To raise or to lower the drinking age?

In 1999, during the dying days of the National-led Government of former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley announced that the minimum drinking age of New Zealanders would be lowered. At that time it was 20 for the purchase of alcohol from stores and 18 for those going to the pub with parents for a drink.

Many of my fellow students at Burnside High were ecstatic. But there were also several – myself included – who did not agree with the lowering of the age. One of the others who disagreed with the announcement said at the time that she could see major problems with youths drinking to excess, drunken violence, mixing it with drugs. She was right then, and nearly 20 years later, I think she is definitely right now about the problems it would cause.

Doctors working in Accident and Emergency Departments all over New Zealand, and at medical centres would agree that there is a major problem with how we drunk then. They would still agree today that there is a major drinking problem in New Zealand. The drunken louts who come in, completely smashed from altercations that were powered by too much alcohol on board, assaults, disorderly behaviour and so forth are probably no different from the ones that were seen with trepidation by doctors in the years before the drinking age was lowered. I can sympathize with them about the problem, but I think it is how we are drinking that is the problem; how we perceive drinking and how the role of media advertising are the issues that need to be addressed.

My opposition was simpler. I simply didn’t think there was any real case for lowering it, and that the Government was just doing it to attract youth votes in the knowledge it was probably going to – and did – lose the general election.

Do we need as is the case in Papanui, Christchurch, three bars (Rose and Thistle, West Coast Tavern and The Phoenix)and two supermarkets all within five minutes walk of each other? I am not sure that we do. Especially since the supermarkets undercut by the simple nature of their business and their competitors, the incomes of the licenced establishments by selling beer and wine at prices that bars and restaurants would struggle to match.

People say that criminal violence will target alcohol stores if there were steps to reduce the availability of alcohol. I disagree. Amend the law to enable 5 or 10 year bans from licenced stores selling alcohol and similar for bars; a 3 strikes law for stores that do not comply with age vetting with instant loss of licence after the third strike and a requirement that photos of minors or others committing offences in the store premises be displayed in a prominent place.

But also there needs to be better education. Since alcohol is commonly drunk by teens long before they reach age 18, drug, alcohol and sex education should be compulsory in Year 10 Social Studies and legal studies or an equivalent course in civics should be taken in place of one of the option subjects in Year 12.

So, it is with cautious approval that I note the policy of The Opportunities Party to tackle our drinking problem. How much public support New Zealand’s newest political party gets for its policy though will be decided on election day.


Growing societal pains pressuring New Zealand justice system

It is quite fair to say that the New Zealand sentencing laws have multiple flaws to them that undermine not only the course of justice, but in some respects actually cause new injustices to occur. The cracks in the social net designed to keep people out of crime are so numerous that systemic failure is a real possibility and would occur when a critical mass of issues comes to a head causing a large scale collapse of services and functions.

Among these problems are:

  • A failing of the socio-economic conditions necessary to discourage criminal activity in the first place
  • A failure of the justice system to punish convicted offenders appropriately
  • Offenders occur because it suits the lifestyle that they have become accustomed to
  • Massive growth in the market for illegal substances – a seller can make $4,000 a week selling illegal substances in Whangarei
  • Break down of the family unit and a lack of role models for boys
  • Underfunding/scrapping of social welfare programmes causing them to fail or be wound up
  • Systemic underfunding and resourcing of the mental health sector

So how do these factors cause the sentencing regime to fail? There are numerous reasons.

  1. Whilst most New Zealanders are working, tax paying, law abiding people, there is a section of society that have no empathy with or understanding of societal norms. They come from broken families that have no had proper jobs, or have been involved with drugs or criminal elements – to them the law and the people who enforce it are suspect
  2. Despite legislation passing through Parliament in 2010 called the Truth in Sentencing Act, which was designed to make offenders do the full sentence handed down, sentences are becoming increasingly erratic and are rarely suitable for the crime/s committed
  3. It is obvious that the War on Drug has failed when drug dealers can make more money in a week than many New Zealanders do in a month – flow on effects from drug use can include being not suitable for a wide range of jobs
  4. A lack of role models for children with absentee parents or from a family where education and work are low priorities. They might be constantly working, or disinterested in their children’s development
  5. Welfare programmes have suffered from funding not keeping pace with inflation, but also constantly tightened criteria to eligible for assistance in the first place, with the result being more people are either getting cut off or finding the proverbial goal posts have shifted
  6. Mental health issues create highly unstable people whose symptoms may range from acute stress to being prone to physical violence or even killing – several cases have occurred in the last few years where either people not being treated have turned violent; caregiver gone to jail for mercy killing

New Zealand is going to have to address these issues collectively and individually in the near future or risk this nation becoming something other than the tourist friendly paradise many non New Zealanders believe us to be. Soon there could be significant costs to tax payers and companies alike fixing a problem that in some respects everyone is partially to blame for, but which nobody wants to come up with a comprehensive solution.

Fixing the New Zealand road menace

New Zealand Police are complaining about how the court fines imposed on drivers are not sufficient to deter them from reoffending. Whilst this is definitely a valid point, the problem menace of our drivers and those from overseas is not one that is going to be solved by fines alone.

It is true that there are definitely non-New Zealanders who have no understanding of the road conditions here. In their defence, aside from having different physical conditions to live with in their native country, how they are taught to view other road users and what passes for a road code, might also differ. So what one ends up with is a potentially very nervous person behind the wheel, not knowing what they have gotten themselves into. Mistakes are a very realistic probability.

