Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009; Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009
Consideration of House of Representatives Message
Messages received from the House of Representatives returning the Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 and the Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009, and informing the Senate that the House has not made the amendments requested by the Senate.
Ordered that the message be considered in Committee of the Whole immediately.
That the committee does not press its requests for amendments not made by the House of Representatives.
These bills are some of the most significant in terms of the health of our nation that this Senate will deal with for a very long time. I am appealing to senators—senators on the crossbenches and senators on the other side—to be mindful of the impact a vote against this legislation might have and to be mindful of the evidence that has been heard at not only the legislative committee inquiry but also two other inquiries. One of those inquiries was instigated in response to Senator Fielding’s private member’s bill. The evidence that has been heard by senators in this chamber clearly points to a vote in favour of this legislation for the health particularly of our young people. If these bills are defeated, the result will be a decrease in the costs of ready-to-drink products as of 13 May this year. All the good work that has been done since last April—that is, the 35 per cent reduction in consumption of ready-to-drink beverages and the total overall reduction in spirit consumption—will be reversed. The good work that we have achieved through this measure to slow any growth in alcohol consumption in this country from April last year to now will be reversed. All the good work that was part of Labor’s comprehensive plan to deliver a change in the drinking culture in this country will be undermined.
For the last 10 years there has been very little focus on inappropriate use of alcohol in this country. Since early last year, that has turned around. Since early last year we have had the Preventative Health Taskforce. Early last year we allocated $53.5 million to a National Binge Drinking Strategy working on three levels. That is evidence based policy. We have allocated $872 million to a broad approach to preventative health in this country—money that has never, ever been seen before. Then yesterday we allocated another $50 million to support a range of measures that senators in this place suggested the government should pursue. When I reported to the Senate on the agreement between the Greens senators and Senator Xenophon I made it absolutely clear that that money could not progress if these bills did not pass. Those senators who are contemplating voting against this legislation are jeopardising $50 million of greater investment into the health of our nation, particularly into the health of our young people.
During this debate we have heard appalling statistics about the growth in alcohol abuse, particularly by underage drinkers. We know that alcopops are designed for and marketed to largely underage and very young drinkers. We have seen the Facebook advertisements. We have seen the way in which the advertisements are designed and placed in magazines for young children. All of that evidence would tell you that, if you vote against this measure, those sorts of advertising regimes will be pumped up. We saw what happened with the alcohol industry, especially the distillers, in April last year when the tax increase on alcopops occurred. We saw the blitz of advertising to buy two bottles of straight spirits for an inordinately cheap price. We saw the free bottle of mixer with a bottle of spirits for an inordinately cheap price. What is going to happen on 13 May if this legislation is not passed? We will see a blitz of advertising targeting young people like you have never seen before, and all the good work that has occurred over the last 11 months will be pulled away. I fear for our young people if this legislation is not carried.
But, as I have said to Senator Fielding in particular and to Senator Siewert: there is no one silver bullet when it comes to dealing with culture change around the inappropriate use of alcohol. The equalisation of tax on alcopops is but one measure. We need a comprehensive plan, and we are working on a comprehensive plan. We have, through the Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy, been dealing with a whole range of areas, including advertising. We have started down the road of looking at the linkages between sport, particularly young people’s sport, and the alcohol industry—thanks to the work of the crossbench senators yesterday.
Change in public health policy is always incremental. Yesterday Senator Brown alluded to the change to do with tobacco that has taken place over almost the last 30 years. Changing attitudes to inappropriate use of alcohol will also take time. This is not something you can do in one fell swoop. I am now appealing to comments that Senator Fielding has made—we expect that, over time, there will be change to the way that sport and alcohol interrelate, but we cannot do it in one hit. It is simply not possible to turn around an existing economic structure with one stroke of a pen. But I acknowledge Senator Fielding’s strong desire to work in this space. I acknowledge that he brought a private member’s bill into the Senate, and I acknowledge his strong desire to progress that. But I say to Senator Fielding and others that through a vote against this measure we will lose so much of the ground that we have already made.
So I urge not only the crossbench senators but also those senators in the Liberal Party and the National Party who stood in this place and said that they were concerned for our young children, that they could observe changed drinking habits of young people and that they were worried about the impact this was having on police time—it has grown in the last 10 years as a result of the inappropriate use of ready-to-drink beverages, particularly by very young people—to look into themselves and ask: ‘Is this the right thing for our kids?’ If they do that, they will observe that it is not. I strongly urge all senators to support this measure.
