Thursday, 15 May 2008
Community Affairs Committee; Reference
by leave—I move:
- The following matters be referred to the Community Affairs Committee for inquiry and report by 24 June 2008:
- the effectiveness of the Government’s proposed changes to the alcohol excise regime in reducing the claims of excessive consumption of ready-to-drink alcohol beverages;
- the consumption patterns of ready-to-drink alcohol beverages by sex and age group;
- the consumption patterns of all alcohol beverages by sex and age group;
- the impact of these changes on patterns of overall full strength spirit consumption, including any increased consumption of standard drinks of alcohol;
- the evidence underpinning the claims of significant public health benefit in the increase of excise on this category of alcohol;
- applicability of incentives to encourage production and consumption of lower alcohol content beverages;
- the modelling underpinning the Government’s revenue estimates of this measure;
- the effectiveness of excise increases as a tool in reducing the levels of alcohol-related harm;
- the empirical evidence on which the Government’s decision to increase the excise on ready-to-drink alcohol beverages was based; and
- the effect of alternative means of limiting excessive alcohol consumption and levels of alcohol-related harm among young people.
- The committee is to include hearing evidence from health experts, representatives of the ready-to-drink alcohol industry, spirits industry, hotels and liquor retailers and government officials familiar with the modelling and health policy data used to underpin this policy decision.
The opposition has I think quite rightly expressed concern about the decision that the government made without notice to anybody in respect of the increase of excise on ready-to-drinks. I believe the evidence that has already started to flow from the community raises questions over the validity of the decision. We have already seen evidence in the media from South Australia and from my home state of Tasmania, where young people are going straight back to full-strength spirits instead of drinking a measured amount of alcohol through the use of ready-to-drinks. We also know from statistics from the industry that about 80 per cent of those who consume RTDs are males in the age group of 24 to 39. So I think there is already very strong evidence to suggest that this measure is ill conceived and it is certainly enough evidence in my view to suggest that this should be considered by a committee of the Senate.
We know that the Treasury forecasts of revenue from this measure exceed even the industry’s own predictions of growth in the RTD market that were made prior to the tax decision being made. We have seen the projected excise grow from $2 billion over four years when the measure was first announced three weeks ago to $3.1 billion over five years in the budget. Again, I think that raises some questions over the process that the government went through in respect of how these decisions were made.
The opposition, like the government, is very concerned with the issue that we have in this country regarding alcohol and alcohol related effects. We believe though that the government has tried to manipulate the use of statistics and figures to create an issue that is demonstrated to be different from what it really is. We know for example—and this has been brought out through the debate that we have had over the last few weeks in respect of another piece of legislation that is before the chamber—that the number of people who are indulging in binge drinking is actually falling or steady. We know that over the last 20-odd years the rate of alcohol consumption in Australia has fallen. Rather than make ad hoc decisions, as the government has done in this particular case, the opposition believes that consideration of all of the facts that surround this issue is the appropriate way that this should be decided.
We have seen evidence that has come through reporting processes even this year that the most effective way to influence consumption of alcohol is through the support of families and through the influence of families. The government, at this point in time, has had meetings with major sporting codes and it has increased tax, but it has put in place no measures to support families and to give families the information that will assist them in influencing the use of alcohol, particularly by young people. I stress: the opposition acknowledges that this is a significant issue. We do not step away from it, but what we do have concerns about is that this measure is being put in place in complete isolation from any other considerations. If it had been put in place as part of a package of measures that we could see provided support for families and support for community organisations involved in the use of alcohol, then we could perhaps see a different way of moving forward. But it has not. It came out of the blue without any consultation with industry, without any consultation with the community and it appears to the opposition to be nothing more than a significant tax grab. In that context we have real and I think legitimate issues with it.
In those terms—without the consultation with industry that may well have provided some better information—I think it is quite disturbing that the Taxation Office projections for this measure exceed even the industry’s projections in growth. We saw yesterday Senator Conroy admitting that there would continue to be growth in the RTD market. Yet Treasurer Swan was at the press gallery saying that there would be a reduction in the use of RTDs. They cannot both be right. So there are even differences within the government in respect of this issue. I think it is more than appropriate that this measure be referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs and that it be properly investigated. Hopefully, that committee will then have the opportunity to provide to the government and to the parliament a holistic approach to dealing with this issue, not just a single, ad hoc measure that is plucked out of thin air.
It is of real concern to the opposition that, even though the government has put a number of processes in place to deal with some significant policy matters, those processes are being circumvented by ad hoc policy decisions. It is a real concern. If the government wants to put a process in place to deal with an issue, that is quite legitimate and the opposition would support it. But, when it starts making ad hoc decisions that have no reference to those particular processes, I think we can legitimately ask some questions. This motion will provide the opportunity for a Senate committee to properly consider this matter and provide recommendations back to the Senate and hopefully inform some good decision making and some good policy making on behalf of the government.
