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August 19, 2013 | by  | in Features Homepage |
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Let’s Call It a Night

Every weekend, a lot of us get drunk and act like dicks.

Some of us just yell at our friends. Some of us turn wing mirrors around. Some of us vomit all over the pavement. Some of us pass out. Some of us break shit. Some of us get into fights. Some of us end up in A&E. Some of us sexually assault someone.

I could give you the stats, but I doubt they’d surprise you. One in five sexual offenders were drinking prior to the offence. 75 per cent of Wellington emergency-department admissions after 10 pm are alcohol-related. Crime in Wellington spikes heavily around 9 pm and again between midnight and 5 am. Much of it occurs within the central city, particularly the boozy golden ‘L’ of Cuba Mall and Courtenay Place, and the less populated areas that surround it.

Late last year, Parliament passed the Alcohol Reform Bill, a watered-down piece of legislation aimed at curbing some of this harm. Most of the more dramatic measures initially proposed were dropped—18-year-olds can still drink, and booze is around the same price—but it did give local councils much more power, particularly over licensing, which dictates where and when you can buy alcohol. The Wellington City Council jumped at the opportunity, producing a pretty dramatic draft policy which has gotten almost everyone angry.

In its draft form, the proposal cuts heavily into our hours of drinking. Off-licences—bottle stores, supermarkets, dairies—would have to shut at 9 pm, three hours earlier than most of them have to shut currently. On-licences—bars and clubs—get it a bit easier, with a varied closing time depending on their behaviour and location. Bars in suburbs would get a midnight cut-off, while central-city venues would have to close up at 2 or 3 am, depending on ‘good behaviour’ of the bars—providing water, transport, food, that kind of thing. On top of the central-city provisions, the Council proposes an “entertainment precinct”, stretching down Cuba Mall and Courtenay Place, where venues could stay open as late as 5 am if ‘well behaved’. There’s a map of the precinct, which notably misses Edward St and the Waterfront, on the next page. Public consultation has finished, and a finalised policy will emerge on September 12.

PLAN OUT YOUR BUZZ

Most of the alcohol we drink comes from off-licences. It’s much, much cheaper, much easier to binge on, and much less regulated. A bartender can cut you off when you get too drunk; your personal bottle of tequila can’t. ‘Preloading’ drinks before heading out is more prevalent among students, and is often blamed for vomit-coloured carnage. Given the price disparity between a beer in town and a beer from a bar, you can’t really blame us.

Those pushing for the law-change understand that eradicating preloading is impossible. They can’t outright ban private drinking, and pricing can only be controlled by central government, who have all but abandoned the idea. Licensing hours are only one lever, asserts Dr Ruth Richards, a public-health physician, but they can cut down on spontaneity. “The idea is that you purchase your alcohol at a time where you’re not intoxicated, where you can make a plan for what you drink.” Preloading might be a lost cause, but ‘sideloading’—where those already out buy more off-licence alcohol on a whim—may be hindered. “We might stop some of those opportunistic sales.”

VUWSA President Rory McCourt, speaking for VUWSA at oral submissions on the policy, doesn’t think organisation is the issue. “Like most students, I plan my drinking, good or bad.” Looking into the bag of anyone heading to a music festival certainly confirms this view. VUWSA’s written submission is in accord. “We do not believe that young people wander into supermarkets and then spontaneously decide to get drunk.” All the students Salient asked stood by this, claiming they bought their booze well before 9 pm anyway.

HOME BY THREE

Closing off-licences earlier is only part of the strategy, which aims to move our whole drinking experience back a few hours. Why? Well, the later it gets, the messier it gets. Crime peaks between 2 and 4 am, and occurs much more in venues that close between 3 and 7 am*. Maybe if we all went to town at 10 instead of 12, and made it home around 2 or 3, Courtenay Place on a Saturday wouldn’t be so horrific.

“It’s a nudge in the right direction,” explains Richards. “Drinking habits do change with drinking hours.” The medical community’s submission praised the curb on on-licences, citing an Australian study which showed a 3-am closing time resulted in a 37-per-cent drop in assaults. “A reduction in the opening hours of on-licences […]would result in people coming to town earlier and an overall reduction in the volume of alcohol consumed.” Predictably, the Police also support the move.

On the other side are those the law actually affects. “I still gasp at the extreme stupidity of this idea,” says Clinton den Heyer, who co-owns the San Francisco Bathhouse and Goodluck. “On-licences are safe, and continue to get safer. Punishing on-licences as a means of reducing harm is literally the process of chopping down a tree by pulling off the leaves.” For den Heyer, culture is the key. He points to the Sevens, where people begin their heavy drinking as soon they wake up. “People drink to excess when the excuse is right, not because of licensing hours. It’s arrogant beyond belief to assume that closing earlier will miraculously make everyone’s drinking patterns change.”

VUWSA agrees. “[Earlier closing hours will] encourage pre-loading and cause a large influx of intoxicated people onto the streets”, writes Acting Vice-President (Welfare) Rick Zwaan in their submission. “Instead of restricting hours, we think that it would be far more effective to support education and welfare programs that encourage healthy drinking habits.”