Senator Fielding was right late last year when he said that he would support this legislation. He said that, given the financial difficulties that our country was facing, the loss of $1.6 billion from the forward estimates was something that he was concerned about. He was very right then. I urge him to consider again those comments that he made, because he was right. Taking $1.6 billion and all of the fantastic public health commitments that we will be able to deliver to our community is, I think as Senator Xenophon has said, potentially throwing the baby out with the bathwater. This is important legislation not only for our children but also for the overall public health of this country. It is an important message to send to all Australians that we need to change the drinking culture in Australia. We need to make sure that very young people stop drinking, that young teenagers drink responsibly and that all Australians move to a more responsible drinking culture.
Public health experts have said to me that they have acknowledged and welcomed the changed focus of the federal government toward alcohol. This substance represents the second highest cost, after tobacco, to the health budget in this country. I think that, if the Senate does not support this measure today, that leadership and the Australian community’s changed perception of the inappropriate use of alcohol will be undermined. This is a very important vote and I urge senators to support the measure.
At the outset, I note that the government did not actually explain why they rejected all of the amendments requested by the Senate yesterday. What Senator McLucas has just put to the chamber is the government’s case, which we have previously heard, as to why the government thinks the legislation should be supported. I will not hold up the Senate by going through the argument again. Clearly the Senate would well understand that the coalition is of the view that this was never anything but a tax measure dressed up as a health measure for political reasons. It is a measure that was not based on evidence when it was introduced and the government has not been able to present any evidence whatsoever that it has been effective in reducing binge drinking, risky levels of drinking or alcohol abuse related harm in the community.
Specifically on the motion before us, Liberal and National Party senators will be voting against this motion, and the reason we will is that we think it is an irresponsible motion. It is a reckless motion. Let’s remind ourselves what the Senate requested by way of amendments from the government. We requested essentially two things in a series of amendments. The first thing we requested was that the government agree to validate the revenue collected from 27 April up until royal assent—to validate the revenue collected so far. I really urge senators on the crossbenches to listen very carefully to the implications of what the government are proposing to do with this motion. The government have said to us today that they will vote against validating the revenue collected between 27 April and the date of royal assent. That is for starters. I can understand that the government would have some problems with the second part of our requested amendments, because we requested in the second series of amendments that the increased tax would essentially be made redundant, that the levels of excise as they apply to RTDs would go back down to the levels they would have been if the 70 per cent increase had not been implemented in the first place.
But let us focus on the government’s refusal to support our request for an amendment to validate the revenue collected so far. Why is the government doing this? Is the government taking the Senate’s vote for granted? Is the government assuming that the Senate will support the substantive legislation? It is possible the Senate will not support this legislation, and the government rejects the amendments that we have quite sensibly put forward to help it out of a spot of bother. Nobody in this chamber wants the $300 million collected so far to be returned to the liquor industry. There is unanimous support in this chamber for ensuring that the revenue collected so far, even though it was collected through a bad tax that was never able to be justified on health grounds, does not return to the liquor industry. We have said it is not practical to return the funds raised through the measure over the last 12 months to the liquor industry, so we have quite sensibly and quite constructively offered a way out for the government to ensure that the $300 million does not have to be returned to the liquor industry should this legislation be defeated. The government have said: ‘No, we’re not going to have any of this. We’re just going to put all our eggs in one basket. We’ve got to take the risk.’
I assume that the reason the government has done that is to put the Senate under maximum pressure—in fact, to put Senator Fielding under maximum pressure. Here we are, not at the eleventh hour but at two minutes to midnight and the government is dealing with legislation we have been debating since Monday lunchtime, legislation that seeks to validate a tax increase that was implemented on 27 April last year. So why is the government not supporting our very sensible, very constructive proposition to validate the revenue collected so far? If this legislation is to be defeated, it is going to be on the government’s head. It will be the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and the Minister for Health and Ageing, Nicola Roxon, who will have to justify to the Australian people why the $300 million which will have been collected without legal foundation—
has not been validated and why the government have put themselves into the untenable position of having to return those funds to the liquor industry. It seems as if that is what the government is intending to do. Does the government want that $300 million to go back to the liquor industry? What is the reason that the government is not supporting the Senate’s very sensible request to validate at least the revenue collected since this measure was first implemented?
I want to flag this, because I assume that this is all about the government’s tactic. This is all about putting maximum pressure on Senator Fielding: ‘Let’s try and run it as close as possible to the deadline. Let’s tell him there is $1.6 billion at play and put on the additional pressure that, if he doesn’t support this legislation, we’ll have to return $300 million to the liquor industry.’ Nobody wants that—Senator Fielding and Family First do not want that, the Greens do not want that and Senator Xenophon does not want that. I would like to think that that is not what the government wants, but by moving the motion that the government has moved today that is what could quite possibly happen, depending on what the decision of the Senate is today.
