I don’t believe Sir Geoffrey Palmer is a wowser. I imagine he would bristle at the suggestion. Neither do I believe he’s a compulsive controller who knows what’s best for everyone. However I do believe that the Law Commission, in preparing its report Alcohol In Our Lives: Curbing the Harm, has allowed itself to be well and truly captured by neo-wowsers who don’t think New Zealanders can be trusted to make the right decisions about alcohol consumption. The wowsers’ fingerprints are all over the document.
Reading the report summary and an accompanying breakdown of the 2900-plus submissions, it’s clear that the commission’s report is an almost unqualified victory for those who want to see the liberalisation of the past few decades wound back. They have convinced Palmer and the commission that only a drastic retreat from past reforms can save us from our inability to control our alcohol intake.
The tone of the report is alarmist. Large chunks of it are written in the language of the anti-alcohol propagandists who have been blitzing the media in the weeks leading up to the report’s release. Their objective was to create a moral panic over alcohol abuse, and so far they have succeeded.
The commission has listened to the social scientists, health providers and medical researchers who urged a lifting of the minimum age of purchase, an increase in excise tax and a crackdown on liquor advertising and promotion, among other measures. Liquor industry interests didn’t get a look in. In fact the commission explicitly rejects the industry position that the majority of New Zealanders drink responsibly and shouldn’t be penalised because of the minority who don’t.
On this crucial point, the commission has adopted the alarmist contention that “excess drinking is not confined to an aberrant minority”. Exactly what constitutes “excess drinking” is not satisfactorily explained. Rather, the commission seems to accept without question the anti-alcohol lobby’s claims that 20 percent of us drink in a “potentially hazardous manner” and that 25 percent of us consume too much alcohol every time we drink – statements that hinge on the anti-alcohol propagandists’ arbitrary perception of what is “hazardous” or amounts to “too much”. Where there is a choice between an alarmist conclusion and a more cautious, conservative one, the commission seems unerringly to opt for the former. (I should note here that judged by the criteria of Professor Doug Sellman, one of the more shrill anti-alcohol propagandists, I am one of New Zealand’s 700,000 “heavy drinkers”. Perhaps you are too.)
What bothers me is not so much that the liquor industry position – which essentially favours the status quo – has been disregarded in favour of the restrictive regime favoured by the anti-alcohol lobby. The industry is big enough and ugly enough to look after itself (and you can bet it will be doing exactly that behind the scenes). No, what concerns me is that this whole elaborate process is dominated by organised and well-resourced pressure groups: the industry on one side, the control lobby (largely taxpayer funded, incidentally) on the other. Ironically, the people on whose behalf this review exercise is supposedly being undertaken – ordinary New Zealanders – are largely excluded. There is, as far as I know, no lobby group representing moderate drinkers. By its very nature, the commission’s review gives weight to the views of interest groups but largely fails to capture the views of the ordinary citizens who will have to bear whatever consequences flow from it, but who don’t have the time, the resources, the know-how or the motivation to prepare and make submissions. (This isn’t the fault of the commission, of course; it’s just the nature of the system.)
I haven’t tackled the full report – all 500 pages of it – but the 32-page summary condenses the commission’s recommendations and gives an idea of the report’s tone. One key point, already mentioned, is the commission’s dodgy assertion – based on the anti-alcohol lobbyists’ loaded statistics – that liquor abuse is not confined to a problematical minority.
Another is that alcohol should not be treated as a “normal” commodity – again, a central tenet of the New Wowser Manifesto. “The trend towards regarding alcohol as a normal food or beverage product needs to be reversed,” the commission pontificates. “In truth, alcohol is no ordinary commodity. Alcohol is a psychoactive drug that easily becomes addictive and that can produce dangerous behaviours in those who drink too much. New Zealanders are reluctant as a nation to face up to the facts.” (See what I mean about the language used? It’s straight from the New Wowsers’ Handbook.)
A counter-argument to this is that by treating alcohol as a dangerous drug that must be carefully controlled, as New Zealand governments did for decades, you produce bizarre and contradictory outcomes like the six o’clock swill (wherein, I suspect, lie the origins of our binge drinking culture). I believe we’re still suffering the legacy of that prohibitionist tradition, which treated New Zealanders as helpless drunks unable to control their intake without the help of the state. The danger in turning the clock back on the liberal reforms of the last two decades, as the commission wants to do, is that alcohol will again attain the lure of forbidden fruit, attracting people (especially young people) because of its aura as something slightly risky and dangerous, rather than being treated as something to be enjoyed, like food, as part of everyday life. It strikes me as highly significant that countries where alcohol is treated as “normal”, and where children are introduced to it as an integral and unremarkable part of their culture, don’t generally share our binge-drinking problem.
It was inevitable that New Zealand would take time to adapt to the more liberal alcohol regime ushered in (albeit in a piecemeal and illogical manner) from the late 1960s onwards, but we were getting there. What the commission and the wowser lobby constantly overlook, because it doesn’t fit their agenda, is the many ways in which our drinking behaviour has improved. Not only is our per capita consumption down slightly on the late 1970s (it dipped very sharply in the 1990s, then crept back up), but we’re drinking differently. We’re doing it in more civilised surroundings, we’re doing it in mixed company rather than in the men-only domain of the old-style public bar, and we’re doing it more often over a meal rather than standing at the bar. We’re also more discerning about what we drink, choosing wine and “craft” beers over the mass-produced draught beer once dispensed through plastic hoses.
The commission notes with disapproval that the number of on-licences has more than trebled since the Sale of Liquor Act 1989, but doesn’t acknowledge that the size of the average bar has decreased enormously. The horrendous suburban booze barn of the 1960s and 70s, surrounded by acres of car parks, is extinct. The bars that have replaced them are much smaller, more intimate and more congenial. But apart from one brief token acknowledgment in the summary, the commission seems steadfastly to ignore these gains. It would rather dwell on binge drinking – a very real and ugly phenomenon, to be sure, but hardly “pervasive”, as the commission asserts, which suggests it has permeated every level of society when in fact it’s confined to a relatively small demographic group.
Not all the commission’s recommendations are extreme. There’s a good case to be made for reducing the proliferation of off-licence outlets and I personally wouldn’t argue too vigorously against the proposed reduction of opening hours. But the proposal to put the age of purchase back to 20, with no exceptions, is barmy and regressive. How humiliating for a 19-year-old to go to a bar or licensed restaurant with his or her parents and not be allowed to have a drink. How can we expect people to behave like adults when we treat them as children? This is precisely how our dysfunctional attitude toward alcohol developed in the first place.
So now it’s in the hands of the politicians. Given the fraught history of legislation relating to alcohol, we shouldn’t expect Parliament to make logical or consistent decisions – least of all if it’s down to a conscience vote (and I have some sympathy with Sir Geoffrey Palmer on that point). But at least the politicians, unlike the Law Commission, have constituents’ views to consider, which might lead to a more balanced position being struck than that taken by the commission. We should certainly hope so.