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The House: Liquor Bill Receives Special Treatment

Parliament is expected today to go into urgency this evening in order to work through the most hotly debated piece of legislation of this Parliament.

To deal with the 'consience' type issues that are raised by the Sale of Liquor Amendment Bill (No 2), the Government has set up a most unusual process to deal with the legislation.

The most controversial issues include proposals to lower the minimum drinking age to 18, permit wholesale Sunday alcohol trading and extend the range of alcohol allowed to be sold in 'non- bottle' store operations such as supermarkets and dairys.

Instead of going through the legislation clause by clause in the Committee of the House, the House in committee will first debate a series of 11 issues and take votes on them. Then the legislation will, in light of those votes, be redrafted and then come back to the Committee of the House for a normal clause by clause, or part by part, debate and vote.

The argument for such an approach is that the bill was complicated by linkages that exist between the issues.

The major difficulty the select committee encountered was that there were a number of broad 'conscience type issues' that needed to be determined before other issues in the bill (the technical and operational changes) could be considered.

As a result, the Committee did not report back on these other issues because it was not feasible to do this without first knowing how the House would vote on the controversial matters.

The 'issues stage' will take up 20 hours of the House's time this week. At the end of the debate on an issue there will be a vote on each of these supplementary order papers on each of the options.

Options will be considered from least restrictive to most restrictive as set out in the Committee's report. Once one SOP gets 50% + 1 of members' votes, that position will be considered the position of the House.

Once all the issues have been completed, it is expected that the law drafters will take the upcoming Parliamentary break to rewrite the Act.

The Committee of the Whole will then go into the second phase after the House recommences in four weeks time.

Of course this will mean that disgruntled members and lobby groups will be able to have 'two bites at the cherry' and it is expected that MPs will be subjected to furious lobbying to reverse their position during the break from the many powerful and vocal groups with an interest in the matter.

The punters around Parliament are picking:

- rejection of lowering the drinking age;
- widening of the range of alcohol that can be sold in supermarkets (but a furious lobbying effort may bring in some sort of bottle-store within a market condition);
- and, the Sunday trading issue is too close to call.

The last attempt to introduce wider Sunday trading was defeated prior to the 1996 election, at the time many were picking that it had the numbers, before many rural MPs were swayed by conservative electorate organisations..

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