I want to flag that, as we are very constructive on this side of the chamber, we offer the government another solution should this legislation not be successful on the floor of the Senate today. We also put it to Senator Fielding and Family First, to Senator Xenophon and to the Greens that, if this legislation is not successful today, we still should make sure as a parliament and as a Senate that the $300 million of revenue raised so far does not have to be returned to the liquor industry.
I call on the government to, if this legislation is defeated, introduce legislation forthwith to validate the revenue collected from 27 April until the day of royal assent. If the government were to introduce legislation to validate the revenues collected so far, we would support it. There is no doubt that it would get up with the support of every senator in this chamber. But the government is running this very close to the wind. I am in no doubt that this is part of a strategy: ‘Let’s make sure that we have as little time as possible so that the stuff-ups we make can’t be fixed up.’ There is a very simple way that this could be addressed, and that is by the government changing its mind and agreeing to our request for an amendment on the revenue collected during the initial 12 months.
Can somebody from the government side please explain to me why they would not do that? Can somebody explain to me why the government would not want to validate the revenue collected so far? Can somebody tell me whether there is a reason other than to put maximum pressure on the Senate and maximum pressure on Senator Fielding? Senator Fielding has stuck to his guns all the way through. He has stood up for his principles. AMA President Rosanna Capolingua described his stance as ‘courageous’ on ABC radio this morning. It is a stance that does not suit the government, so, ‘Let’s just try and run the strategy on this legislation such that Senator Fielding feels under maximum pressure.’ It is absolutely reckless for the government not to support a request for an amendment which essentially validates the $300 million worth of revenue collected so far.
Senator McLucas, across the chamber—no doubt sending a message to the crossbenchers—was saying, ‘If this legislation doesn’t get up, the $50 million we put on the table yesterday is off the table.’ You know what? This Senate actually called on the government to spend all of the revenue collected so far—$300 million—on some genuine measures to address binge drinking. The Senate called on the government to invest the $300 million that has been collected so far in some genuine and effective measures against alcohol abuse and binge drinking. If the government were serious about binge drinking, if this were not just a tax grab, if the government actually wanted to do something effective about this, they would follow the lead of the Senate and they would invest all the money collected so far in some effective measures against binge drinking.
But what have we got? We have deals in the back rooms somewhere, we have bullying and we have had, essentially, the Senate being stuffed around for a week—putting it on, taking it off, putting it on and taking it off; ‘We might; we might not.’ This is not the way to run the government’s business. I make the substantive point again: the government is absolutely reckless in not agreeing to the request for amendments put forward by the Senate to validate the revenue collected so far. It is absolutely reckless. If the government is of a mind to take the Senate for granted—to take the view that, because of the pressure you are putting on the Senate, it is all going to sail through—then you are essentially putting yourself into a position where you take the risk that the $300 million that has been collected so far has not been validly collected by the government. It is an irresponsible course of action. I urge all senators in this chamber to vote against the motion put by the government.
The Greens agree with the government: this is very important legislation. One of the reasons why this legislation has been going backwards and forwards is that the Senate wanted to be satisfied that we did have a comprehensive approach to tackling binge drinking and alcohol related harm. Another reason it has been going backwards and forwards is that some members of the Senate have been unwilling to look at the evidence that is available. I agree that the evidence is not complete. One of the reasons for that is that we have not got the data available, because we have a very poor data collection process. Due to the current way of reporting binge drinking and alcohol related harm, particularly through our emergency departments in hospitals, it is not possible to get the data to use to effectively measure any alcohol related harm. To get technical, the codes they list admissions with do not properly reflect whether an accident involves alcohol. As was explained to the Senate inquiry just last week, if someone comes in with a broken arm, their injury gets listed as a broken arm; it does not get listed whether that broken arm is alcohol related.
The evidence that the industry tried to put forward that this measure has had no measurable effect on alcohol related harm in terms of admissions to emergency departments was a misuse of the Access Economics report. That report said that you could not use the data to draw conclusions. The industry used that report to say: ‘There has been no impact on the number of admissions related to alcohol. Therefore, this measure isn’t working.’ However, there was plenty of evidence brought to the committee that showed that sales of RTDs had gone down. I understand that the coalition do not dispute that. What they say is that there has been an increase in substitution. The Greens’ concern has always been that, while we accept the argument that price plays a role, substitution would occur at a much greater rate—in fact, unless we had the complementary measures in place, substitution would take over and make up for the reduction in sales of RTDs.
