New Zealand 25 years on from “Once Were Warriors”


25 years ago a movie exploded on to New Zealand theatre screens. Audiences were shaken, stirred, angered, horrified at what they had just seen. A – within its R-16 censorship rating – cold hard look at something New Zealand had been sweeping under the rug: the dreadful toll of domestic violence on our communities, our families/whanau and ourselves. Once Were Warriors, based on the book of the same name by Alan Duff, shone a light onto things and into places in New Zealand society that people did not want to talk about. 25 years later, what has changed?

To understand the problem we should look at the movie itself, first. It centres around a dysfunctional Maori family whose male head is hopelessly lost – not so much wilfully but perhaps having never known any other way. Handsome, muscular but dangerously prone to violence, which is all too frequently inflicted on his wife, his sons and daughter. Slowly Beth Heke is realising that Jake is too dangerous for her and her family and they need to get out, but not before his eldest son Nig becomes a patched gang member and daughter Grace is raped by an uncle. She commits suicide. One day Beth finds her diary and starts reading through it, then she happens on a page where Grace mentions being raped. The movie ends with Beth and Nig confronting Jake in a pub with his drinking mates including Uncle Bully.

25 years later some things have changed for the better, but all who are working towards ending domestic violence and the effects it has on society know there is a long long way to go. Sexual violence, addiction and domestic violence have not changed much. Whereas then it was almost taboo to grumble about sexual violence, it is becoming more acceptable to make a stand, but not without the real risk of being ostracized by supposed friends and family. Whereas alcohol was probably the substance of addiction in 1994, it is more likely now to be methamphetamine or synthetic cannabis.

In 1994 many people would say “harden up” or “get a divorce, Ma’am”, movements such as White Ribbon Day have brought an annual focus with Defence Force and emergency service personnel turning out. Law changes on the books now make strangulation an offence and police have better training and resources for dealing with such violence. Calls for people who have suffered domestic violence to be allowed time off work to get their lives in order are also happening. Most recently recognizing that pets may be the subject of abuse when victims have walked away from dangerous situations, a pet refuge programme has been established to take pets that cannot be taken by families fleeing.

But unless we address how men come to be bullies, dysfunctional people who only know violence, we will not address the causes of domestic violence in full. Unless we look at the broken homes, the lack of male role models and support for those who have learned right from wrong there will still be the Jake Heke’s who know no other way; the Beth Heke’s who find themselves trapped by powerful figure, but know they need to leave. Tragically there will also be the Grace Heke’s who find themselves propping up the sexual violence statistics and the Nig’s who join a gang. We can avoid this, and 25 years later one would have hoped that significant progress would have been made at the least. But all of the statistics suggest that there is a long way to go before Rena Owen can say that her character Beth Heke has done her job.

 

A question of justice


I have a question for you all. The question is one that has been bugging me for some time, but which in recent months has become more immediate, more urgent. It is a question of justice.

Over the last few years I have become increasingly frustrated with the New Zealand justice system as I am sure many others have too. Our reasons for our frustration will be many and varied, but deep down they all point to the same problems:

  • a failure of the courts to hand down sufficiently grave sentences
  • a lack of acceptance of what they have done
  • a failure to prepare those soon to be released for the post jail world – if they have no money or housing to go to, a potential life of crime await

My frustration stems from watching the rising tide of people who think that Police chases are games. They are not and every time someone is killed or injured because they ran away from a police check point, the Police have to be able to explain what went on to their superiors. But not only that, they have to explain it to the family(ies) of the deceased/injured as well.

The frustration, when I try to boil it down to its basic points stems from two separate issues. One is that there does not seem to be a working deterrent to the problem – i.e. something that would stop or discourage people from running before they even considered it, namely a short period of guaranteed jail time of say 48 hours to see how the offender reacts. To many the New Zealand justice system’s ability and willingness to dispense satisfactorily strong sentences is a joke and those handed down are viewed as being slapped with a wet bus ticket.

But it is not just car chases that make me wonder what the problem in the justice system is. How much crime is driven by socio-economic issues? My guess would be quite a bit. From a very early age, way back when a boy is young and just starting to learn about the world and society around him, too many are missing the adult male role model in their lives and the huge difference having a real male role model can have. If or when the boy is subject to bullying will he decide to fight back and possibly suffer disciplinary action that sets in motion a downward spiral or will he have second thoughts?

Maybe it stems from poverty and not going to school on a full stomach, thereby becoming disruptive in class, because the “second brain” of the body is not having due attention paid to it. Maybe it stems from a lack of love at home with no one being at home when a student gets home from school and so they go out and fall in with the wrong crowd. The brain in ones head is the academic one, but a persons stomach in some respects acts as a emotional brain. Between them they determine what might be described as emotional intelligence.

