Frontispiece of Hobbes’ “Leviathan”.
How times change. Only a couple of years ago, New Zealand was allegedly beset with Nanny Statism because the Clark government had passed a law that could conceivably criminalise parents if they hit small children for purposes of correction. Now, the same people who made such a song and dance out of the Nanny State want to pass a law that will fine people $2,000 and criminalise them if they give a 17 year old a glass of wine at a party in their own home or at a wedding reception, without first seeking and getting parental consent.
Why should one law be Nanny Statism – while the other equally intrusive, equally overt piece of social engineering is not? Go figure. Moreover, one of the alleged flaws in the Section 59 law was that it would not stamp out violence against children, overnight. Does anyone seriously think the measures on alcohol announced yesterday are anything other than political tokenism?
The liquor law changes being proposed focus upon youth – a group that, as Professor Doug Sellman of the National Addiction Centre pointed out a few weeks ago [and again here] comprise just 8% of the binge drinkers in this country. A whopping 92% of binge drinkers are aged 20 or over, and their habits will be left virtually untouched. Even within the narrow youth ambit, the government’s approach will be selectively focussed only on youth-as-consumers – and not on raising the excise tax on alcohol, or on restricting alcohol’s promotional advertising, or on regulating the number of liquor outlets, or on setting a minimum price for alcohol. So much for having a comprehensive, coordinated approach to the problem.
The approach being mooted creates some absurd contradictions. As Key said yesterday at his press conference one third of the National caucus supports raising the purchase/consumption age to 20, one third supports keeping the status quo of 18, and the remaining third favour the ‘split’ option of 18 for bars and licensed premises, and 20 for everywhere else. Anything other than keeping the status quo will mean –as Jenna Raeburn of the Keep It 18 lobby group has pointed out that someone can get married at 18, while being criminalized if they tried to celebrate with a glass of wine on their wedding night. Talk about the Chaperone State.
Surely, the same argument that Key uses to justify taking no substantive action – ie, that he had to consider the fact that most people use alcohol responsibly – applies to young people as well? Why should it be wrong to impose restrictions on the majority of people over 20 who use alcohol responsibly, but quite okay to impose restrictions on the vast majority of young people who are responsible drinkers? Raeburn puts the case for keeping the status quo succinctly :
Only a tiny minority of 18 and 19 year olds are represented in the statistics on alcohol-related harm. Preventing all 18 and 19 year olds from buying or drinking alcohol punishes the majority of people who do nothing wrong.
18 year olds can vote for who runs our country, get married, join the Police or the armed forces, stand for Parliament, and make any number of other extremely significant life decisions. It is ridiculous and offensive to say that an 18 year old cannot be trusted to purchase alcohol in the same way as any other adult. If the drinking age is raised then an 18 year old could get married – but be unable to have a glass of wine on the wedding night. That’s ridiculous.
Back to the proposals announced yesterday. Crucially, the business of making money out of youth binge drinking has been left entirely intact by the Key government. It is like having a drugs policy that carefully avoids the drug suppliers, but focusses myopically on a youthful sliver of their clientele.
The bogus nature of the government response is underlined by the ‘zero tolerance’ approach to alcohol levels in young drivers – and the simultaneous retention of what is effectively the highest blood alcohol level in the developed world for everyone above that age group. Probably, even this puny response to binge drinking will be set aside during the run-up to the Rugby World Cup. It is a fairly safe bet that binge drinkers – and the liquor industry that supplies Party Central and other outlets – will be smiled on by the authorities next year.
In bygone days, Winston Peters used to be criticised for practicing a cynical brand of populist politics. Well, the poll-driven pandering evident on this and other issues leaves Peters for dead. The Key government has made it clear that it will make no decisions that put its popularity at risk, and will act tough only towards the vulnerable – young drinkers, young workers, and people on welfare. The Daddy State, in other words.