The Keep It 18 campaign

I thought I would blog some background on how the Keep It 18 campaign almost accidentally came into existence, how expectations of what could be achieved changed almost daily, and the fun of being involved with it.

The purpose is to actually encourage more people to get involved with politics and campaigning on issues. The drinking age debate showed that a few people can make a difference. Now I do not mean to imply that MPs made up their mind on the lobbying alone, or even that other lobbying from industry groups such as BWSC (which ironically and sadly has just been closed) and HANZ wasn’t also influential. But feedback from both media and MPs has been that the efforts of KI18 did help to a significant degree.

The genesis of the campaign stated back on 22 October when I blogged about the select committee recommending the age go up to 20, my opposition to this and an offer of help to any MP organizing votes against. Chris(topher) Bishop then e-mailed me a few days later asking if I had discovered if anything was being done to lobby for it to stay 18.

Now I had no real idea. Unlike Civil Unions or other campaigns, there didn’t appear to be an organized group advocating for 18. In fact the pro-18 voice had been nearly invisible over the months.

So I e-mailed Tim Barnett to find out if he knew of any organizing being done outside Parliament, or within Parliament by MPs themselves. The answer was no but Tim was keen to help so arranged breakfast with him the next day to discuss things.

Now Chris Bishop had mentioned that NZUSA Co-President Conor Roberts was supportive of keeping it 18, so I gave Conor a call. NZUSA as an instutiton had decided not to get involved with the issue, but Conor in his personal capacity was keen to help and he joined us at breakfast.

Having breakfast at Parliament with the Government Chief Whip and the NZUSA Co-President is a good way to get lots of stares from National MPs I discovered! We had a good brain-storm of ideas, and Tim gave us guidance as to likely timing for any votes.

At this stage it looked certain to fly through second reading, and the aim was really to at least get the bar/pub age staying at 18 through amendments. At this stage still just two of us in the campaign – Conor and me!

We thought all the party youth wings would be keen to keep it 18, and were keen on a joint press statement or even press conference. I knew the Yougn Nats and ACT on Campus Presidents so quickly checked they were okay. Conor did the same with Young Labour and I cold-called the Young Greens President who was also very enthusiastic.

A huge boost to our efforts came with a phone call from Dave Guerin. Dave is a former VUWSA President and his colleague Darel Hall a former UCSA President. Dave had also seen the blog posts and figured I might be involved, if there was a campaign and offered the Dave and Darel team.

Dave and Darel went through all the reams of reports and studies, and produced dozens of pages of facts, rebuttals, key issues etc which formed the base of the campaign. We were somewhat shocked how accepting everyone had been of the perception that youth drinking had got massively out of control since 1999, and in a novel move we decided to campaign on good research and the issues.

We held our first campaign meeting a week before what turned out to be the second reading. Dave G quickly became Chair and to punish him for not being there Chris Bishop was made spokesperson. That was a really good choice as Chris was not a formal office holder in any party, he was young (23) and also a very good debater and public speaker.

In previous debates a lot of focus had been on 18 being old enough to vote, it is old enough to drink. We decided not to push that line vigorously on the assumption all MPs had already heard it and knew it. So we focused on correcting the perception about youth drinking, and pointing out that where there is a problem, changing the drinking age was not the most effective way to deal with it. The campaign was firmly focused not on winning over the public with slogans, but winning over 61/121 MPs with persuasusive arguments and media pressure.

We agreed on a few key actions. We thought we had three weeks before the second reading but were aware it could end up starting next week. So we decided to announce the campaign Friday, get a website done for that day, and on Monday have the joint press conference of the four party reps. Then for Tuesday we were keen to book out the Backbencher, openly invite 18 and 19 year olds along to hear from MPs or others on why they should be banned from being able to go back to the Backbencher until they were 20. We figured we might get a one of the 7 pm TV shows to cover the “pub debate” live, assuming a few dozen MPs would pop across for it.

We also had join the campaign was Dean Knight who had done some analysis of the research and found that what lobby groups were calling a relative in teenage drink driving crashes was in fact a decrease. And Jordan Carter came on to do the website, and generally lobby. So by now we had around 12 – 15 people representing every shade of the political spectrum.

Friday saw news of what we were planning get out to the Herald, but that worked well as they made us a major story on Saturday. Late Friday we got the website done (through some incredible multi-tasking from both Jordan and I) and the press release went out. One of the parties had kindly given us their media contacts list to use, so we were e-mailing several hundred journalists and media contacts.

