9 Jun 2022

Local authorities urge MPs to support alcohol harm minimisation bill

From The House , 6:55 pm on 9 June 2022

A proposed member’s bill that addresses a power imbalance preventing communities taking steps to develop public health measures around alcohol use could potentially bypass the ballot process.

That would be if 61 non-executive members of parliament agreed to it, but going on past form - in which New Zealand MPs have been reluctant to legislate against the  burgeoning promotion and provision of alcohol in his country - there’s no guarantee.

Chlöe Swarbrick in committee.

Chlöe Swarbrick in committee. Photo: Supplied

There are currently several member’s bills in the parliament system that relate to alcohol, either up for first reading or yet to be picked from the ballot. Whereas most of these look to remove restrictions on where and when people can buy alcohol, only one bill addresses the harm caused to communities by alcohol. 

Chlöe Swarbrick of the Greens has submitted the Sale and Supply of Alcohol (Harm Minimisation) Amendment Bill to the ballot. This bill abolishes appeals on local alcohol policies in order to provide proper local control over alcohol regulation. The MP described the appeals process as an anomaly in regulation that governs how people access potentially harmful substances. 

The Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012 was billed at the time as empowering local communities to put in place alcohol policies to regulate things like how many bottle shops are in their area. But in practice, because of that special appeals process, commercial interests have frustrated attempts to protect communities.

“The appeals process has meant that particularly in the cases of communities trying to impose rules around how they want alcohol accessed that corporate interests have been able to override them and tie them up in court. That’s meant that both Auckland and Christchurch city councils have spent in excess of $1,000,000 each in trying to put local alcohol policies in place,” Swarbrick said.

“Christchurch ended up giving up, where Auckland is seven years down the track, still trying to implement that local alcohol policy.”

Kona, Hawaii - October 19, 2018: Beer, water, and Liquor for sale Inside ABC Store.

Photo: 123RF

In three decades or so since alcohol advertising became legal in New Zealand, booze has become increasingly available in communities, such as in supermarkets and grocery stores. 

The second part of Swarbrick’s Bill implements a number of the recommendations of the 2014 Ministerial Forum on Alcohol Advertising and Sponsorship, particularly towards ending alcohol advertising in sports and alcohol sponsorship for broadcast sports.

“We have had report after report after review after enquiry which has demonstrated that we need to do far better with sensibly regulating alcohol as the most harmful substance in this country,” the MP explained.

These range from 2010’s Law Commission review which recommended that alcohol advertising should be banned outright, through to the 2014 Ministerial Forum, as well as in recent years the He Ara Oranga Report of the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction inquiry, as well as the Turuki! Turuki! Justice Review. They pointed towards the recommendation that New Zealand end alcohol advertising, at least in sport, and reduce exposure to the normalisation of alcohol.

The Justice Minister Kris Faafoi has recently signalled that he intends to get another review into alcohol laws off the ground during this parliament, but Swarbrick said there was no commitment that any eventual recommendations - which were likely to echo those of the aforementioned reviews - would be implemented.

Kris Faafoi

Kris Faafoi Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

It has somehow proved politically difficult to regulate a substance that is so widely used in this country. Alcohol industry lobbyists have access to the corridors of parliament.

“Having navigated trying to have a sensible debate about this over the past year and a half, you find so frequently that instead of having a discussion about how we can better regulate - as ironically was put forward by those who were opposing cannabis regulation in the 2020 referendum - that they just drive it into the space of ‘well, you’re just trying to stop people drinking’," Swarbrick said.

“Again, people are still going to be able to access alcohol, but they’re going to have better opportunities for potential interventions in problematic usage, as well as reducing the normalisation and glamourisation of alcohol by virtue of implementing those two things that my Bill would do."

Grassroots pressure

Swarbrick has been working behind the scenes to try and get the support of MPs in other parties, in a bid to get her Member’s Bill to bypass the ballot, although it’s not clear where Labour and National stand on the issue.

“So that’s been the purpose of trying to cut through the log-jam by going directly to local authorities. So for the very first time, in an unprecedented manner, we have had support from local authorities for a Member’s Bill that is yet to be drawn from the ballot. 

“Auckland Council, Christchurch City Council, Hamilton City Council and Wanganui have all passed motions for supporting the Bill, but also for delegating either the mayor or a councillor within that council to lobby directly all of the parties and the spokespeople to support this Bill bypassing the ballot,” she said.

This week, Palmerston North became the latest council to support Chlöe Swarbrick’s bill, with one councillor saying ​if they are going to be responsible for the social wellbeing of their community, they need to have the tools to manage that risk.

“This is just a demonstration of how grassroots communities are having to do all of the bloody work where parliament refuses to just get on with it because these pieces of evidence and enquiries have been sat in front of parliamentarians for twenty-plus years now and there just simply hasn’t been the action,” Swarbrick said.