Former Porirua mayor appointed head of national licensing trusts association

SOCIAL DRINKING: Former Porirua John Burke has been elected president of the New Zealand Licensing Trusts Association, whose member organisations distribute $50 million annually to community groups.
SOCIAL DRINKING: Former Porirua John Burke has been elected president of the New Zealand Licensing Trusts Association, whose member organisations distribute $50 million annually to community groups.

He might not drink alcohol, but John Burke is keeping a close eye on liquor reform in New Zealand.

Mana resident and former Porirua mayor Mr Burke was recently elected president of the New Zealand Licensing Trusts Association, an advice and lobbying body representing charitable licensing trusts nationwide.

His main role will be to advise local trusts - many of whom operate liquor licences - about changes to the Sale of Liquor Act, currently being reviewed by the Government.

The last time the act was reviewed, in 1989, huge changes were made to liquor licensing trusts, which distribute money gained from the sale of alcohol to community groups.

The 1989 changes allowed the public to vote for competition to be opened up in areas in New Zealand where liquor licensing trusts operate.

Mr Burke will lobby against any reforms which could stop trusts raising funds to distribute in the community. Last year licensing trusts nationwide gave out $50 million.

In the 1990s Porirua voted to allow competition for the sale of liquor, and the local trust suffered as a result.

"The people of Porirua voted by a margin of almost two to one that they would prefer the licensing trust to have competition here," Mr Burke says.

"Anybody who wants to open a bar in Porirua, who can prove to the local authority they're fit, don't have to go through many difficult processes to open their own bar."

Mr Burke sat on Porirua's licensing trust board for most of the 1990s, but did not seek re-election in 1998 following disagreements about how the trust managed its business.

"I found myself all too often at odds with my fellow trustees."

He stood again in 2001 and became president, and has helped to turn its finances around. In the past 12 months the trust has distributed $2.5m, all to the Porirua community except for a $50,000 donation to the Christchurch earthquake fund.

In the process of revamping its finances, the trust got rid of its liquor licensing function altogether, rebranding as the Porirua Community Trust in 2005.

The trust still owns five local bars, but leases these to local operators.

"The model of the licensing trust owning and operating its own bars didn't seem to be working well in Porirua," Mr Burke says.

"These days our business profits come from rent and investments."

An arm of the trust is the Mana Community Grants Foundation, which gets its funds from 90 gambling machines around Porirua.

The trust's assets now exceed $6m, a big turnaround from the time of its "substantial business losses" 10 years ago.

"We're now making a quarter of a million in business profits. I sleep better nowadays."

Ease of purchase was a big factor in Porirua's vote - before competition was introduced locals could not buy alcohol from supermarkets, only licensed bottle shops.

"There's a big, big convenience thing."

Of 19 liquor licensing trusts in New Zealand, only four remain "closed", or without competition in their area. One is Invercargill, where proceeds from the local trust fund the city's "no fees" polytechnic among other community projects.

New Zealand's first licensing trust was created in 1944 in Invercargill, which had previously been "dry" under prohibition.

Trusts were created to keep alcohol prices low in the face of an effective monopoly which existed at the time between the country's two major breweries.

Mr Burke now fears the price of alcohol could rise if recommendations from the Law Commission are adopted.

He worries measures intended to curb youth binge drinking will penalise pensioners and make life more difficult for bar owners.

Kapi-Mana News