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July 29, Wellington: Parliament last night voted to lower the legal drinking age from 20 years to 18 but has moved to tighten exemptions so those under age will not be able to buy alcohol under any circumstances.
MPs have also voted to allow Sunday sales in on-licences and off-licences, and to allow supermarkets and grocery stores to sell beer as well as wine. They will still not be allowed to sell spirits.
They also voted for approved photo ID cards, driver's licences and passports to be used as proof of age by people buying liquor.
The vote on the legal drinking age was passed by 59 to 55 after a debate of nearly three hours.
Under a last-minute amendment by Labour MP Lianne Dalziel, there will be no exemptions allowing people under age to buy liquor across the bar. At present, with the age limit 20, underage people in some circumstances can buy liquor if they are with a legal-age spouse, parent or legal guardian.
The Dalziel amendment will, however, allow those under age to be supplied with alcohol on licensed premises if it is bought for them by a parent or legal guardian who is of legal age. But they will not be able to be supplied alcohol bought by a legal-age spouse.
"[This] makes the 18-year-old age restriction enforceable and helps to limit the potential for a reduced de facto age which has been one of the primary concerns of lowering the age to 18," Ms Dalziel told MPs.
The argument thrashed out during the debate centred on fears of a lower de facto drinking age, and more road deaths and harm to teenagers.
But MPs in favour of the change argued that 18-year-olds could already vote and marry, would be trusted with being able to drink responsibly and be given the chance to drink in a safe environment.
Apart from the Alliance, which voted en bloc to lower the age, and New Zealand First, which voted en bloc against, most MPs took a conscience vote on the issue.
[Prime Minister Jenny] Shipley said Parliament was duty-bound to make a law that was practical and enforceable.
"There are a lot of very good young people who have got a very muddled law.
"I plead with the Parliament, let's promote moderation, because that's important. Let's condemn binge drinking ... by promoting moderation with good law we can make a difference. I want every young New Zealander to drink safely," she said.
Health Minister Wyatt Creech said he had supported lowering the age despite lobbying from the health sector.
"If we say to people that you can vote, you can marry, you can fight for your country and you can die, then logically you shouldn't say to them you shouldn't drink in a public bar."
Labour justice spokesman Phil Goff vehemently argued for a tightening of the 20-year age limit, citing overseas evidence linking increased road deaths to lower ages, and also citing public opinion polls that were against a lower age.
But the research was rejected by other speakers as not relevant to New Zealand.
Act justice spokeswoman Patricia Schnauer said the evidence she heard during the select committee process on the Bill was that the exemptions to the 20-year limit had caused the problems.
"Eighteen years of age is in fact the de facto drinking age in New Zealand. What this Bill does is simply make legal what our young people are doing today," she said.
Voting against a lower age would consolidate in the minds of young people that laws were made to be broken, she warned.
Maori Pacific MP Tukoroirangi Morgan said he had seen on marae and hui the results of young people drinking and driving.
"It would be a tragedy if this House was to say yes we will lower the age to 18. You may as well go and shoot 75 young Maori," he said.