Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Jim Anderton chases his tail

Few politicians have a more touching faith in the power of legislation than Jim Anderton. His first instinct whenever he sees something he dislikes is to reach for the phone and call the law draftsman.

Despite his long political career, he doesn’t seem to have grasped that kneejerk laws passed in an attempt to correct society’s errant behaviour frequently have unforeseen or unintended consequences, and often create anomalies and loopholes that have to be corrected by further law changes.

Of all politicians, Anderton should have learned this. In 2003, at his urging, the government substantially increased the excise duty on drinks with an alcohol content of between 14 and 23 percent. The stated purpose was to curtail youth binge drinking by whacking up the price of “light spirits” - diluted vodka, gin and suchlike.

Result? Binge drinking continued unabated as young drinkers shifted to other beverages. The real damage, bizarrely, was sustained by producers and consumers of fortified wines, libations favoured by price-sensitive older consumers. The extra impost made previously cheap port and sherry unaffordable, and the fortified wine industry – for decades an important source of revenue for several small family-owned wineries in the West Auckland area – virtually collapsed overnight. Nice work, Jim.

More recently we have seen Anderton’s attempt to stamp out party pills thwarted by manufacturers who simply switched to formulations not covered by the legislation pushed through by Anderton last year. Only this month it was reported that party-goers were turning up in hospital after taking new-generation pills containing a different ingredient from those banned.

But never mind – an expert advisory committee on drugs will consider adding the new substance to the banned list, at which point someone in a white coat will synthesise a different variant again. And meanwhile Jimbo has asked the Law Commission to look at ways of strengthening the regulations. Brilliant.

Jim’s latest move, predictably, is to call for the legal purchasing age for alcohol to be raised back to 20. On this issue he is aligning himself with Associate Justice Minister Lianne Dalziel, who’s keen to wind back some of the licensing law reforms of the past two decades. But raising the liquor puchasing age is likely to be a futile, token gesture; the stable doors are wide open and the horse’s hoofbeats can dimly be heard receding into the distance. Besides, the history of the licensing laws suggests that every attempt to close a loophole or rectify an anomaly only succeeds in creating new ones.

This is not to say Anderton has no reason to be concerned about party pills or binge drinking. But you’d think that by now, being an apparently intelligent man, he might have started to question his quaint belief in the power of a paternalistic state to regulate human behaviour simply by passing more laws.

Watching a kitten chasing its tail can be briefly entertaining, but watching a senior politician do it is downright disconcerting.

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