Auckland City Liquor Laws and Aaron Bhatnagar’s Facebook Democracy

by Jeremy Greenbrook-Held

I love listening to Sean Plunkett when he’s playing with his interviewees. It’s the radio equivalent of watching a cat toy with a mouse it’s just caught – it’ll let it go for a bit, but quickly re-catch it. Of course, Plunkett (like the cat) is always in control. To his credit, he takes the same line with the right and the left, which, in my opinion, makes him New Zealand’s top interviewer.

Classic example yesterday morning was his interview with Auckland City Councillor, Aaron Bhatnagar.

Basically, the Citizens and Ratepayers dominated Auckland City Council wanted to limit the opening hours for licenced premises outside of the ‘social’ districts (such as Downtown, Parnell, K Road etc). This drew a quick response from several suburban pubs and bars which said that they’d probably go out of business if they had to close up at 11pm. Respectful, civilised places like the Villager and Gee Gees, where nice, upper-middle class folks go to discuss polo results and how to get their children into Kings, as opposed to the booze-fuelled watering holes at the Viaduct where the early twenties frequent and vomit outside in the wee-small hours.

I’m sure Aaron’s a really nice guy when you meet him (in fact, I have it on good authority that he’s a top bloke), but the changes to Auckland suburban liquor licencing were draconian, to say the least, even drawing fire from his National Party mates like David Farrar (although Farrar was very vague about who was responsible for the changes), so to his credit, the changes have been abandoned.

In yesterday morning’s interview, Sean Plunkett toyed with Aaron for a full five and a half minutes (Phoebe wanted to turn the car radio off it was so painful, but I insisted that we continue listening). At one point, Plunkett implied that Bhatnagar has been got-at by the hospitality lobby, which Bhatnagar tries to deny:

(4:10) Aaron: What we are saying is that there are significant public concerns about this, but just in the hospitality industry, but from the public as well.

Sean: How many public submissions did you get on this?

Aaron: Sorry?

Sean: What, can you just name some of the community groups besides the bar owners and the hospitality industry who were upset at it?

Aaron: Oh, absolutely, um, well, we’ve had, um, to name off the top of my head there were, I follow Facebook, and um, online consultation is a great forum for seeing what the mood of the public is, and I think there were something like 4,600 people who had joined a Facebook group to protest, and when you actually see all the people there and the comments they make, it’s actually a very good barometer for…

Sean: Do you think that Auckland City should be run by sort of Facebook polls?

Aaron: No, I actually think that there are many ways in which politicians can get feedback, and I’m proud that I use online feedback to gauge the public mood.

I hardly ever join Facebook groups (I have over 100 outstanding group invites, so stop inviting me) after being let down by a guy proclaiming that he would call his son Batman if a million people joined his group. I have also been invited to fan groups of the ‘Cool Side of the Pillow’, as well one proclaiming that David Bain’s trail-by-media got the wrong verdict (oh the irony). There are so many Facebook groups, and they are so easy to set up (let alone join), that they have lost all effect as a political lobby in my opinion – if they ever had any effect in the first place, that is.

While I agree that the changes to the law should have been canned, Bhatnagar really should have built a more solid rationale for his change of heart than “the hopitality lobby were going to be inconvenienced and a group on Facebook convinced me”. Something simple like: “Auckland is a big city, and we’ve come to the realisation that one-size-fits-all doesn’t really work across our diverse communities” or “we’re exploring other avenues for dealing with this problem”.

But the way Aaron left this, the perceived problems surrounding inconsistency of liquor licencing laws remain unsolved. Bhatnagar and his Citizens and Ratepayers pals have put this into the ‘too hard’ basket, and defaulted them to the Super City council. Bhatnagar is deluding himself thinking that regulating liquor laws across the Super City going to be any easier. For example, where I live in Waitakere City is under the jurisdiction of the Waitakere and Portage Trusts (more commonly known as ‘The Trusts’), which restrict where alcohol can be sold, and puts the profits back into the community. Aligning Waitakere’s licencing laws with the laissez-faire licencing laws of Rodney District and Auckland City is not going to be easy.

Is this what’s going to happen from now until local body elections next year? Anything that’s slightly controversial is going to be palmed off to the new body? I guess this is one of those dead rats that Bhatnagar and his boss, John Banks, probably could do without swallowing, especially if Aaron wants to get the nod from the National Party to be their candidate in Epsom in 2011.