The Democrats do not oppose this reference. I think it is a matter that is definitely worthy of some further consideration. I do want to make a couple of quick points. It is wonderful that the coalition is now concerned about ensuring proper scrutiny of government measures and ensuring they get properly examined before being passed by the parliament. I just wish they had that same commitment to proper consideration of significant proposals last year, the year before that and the year before that. The contrast is stark and it does need to be made. I welcome the fact that they are using Senate committee processes to enable some scrutiny of government measures. I think there is a fair bit of validity in what Senator Colbeck has said, at least in terms of questions that can be raised and points that can be made about this being a measure in isolation and not appearing to be particularly tied into a broader program of harm minimisation with regard to alcohol consumption. I would also make the point that not only this issue but also this inquiry are in themselves—apart from also coming somewhat out of the blue—somewhat in isolation from the wider issue. I recognise the inquiry is in response to what the government has done, but I think it runs the risk of falling into the same trap of focusing on a single issue, making a big political argy-bargy about that and ignoring some of the wider issues, even those about alcohol taxation.
I remind the Senate—and I hope the committee would take this on board; I am sure they could enable their brain cells to consider the matter within the context of the wide terms of reference—that just a couple of months ago it unanimously passed a resolution calling on the government to comprehensively review all aspects of alcohol taxation and related matters to do with that from a health perspective. That is something that, across party lines, we all called for. As far as I know, the government has not responded to that, but I think that is what is needed. That was a Democrat motion moved by my colleague Senator Murray. It is an issue that has been raised a number of times, particularly by him, in Senate committee reports. Regardless of whether the so-called ‘alcopops’ tax change goes through or not, there will still be significant inconsistencies and anomalies in the taxation of alcohol that, even if you look at them purely from a health point of view, merit some alteration in my view and the Democrats’ view.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that, in terms of those who are just wanting to consume large amounts of alcohol cheaply for the immediate impact it has on their psychological state, just casting around for the cheapest large amount would include wine casks and things like those, which are also cheap in part because of the differing tax treatment of wine. Those are wider issues, and I think that, if it looks solely at the alcopop tax and has a bit of a political stoush about that, the inquiry will really ignore some of these ongoing, continuing realities. There is plenty of evidence that details that increasing the cost of some of those cheaper alcohol products does have a positive health impact, but if it is just a matter of transferring serious alcohol abuse from one product to another then the beneficial aspect is not as significant as you might think. We should at least be clear about what is happening.
We do support having a look at this, but I would also make one other final plea. Whilst there is no doubt that the consumption of some sort of alcohol at harmful levels amongst young people is a real issue, it is not just young people who do it. I think the notion of hordes of drunk young women smashed on lots of cheap alcopops is a stereotype. We need to have a debate that recognises that harmful levels of alcohol consumption is an issue across the community, one that manifests itself in different ways in different age groups and other groups within the community. Just making it a rhetorical issue that feeds on people’s fears about young people is not accurate and not helpful, frankly, in getting the best health outcomes.
The Greens will be supporting this motion. I think our position is similar to the Democrats’ in that we think the terms of reference should be more focused on the overall issue of alcohol and the impact of alcohol on the community and what we should be doing to address it. I think the most important term of reference here is (j). It should be noted that the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs is already looking at an issue around alcohol in the bill that Senator Fielding tabled and had referred to the committee and which relates to some controls on advertising. Already the evidence to that committee is showing that one simple measure does not work, that you need a package of measures to address the serious issues. The evidence to date, again, highlights the serious issue of alcohol abuse and its impact on our community, and that it is not just about young people; it is across all age groups. A range of packages are needed.
A number of groups have tabled evidence that looks at the measures that are effective. Alcohol pricing is one of those key measures. In fact, it is top of the list based on the impact alcohol pricing has on drinking behaviour. But it is very important to note that everybody says, ‘You have to have a package of measures; just one measure does not work.’ So pricing of alcohol is important, alcohol accessibility is very important, the number of hours that alcohol is sold is important, the number of outlets where alcohol is sold is important and social marketing is very important—and that includes advertising. The Greens’ position, which we articulated during the election, is that alcohol advertising should be banned. Alcohol sponsorship, of sport, for example, we also think should be banned. There are a range of measures that we believe need to be looked at.
We the Greens have not made up our minds on this actual tax. We think it is very important that we look at it as part of a range of measures. We do not think that just because we whack a tax on one particular alcohol product we will fix the issue and can walk away thinking, ‘Haven’t we done a very good job.’ We need to be taking this very seriously. There are a number of issues that the opposition are now raising in opposition that they could have been addressing when they were in government. I will not bore the chamber at the moment by going through the issues on the list that we have been dealing with, but this is yet another one.
I am also deeply concerned about the time frame for the reporting of this committee, because this issue is so serious and there are so many issues around it. Tuesday 24 June is the date the committee will be reporting. That is a very tight time line. However, I also appreciate that this is related to a budget measure and that is why the time line is so tight.
