Robson-on-Politics 27 October 2006
Progressive has given Parliament golden opportunity to connect with voters
The public are going to be subjected to weeks, if not months, of name-calling, screaming and hysteria as rival parties lock-horns over appropriate uses of taxpayer funding administered by the Parliamentary Service.
With that horrible prospect in mind, I think politicians have an opportunity to latch on to the Progressive Party Bill to raise the alcohol purchasing age and tighten up on irresponsible liquor marketing practices - it will soon be voted on by Parliament.
The Bill will be, I hope, a golden opportunity for a majority in Parliament to reach out on a public health issue and show that they actually listen to the people and to public health experts on something that actually matters to families.
Liquor industry's dreams came true in 1980s & '90s
The background to this story go back to the days of extreme right-wing politics which dominated New Zealand in the second half the 1980s and through the 1990s.
Alcohol retailing laws were liberalized, alcohol advertizing and marketing rules were relaxed and the alcohol purchasing age was cut in the bad old days when families' interests, and childrens' health, were deemed less important than making a quick buck.
In those days, I was of course a member of the Alliance of five minor parties that was represented in the Parliament. The Alliance's philosophic position was to support 18 as the legal purchasing age but to oppose the brave New World of "liberal" advertising, marketing and retailing rules proposed for the country.
When it came to the final reading of National's Bill to lower the purchasing age in the dying days of the last Tory Government, we voted against it because we feared that, combined with other aspects of National's law such as its liberal alcohol retailing proposals, the end result of a lower purchasing age would be that younger and younger Kiwis would have easier and easier access to unsupervised access and use of alcohol.
So what has the evidence been?
The unfortunate reality is that lowering the alcohol purchasing age, combined with the other rules in our society these days, has indeed turned out as we had feared.
The evidence from around the country is an indictment.
Professor Langley of Otago University and a team of international researchers' conclusions, for example, is that there were significantly more alcohol-involved crashes among 15-19 year olds than would have occurred had the purchase age not been reduced to 18.
Lowering the purchasing age has had lage 'trickle-down' negative health effects for 15-17 year olds. Their research estimates that if the purchase age were returned to 20 years, an annual saving of over 400 injury hospitalisations and 12 fatalities among 15-19 year olds from road traffic crashes alone could be expected.
What to do about retailers that peddle to kids
The Progressive Party obtained $2 million funding in last year's Budget for enforcement of liquor licensing. Sting operations give a snap shot into what is happening in parts of the country.
I recall one sting operation in Hamilton last year that found nearly 70 percent of licensed premises in the city sold alcohol to under-age people during a weekend operation. Police and Hamilton council staff sent two volunteers aged 16 and 17 into 32 licensed premises in the city during Operation Scramble and they successfully bought alcohol in 22 of them.
Similar sting operations in Opotiki, Dunedin, Taupo, the Hutt Valley and elsewhere have found similar findings.
I think as a society we want to teach our 15, 16 and 17 year olds how to drink alcohol in a happy, social and safe setting. Having a beer with dad, or a wine with mum, or the other way around, at the dinner table is a great way to learn about alcohol.
Lowering the purchasing age has had large 'trickle-down' negative health effects for 14-17 year olds either directly buying, or getting supply via 18 year old mates through alcohol purchased at the local licensed dairy.
Liberals should be open to empirical evidence, not blind prejudice
I am encouraged by some of the very negative commentary on the Progressive Bill from the misnamed Hospitality Association, the ACT Party and the like.
The Business Roundtable and the media outlets that rely on big money from liquor advertising will be next with their editorial sermons on "being realistic" and "not being moralistic" etc. etc.
By definition, however, liberals should always be guided by empirical evidence, not ideological claptrap or weasel words or self-interested self-justifying rationalizations for non-action.
Real opportunity for Labour to reach out
Labour has emerged in the last three successive general elections to lead minority coalition governments with 38.7 per cent of the vote (1999), 41.3 percent (2002) and 41.1 per cent (2005).
Two polls over the long weekend show that Labour is tracking either marginally behind (TVNZ), or slightly above (Morgan), the level it has found is required to lead the country. Either way, there is a strong requirement for a majority party of government to always stay in tune with the public on important issues of public health and family interests.
Labour liberals can get more information on the public health issues at stake from the following Websites:
New Zealand Drug Foundation
Alcohol Health Watch
Jeanette Fitzsimons needed in next Cabinet
I read in the NZ Herald that the Greens' co-leader will decide by February whether or not to stand at the next election. I think it would be a great loss for New Zealand if Jeanette retires from politics before having a string as a member of Cabinet.
Her understanding on the big issues of Climate Change Policy, Transport and Energy will be of benefit to the nation.
While there were big issues that separated Labour from the Greens in 2002, that wasn't the case in 2005 - the problem in 2005 was that the Left lost its Parliamentary Majority.
But Labour should never forget that at an economic policy level, United Future and NZ First are on the Right - as their dishonest misrepresentation of the opportunities for big income tax cuts arising from the government's accrual surplus testifies. Like the Business Roundtable and National, these economically Right-Wing Parties double- and triple-count the size of the surplus in their ruinous propaganda campaign which, if ever implemented, would do nothing other than push the government's debt levels higher, a policy Aotearoa needs like a hole in the head.
The leadership of the centre-left should be aiming for, and planning the achievement of, a Labour-Progressive-Green majority government as the only safe bet for 2008, even as they actively reach out to the Maori Party as a key part of that winning strategy.