It’s hard finding the perfect community drug dealing policy

via Stuff

It probably comes as a surprise to many people to learn there are still places in New Zealand where it’s not possible to buy wine or beer in a supermarket. Invercargill is one such place. West Auckland is another.

These are not “dry” areas, where local voters have chosen to remain liquor-free. New Zealand lost the last of those (two in Auckland, one in Wellington) in 1999.

They are, however, a lingering hangover – although that may not be the most appropriate word – from an era when anti-liquor fervour caused legislators to seek a balance between total prohibition and an open-slather alcohol regime where the much-vilified booze barons, the rich men who controlled the liquor trade, would hold sway.

The solution, as prohibitionist sentiment gradually abated and areas that had previously been dry chose to go “wet”, was for voters to be given a choice: they could either allow ownership of liquor outlets by private enterprise, or they could opt for community control.

Under the community control model, voters would elect licensing trusts to run hotels, taverns and bottle stores. Each trust would enjoy a monopoly on liquor sales within its area and profits would be ploughed back into the community.

In a country that remained deeply suspicious of the privately owned liquor trade, the trust option seemed an ideal “third way”. People would have access to alcohol, but its sale would be controlled by elected local representatives who would ensure it was managed responsibly for the community’s benefit.

Sounds idyllic on paper.  Like every other socialist structure that implements control and gives just a little power to people, it is rarely implemented well.

A government working party headed by Sir George Laking in the late 1980s recommended that trust monopoly powers, which were out of step with the general trend toward deregulation, should be abolished altogether. But parliament, which was often cautious to the point of timidity on liquor issues, decided that the public should have a choice – hence the competition polls, which gave voters a chance to register their dissatisfaction with trusts that failed to measure up.

The patchy history of the trusts is told in the recently published book A Great Social Experiment, by Bernard Teahan. It’s a story of social and political idealism that often collided disastrously with commercial realities.

Teahan sets the story against a backdrop of wowserism, the deeply ingrained suspicion of alcohol and its purveyors which brought New Zealand to the brink of country-wide prohibition in 1919.

Poor service and sub-standard facilities are other factors cited by Teahan as harmful to the image of the trust movement. Civilised drinking conditions were central to the trust philosophy, yet Teahan describes the Otara trust’s pub in South Auckland as a “dark and dingy barn”, designed to maximise consumption.

Otara also had problems with violence and lawlessness, as did some other trusts. The Porirua trust’s first tavern was known locally as the Flying Jug because of the frequency with which brawls erupted. This was not what the architects of the trust movement had envisaged.

Even Teahan, a true believer in the trust model (he spent most of his career in trust management), acknowledges that trustees and their managers were often not up to the job. Communities grew tired of hearing promises of good things to come, only to be let down when trust-owned outlets closed or another dismal set of financial results was announced – always with a fresh batch of excuses.

By the 1980s, the great social experiment was in peril. A few of the longer-established trusts, having had decades in which to build up a solid base, were strongly embedded in their communities and trading profitably. But changing social expectations and a more liberal and sophisticated drinking environment placed demands on the newer trusts that they were hopelessly ill-equipped to meet.

Teahan says the trust model fell out of favour because “the market philosophy became the all-powerful belief”. But in fact most of the “demised” trusts, to use his own euphemistic terminology for those that failed, were undone by their inability to live up to their idealistic vision.

Addressing a licensing trusts conference in 1990, former prime minister David Lange described trusts as a bizarre experiment and said they were an endangered species.

He was almost right. Four trusts in the Wellington area subsequently collapsed after years of governance so shambolic and muddle-headed that it became almost painful to watch. Even Teahan is scathing in his criticism of trusts that imploded because of egos, personal whims and political agendas.

The 1990s was also the decade in which competition polls – usually initiated by supermarket chains chafing at their inability to sell wine and beer – began turning the tide against trust monopolies.

Where areas voted to renounce their “dry” status but chose to reject the trust option, as in Auckland’s Grey Lynn and Wellington’s Tawa, Teahan acknowledges that the poor performance of trusts in neighbouring areas was a factor.

Yet the better-managed trusts survive, and a few weaker ones have been saved by being brought under the control of successful operators.

At least one has moved far beyond its original remit. What was originally the Masterton trust (which Teahan managed) is now Trust House, which operates licensed premises on behalf of several trusts and also has substantial investments in social housing, aged care and e08ven supermarkets.

The Invercargill trust, the mother ship, is still flying and seems to enjoy solid support from its community. According to Teahan, the southern city is one place where supermarkets haven’t bothered to push for a competition poll because they don’t think they could win.

Teahan points out that successful trusts return millions of dollars to their communities: nearly $27 million nationwide in 2014.

This is the argument that trusts always fall back on, even when their performance has been dire. It’s what they emphasise whenever their monopolies have been under attack from supermarkets and other private interests.

But much of the money invested in community assets comes from gaming profits which, under law, private hotel and bar owners with gaming facilities must also return to the community.

Teahan retains an almost evangelistic faith in the trust concept despite its many failures. The irony is that his book, which is obviously intended to promote the virtues of trusts, also serves as a crushing indictment of the concept because it can’t avoid acknowledging the many ways in which it was flawed.

Wowsers and do-gooders are different sides to the same coin.  In the end the most obvious failure of licensing trusts has been the fact that in the more populated areas it took a 5-10 minute drive to find an area that sold and served alcohol.   The customers could not be contained to the area that was being supposedly managed.


Full article by Karl du Fresne, here

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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

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