How Wellington's growing reputation for violence has made bar workers the new frontline against alcohol abuse 'epidemic'

Note: Interviews for this story were filmed before lockdown. 

A Wellington City Council committee meets virtually this week to consider things like more security cameras, a sexual violence prevention plan and getting rid of problematic public toilets in the CBD. 

The capital's growing reputation for violence after dark has made the city's bars the new frontline, and it's anyone's guess if the proposals considered by the Wellington City Council committee will make a difference. 

And with businesses struggling through another COVID-19 lockdown, additional support and solutions couldn't come soon enough for those on the frontline Newshub spoke to. 

  • Watch the video above. 

"There has been a bit more violent incidents, some involving weapons," Epic Hospitality co-director Leon Magowan-Wilson told Newshub during a pre-lockdown interview at Eva Beva in the CBD. 

"Just from reports from our staff and our security guards, there are more incidents. They're becoming a lot more common, severe as well, and talking to our staff, there's those feelings that they're not feeling as safe what they used to."

A few streets away at Panhead, Wellington pub owner Matt McLaughlin, branch president of Hospitality New Zealand, painted a similar picture. 

"It is our young men and we need to seriously look at it," he told Newshub. "I think we need to look at New Zealand's drinking culture."

In 2013 a law change forced all bars to close at 4am, to combat destructive Kiwi binge drinking culture.

"I think it's made things better," says Magowan-Wilson. 

"It probably would have been a good idea if some of the licences were staggered a bit more so that there's not one blanket time when everyone's thrown out onto the street," McLaughlin adds. 

Wellington pub owner Matt McLaughlin, branch president of Hospitality New Zealand.
Wellington pub owner Matt McLaughlin, branch president of Hospitality New Zealand. Photo credit: Newshub

Police data shows violent assault charges in Wellington City have spiked, up from 112 in May 2015 to 304 in May this year. 

Critics say the law change puts drunk people out onto the street at the same time with nowhere to go. 

"Four o'clock in the morning there's no public transport; 6'oclock there is; is that the right way of doing things?" asks Wellington Mayor Andy Foster. 

Newshub obtained a report published by the Police National Intelligence Centre, describing alcohol dependence and abuse at "epidemic proportions".

Foster disputes growing violence in his city but knows there's an appetite for change.

"Getting a local alcohol policy through has proved an absolute nightmare," he told Newshub. 

That's because it means going up against supermarkets, police, hospitality venues and District Health Boards - all who opposed it for various reasons. 

"We put in place a local alcohol policy and hey presto, it got appealed and got rolled over," says Foster. "So you don't want to go there. That's one of the areas the legislation has failed on."

Wellington Mayor Andy Foster.
Wellington Mayor Andy Foster. Photo credit: Newshub

Foster questions the Government's decision to fill up Wellington CBD with emergency housing. 

"The issue really is that there wasn't wraparound support for those people, some of whom had significant needs," he says. 

"We are seeing an increase in the number of people involved in gangs, not just in Wellington but across the country."

Counsellor Nigel Sutcliffe sees gang growth exacerbated by underlying social issues.

"Where else are we going to put those people?" he asks. "We need to start breaking the cycle before these people get to where they are."

Wellington Central MP Grant Robertson acknowledges the challenges.

"In Wellington and in other cities, these have been issues for some years and we've got to work together to make sure our cities are safe for everyone."

And so does Foster. 

"There's always been this undercurrent of alcohol needing to be managed." 

For a city that champions diversity, culture and inclusion, perhaps the answers lie with those on the ground experiencing it themselves.

Epic Hospitality co-director Leon Magowan-Wilson.
Epic Hospitality co-director Leon Magowan-Wilson. Photo credit: Newshub

"More access to holistic wellbeing services for mental health and dealing with addictions, easier access to housing, easier access to better food - all of these kinds of things contribute to it in a really subtle way for us in hospitality," says Magowan-Wilson. 

"I think there's a lot of processes in place like the Pōneke Promise, which is a really good step forward," adds McLaughlin. 

The Pōneke Promise is a partnership between the council, police, hospitality sector and other groups aiming to improve safety in the city, by reducing anti-social behaviour and providing more support to the vulnerable. 

"I would love for Grant Robertson and the Government to have a serious look at it," says McLaughlin. "We have asked them to help us out and we've heard nothing so far."

Justice Minister Kris Faafoi promises a review of alcohol laws, but not in a hurry. 

"We're going to have a look at the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act towards the second half of the term."

Watch the video. 

Sign up to receive news updates

By entering your email address, you agree to our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. Newshub and its affiliates may use your email address to provide updates/news, ads, and offers. To withdraw your consent or learn more about your rights, see the Privacy Policy.