The Easter break is a weekend-long demonstration of the problems that can be caused by a poorly thought out law.
Our Easter laws declare that on-licences (bars and restaurants) can’t serve alcohol unless the customer lives on the premise or is there for the purpose of eating. Off-licences can’t sell alcohol at all, unless it was made on their premises. There are other restrictions on commerce over Easter weekend, but by far the weirdest are these alcohol restrictions.
The original justification for alcohol restrictions on Easter weekend was that allowing people to have a casual drink would run contrary to the sanctity and purpose of Good Friday and Easter Sunday in the Christian faith.
But alcohol restrictions over Easter don’t really make sense even from a Christian perspective. The festival of Lent (40 days of fasting and abstinence leading up to Easter) ends at midnight on Holy Saturday – meaning there are no restrictions on what you can eat or drink on Easter Sunday.
Furthermore, traditionally Lent doesn’t even restrict consumption of alcohol. Generally it entails abstinence from meat, or animal products, or just having one full meal a day. The idea of abstaining from alcohol only came about when Irish bishops proposed it as just one of various options that Irish Catholics could choose to engage in instead of not eating meat – including abstaining from any other kind of food, from smoking, or just making an extra-special effort at prayers that evening. So enforcing abstinence from alcohol on Good Friday as part of Lent over here in New Zealand doesn’t make sense either.
The most paradoxical aspect is that the whole point of fasting in the Christian faith is that it is an individual choice one makes to demonstrate a commitment to God and to come closer to the divine by turning away from sin. Forcing fasting upon people achieves neither of those aims. Indeed it reduces ‘faith’ from an expansive and multifaceted personal journey to a simplistic question of whether you can stay away from a Heineken for a couple of days.
Putting all of that aside, it is nonsensical that the entire population of New Zealand, regardless of religion, should be subjected to these ill-conceived notions about alcohol abstinence. Our nation is no longer a Christian one. Less than 50 percent of us identify as Christian, with the majority identifying as another faith or as secular. Imposing a ‘Christian’ tradition on people who are Muslim, Hindu, agnostic or atheist, goes against the grain of our multicultural society.
Perhaps we can explain the restrictive Easter alcohol trading laws another way then, one more applicable to our modern society? Couldn’t we justify it as a way of weaning our society off of our troublesome addiction to alcohol, with all its myriad harms?
There is no question that New Zealand has a huge problem with alcohol, one which leads to the deaths of between 600 and 800 Kiwis each year. But the idea that Easter alcohol restrictions are going to solve that is delusional.
For one thing, the very nature of the Easter restrictions is that they are exceptional. Even if people bought into the idea of abstaining from alcohol over Easter (or are dissuaded from drinking due to the severe inconvenience of purchasing alcohol), the restriction is a one-off event where people can feel entirely justified in returning with a vengeance to their normal drinking habits afterwards.
But more importantly, the problem New Zealand faces isn’t drinking. Our problem is binge drinking – frequently having unhealthy amounts of alcohol – something that is less common at the restaurants and bars (on-licenses) that are targeted by Easter restrictions. On-licenses have higher prices for alcohol than elsewhere, meaning people generally have less to drink. The social expectation is that you have smaller portions at on-licenses (glasses of wine, not bottles, or bottles of beer, not six or twelve packs). Most importantly, on-licenses have staff who are obligated to refuse to serve you if you are drunk. All this works together to make drinking in a bar or restaurant safer and more controllable.
However, Easter restrictions have the perverse effect of encouraging people to stock up on alcohol from off-licenses before Easter and then drink at home or a party over the weekend, so that they don’t have to deal with any of the Easter restrictions. Drinking at home, in the absence of any of the restrictions of on-licenses mentioned above, means binge drinking is more likely, and thus the drinker is less safe.
Finally, the laws themselves lack any consistency whatsoever. Restaurants and bars can’t sell alcohol unless customers buy food at the same time. However, vineyards don’t have that restrictions because they produced the wine on their own land. Why does that matter? Who knows! You can drink at a hotel bar if you’re staying in the building, again for no apparent reason. Duty free stores can sell anything, because it would be horrific if travellers couldn’t get access to cheap whiskey. Weirdest of all, there are no Easter restrictions at all if you’re on a plane or ferry.
Further, some areas of New Zealand (for example, Wellington, Auckland, Christchurch and Palmerston North) are subject to the restrictions, while others (Queenstown and Dunedin) have passed local bylaws which mean the restrictions don’t apply to them.
I’m all for trying to discourage New Zealand’s unhealthy drinking culture. But targeting the very institutions which foster a healthier drinking culture, with a law with more holes than Swiss cheese, based on a ‘Christian tradition’ that doesn’t really exist, is just plain weird.
The icing on the cake is that Ireland, the country whose Catholic bishops started the whole idea of Easter alcohol abstinence, decided this year to repeal their laws banning the sale of alcohol or keeping a pub open on Good Friday. Their reasoning? Padraig Cribben, chief executive of a publican lobby group, explained that “The Good Friday ban is from a different era,”. I couldn’t agree more.