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The worst alcohol problem in NZ is in Parliament

The worst alcohol problem in NZ is in Parliament

By Roger Brooking

The worst alcohol problem in New Zealand is in Parliament. Its not that politicians drink too much, although that’s a definite possibility; it’s because political parties use conscience voting to decide policy on alcohol related issues. Instead of using well researched evidence on what actually works and using that to form party policy, National and Labour effectively have no policy on reducing alcohol related harm in society at all; they allow their MPs to vote according to their ‘conscience’.

The first time conscience voting was used in New Zealand was in the chaotic times of European settlement during the 1870s. David Lindsay has written a thesis on this subject. In an article in ‘Alcohol’ published in 2008, Lindsay wrote “most MPs at the time agreed that alcohol was a disruptive influence on society, but they disagreed on what to do about it”. So a conscience vote was allowed regarding the sale and consumption of alcohol.

Little has changed in 140 years. Alcohol is still a disruptive influence and politicians still disagree on what to do about it. Worse still, Parliament has stuck to this outmoded and irrelevant tradition of allowing conscience votes on alcohol related issues.

In the same article, Ross Bell, Executive Director of the New Zealand Drug Foundation, commented that there is no parliamentary rule that conscience voting has to be used for any particular piece of legislation. Mr Bell says that the major political parties lack the moral courage to take a stand on alcohol. “Parties are too timid to come up with decent alcohol policy and take a full party position. Parties should be forming policies based on evidence, instead of hiding behind the conscience vote as an excuse to not show leadership,” he says.

Professor Doug Sellman, Director of the National Addictions Centre, was also quoted. “When a government resorts to conscience voting, it is not governing. Alcohol is New Zealanders’ favourite drug, yet governments haven’t yet been able to deliver policies to deal with its harms effectively. Without rational public discussion about drugs, including the various political parties clearly stating their positions, we are not going to get rational drug policy. Conscience voting hasn’t delivered good public policy to date on what is a very serious issue for this country,” he said.

Conscience voting on alcohol issues seems to continue in Parliament because it’s a tradition that has been going for 140 years and parliamentary traditions are hard to change. However, it also demonstrates that even after 140 years, politicians are still confused about alcohol and what to do about it.

Unfortunately, this confusion then manifests in public policy and judicial decision making. For example, since the 1950s, there have been 46 occasions in Parliament in which issues relating to alcohol were decided by a conscience vote. In the same period there were only five occasions where law and order issues were decided by a conscience vote. Given the close relationship between drinking and crime, it defies all logic for political parties to have firm policies on law and order, but no policies on alcohol which contributes to so much offending.

This confusion is then perpetuated by judges faced with offenders appearing in Court for crimes committed under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Judges have no difficulty imposing sentences of punishment and deterrence because the penalties imposed by legislation are usually very clear. However, judges struggle to include sanctions which might assist offenders into treatment or rehabilitation programmes because this is not generally included by the legislation. No wonder judges order only 5% of the 25,000 people convicted for drink driving every year to seek treatment for a drinking problem.


Roger Brooking is Clinical Manager ADAC Ltd - Alcohol & Drug Assessment & Counselling

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