A New Year's Eve to remember

Nelson Mail, 1 January 2001

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Last night in the Nelson region was a memorable New Year's Eve for several reasons. Unfortunately, they are not all good. While thousands gathered at Tahunanui Beach to enjoy the biggest ever privately-funded fireworks display the region has ever seen and many thousands more happily danced in the New Year at the Gathering in Upper Takaka, the worst riot in memory was being mopped up.

Just a short distance from where peaceful crowds marvelled at fireworks to rival the millennium display of a year ago, hundreds of young people tackled police in a mindless battle at the Tahuna beach Holiday Park. It could easily have led to more serious injuries, or worse. Police from around the district were called out to back up their colleagues who found themselves greatly outnumbered by bottle-throwing youths, some in their early teens.

It is a matter of some mystery that New Year's Eve has, over many years, provided such an atmosphere of menace at the places where unsupervised young people get together. This undercurrent surfaces at the annual moment when tradition and instinct dictate that the old year should be farewelled, with all its troubles and disappointments, and January 1 greeted with optimism and good wishes to all. Instead of that, there have been many examples around New Zealand over the years of impromptu outdoor New Year parties that suddenly turn very nasty.

Nelson has not been immune from this syndrome, which seems to surface most often at towns and cities which are popular holiday destinations, bringing hundreds of strangers together in their tribal groups. But in recent years the region has been relatively quiet and last year the biggest party of all, though it led to 40 revellers spending the night in the Nelson police cells, was not tainted by ugly violence.

Last night's mayhem is an unwelcome reminder that the stupidity underlying New Year's Eve expectations hasn't disappeared. Obviously fuelled by far too much alcohol consumed by people far too young to cope, the Tahunanui riot put many people at risk. It doubtless ruined the celebrations for a lot of more sedate campers and terrified many of them. Some of the young revellers caught up in it will have been equally scared while our police were put into a dangerous situation which they had considerable difficulty in bringing to order. It will dent Nelson's reputation as a summer holiday centre while adding an appealing notoriety to next year's crop of travelling troublemakers.

In short, it came close to ruining an otherwise excellent start to Nelson's New Year. Far better for the rest of New Zealand to note the generosity which prompted a wealthy benefactor to pay for a fireworks show that everybody could attend. Far better to recognise the Gathering, which has rapidly grown to the point of attracting visitors from overseas as well as thousands of North Islanders who wouldn't otherwise cross Cook Strait. Sadly, it is the drunken rioting that gets noticed.

In Nelson, the lowering of the drinking age earned a black mark last night, and hard questions must be asked about the holiday park's management of the predictably difficult evening. The police response should also be analysed. Perhaps something can be learned from this debacle. But the damage is done, and it is major. Meanwhile, at the officially alcohol-free Gathering, the party goes on.

Nelson Mail Editorial, 1 January 2001

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