Opinion – NZ Herald 18 April 2023

When you next drop into your local bottle store to pick up a bottle of something for a social occasion, savour a glass of wine with a meal at home or gather with friends at a local bar, you would do well to remember that all these activities are currently the focus of the government’s latest legislative tinkering.

The Sale and Supply of Alcohol (Community Participation) Bill is meant to give communities greater say over who gets a license in their area.  Fair enough – except the Bill, currently in front of a Select Committee, will not do this. In fact it will probably make it harder for communities to have a say.

At the same time, it could impact legitimate businesses who have been operating lawfully and reasonably in communities for years.

The problem with the Bill started with the Government’s haste in pushing it through (it was announced 30 October and in Parliament by mid-December). Even so, more than 430 submissions were made to the Select Committee in the few short weeks of (mainly) holiday period before the 12 February deadline. This probably reflects the complete lack of consultation with the industry most directly impacted by the proposed amendments.

None of the industry submitters are opposed to the Bill’s stated intent, which is to strengthen community involvement in the sale of alcohol with a view to reducing alcohol harm.

And everyone agrees the current legislation, which dates back to 2012, is in need of review, not to mention our inconsistent and cumbersome licensing regime.

The problem lies in the foreseeable consequences that will arise from some of the proposed changes which, instead of addressing alcohol-related harm, will significantly impact responsible business operators and exaggerate existing problems with the current licensing process.

Most of the Bill’s amendments are focused on the process entities go through to apply for a new license or renew an existing license, and are supposedly intended to ensure communities have a greater say in the granting of such licenses.

Throughout the country these processes are determined by District Licensing Committees (DLCs), in keeping with the relevant Local Alcohol Policies (LAPs).

LAPs may limit the location of licences in particular areas or near certain types of facilities such as schools or churches. They may also limit the density of licences and impose conditions on them, such as the ‘one-way door’ condition that allows patrons to leave premises but not enter or re-enter after a certain time.

At present a myriad of LAPs are decided by 67 different Councils around the country. Yes, you read right – that’s 67 different decision-making bodies. It’s not hard to see how an inconsistency of decision-making arises under that regime.

But the Bill doesn’t propose to alter this structure.

Rather, it proposes an unfathomable mix of changes to the processes DLCs follow, the result being that DLC hearings will probably be longer and more involved.

If an LAP allows for proximity provisions to sites such as schools or health facilities, the changes will enable DLCs to decline the renewal of an existing license (and with a pen stroke remove the viability of an established business) regardless of the record of the licensee.

The Bill also broadens the category of people who can object to a license application, the result being that someone with no relationship to the community in question can object.

In a DLC hearing it also restricts who can question and cross-examine witnesses at a license hearing, and it removes the ability of parties to appeal the LAPs under which their licensing decisions are decided.

If all this sounds a bit procedural, think about a neighbourhood bar which has operated responsibly for years. Under the proposed new regime that bar could be refused a license renewal because a new pre-school has opened along the road.

Alternatively, someone from the other end of the country could object to that bar’s license renewal.

The vast majority of on-and off-license operators act responsibly. Yes, we need to ensure such high standards are adhered to by 100% of licensees, but we also need an effective, fair and consistent licensing regime.

Research tells us that the vast majority of New Zealanders drink responsibly. Our alcohol consumption has declined by more than 25% since the late 1970s, and since 2010 the number of licences nationwide has declined by more than 23%. 

Fixing the unhealthy drinking behaviours of a minority of New Zealanders will not be achieved by tinkering with the licensing system in the way the current Bill proposes.

What we need is an evidence-based approach to the sale, supply of alcohol that addresses unhealthy drinking behaviours while safeguarding the involvement of communities – including responsible licensees.

Virginia Nicholls is the executive director of the NZ Alcohol Beverages Council.