We made a bigger splash than expected with significant coverage on radio and in the newspapers plus a mention on TV. So now the focus was on Monday’s press conference. We got the good news late Friday that we had managed to secure the Beehive Theatrette so long as we finished with it before Helen needs it for her press conference. That added significantly to the press conference – having the four Presidents or nominees of the four youth wings up there where the PM normally is, reinforced this was not just a group of students, but a body representing all youth involved in politics. We had cheekily tagged ourselves as speaking for the 125,000 responsible 18 and 19 year old drinkers. I’m glad no-one asked if they had all consented, but in my experience not many 19 year olds do want to be banned from bars.

The media advisory went out Sunday afternoon and seemed to attract considerable interest. A quick pop around the gallery Monday morning confirmed every major outlet planned to be there. This was great for a campaign only five days old!

The actual press conference went superbly well. Chris was a natural at the podium (heh he looked like he could get used to it) and the four party reps all covered separate issues and reasons in a complementary manner, which helped remind people that normally this is a group which would agree on very little, so it is notable when they combine like this. Lots of good questions from the media. As I predicted one of them asked if any of them had ever binge drinked and got drunk. Chris B used the pre-prepared response of not answering the question and turning it back on the journalist by asking him if he ever had. Got a lot of laughs. My only regret was that my line about a spokesperson for the Young Exclusive Brethren couldn’t make it, wasn’t used.

AoC had brought along a banner which students had signed against the change and that made for a great photo op. In fact with each media outlet wanting its own photo op, it took another 30+ minutes to do them all.

Very pleased with the coverage from the press conference, and media were saying that it was about time a voice had formed for not raising the age. Privately almost every journalist I know said they thought raising the age would be daft.

Anyway it was now Monday afternoon and while we had achieved good media hits, we had not yet directly lobbied many MPs. Over the previous five days we collected likely voting intentions from sources within each Caucus, from the industry groups, the Drug Foundation public site and the media surveys. It was interesting that some MPs were telling the media they were undecided but we had good reason to think they were not going to vote to increase.

On Tuesday a bill ahead of the drinking age one was withdrawn and this meant suddenly the vote was going to be tomorrow. Every swinging MP was assigned at least one group member to personally contact that MP. At this stage we thought that it would be close on the second reading but a comfortable majority would vote aye to allow the 18/20 split age amendment as a compromise. Hence we turned some of our talking points onto why the 18/20 amendment wouldn’t be much better than 20/20 because it was still targeting the purchase age, and not the more relevant problem of supplying the alcohol to under 18s.

By Tuesday night we thought we had 58 votes against the second reading. Close but not enough.

Wednesday showed the advantage of having the youth wings involved. Most guests to Parliament can’t just wonder into and out of every MPs office and ask for a quick chat. You need appointments in advance. But Young Nats spent much of the day going from MP to MP lobbying them, and got a great response. I was getting good replies to my e-mails, including some MPs saying that on the basis of the info provided they were now going to vote against. And young Labour and associated folks were talking to many Labour MPs – who formed 15 of the 18 undecided.

By 2 pm the count against the second reading was 62 against. We started to be pretty optimistic but not totally confident. Then the Govt announcement came out at 3 pm that if the bill failed there would be a review, and we figured that would allow some or more of the undecided Labour MPs (which include the senior leadership) to vote against. The senior leadership worked out I guess that it would be a bad look to vote for a bill turning the clock back, yet wanted to be seen to be doing something. As the review was going to cover the exact areas we had been saying should be targeted, instead of the purchase age, we were very happy. I believe even before that announcement the bill was going to fail the second reading, but that helped cushion it a bit more.

Pre-vote drinks at the Backbencher and then off at 7.30 pm to hear the speeches. I rate David Carter’s as the best of the whole lot. The entire two hours was taken up, and while optimistic all of us were still very nervous. Then came the vote and they called it 72 against, 49 in favour. Despite having been warned, the gallery broke out in applause.

A final compare of how MPs actually voted, and how we had them down as voting had us at 95% accurate which was pretty damn good.

So it was a very short, yet intensive campaign. And a lot of fun working with such a diverse group. But most of all good to have reassurance that you can have an effect, without being an MP, and that MPs do sometimes listen to good arguments and good research and will vote accordingly.

So next time you see an issue you feel passionate about, don’t just be a by-stander – get involved.

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