Image via WikipediaNew Zealand MPs given a conscience vote on the legal drinking age would probably allow 18-year-olds into bars and pubs but return the off-licence purchase age to 20...
The National Party caucus yesterday decided that the vote on raising the drinking or alcohol purchase age from 18 to 20 will be up to individual MPs in a conscience vote.
But National would vote as a party on other alcohol reforms in legislation expected to have its first reading late this year.
The caucus meeting also decided that any votes on drink-driving laws, including Labour MP Darren Hughes' private member's bill to reduce the blood-alcohol limit, would also be along party lines rather than a conscience vote as suggested by Prime Minister John Key last week.
Asked how they intended to vote on the alcohol purchase age, many MPs, including Mr Key and Opposition leader Phil Goff, said they were likely to vote for a split age which would keep the purchase age on licensed premises at 18, but raise the purchase age at liquor stores, supermarkets and other off-licence premises to 20.
Mr Goff also said it would be up to each Labour MP how they voted on the drinking age, but he supported a split age because it was better to have 18 and 19-year-olds drinking under supervision rather "than out of the back of a car in a reserve somewhere".
Of 44 MPs who expressed a preference on the subject to 3 News, 29 favoured the 18/20 split, seven preferred keeping the age at 18 and eight favoured returning it to 20.
Labour MP Lianne Dalziel, who will be leading her party's response to the Government's alcohol reform legislation, also favoured the split.
"It takes the debate away from the age which is not so much the issue but whether people are drinking in a supervised versus unsupervised environment."
Other considerations included alcohol prices, outlets and access to takeaway alcohol.
"If we don't have a debate about accessibility and have a debate only about age, we will not fix the problem."
Mr Hughes said he was disappointed the Government would not allow a conscience vote on his bill - which would lower the drink-drive limit from 0.08 grams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood to 0.05 - if it was drawn out of the ballot.
"It would have been great to have all the politics put aside and National MPs voting for it as well."
But Mr Joyce said Mr Hughes was "playing politics" himself.
"This is a party that had nine years to make some changes in this area ... and they didn't bother and now it's the most urgent thing since sliced bread."
Mr Joyce said National's caucus felt the Government had made a call to revisit the issue in two years once additional research had been completed "and they were keen to back the decision with a party vote".
Other drink-driving measures planned by the Government included a zero drink-drive limit for recidivist drink-drivers and drivers under 20 years of age and tougher penalties for people who drink and drive causing death.
National would also look at alcohol interlocks for repeat drink-drive offenders.
*44 MPs polled
*29 preferred the 18/20 split for clubs and off-licences
*8 preferred raising age to 20 for both
*7 wanted age kept at 18
But the New Zealand public may want the age increased to 20 years for all drinking, as it was before the last drinking law changes in 1999. Their opinion could be interesting, one year out from the next elections.