available in Australia, alongside produce typical to Chinese, Japanese and Korean cuisine.
The Caltex Moonah application, meanwhile, noted that it would only sell Tasmanian alcoholic products to: “support industry development and employment creation by adding another opportunity for local suppliers to retail their product in the northern suburbs of Hobart.”
The rejection of both these applications, and others similar to them, reiterates something that has been key to liquor retail decisions in recent years in the state. To quote the decision documents: “The community’s best interests are not served by all retail outlets adding liquor to their collateral as a matter of convenience or to increase their revenue base.”
Despite this, there have been some instances in the past where alcohol is sold under special circumstances, outside of the traditional bottle shop setting. As The Mercury reported, the operator of the Moonah Caltex currently sells a small range of Tasmanian alcohol at another service station site in Launceston.
National Liquor News reached out to Tasmania’s Liquor and Gaming regulator to seek clarification on what the current licensing allowed. Their response described how an off-premise licence is only granted if the primary activity of the premises is to sell alcohol.
However, it also noted: “Under certain circumstances, a premises may be granted a more restricted special licence authorising the sale of liquor between specified times and subject to conditions. These licences are generally limited to the tourism and hospitality industries.
“In considering all applications for a liquor licence, the Commissioner must make a decision which, in his opinion, is in the best interest of the community. Each case is determined on its own merits after considering the object and scope of the [Liquor Licensing Act 1990].
“The Liquor Licensing Regulations 2016 make clear that the Commissioner must take the interests of the whole community into account, not just private interests.”
When Rogut was asked about these special circumstances, he said they were like exceptions to the rule, and that was what the AACS has a problem with. He said that when he speaks to politicians in private, they even agree that the rule in question should be changed to allow petrol stations and convenience stores to sell select alcohol products.
“It’s 2020 but Australia’s liquor laws are stuck in the 1930s. Liquor retail reform is long overdue in Australia with existing laws failing to reflect the way Australians live their lives today,” Rogut said.
“Consumers can buy alcohol around the clock from drive-through outlets, through home delivery services and even off the supermarket shelf. Most bottle shops are owned by one of the two major supermarket chains. Preventing convenience stores from participating in this market is not slowing the growth of the industry.”
The largest and most vocal opposition to this is the anti-alcohol lobby, with both local and national groups commenting over the years. This is also seen in the Moonah Caltex application – two of the three objections received to the application mentioned the normalisation of risk behaviours in relation to alcohol that could be caused.
One of these objections was from Dr Jackie Hallam, Acting CEO of the Alcohol, Tobacco and other Drugs Council (ATDC), which described how alcohol consumption in Tasmania is worse than Australia’s average. It also noted: “The selling of alcohol and the advertising and promotion of the product in a service station will further increase the normalisation of alcohol use in the community and that this is a contributor to alcohol related harm.”