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Q&A: Henare O'Keefe

MoS nov 2019 henare

Local hero Henare O’Keefe is taking High Court action to overturn a liquor licence renewal in his community of Flaxmere. The Hastings District Councillor and QSM recipient, known as the ‘ambassador of love’, says Māori should have more say in alcohol sales in their communities.

QWhat motivated you to take action in your community?

A: I’ve seen the aftermath of alcohol at close quarters my whole working life. I’ve been a foster parent to over 200 children, a social worker and a youth justice coordinator. When you work with families, it’s not often that alcohol is not associated with these social ills. So that’s the reason why. I’ve just had enough. We can’t just allow these liquor outlets to come in here without challenging them.

Q Why does the density and placement of outlets matter?

A: Here in Flaxmere, we have three liquor outlets in very close proximity to one another. According to the data, that greatly increases the chances of alcohol harm.

 

Q You’re taking legal action in a High Court bid to overturn the renewal of a liquor licence in Flaxmere. What’s happening there?

A: We went to a hearing in the first instance. A lawyer, Janet Mason, is doing it all pro bono. She heard about our fight, and if it wasn’t for her, to be honest, we wouldn’t have got this far. The DHBs and Police are very well resourced, but communities are not afforded the same luxury so it’s not a level playing field in that regard. We go to the High Court shortly. There was a $500 fee to lodge an application. Thank goodness our lawyer put up a good argument and they’ve waived that fee. Why should the poor and impoverished suffer the aftermath of alcohol but [be penalised] when they challenge it and say they don’t want it in their backyard any more? They’re not resourced to be able to do that.

Q Is the current licensing system delivering?

A: No it’s not. Liquor is so deeply ingrained in New Zealand society. The frightening thing about alcohol is it’s legal! This poisonous thing is destroying families and communities on a daily basis. Do we really need alcohol that much? The pathway that I’ve chosen with my kaumātua Des Ratima takes guts. You have to be bold and courageous. We’re challenging government, we’re challenging the law, we’re challenging every man, woman and child in this country to wake up! To snap out of it before it’s too late. And in some instances, it is far too late. Go to any A&E on any given weekend or any cemetery in this country and you’ll see alcohol has left its mark. Why do we just allow these guys to renew their liquor licences and not say a word about it? I want to be able to look my grandchildren in the eye and tell them I put up a fight.

Q Your lawyer has argued for a Treaty of Waitangi-based approach to regulation. How could that reduce alcohol harm?

A: Māori are over-represented in alcohol-related harm statistics. We know that. Yet consultation with Māori has been all but non-existent. If we are to be the victims of this dreaded poison, why not sit down and converse with Māori at length? But that hasn’t been done. It took a whole hour in court for the judge to grant our kaumātua permission to speak! They said he had to be the kaumātua of a marae within two kilometres of the liquor outlet. A kaumātua’s role continues well beyond the marae! It was a very Westminster approach. True partnership is needed.

Q Would you like to see alcohol outlawed or more closely regulated? How should it be treated?

A: Obviously total abstinence is the best way to treat it. But you know and I know that’s never going to happen. The alcohol fraternity are a very powerful lot. So it’s going to take some bold and courageous steps. But first of all, people are going to have to take a good look at themselves in the mirror. Getting it out of the supermarkets would be a good starting point, and stop liquor sales on Sundays. It’s going to take radical steps like that.

Q So you’d like to see alcohol being sold in fewer places less often?

A: Exactly. And no more liquor licences. Not one more outlet. We don’t need another liquor outlet anywhere in the country. Why would you? What value does it add to our daily lives? None at all.

Q What happens next in the process?

A: We’re waiting for the High Court to summon us to go and put our case to them. It’s a long process. We’re hoping to get a decision this year. If the High Court does decide to overturn the liquor licence renewal, that would be a landmark decision. That’s never been done before. 

 

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