Dalziel, Lianne: Alcohol Reform Bill — First Reading
Hon LIANNE DALZIEL (Labour—Christchurch East) : As the former Associate Minister of Justice who introduced the bill that the Alcohol Reform Bill replaces, and who helped write the very broad terms of reference for the most in-depth inquiry into our alcohol laws that New Zealand has ever seen, I should be standing in this House today to describe this bill as a tribute to the members of the Law Commission and the more than 3,000 New Zealanders who made their views known to it. It is a travesty that I cannot, but the truth is that this bill does not even begin to meet the challenge posed by the evidence that the Law Commission presented to the Government about what needs to be done.
I wanted that report and I wanted the Law Commission to write the bill—and now I know why the Government did not give it time to do so—so that MPs collectively could have said to the public that they had introduced a bill based on the evidence about what needs to be done and were now calling on the public to respond to that. They could have let the political considerations and the application of the conscience vote come into play once those submissions were heard, but instead we have a Government that decides to gut the Law Commission’s report in the shape of a Government bill that adds very little to the bill that I introduced over 2 years ago.
About half a dozen matters are contained in this bill that were not in the bill that I introduced on behalf of the Government of the day. It was the bill that this Government took to a select committee and has allowed to languish there, going nowhere. Every single one of the additional matters in the bill that we have today—every single one of them—could have been dealt with by way of a Supplementary Order Paper to the original bill because they are all within the scope of that bill. The Minister of Justice spoke about local alcohol plans. I chipped in to say what a good idea and that I wished I had thought of that. It was in the bill of 2 years ago that we had local alcohol plans.
The Government has completely failed to acknowledge the unprecedented community response to the harm that alcohol has wrought on communities. There have been marches in the street against the granting of yet another liquor licence, from one end of the country to the other. Thousands have attended meetings organised by what started as a small group of health professionals who saw the real costs that alcohol imposes on our health system—$1.2 billion a year. The Minister must be joking if he thinks that is the extent of the harm that we all pay for from our tax dollars. There are healthy city and safer city networks from one end of the country to the other. They have to highlight the property damage that occurs in their communities. There are the unsafe environments in city centres where intoxicated people gather, weekend after weekend. There are individuals like Dr Albert Makary from Timaru, who puts his own resources into a campaign to win hearts and minds about this issue, which he sees destroying families and communities. This Government has completely underestimated the level of community awareness of the extent of the problem and what needs to be done to curb the harm. I use the phrase “curb the harm”, because that is the title of the Law Commission report, Alcohol in our Lives: Curbing the Harm, which sees so few of its recommendations in this bill.
I am probably one of the few MPs who have read every page of the Law Commission report, but after looking at this bill, I ask what the point of that was. All it really did was to show me how little has been done in response to that report. The New Zealand Food and Grocery Council must be slapping itself on the back, knowing that it now has more influence than the Law Commission—and it does not even have to provide the evidence to back up its contribution to the problem, which is enormous.
Everyone who is anyone has described this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grapple with the multitude of alcohol-related problems that must be addressed. This Government has said that it is OK to squander that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it is not OK. I think that is a very good line to use in this debate, because of the correlation between alcohol use and domestic violence. It is not OK.
There are four elements that would have been in this bill, had the Government been truly willing to deal with the real issues, instead of the sham we have seen of side-swiping and sidelining issues, such as getting us to look at age as an important issue. Age is not the top issue, at all. The four issues are price, the rampant commercialisation of alcohol and its treatment as an ordinary commodity, advertising and marketing, and dangerous drink-driving counter measures.
When I say “price”, I will not be arguing for an across-the-board increase in price through tax. Excise tax is very useful for several purposes, but it is next to useless, in the face of the power of supermarkets, to put up the price of alcohol, regardless of an increase in excise tax. The priority is to increase the price of dirt-cheap alcohol, and that is why I am arguing for minimum pricing. I refer to the $5.99 bottles of wine. At that price, three young women can buy five bottles of wine to preload on, rather than buy two bottles of very good wine for the same price. The ones who buy five bottles of $5.99 wine are the most price-sensitive buyers. They are the ones who will change their behaviour when prices go up. Do not let anyone tell us that it will do otherwise. That is the reason for a minimum price per standard drink. The $2 per minimum standard drink price would not touch a $15 bottle of wine. That would stay the same price, but it would slightly more than double the price of the $5.99 bottle of wine.
The second issue, the rampant commercialisation of alcohol, is evident by the fact that alcohol is usually the first thing we see when we enter a supermarket these days. We do not have to wait to get to the alcohol aisles, because the supermarket has specials right at the front door, ready to greet us and to remind us that this is the place where dirt-cheap alcohol gets poured into the community.
Supermarkets do not break the law. I never understood the role of supermarkets when I was Associate Minister of Justice, and it is the one thing I regret from that time. Supermarkets make it their business not to break the law, and I know why. It is because they have a licence to print money. Supermarkets have no responsibility for what happens when their liquor leaves the premises. They are not responsible for their actions. They do not have to take responsibility, and they do not.
Politicians have allowed supermarkets to sell wine as a matter of convenience. I was not here when that decision was made, but I would have voted against it. We let supermarkets sell beer as a matter of convenience as well, but that has driven down prices and increased availability, and supermarkets can legally wash their hands of the fallout that has occurred. If the public of New Zealand told us, as politicians, that the trade-off has been too great—convenience for harm—then I would vote to take alcohol out of the supermarkets. It is convenient to buy wine at the supermarket; I do it myself. But the price that we have had to pay for that as a nation is this: the cutthroat, loss-leading, deep-discounting, retail practices of a sector that does not care about what happens out there in the community. It is no wonder the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council has done so well out of this legislation.
Advertising alcohol makes not one bit of difference to the drinking culture—Yeah, right! I am a real fan of irony. “Yeah, right!” advertises beer, but “Yeah, right!” advertising of alcohol makes not one bit of difference to the drinking culture! It will not make one bit of difference until we frame alcohol as a recreational drug, as New Zealand’s No. 1 recreational drug, which it is, and recognise that marketing its consumption and over-consumption runs counter-intuitive to minimising the harm objectives that any regulatory framework governing the legal supply of such a product must have.
Finally, I turn to dangerous drink-driving counter-measures, which focus on impairment. Most New Zealanders have been horrified to find out how much a person can drink whilst still legally being able to drive. Albert Makary, when on stage in Timaru, asked a National MP and I to come on stage carrying the door of a car. I had a real sense of dread that he was going to tell us that someone who had been behind that car door had died. But he did not. It was his daughter who had been in the car. She almost died, but so many do die. We have to take further measures on our roads to protect people from the harm that occurs.
The night that I was on stage in Timaru I answered a question that Albert Makary had asked. He asked why politicians will not change laws such as lowering the blood-alcohol concentration from 0.08 grams to 0.05 grams and establishing a minimum price for alcohol. I said it was because we, the politicians, lacked courage. Courage is what we must have. When this bill comes back from the select committee, hopefully strengthened by the submissions that are received, we must have the courage to make a difference.