‘Three causes of community issues: alcohol, alcohol and alcohol’

Posted 12 May 2022 by Moana Ellis

Whanganui District Council has delegated the city’s Mayor to lobby for a Green Party member’s Bill to reduce alcohol harm.

Whanganui District Council Chamber

Whanganui District Council Chambers Photo: LDR / Moana Ellis

In a majority vote on Wednesday, the council decided to back Auckland MP Chloe Swarbrick’s bid to change the law on the sale and supply of alcohol.

Swarbrick asked the council in a video link on Tuesday to support the introduction of her Sale and Supply of Alcohol (Harm Minimisation) Amendment Bill. The Bill seeks to improve local control over alcohol regulation by abolishing appeals on Local Alcohol Policies (LAPs) set by councils.

The other half of the bill seeks to sever the tie between sports and alcohol advertising and sponsorship.

The MP is asking councils around the country to help get the Bill to the debating floor by lobbying for the support of 61 non-executive members of Parliament (non-executive members of Parliament are MPs who are not ministers or under-secretaries).

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This would bypass the lottery of the ballot process which draws members’ Bills from Parliament’s famous biscuit tin once a fortnight.

Swarbrick asked the Whanganui council – “as a local authority with substantial experience in the failings of the current law” – to help progress the Bill without leaving it to chance.

“As councillors you know the problem intimately because you’ve seen it in your communities but you also know … the cost and the waste of time for council, and totally unsatisfactory outcomes as well for your communities.”

Whanganui introduced a LAP in 2019, six years after starting community consultation and two years after defending appeals by Foodstuffs and Liquorland to its provisional LAP. The appeals resulted in the council extending off-licence closing hours from 9.30pm to 10pm to end the legal costs and risks of continuing the appeal process.

The council’s Community Wellbeing Manager Lauren Tamehana said the council had called for review of the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 a number of times in the past year with letters to Ministers and a remit to Zone Three of the local government association of councils, Local Government New Zealand.

“I acknowledge that the amendment doesn’t have everything on our wish list but it is a start, and once the process gets through the ballot we will have a chance to submit and raise our concerns, particularly the concerns we have over the District Licensing Committee (DLC) and their ability only to ‘have regard to’ and not be required to ‘give effect to’ our LAP,” Tamehana said.

Last year, the DLC granted a 15th off-licence, overriding the council’s LAP which set a cap of 14.

Swarbrick said the removal of special appeals processes would allow communities to make their own rules about where and how alcohol is available.

“As far as I’m concerned that’s basic democracy. Too often local government is the recipient of law from central government that is totally unworkable. On the issue of alcohol harm, my member’s Bill seeks to give power back to fix this.”

Councillor Rob Vinsen was one of four councillors who voted against backing the private Bill, saying sponsorship from alcohol companies contributed significantly to the Whanganui community, including a brewery’s donation of $200,000 to the development of one of the city’s sports facilities Cooks Garden.

“This is the sort of income that has come from these so-called ogres of society. They’re not ogres of society.

“Ninety percent of people handle their alcohol very well and it’s a very enjoyable part of our lifestyle. It’s not all bad and don’t let people go round and tell you that you need to be controlled about how you can handle alcohol.”

But Deputy Mayor Jenny Duncan said a presentation from a Whanganui medical chief during her time on the District Health Board had opened her eyes to alcohol harm.

“There were three causes of the issues we were facing in our community and they were: alcohol, alcohol and alcohol. And that was quite a surprise and an eye-opener for many of us. We didn’t realise it was that far ahead of any other issue.

“Yes, there are a large number of people who enjoy their drink and drink responsibly but there are a huge number of people destroying their own lives, and the lives of other people around them, because they aren’t drinking responsibly.

“This is not about spoiling the party, this is about reducing the supply of alcohol later into the evening in inappropriate and often more poverty-affected [parts] of our community.”

Duncan said a council seeking to introduce a LAP would be up against some “pretty hefty” funded entities who could block restrictions and that was not appropriate.

The council’s LAP was written after community consultation and was “our community speaking”, she said.

“I don’t think that an alcohol supplier or chain should have a louder or stronger voice than our community, and that is the current situation,” Duncan said.

A motion by Councillor Kate Joblin and Councillor Duncan to support the Amendment Bill and delegate the Mayor to advocate for the Bill among MPs on behalf of the council was passed, with Councillors Vinsen, Brent Crossan, Charlie Anderson and Graeme Young in opposition.

Mayor Hamish McDouall told Local Democracy Reporting that the appeals process was one of several issues with the 2012 Act.

“Once a LAP has been put out, people who have submitted to the LAP can appeal. It makes the appeals process much more difficult and complex than it should be, much more expensive and delays implementation of the LAP.

“It happened here. It’s been an issue right around the country.

“The Act has brought some of the decision-making closer to council because prior to that a liquor store opened here almost right next to a high school and councils were shut out of any control. We weren’t asked, there was nothing we could do but complain in the media.

“So provisions of the Act that have allowed us to put in a LAP were a good thing. However, you’ve got these hurdles in the way. If a policy can be overridden, that suggests that local voice has been somewhat diluted.”

McDouall said he didn’t know if the private member’s Bill would address that.

He said he had already begun lobbying Opposition MPs and had in sight those of the Māori and National parties.

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air