Maybe, as the case I am about to describe, is simply one of no boundaries being set from an early age and now had that aforementioned feeling of being bullet proof. A 13 year old dying in a crash caused by trying to flee the police was one whose caregiver had described as being out of control.

But, okay, lets assume a person does go to jail and do their time in full. They come out genuinely remorseful and admit to the past offences at job interviews, and then cannot get a job because no one will hire someone with a criminal record. Meanwhile the recently released prisoner has to feed, clothe and do all the other things a person needs to do to live, but cannot find the money to fund it all.

And so, the man who had turned his life around, and owned up to his past is now being denied the means to move forward in life and get away from his negative influences. Thus begins a cycle that I suspect is being played out all too frequently among our former jail bird population.

So, what do we do about this?

Renewed calls to raise drinking age


An on going debate in New Zealand about what the drinking age should be has flared up again. Renewed calls from paramedics and others suggesting that the drinking age is too low have surfaced after a spate of incidents. But as we shall see, they ignore a problem that is as old as the existence of a legal drinking age.

The calls are coming after a Coroner suggested that the age should be raised back to 20 years, where it was up to the end of 1999.

This ignores an age old issue that was true even when I was at high school in 1999. Teenagers see alcohol as cool and until and unless that perception changes, minors will continue trying to find ways to get alcohol. They will get older family members or friends who are of legal age to do it for them. They will continue trying to slip into bars and night clubs that are not permitted to have them on their premises. These social pressures and dares are just quite simply something that happens. I was offered alcohol by mates when I was under age. I went to parties where there was alcohol present – I did not drink any except under parental supervision because my hypertension means I am on medication, which at the time I was concerned would react badly with it.

When I went to my Year 13 high school ball I had drinks at a mates place, along with about 14 others who were also going. Then the age to be consuming alcohol was still 20.

There are other things that can be done which would be more effective (all of which I have argued the case for in prior articles):

  1. Removing alcohol from supermarkets and restricting it to alcohol stores and licenced cafes, bars and restaurants
  2. Removing advertising from the media – can only be displayed on premises
  3. Tighten the penalties for non compliance

Of the sad case of Matthew Kyte who drove drunk on a regular basis, just like the man who was recently in court for his 12th drunk driving charge and who had killed 4 people, here is a guy who should have had his licence permanently revoked. The Police said of the case that Mr Kyte would have been potentially charged with murder had he hit two people who he narrowly missed on his last drunken drive.

Intoxicated crowds also seem to be becoming a problem at accidents. In the last few years there have been numerous instances of police, paramedics and fire fighters being abused by drunken crowds at parties where things have gone wrong. Some of the cases have involved violence, whilst others have involved items being thrown at the emergency services, who have had to call up Police to deal with the trouble makers.

But none of this will be fixed by changing the drinking age. Ones age is a bit different from ones intelligence quotient, or more specifically here, ones maturity quotient.

Lessons from Europe and Singapore: Alcohol consumption


I was in Belgium on my recently completed trip I was fortunate enough to try some of their superb craft beer. Belgium has a well established reputation for craft beer – indeed on a canal boat trip I did with my parents in Brugge, the guide/driver pointed out a place which he said has over 1400 craft beers in it. We initially thought he was joking, but I will let you make you minds up after you look at the photo below (it was considerably longer than this):

The author and the beer wall (part of it) in Brugge, Belgium. (R. GLENNIE)

This and other experiences with alcohol culture in Belgium and other countries around Europe got me thinking about how and why New Zealanders behave in the way they do with alcohol. Is there any way to make New Zealanders drink more responsibly without taking away the pleasure of a beer or wine? Is there a way of having a good time without filling up Accident and Emergency Departments in our hospitals or waking up the following day wishing one had never had that extra round (vomited all over the floor, smashed something, started a fight or other totally improper conduct)?

Belgian craft beer is not weak in alcohol. One might think it does not taste so, but very often I was drinking beers with 8.0-10.0% alcohol. They would be served in 330ml or 500ml glasses. At no point in the trip did I have more than two rounds at a given location and all were accompanied by food or food was consumed prior to alcohol consumption.

I noticed some key differences about the conduct of Europeans around it. I did not not note any seriously drunken behaviour. There were to be sure some loud conversations going on, but a few of the places I had beers at did have acoustic set ups that made things seem louder than they probably were. But I never saw any fights, uncivilized behaviour or police officers arresting anyone.

In many places people would come in, perhaps by bike or on foot, they would order a round and have it. Many would go after just one round. A few would stick around for more. Food was readily available. These establishments would even on Friday generally be shut by 2200-2300, though they were open right through the day.

