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Opinon: Wellington’s Mayor just did something brave

This week Wellington’s Mayor Tory Whanau bravely acknowledged she has a problem with alcohol. If you live in New Zealand you probably know the details of the story. Whanau had been filmed by someone and the footage showed her drunk in the inner city. She herself admitted she’d left a restaurant without paying as she had been ‘tipsy’ when she exited the premises. In a written statement to Radio New Zealand Whanau stated she felt “great embarrassment and shame” over the incidents. 

Since her public admission there have been mixed reactions, some supportive and some demanding her resignation. 

What I’d like to say is this: people having ‘issues’ with alcohol is not a new thing. In fact it has been going on since humans first learned how to create alcoholic beverages. It is certainly an issue that has surrounded politicians for a very long time. Here in New Zealand, it is generally known that when Prime Minister Robert Muldoon called a snap election in 1984 he was pretty pickled.

New Zealand has a reputation for binge drinking and over my lifetime it has seemed alcohol is almost fetishised by our society. I have never liked alcohol and even small amounts make me feel ill, so when I was 21, even though I hardly ever drank, I decided to give it up entirely. It was easy personally, because I hated the stuff. But, this was back in the 1980s and I came under a lot of backlash from people I knew and a number of them tried to guilt or even force me to drink. I often heard people say “what’s wrong with him? Why doesn’t he drink?“. 

One of my closest friends would say to waiters “Oh he doesnt drink because he’s an alcoholic.”  It wasn’t true, but back then, for him, it was better to view people like me as being alcoholic rather than face up to the fact that some of us choose not to drink. Even into the early 2000s some people had issues with me not drinking. 

A middle aged friend of someone I was dating once told me “I hated you for not drinking, because I think I drink too much,” and then moments later. “You know Andrew, we all have addictions, for some of us it’s drinking too much, for others it’s not drinking at all.”

I was a little too polite in those days to tell her to fuck off and stop projecting her shit onto me, but the ludicrousness of her reasoning was astonishing. I had then, and still do, have issues in my life, but not drinking is not one of them. 

The reason I’m sharing my experience is because it has taught me that many people do have issues with alcohol. I think our society is getting better at acknowledging it, but there is still stigma and a lot of shame around any form of substance abuse. The reality is many people drink, do drugs, or develop behaviours as a coping mechanism for stress or because of some form of mental health issue. 

When someone clearly states they have an issue, what they need is compassion and help. So I applaud Tory Whanau for acknowledging her problems. Knee jerk responses judging her are not helpful, nor are calls for her resignation simply because she has this issue. Many people hold down work while battling all sorts of health issues and I don’t believe this should be any different in the case of Wellington’s Mayor. If it turns out she does need to resign for her own well being and for the best interests of the people of Wellington, then so be it.

But in the meantime, Whanau deserves to be applauded for her courage, and supported on her wellness journey. 


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