We will be supporting this measure. I think that, as I said, we need to be looking at it as part of a holistic approach. I hope that the opposition will support an approach that looks at the myriad issues that are involved and also includes the vital issue of advertising, because that is a key part of any measure if we are going to seriously address this issue.
There is a lot of information available that looks at the impact of alcohol in our community. Some information from the New South Wales Parliamentary Library, for example, shows that 47 per cent of assaults are related to alcohol abuse; 37 per cent of all road injuries involving males are related to alcohol; 16 per cent of child abuse, 12 per cent of male suicides, eight per cent of female suicides and 44 per cent of injuries resulting from a fire are related to alcohol; 34 per cent of drowning deaths and 34 per cent of injuries sustained as a result of a fall are caused by alcohol. That does not go into how many hospitalisations et cetera there are as a result of abuse of alcohol. So it is a very wide community problem. I do not think the committee will deal with this in the very short time that it has available, and so I am worried that the committee will not be able to do an effective job to address this issue in the complexity that is needed. The Greens will be contributing to this committee. We will take part and we do support the motion, with those reservations.
Unlike the opposition, the government takes the problem of the binge drinking epidemic among young Australians very seriously. The budget measure for excise on ready-to-drinks, or RTDs, will assist us in tackling this very problem. The evidence is crystal clear that excise is an effective measure in reducing alcohol consumption. International experience backs this up. The revenue raised through this measure will also assist in funding new prevention activities, which we really need if we are serious about getting long-term health outcomes.
The opposition are all at sea on this issue. Firstly, they supported it. On the day we announced this measure, the Leader of the Opposition said:
The proposed increase in the excise on alcopops is something that will be supported by us ...
Now, just days later, they have reversed their position and are threatening to block this measure. The opposition simply do not understand this issue. There is no need for a Senate inquiry and the government does not support the motion.
When you go back and examine the matters raised by Senator Colbeck from the opposition, he talked about being surprised. In the COAG communique of March 2008, COAG agreed on the importance of tackling alcohol misuse and binge drinking among young people. COAG agreed to ask the Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy to report to COAG in December 2008 on options to reduce binge drinking, including in relation to closing hours, responsible service of alcohol, reckless secondary supply and the alcohol content in ready-to-drink beverages. It was clearly on the record back in March. What we then did as a government was to announce a national binge drinking strategy and increase the excise on RTDs. On 10 March the Prime Minister announced a national strategy worth $53 million to address the binge drinking epidemic among young Australians—something the opposition have failed to see or hear or understand. But for their benefit I am happy to say it again. The national strategy will begin with three new practical measures to help reduce alcohol misuse and binge drinking among young Australians: $14.4 million to invest in community level initiatives to confront the culture of binge drinking, particularly amongst sporting organisations; $19.1 million to intervene earlier and assist young people and ensure that they assume personal responsibility for their binge drinking; and $20 million to fund advertising that confronts young people with the costs and consequences of binge drinking. So two matters: COAG provided the communique in March 2008 and on 14 March the federal government responded to that and announced a $53 million package. We take the matter very seriously. Within that there are three measures to address it.
In addition, the statistics show that between 2000 and 2004 the percentage of female drinkers aged 15 to 17 reporting that they had consumed RTDs at their last drinking occasion had increased from 14 per cent to 62 per cent. They are the figures that demonstrate that there is a serious problem in this area. The opposition fail to see that there is a problem in this area and fail to want to address it. That is the position the opposition are adopting here. The government has taken a deliberate course to address it. The opposition are all at sea in respect of this.
In respect of the broader matter, it is really a cynical position that the opposition have now taken on this. They were against scrutiny in the last parliament. They are now trying to hang their hat on any peg they can find and now argue whatever suits, completely ignoring the position they took prior to this. When you examine the position, it is clear that this reverses the previous government’s decision in 2000 to tax these drinks like full-strength beers rather than full-strength spirits and therefore the opposition now are saying, ‘Well, it may not be what we want.’ It is crystal clear that the opposition should not only support this measure but also facilitate its passage.
I will not take up a long time in this debate. We do have other bills that we need to go on with. In terms of the opposition indicating that they think the Australian government has sprung surprises, this is a surprise motion by Senator Colbeck. He has not provided earlier advice that this was a matter he was going to bring on today. If he does wish to refer matters to Senate committees, I would encourage him to use the usual processes in this place. Take it to the relevant committee, have the matter dealt with there and then have it debated in the usual process rather than using your numbers in this place to effect an outcome. You are not following the procedures that are adopted in this place. You are using your numbers to crunch through an issue without the proper processes of the Senate being dealt with. That is a minor issue. I raise it just in case Senator Colbeck does not understand that there is a process and procedure in this place for references.
That the motion (Senator Colbeck’s) be agreed to.