Liquor lobbyists press Collins

JUDITH COLLINS: Justice Minister.
JUDITH COLLINS: Justice Minister.

Justice Minister Judith Collins met liquor industry lobbyists repeatedly in the weeks before the Government's controversial U-turn on measures to restrict sales of alcopops, official papers reveal.

The documents, released under the Official Information Act, reveal the extent of the pressure exerted by the industry, including a joint letter to Prime Minister John Key warning him his Government was about to "make a very serious and highly public mistake".

The industry hinted that legal action was possible if the crackdown went ahead.

In late August the Government backed away from its plan to ban the sale of RTDs (ready-to-drinks) with more than 6 per cent alcohol from off-licences.

Instead, the Government gave the industry the right to draw up its own RTD code of conduct.

Collins said on announcing the backdown: "Frankly, I think we can stop treating everyone as though they're fools and can't make decisions for themselves. It was a bit too much taking away people's responsibility. About 80 per cent of New Zealanders drink extremely responsibly."

Collins has now released dates of meetings she had with alcohol industry lobbyists and copies of strongly worded submissions presented to the Government.

On June 8, officials from four RTD manufacturers wrote a joint submission to Key to "raise our deep concern that the New Zealand Government is about to make a very serious and highly public mistake".

A ban on RTDs that contained more than 6 per cent alcohol was "deeply flawed and ineffective policy", they said.

The quartet - representing Bacardi Lion, Beam Global, Brown-Forman and Diageo Australia - said that the alcohol industry was "tremendously innovative and adaptable".

Should the ban go ahead, they said new products were likely to be introduced into the marketplace including flavoured wine in casks - with a higher alcohol content than RTDs - which would "be able to be sold in supermarkets as any other beer or wine product".

On May 18, Distilled Spirits Association of NZ chief executive Thomas Chin wrote to Collins stating he was "seriously troubled" by the RTD proposals.

He also raised the issue of trade conventions, saying the policy "potentially contravenes the Trans Tasman Mutual Recognition Agreement (TTMRA). The agreement guarantees access for Australian sourced goods and their sale in New Zealand shops".

Chin said the ban would constitute a "barrier to trade".

Two days earlier, Independent Liquor chief Julian Davidson forwarded a five-page submission to the Treasury - then forwarded to Collins - which claimed the policy-making process was "rushed, flawed and undertaken without any regard to due process".

Davidson said the full raft of proposed reforms would "create an immediate breach" of the TTMRA.

A week later Collins met Davidson, with one area of conversation being "the trans-Tasman treaties that come into play with respect to this decision".

In a May 17 letter to Collins, Lion external relations director Liz Read wrote that the brewer would need to spend about $1.5 million to reformulate and repackage its products if the bans were put in place.

In the weeks leading up to the Government's backdown, Collins also had meetings with Independent Liquor as well as Australian RTD producers Diageo Australia and Brown-Forman.

The documents were released to Green Party alcohol spokesman Kevin Hague, who was damning of the industry's actions. "[They are] standover tactics . . . raising the spectre of legal action [over potential trade deal breaches] is entirely about showing the iron fist.

"It is pretty clear there was a united voice from pretty much the entirety of the alcohol industry being brought to bear on Judith Collins. The pressure that the industry has placed the minister under is absolutely not subtle."

The Greens are seeking greater public transparency between lobbyists and government officials with its Lobbying Disclosure Extension bill, which is being considered by the Government Administration Committee.

Sunday Star Times