I did some research. In Belgium 0.05 milligrams of alcohol per millilitre of blood is the limit. Bus drivers and truck drivers, fee paying passenger services – taxi’s, limousines with chauffeurs – have to abide by a 0.2 milligram limit. Compare that with the limits in New Zealand: 0.05 milligrams per 100ml of blood/250 micrograms per litre of breath.

Alcohol limits across the European Union vary considerably. From 0.08 milligrams of alcohol per litre of blood in the United Kingdom, to zero in the Czech Republic and Slovenia (zero generally being interpreted as below detection levels). So do the attendant rules around driver types – some countries set professional drivers (which I take to mean truck, emergency services, etc)low limits such as 0.02 and others make it an offence to drive with any alcohol on board.

Of the wider alcohol problem in New Zealand, I thought about that too. Supermarkets are currently able to sell alcohol. In Europe I saw wine and beer being available in places like service stations, which were more like small scale supermarkets or suprettes. I think that is too liberal and that alcohol should be restricted to alcohol stores, which rigorously enforce the 18+ law. That will take away some of the marketing in front of youths. It will not solve all of the problems with drunkenness, but that was likely to require a societal shift in attitudes anyway.

 

Addressing our alcohol problem


Saturday night in an Accident and Emergency ward cannot be a pleasant time. People who have had accidents, drunks or people off their heads on drugs, many with children. Some will be volatile and angry. Others will be too badly hurt to be of much use.

Spare a thought for the doctors and the nurses on that night, or any other busy night. Spare a thought for the businesses having to clean up after a night of drunken mayhem the bottles and the vomit and any damage that might have occurred on or near their premises. It is all too common isn’t it?

You might be tempted to blame the bars. On occasion you will be justified as there will always be a bar or restaurant or two that fail to carry out good host behaviour and need a reminder by way of a fine or a visit from the blue arm of the law. It would – for example – be embarrassing to have to close because the kitchen hand has gone home and there is no food available from the bar, but that is the law. The very vast majority though take their roles seriously and look to spot and deal with any inappropriate behaviour before it can escalate.

So in the blame game who does one turn on next? Do you turn on the councils that make the bylaws? Perhaps, but before we look at them, perhaps let us look at where people are buying alcohol from and what they are doing with it. For some drinking at a bar is considered pricey and they buy alcohol in bulk from the liquor stores. A 15 pack of beer will set you back $19. With a couple of mates, you load up with alcohol and then you decide to head for town to continue partying and get more alcohol on board. “Get wasted” was the expression commonly used when I was at University.

But in councils across New Zealand we are seeing a tendency to introduce bylaws that punish the wrong people who comply with the law and the instructions of bar staff. We are tending to see a fear of upsetting authorities amongst the people who introduce these laws of the hospitality sector, which employs so many people and gives an outlet for a bit of socializing. I feel that the issue is generally not the bars, but the availability of alcohol outside of these premises – do we really need wine and beer week for example at Pak N Save? Do we really need two supermarkets and four bars all within 400 metres of each other? You can find such a situation in Papanui, Christchurch. That is almost a sort of saturation level in terms of availability.

I believe there are only two places that should be allowed to sell alcohol:

  1. Bars/restaurants/etc
  2. Liquor stores/boutique beer/wine/whiskey stores etc

Hear the outrage emanating from supermarkets, where wine and beer will no longer be able to be sold were my suggestions to ever take hold. Although all of them by law require people under 25 to present ID, that has not stopped the odd person who is not of legal age slipping through the net. Thus many supermarkets now have their check out counters set to require a supervisor to come and clear the product being purchased when it is swiped past the infrared scanner.

I think one reason why we have drunken youths getting into trouble is their exposure to alcohol every time they visit a supermarket. It is a socially cool thing to do – to drink alcohol at parties if you are a underage person and there is a lot of peer pressure from your mates and fellow students to do so. None of which necessarily makes it right. On televisions, in the newspapers, on the radio and internet, supermarkets are able to advertize alcohol.

Since alcohol stores cannot sell to minors, theoretically the only people who will be in the stores are those of legal age intending to purchase alcohol. All well and good, but like supermarkets, the bars and so forth, even liquor stores have the odd incident where someone who is not of legal age slips through.

But if the advertizing is not in front of the eyes of the vulnerable underage bracket who are so impressionable, will they talk about it among mates? And if the supermarkets they are often in looking for chocolates or confectionary after school or helping Mum and Dad with the shopping, no longer stock alcohol in front of their faces, the temptation to see if they can slip a bottle through the check outs without their age being noticed is no longer there.

So maybe the answer to the question “who should be allowed to sell alcohol” is “not supermarkets”.

Sounds good to me.