Benedict Brook, 10 November 2015
IT’S the feature of supermarkets Australians have become all too accustomed to yet utterly baffles overseas visitors.
No, not that we call peppers capsicums or even that few stores are open 24 hours a day. But, that in a country where turning up to someone’s house without a six pack of beer or bottle of wine is considered a social faux pas of the highest order, it’s near impossible to find either in the aisle of your local grocery store.
Meanwhile, in the UK, shoppers routinely snap up the ingredients for that night’s dinner and a few drinks all in the same aisle.
However, that could all be about to change with a proposal from the government’s Harper review into competition policy that consideration be given to relaxing laws that restrict where and how supermarkets sell liquor.
Released more than a year ago, the review gathered dust under Tony Abbott only to be revived upon Malcolm Turnbull taking office with newly installed Treasurer Scott Morrison saying the report had the potential to provide “enormous opportunities” for the economy.
But public health advocates have reacted with horror at any proposal that would lead to alcohol being stocked in the aisles alongside apples and washing powder.
Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm said banning booze from the supermarkets was frustrating and unnecessary. “Not allowing supermarkets to sell alcohol is yet another example of silly nanny-statism,” he told news.com.au
“I’d welcome a relaxation in rules so that one could buy alcohol in supermarkets and convenience stores, as in the UK and Europe.”
Senator Leyonhjelm said increasing alcohol availability in the UK coincided with a drop in violent crime. “So it’s not as though being able to buy booze in Sainsbury’s turned people into a bunch of agro drunks.”
University of New England lecturer in historical criminology, Dr Matthew Allen, told news.com.au the tradition of restricting how alcohol could be sold in Australia dated back to the 19th century.
“Temperance advocates were very reluctant for people to go and buy, say, flour alongside alcohol and there was a very deliberate insistence that alcohol was separate from everything else.”
A “conservatism” in law makers meant there was little thirst to alter the regulations.
Indeed, the NSW Liquor Act insists alcohol be sold in a separately defined area if the primary business activity of the premises is not booze.
Jeff Rogut, executive director of the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores, which represents retailers such as 7-Eleven and BP, said laws governing the sale of alcohol were inconsistent and unfair.
“It is a total mish mash,” he said. “Every state has different regulations … and the reality of the situation is that we’re trying to overcome years of misinformation and bring commercial reality to the discussion.”
Current rules, said Mr Rogut, prevented the association’s members, many of which were petrol stations, from selling alcohol. Yet drive-through bottle shops were allowed.
“We can sell tobacco and lottery tickets quite responsibly so we’re suggesting we’re able to sell alcohol quite responsibly as well.”
Mr Rogut said the major retailers shouldn’t be given “a further leg up” without relaxing the rules for smaller shops.
German behemoth Aldi, as well as some IGA stores, has gone furthest in blurring the line between the aisle and alcohol.
Aldi sells liquor not from attached bottle shops, but from dedicated zones within the main part of the store. Purchases can be made through a standard register so you can buy your beer and broccoli in one transaction.
A spokesman for the NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority said there was nothing to stop any grocery store from selling liquor in the main portion of the store so long as there was some form of separation from the rest of the store, that sales staff were over 18 and had proper training. Dedicated cash registers were usual but not demanded.
Coles and Woolworths — whose Liquorland, BWS and Dan Murphy’s brands dominate Australia’s takeaway liquor market — still insist on banishing booze to a separate shop. The reason is unclear and the supermarkets are tight lipped on the issue, with part of the reason likely to be an unwillingness to provoke the wrath of health campaigners.
Woolworths refused to comment despite the fact the company openly sells alcohol in the aisles of its New Zealand supermarkets.
Coles hasn’t commented on the Harper review. However, last month Richard Goyder, CEO of parent company Wesfarmers, said if Aldi was successful in it’s bid to sell liquor within it’s upcoming Western Australian stores, Coles should be able to do the same.
“There shouldn’t be one set of rules for Aldi and another for us.”
Whether Coles decided to sell alcohol within its supermarkets, if legislated for, depended on space and what was “sensible”, reported the West Australian.
Far from liberalising laws, some public health advocates believe access to alcohol should be made stricter.
Director of the University of Queensland’s Alcohol and Drug Research and Education Centre, Professor Jake Namjan, said 4,500 Australians died each year due to alcohol and approaching 100,000 were admitted to emergence departments.
“People need to be aware when they drink a they are increasing their risk of throat cancer, breast cancer, heart disease on so forth. If we accept that, what we need to do is reduce the availability of alcohol and making alcohol available in supermarkets is the opposite of that.
CEO of Masters Grocers Australia, Jos De Bruin, said there needed to be a focus on relaxing laws in South Australia and Queensland which posed the most hurdles for retailers wanting to sell liquor. But all stores, wherever they were located, should have the ability to react to customers how they saw fit, he said.
“If a retailer wants to be offer a meal deal with a bottle of wine they should be able to do that,” said Mr De Bruin, whose organisation represents many independent supermarkets and liquor store owners.
“Our guys want to give customers choice and diversity and we need to have a common sense discussion about this.”
The Government is due to hand down its response to the Harper review before Christmas. But even if it endorses a radical relaxation of liquor laws, the final decision lies not with Canberra but the states. And with many aiming to act tough on liquor, the prospects of visitors to Australia being able to pop a bottle of sauv blanc in their trolley still seems remote.
“The Government believes [the current] policy strikes the right balance between responsible sale of liquor and convenience for the consumer,” NSW Deputy Prime Minister Troy Grant told news.com.au
“As such there are no plans to amend it.”
Extracted in full from News.com.au.