Zwaan brings up a crucial point: if you really want to party, is a bar closing really going to halt your night in its tracks, or will you just find somewhere else to go—somewhere without bouncers and security guards?

Councillor Iona Pannett has to keep an open mind by law, but thinks the change would point people in safer directions. “When your structures and systems operate in a certain way, it does dictate how people behave,” she explains. “I keep using the example of London, where the Tube shuts at midnight. It would not be abnormal to start a party at 7 there, where of course in Wellington you would never do that, especially if you’re younger.” Pannett sees a parallel with the reforms which banned smoking inside bars and cafés. “There was a lot of kickback towards that but it hasn’t killed off bars.” Dr Andrea Boston, a public-health advisor from Regional Public Health, believes this change is possible. “At this stage, because it is new, people are very sceptical, but change happens over time. You change from one norm to a new norm.”

Then, like always, there’s the economy. Wellington spends $33 million every year between 4 and 7 am—a fifth of New Zealanders’ spending at this time, despite Wellington being only an eighth of the population. People from up and down the country come here, often to party, and contribute approximately $557 million to the economy annually. “Wellington is a brand, and it’s a brand that attracts customers,” says den Heyer, who believes our nightlife is a strong part of that brand. “If we protect our nightlife, and expand our nightlife, then more first-year students will be attracted to Wellington for uni, and conferences will be more likely to want to re-book here.” He sees this law-change as an opportunity. “If our bars stay open until 6 am, and the rest of the country’s stay open until 2 am, well, we will win a hell of a lot more business into Wellington.” VUWSA sees an economic angle as well, as many students are employed in hospitality. “This will reduce the amount of hours they will be able to work and impact negatively on their financial situation.”

CONCENTRATED CESSPIT

Keen readers have probably picked up on the elephant in the room—the entertainment precinct. It’s a compromise that nobody appears to like. The Police came up with it, arguing that controlling one smaller area was much easier for them, but apparently backed away from it somewhat at their oral submission.

Those pushing for tougher laws see it as a cop-out. “If the whole of the CBD closed at 3, then it would soon be the culture that everyone went home at 3 or 4,” explains Richards, but when some clubs stay open until 5, many will stay out with them. “I think it’s a bit of the Council having their cake and eating it too.” A boundary will naturally lead to a higher concentration of late-night venues, and research shows density is a major factor in increasing alcohol-related harm. Do we really want Courtenay Place to get more terrible clubs?

Pannett, once again, can’t state her views before the final policy is released, but does appear to have reservations. “The idea is to contain the area, to make it as easy as possible for the police to manage behaviour within that area,” she claims, but she does “think it is healthy to disperse it a little bit, so that people can go to different zones and they’re not all hanging in one area.” Crucially, she says, “if you drink too much you’re not safe anywhere.” Ironically, the more ‘infamous’ of Wellington clubs fit pretty snugly into the Precinct. Pannett has been contacted by many operators who fall outside the zone, but have never had any issues with alcohol-related harm. “Hawthorn Lounge,” a swanky upstairs bar on Tory St, “are wondering why they should be penalised.” She claims the Council will review whether policy is workable soon after it goes into effect.

Over on the other side, those against a crackdown dislike the Precinct too. “An arbitrary area where bars can operate for longer will concentrate the problem rather than addressing it,” writes Zwaan in the VUWSA submission. For den Heyer, “an advantageous trade corridor is intrinsically anti-competitive.” Rent prices on Courtenay Place are already prohibitively high, and the Precinct will just exacerbate the problem. Expensive rent keeps out innovators and small operators, he argues, encouraging larger “booze barn”–like venues to proliferate.

IT’S SOCIETY, MAN

Whenever New Zealanders take a look at our alcohol laws, the same refrain rings out: we shouldn’t change anything, because our culture is the problem! It’s true, our culture is the reason our drinking is so bad, but it’s become a scapegoat. It’s easy to call for more education around alcohol, as VUWSA did, or more anti-binge advertising, as den Meyer advocates, but we never actually do anything. If my drinking doesn’t harm anyone, why should I have to change it? “Everyone is saying we don’t want any limitations on our freedoms, and everyone says it isn’t their fault” asserts Pannett. “But we do have some problems, and everyone agrees with that.”

Several figures close to the draft policy have informed Salient that many of the controversial provisions will likely not make it into the final policy. Even if they do, licensing laws are obviously not the most powerful tool available—pricing is.

Culture and the law are not mutually exclusive. Our laissez-faire approach to alcohol is surely part of the problem. “New Zealand’s drinking culture is a whole mixture of things,” says Boston. “It’s in-part legislation and it’s in-part the people who live it—it’s the whole context.” And it is. Binge culture isn’t just the expectation that first years will get fucked up three times a week; it’s the legal system which makes it incredibly easy to do so. Until we change that, our culture will have a hard time changing itself.

——

* Based on research presented by the Council in The Right Mix: Alcohol Management Snapshot as at 20 June 2013.

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