OPINION: If you're a minister in this Government, the way you usually deal with social discord is to pass tough regulations.
Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has done this with beneficiaries, and Housing Minister Phil Heatley recently acted on state house tenants claiming cheap accommodation to which they were not entitled. When she was police minister, Judith Collins famously took on boy racers, earning her the nickname Crusher, with her rarely enacted legislation to crush the cars of multiple offenders. But though Crusher might be a lion with boy racers, the justice minister appears to be a lamb when it comes to dealing with the nation's booze barons.
Alcopops or RTDs (ready-to- drinks), with an alcohol content of up to 10 per cent, are blamed for much of the public drunkenness we see among young people. There have been calls to limit the alcohol content of these drinks. That's what they do in Aussie with apparent success. For a while, it looked as if our Government was going to listen and pass appropriate legislation. But then one of New Zealand's most effective pressure groups, the alcohol lobby, sprang into action. They have seemingly worked their magic on Crusher, as she has now decided that rather than be told what to do by government, the booze barons can be trusted to regulate themselves.
Wonderful! Will we now see beneficiaries have their rigid work-testing requirements relaxed because Paula Bennett believes they are responsible enough to regulate themselves? Will boy racers be asked to self-regulate in the burn-out department? Surely gang members are, like the booze barons, responsible individuals who can self-regulate where they will wear patches?
Perhaps Crusher Collins needs a new sobriquet to mark her newfound status as hero of the alcohol lobby. Maybe Crushed Ice Collins or perhaps Tom Collins is now more appropriate.
The liquor industry is understandably delighted at Crushed Ice's change of heart. This is the same industry that happily tolerated the notorious six o'clock swill in the 1950s and 1960s because it was cost-effective, showed no interest in providing food in bars to counter the effects of mass alcohol consumption and, in the 1970s, constructed huge booze barns that promoted fights and drunk driving yet made phenomenal profits.
So will self-regulation work? Possibly.
But the evidence, in Auckland anyway, shows that some restrictions can help counter our binge-drinking culture. According to Mayor Len Brown, since many outlets have banned the sale of single bottles or beer and RTDS, breaches of the city liquor ban have decreased by five times.
That's such good news that liquor giant Lion Breweries, which produces wonderful boutique beers with amazingly original names like Lion Red and Lion Brown, has written to Crushed Ice asking her to regulate. She rightly refused to get involved in what is essentially a council matter.
Here in Wellington, the police report that a third of our city's crimes are committed in our booze-sodden, vomit-strewn Golden Mile. Rather than regulate, perhaps Crushed Ice and her brewery mates should stand in Courtenay Place on a Friday night and politely ask the barfing, bingeing, brawling teenagers to self-regulate.
Though I think a law limiting alcohol content in RTDs has definite merit, ultimately Crushed Ice and her lobbyists are right. No amount of regulation will effectively change our boozing culture. We must change as a society.
During my recent sojourn to Asia, I saw only three drunks the entire time. Two of them were old men in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, paralytic yet harmless at 10am. I figured that given they survived the US bombing, I shouldn't be too judgmental.
The third drunk was an obstreperous tattooed fellow in the bar at Kuala Lumpur Airport, loudly complaining about the price of a pint. Though he was particularly rude to the super- polite staff, he greeted me with a big, friendly smile. After all, I was a fellow Kiwi.
- The Dominion Post