Very interesting research out of Massey University this week to show that the 2012 Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act has barely reduced trading hours, led to huge legal challenges to local alcohol policies and has not apparently done much to reduce alcohol-related harm (which is the object of the Act).
This is a pretty accurate summary of the effects of the legislation. Despite the growing evidence that the number of outlets affects the number and severity of alcohol-related events in an area, there is little evidence that the numbers are falling.
And don’t get me started on Local Alcohol Policies. Led by the supermarkets and the millions they make on selling alcohol, the liquor industry has spent up large on lawyers to ensure that local policies are no more restrictive than the very broad limits outlined in the Act. In short, local authorities have had little luck in shaping a policy that meets their local needs.
Take Christchurch, for example. It has abandoned attempts to put an alcohol policy in place after years of challenge from the industry and a huge bill for ratepayers. Like many cities, Christchurch is a sort of Wild West which has failed to curb maximum opening hours and where a large number of outlets have been established. And, of course, the city has huge alcohol-related violence and harm.
Over the past couple of years, Christchurch communities, like many others around the country, have ramped up opposition to what seems like an almost unlimited expansion of alcohol outlets throughout the country. I particularly like this protest (see picture) that took place in Gisborne recently, which very succinctly conveyed its message.
Christchurch communities have recently had a string of successes in opposing the establishment of new off-licences in the city. The focus on off-licences is important because much of the alcohol harm – youth drinking, binge drinking, drinking in parks – stems from the purchase of cheap liquor from these outlets. In one local case the local park was called the ‘lounge bar’ of the off-licence. There is plenty of research evidence that the more outlets there are, the more harm is caused, other things being equal.
The latest application was heard a couple of months ago. Essentially, a couple of guys who successfully run a long-established Liquorland in Christchurch decided to open up a branch over the other side of town. Their idea was to catch commuters in the wealthy hill suburbs on their way home from work with almost a drive-through service (if drive-through was allowed, I am sure it would have happened by now).
Unfortunately, they failed to take into account that the actual location was not just on a busy street, but also within a suburb of significant deprivation. Poor Philipstown, whose school was stolen by the Ministry of Education, whose community was damaged by earthquakes so many times, and rocked by social deprivation. Oh yes, and with a large secondary school within 500 metres of the proposed site.
So, they took their proposal to a District Licensing Committee, apparently without an inkling of what they were doing, and were confronted by an angry and determined community. The experts drew maps to show the harm, the community drew word-pictures of the problems it faced. The Committee sided with the community and the application was declined.
But this is not the end of it. Led by their Auckland-based lawyer, the applicants are now appealing the decision, basically saying everything about the hearing – rules broken, rubbish decision-making, biased Committee, rampant community – was unlawful or irrational (using the words of judicial review), and that they are appealing the whole thing.
And that is how such groups maintain the power imbalance in the industry. For who can spare the $10,000 or $20,000 to take the community’s case to the appeal process? Even most individual ‘small-store’ applicants balk at the cost, which is why there are so few big appeals.
Fortunately (cut to white charger running into battle with sturdy knight or knightess on back in shining armour), in this particular case the community will be properly represented and they will not have to pay a cent. The wonderful lawyers from Community Law Canterbury advised the Philipstown community through the hearing and will support them through the appeal.
There is much wrong with the law in this country. Too often the winners are those with the deepest pockets, not the best case. Access to justice is very poor, leaving communities fighting a rearguard action against the encroachment of poor practices. I am not just thinking of alcohol here, but also building standards, shonky earthquake issues and so many service reductions that threaten the lives of so many.
But perhaps a tiny light will shine on this one issue in the months to come. I will keep you updated.
Dr Liz Gordon began her working life as a university lecturer at Massey and the Canterbury universities. She spent six years as an Alliance MP, before starting her own research company, Pukeko Research. Her work is in the fields of justice, law, education and sociology (poverty and inequality). She is the president of Pillars, a charity that works for the children of prisoners, a prison volunteer, and is on the board of several other organisations. Her mission is to see New Zealand freed from the shackles of neo-liberalism before she dies (hopefully well before!).