(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, March 8.)
I find myself in the unfamiliar situation of being in agreement with Winston Peters. The New Zealand First leader thinks the police have lost the plot, and so do I.
Peters has attacked the police for wanting to curtail the right of people to take their own wine and beer to race meetings. He uses his customary blustering rhetoric, describing the police as politically correct wowsers and comparing them with Nazis.
But he’s right when he says government policy should recognise that the vast majority of New Zealanders treat alcohol responsibly – a fact wilfully ignored by zealots in the police hierarchy, the public health sector and the universities, who think we’re all helpless drunks.
Peters is also undoubtedly correct when he predicts that a prohibition on people taking their own alcohol to race meetings would soon become a blanket ban on alcohol at other community events, and possibly even family picnics.
The latest police proposal surfaced in a briefing paper on ways to reduce “alcohol-related harm” – three words that I suspect the staff at Police Headquarters in Wellington are required to chant for five minutes at the start of every working day to remind them of their primary mission.
The briefing paper identified BYO alcohol at race meetings as a “key issue”. This caused immediate alarm on the West Coast, where the Kumara race meeting, at which people have traditionally been allowed to drink their own alcohol, is a signature event on the social calendar.
West Coast mayor Bruce Smith says that if the police get their way, they will kill off an event that has been attracting West Coast families for 134 years. And you can be sure the Kumara races won’t be the only meeting affected.
I’ve often attended the races at the picturesque Tauherenikau course, in the Wairarapa. It’s an old-style, family-friendly country race meeting that attracts people from Wellington as well from the Wairarapa.
As at Kumara, people are allowed to take their own liquor. Many racegoers arrive early and set up picnic tables under the trees, often in the same spot they’ve occupied for years. There are no bag searches or other controls.
And you know what? In all the years I’ve been attending the Tauherenikau races, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone who was visibly drunk, still less behaving badly. The police are barely visible.
Yet the police hierarchy claims to have identified race meetings as a “key” cause of alcohol-related harm. This represents the latest step in a long campaign by police to redefine themselves as moral custodians whose primary function is not so much to prevent crime or catch crooks as to protect society from its own foolishness.
There have been innumerable examples in recent years of this Mother Hen approach to policing. In Wellington, police have subjected bar owners to such harassment that the city’s most experienced and respected hospitality operator – a man whose bars and restaurants have an exemplary record – declared last year that bar owners now saw the police as the opposition, not an ally.
Heavy-handed policing was also blamed when the once spectacularly successful Wellington Rugby Sevens fell out of favour with the public. It just wasn’t fun anymore.
It’s significant that Peters has now taken hold of this issue. No politician has a keener nose for public discontent, and his nostrils will be twitching more than ever in an election year when his party stands a good chance of holding the balance of power.
He will have noted that the single-minded, anti-liquor mindset adopted by the police hierarchy is putting officers offside with the community they are paid to serve.
I picked up a sudden, unmistakeable change of mood a couple of summers ago, when – without prompting from me – friends began expressing their irritation about being breath-tested on their way to work, or complaining about the bullying demeanour of police officers at outdoor events where people were harmlessly (and legally) enjoying a drink.
I have also noted a growing public feeling that police priorities are cockeyed and their resources misused. Ninety per cent of burglaries go unsolved and victims of crime frequently complain that calls to the police go unheeded.
A business owner told me last week that even when he provided the police with video footage of organised shoplifters at work, and evidence of their identity, no action was taken. Yet the police always seem to have enough officers for alcohol checkpoints, even in places and at times of day when the likelihood of catching drunk drivers must be minimal.
If I’m hearing this, the politicians must be hearing it too. Likewise, police officers in the community must be aware of mounting dissatisfaction.
What should especially concern the police and government is that the grumbling is coming not from the usual habitual complainers, but from conservative, law-abiding people – the type whose natural inclination is to respect and support the police. It takes a special sort of incompetence – or perhaps I should say dogmatic zeal – to alienate your best friends.