Friday, August 22, 2008

Ad hockery and other follies

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post and The Press, August 19.)

IT’S THE political itch-scratching season. How else can anyone explain the politicians’ urge to pass ineffectual laws in a desperate attempt to kid people that something meaningful is being done?

Earlier this month, in a kneejerk reaction to a mini crime wave in South Auckland, the Government introduced a bill that will prevent dairies below a certain size from selling liquor. If it becomes law it will unfairly penalise the owners of those businesses, who acquired them in good faith thinking they could sell alcohol. What’s more, to my knowledge there isn’t a shred of evidence that cutting back the number of liquor outlets in such an arbitrary fashion will make a blind bit of difference to liquor-related crime.

But more worrying still, the bill revives memories of an era when liquor laws were so confusing, illogical and impenetrable, so riddled with contradictions and anomalies, that even specialist lawyers had difficulty understanding them. The dog’s breakfast that once passed for New Zealand’s drinking laws was the legacy of a contest for political influence that raged for decades between the once-powerful big breweries and the equally formidable wowser lobby. It took years for a timid parliament to unscramble things.

You don’t have to be a senior citizen to remember some of those anomalies. The confusion over when it was legal to drink on a Sunday – how much food constituted a “meal”, therefore making it permissible to be served alcohol – was comical. And even after Parliament passed the Sale of Liquor Act 1989, which went a long way toward cleaning up the mess, it managed to leave a few bizarre anomalies in place, just for old time’s sake. Remember when supermarkets had to cover their wine shelves on Sundays, to the amusement of overseas visitors who wondered what sort of alternative universe they had strayed into?

Setting minimum limits on the floor area of retail premises allowed to sell liquor marks the resumption of a grand old New Zealand tradition of ad hoc interventionism that succeeded only in creating a society with a torturously conflicted attitude toward alcohol. What basis is there for expecting a different result this time?

* * *

THEN THERE’S the folly of proposing a drastic reduction in the maximum permissible blood alcohol level for drivers. Again, it conveys the impression of a tough government cracking down on sociopathic drunk drivers. But the main problem with drinking drivers is not that the permitted alcohol level is too high; it’s that a hard-core minority of drivers habitually drink to excess and will continue to do so no matter what limit the law applies.

These people – many of them multiple repeat offenders – are indifferent to the law, just as people who own dangerous dogs and parents who bash their kids are indifferent to the law. And just as with over-the-top dog controls and anti-smacking laws, responsible citizens will end up being made to pay for the misbehaviour of the tiny minority.

If legal blood alcohol levels are reduced as proposed, expect to see countless safe and responsible drivers taken off the road for breaching the new limits while incorrigible drunks continue to get behind the wheel without a thought for the carnage they cause. But the New Puritans in the Ministry of Health, the Alcohol Advisory Council and the universities will pat themselves on the back for having extended state control one degree further into people’s lives.

* * *

I HEARD the peculiar view expressed somewhere that the Dominion Post’s decision to publish Winston Peters’ comment to reporter Phil Kitchin – to wit, “Phil, I’ve told you that I’m not talking to a lying wanker like you” – might have a detrimental effect on relations between journalists and politicians. The argument went that it might make politicians reluctant to talk freely to reporters for fear that remarks intended to be off the record would be published.

Well yes, it might. On the other hand it might encourage politicians to be more civil and courteous.

Journalists shouldn’t put up with bullying and intimidation from politicians. They should expose it, because people are entitled to know how their elected representatives really behave. Keeping obnoxious remarks “in house” merely plays into the hands of the bullies.

Politicians with James Cagney complexes who play tough with the media are merely demonstrating that they can’t hack the pressure of public accountability. If a politician in an open democracy can’t deal with legitimate questions without resorting to bluster and puerile insults, he isn’t fit to hold public office.

* * *

FURTHER evidence has come to hand indicating we are well on the way to developing an entirely new form of spoken English. A radio newsreader announces that Ear New Zealand is reducing trans-Tasman fears, which will be exciting news for those with a phobia about air travel. And when I rang Land Transport’s 0800 road closures line during one of the recent weather bombs to find out whether the Rimutaka Hill road was open, the pre-recorded announcement included the strange information that cushion was advised on several icy highways in the central North Island.

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