It is also true that there are New Zealanders who by virtue of their attitude and conduct, should never be allowed to drive a vehicle of any description for any reason. These are people who are recidivist drunks, speedsters, serious offenders  and/or drug users who may have already caused serious injury or death. It is these people who need to be taken off the roads and never allowed to drive again.

There are ways of cutting down on the road toll and ways of cutting down on other road accidents not causing death. The conventional methods of writing fines do not go far enough and can be ignored, which is why there are people with thousands of dollars in unpaid fines, who have no intention of paying. A short sharp and most probably painfully effective way of dealing with these people would be impounding their car for a calendar month, and selling it to recoup the fines.

The methods used to cut drunken driving however do not all need to come from the law. Bars could have transparent bags that they will put in a safe containing a persons car keys if that person has had too much to drink and can come back and get them in the morning. Bar tenders could be encouraged to ask after a first round, whether the person drinking will be driving. Although that relies on honesty on the drinker’s part it will hopefully make them stop and think before ordering another round.

As young New Zealanders like to travel overseas, one way of getting them to think about their conduct on the road could be to point out the consequences a road accident where they are at fault can impact on their likelihood of passing a Customs check. A drunk driver, convicted in a New Zealand court for example will have a much harder time passing through U.S. Customs than a clean driver because they have committed an offence that is seriously frowned upon in both countries.

The revoking of licences is well and good, but it does not physically stop a person getting behind the wheel if they have access to keys, and driving off. This is where confiscation of keys and – in severe cases – impounding the car can become of significant use. It can be reasonably assumed most people will want their motoring independence back and pay up. Few will be wanting to pay substantial money to buy a new car.

So, in short there is a case for a change in the way we approach the problem of poor driving on New Zealand. Fines are but one tool in the inventory. There are others and we should not be afraid of devising new ones.

New Zealand’s road toll problem

To anyone who has driven down a section of State Highway One in Waikato there are two depressing things that stand out. One is the large number of white crosses, each symbolizing a life taken in a road accident. Some sites have recorded multiple fatal crashes, each one devastating a family and upending lives in ways only the victims and their families will understand.

The causes are often speed, alcohol or some horrible combination of both. A failure to drive according to the conditions and fatigue may also be factors. Officers who have the grisly job of scraping bits of people off the roads and piecing together what happened will also have an equally horrible job of having to tell someone that their loved one is not coming home, ever.

So, why are we – after years of steady progress – going backwards again? This Christmas period, despite having a few days still to run is deadlier than the whole equivalent period in 2015-16. What can we do about it?

The adverts on television regarding the road toll are as blunt as the topic matter is hard. New Zealand has a road toll that is disproportionate for a nation of four million people. There is much emphasis on making sure people do not drive drunk, but not so much about people driving under the influence of narcotics. Making roads safer will only go so far, when there should be stronger emphasis on making people drive to the condition of the road on the day.

One idea could be to overhaul the demerit point system to include residual points that are permanent and the only way to avoid them is not earn them in the first place. The idea behind them would be to assign – I am not by the way trying to make a death simply something with a quantitative value, because there is none that can be realistically assigned – certain types of offences a certain number of demerit points, of which only a portion ever dissolve. An example could look like this:

A person is allowed 1,000 demerit points before they lose their driver license. A fatal accident where murder was the intention might be worth 1,000 demerit points; and manslaughter is 700 points of which 200 dissolve. For the sake of this example we will say a person committed murder using a vehicle as a weapon, thus 1,000 points are initially applied. The demerit points are applied at the end of the sentence handed down, and 200 points will eventually dissolve. However 800 remain and another event involving death – murder or not – will result in the permanent loss of license, thus right to be driving, with any breach being one for which the offender can be arrested.

Another suggestion, which would go some distance towards addressing driver behaviour, could be to institute a “driver insurance”, that anyone holding a New Zealand license is required to obtain. Either that or tipping the balance in the law so that the the onus of responsibility is on the driver in the first instance and individual passengers after that.

There will be about 90-95% compliance, but just as with all laws there will be a select few who think that the law does not apply to them. They will have no remorse or understanding of the consequences or any empathy with the victims. For them jail can be the only option.

A rare tribute to National

There are not many days in which I am impressed with the New Zealand National Party. Aside from being a party I am philosophically opposed to in the long run, National is a is not a party that on a broad day to day level that I support or would want in Government. But today I saw an act approaching what I believe to be common sense, and I want to applaud National for doing it.

I am a pub goer as are many thousands of others. We like to have a pint of beer or glass of wine. Maybe a shandy or a shot. As adults we claim to know our limits – or have at least given some thought as to what they might be. We are out to have a good time and enjoy 80 minutes of footy and maybe have another pint after that. None of us come into a bar or restaurant whatever and where ever it might be with the intention of causing disruption. At least I certainly hope not. At the end of the game in the hopefully same civilized manner we came in, we hope to move on or have that extra pint/glass I was talking about. But we did not come to cause trouble. And that is probably – certainly hopefully – 90-95% of bar patrons nation wide accounted for just like that.

If you start a fight at the door of the bar, yes they can be held accountable because it happened at their door as opposed to two kilometres down the road and whatever you might have drunk in the interim. Now, if you start a fight those two kilometres down the road, having been removed from the bar because they were concerned about your conduct and you left their premises, whose problem is it then? The bar can’t be blamed for that fight two kilometres down the road.

It is not every day I call National to take a bow, but this is one. You have done something that I support and although you are not my party of choice – or probably ever will be, I am as a fair minded New Zealander obliged to give credit where it is due. Well done.