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Matters of Substance

The Law Commission President - Sir Geoffrey Palmer

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sir Geoffrey PalmerLaw Commission President and former Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer is usually in bed by 10pm, but in the course of researching the reality of how alcohol is used and abused in New Zealand, the Law Commission President went out on night patrols with Police around the country until 4am. It was “carnage by night” he says.

“I understood the alcohol law. What I didn’t understand was the reality out there and how it has changed.”

In Hamilton, a group of students showed him a trio of bars known as “the Chlamydia Triangle”. They explained that patrons would drink until intoxicated in the first two bars, then have sex with random strangers in the toilets at the third bar. The next day they would have no memory of who they had slept with.

In Queenstown, Sir Geoffrey saw the council’s desperate efforts to clean vomit off the footpaths each morning to try and salvage the town’s pristine image for tourists.

“I don’t think that sort of thing enhances our civilisation. It certainly doesn’t enhance our tourism.”

Sir Geoffrey says the Police protect the masses from the reality of New Zealand’s drinking culture. Before he went out on the beat, he was as unaware as many other New Zealanders of alcohol’s true impact on society.

“I can’t tell you it was a pleasant experience. I felt, is this what New Zealand has come to?”

On-the-ground research, such as the Police patrols, complemented the extensive work the Law Commission undertook over an 18-month review of New Zealand’s liquor laws. The commission’s report features 1,300 footnotes, 153 recommendations and draws on the sentiments of 50 public meetings and 3,000 submissions. The recommendations, which will be considered by Parliament, are intended to be bedded in over a 10-year timeframe.

“The whole experience we went through was very chastening. I don’t drink as much as I did when we started this project.”

Sir Geoffrey now drinks one glass of wine, three or four evenings a week. He says all of the researchers working on the liquor laws project have been similarly affected by what they’ve learnt and seen.

“It’s the drinking culture you’ve got to change. We have got here [in New Zealand] a very unfortunate situation, and we seem to have convinced ourselves there’s nothing we can do about it.”

At an ALAC conference in May, Sir Geoffrey said 83 people had been known to drink themselves to death in New Zealand since July 2007, 1,000 more had died from alcohol-related causes and many thousands had been injured as a result of their own or someone else’s drinking.

Sir Geoffrey was Justice Minister when this country’s liquor legislation was last overhauled in 1989. Changes at that time included the liberalisation of laws to help develop New Zealand’s café and restaurant scene.

“I thought it would help make New Zealand a more sophisticated society.”

Those changes were appropriate and addressed vital issues for that era, but Sir Geoffrey says New Zealand is now a different country and significant social change in the interim has gone unchecked.