Yet another slippery slope

Editorial

The Easter period this year brought the usual news stories of breaches of Easter trading rules and the like.

Stories about politicians putting up members’ bills — to remove restrictions on alcohol sales over Easter, Christmas and Anzac Day (Kieran McAnulty — Labour) and to remove shop trading hours and alcohol restrictions over Easter, while leaving Christmas and Anzac Day alone (Chris Baillie — ACT) — soon followed.

On the face of it, Mr McAnulty would seem to have a point. It does seem strange that, for a few days of the year, pubs and restaurants already allowed to open on those days can sell alcohol only to people who are dining. His bill would not make any changes to trading hours law. Mr McAnulty reportedly argued that the current law put pub staff into the difficult position of having to police what people were eating, and that the rule that alcohol could only be consumed for up to an hour before and after a meal encouraged binge drinking.

On the other side of the argument, when Ireland legalised alcohol sales on Good Friday in 2018, one politician, Maureen O’Sullivan, said — before the measure was adopted — “Are we saying that the only tourists we want are those who can’t last 24 hours without buying a drink in a public house?”

“With this bill what message are we sending out? I actually think we could do with a few Good Fridays throughout the year.”

Many would argue that the liberalisation of liquor laws in New Zealand over the years has not been an unqualified success. The nation does have a problem with alcohol-related harm. Do we really want alcohol to be more readily available at a time of year when so many people are driving long distances on unfamiliar roads?

Turning to the bill from Mr Baillie, it was interesting to see ACT leader David Seymour touting the bill as an improvement on Mr McAnulty’s. Mr Seymour was reported as saying that the Baillie bill would not change the trading hours for Christmas and Anzac Day, which, in his opinion, merited protection.

Mr Seymour should further explain his reasoning here, as this stance would seem to be at odds with his party’s fundamental premise that individual freedom and choice are cornerstones of their value system.

Arguments about restrictions on shop trading for Good Friday and Easter Sunday, in particular, have been bandied about for years. Proponents of change cite the changing nature of New Zealand society, whereby the public observance of religious days is now held to be an anachronism. Economic factors are also cited — especially at a time when the overseas tourist trade is much reduced. On the other side, voices in favour of restrictions point to the very few days in a year when shops have limited trading — so that their workers can plan for family time together, church and community organisations can plan events and the like. The arguments are hardly ever religious in nature.

The fact that there are arguments on such topics is not surprising. Once any sort of exemption is made, the argument becomes not so much about the fact of exempting, or the appropriateness of an activity on a given day, rather it becomes about the extent of the exemptions. In other words, whoever just misses out is going to feel aggrieved and will want change. This is the classic “slippery-slope” in action, which was raised many times by opponents of the End of Life Choice Act, both in Parliament and before last year’s referendum. But the argument for “choice” prevailed at the polls.

If a slippery slope is manifestly seen in ongoing proposed and actual changes to Easter trading laws, should not New Zealanders be afraid of similar when it comes to euthanasia and assisted suicide? Current safeguards in the law, such as they are, are likely to be whittled away, as people who don’t qualify under the present law become the cause célèbres for future reform.

As with Easter trading, the fact that the door is open, means it is very likely to become even more open. That has been the experience in countries like Belgium and the Netherlands. The genie is out of the bottle.

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Michael Otto

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