That is why we were so clear about needing to make sure that we address the other elements of a strategy that all the health experts say that we need to deal with alcohol related harm. And that is why we are so strong on the issue of advertising. I have made no secret and nobody in the Greens has made a secret of the fact that our policy says that we should be banning alcohol advertising. That has been in our policy for a significant period of time, but we also believe that we need to take a long-term view of how we deal with it, as we did with tobacco. However, we believe that we should learn from what happened with tobacco and be quicker about this, because it took a long time to get the tobacco issue on the agenda. So we are saying: ‘Yes, we realise that it’s difficult to bring it in overnight. We need a strategy, and the strategy should be a carefully timed, well thought out approach.’
The Greens believe, based on the evidence that we have been presented with, that there has been a reduction in alcohol consumption through this measure. We listened closely to the brewers who presented evidence to the committee inquiry. They challenged the evidence of the distillers and said that, in fact, it would be heroic to draw conclusions from the evidence that the distillers presented that there had been a statistically significant increase in the sales of beer during this period. The distillers were trying to claim that there has been substitution of RTDs with beer. The brewers challenged that. So did the wine makers. They also challenged the claims that there had been a significant increase in wine sales as a substitute for RTDs.
The other point that was made, and the evidence shows this, is that there has been an increase in the sales of straight spirits. Unfortunately, it is very hard to tell whether this tax is increasing the sales of straight spirits, as I highlighted both during the inquiry and in the second reading debate. Senator McLucas referred to this issue in her comments earlier. The industry has been funding a strong campaign undermining this measure—I will reiterate the fact that they refused to say in committee how much they had spent undermining this particular measure; you would have to take it that they have spent a very significant amount of money—as well as spending a lot of money promoting straight spirits and promoting beating the alcopops meanies by promoting cheap sales of straight spirits and throwing in bottles of soft drink to enable the mixing of those drinks.
That is very irresponsible. Here they are claiming that they are taking a responsible approach to the sale of alcohol, yet they are the ones who have been actively undermining this initiative that is designed to address people’s health and abuse of alcohol. Here they are promoting substitutions and encouraging people to buy two bottles of alcohol plus a bottle of mixer. So it is not fair at all for the industry to claim that this has been unsuccessful or that there has been substitution. It would have been nice to see this work without the industry trying to undermine the initiative, but, even with their very, very strong and focused campaign, we have still seen a reduction in the sales of RTDs.
The Greens have also been at pains to point out that we do accept price as a mechanism but we need to ensure that the other measures that we have articulated are also put in place, particularly breaking this link between sport sponsorship and alcohol sales. Research is increasingly showing the link between increased drinking by young people as a result of sponsorship and alcohol branded merchandise. The latest research in America, where they studied 6,000 young people, clearly showed that link and other research has too.
We believe that this measure is having an impact. We have said to government: ‘Show us the colour of your money. Show us how you’re investing this money in addressing the issue that you say this is about.’ It is about tackling binge drinking and reducing alcohol related harm. We wanted to see the other measures because we needed to be assured that they were taking this seriously, that this was not just about revenue raising but also about delivering outcomes for alcohol abuse. We have had a lot of contact with the health community—health professionals and public health advocates—and they have supported this measure, but they have also supported calls from the community, from the Greens and from many others saying we need a comprehensive approach. We believe their evidence to the committee—that price is a very important mechanism, a tool to use to address alcohol abuse—and we also believe their calls, backed up by evidence, that it needs to be part of a comprehensive approach.
They are the experts; they have experience in dealing with alcohol abuse. But also, importantly, they have strong involvement and experience in working with phasing out tobacco and dealing with smoking. They are taking the experience gained in that area and translating it into experience with alcohol. And there is evidence there. Tobacco and alcohol are slightly different, we acknowledge that, in that no smoking is good for you. None of us are saying that no alcohol is good for you—although I note the guidelines released last week by the NHMRC, which has reduced the number of drinks recommended for safe drinking. However, they are not saying no alcohol is good for you. In fact, many people would argue the reverse, in moderation. But the point is that there are many lessons to be learned from how we dealt with tobacco and, quite frankly, it is going to be a tragedy if we have to spend a number of years similar to the number that the health activists spent in getting people to pay attention and address issues about smoking. It will be a tragedy if we have to spend the same amount of time doing that with alcohol and getting widespread acknowledgement of the fact that we need to tackle alcohol and, in particular, measures besides price.
Advertising is one of these measures and sponsorship is another, which is why we are so pleased that the government has agreed to a sponsorship fund to enable community organisations and sporting groups to apply for substitute funding to replace alcohol funding and sponsorship of sporting activities. We believe this is the first time that we have seen an acknowledgement that there is a link there. We think that is particularly important. We will be strongly encouraging sporting organisations and community groups to apply for funding so that they can break that link with alcohol advertising.
I have had contact from a number of organisations saying that they would appreciate such an opportunity because, in fact, they do not want to take funding from big alcohol companies or from taverns and pubs whereby they have to use logos and advertise the particular sponsorship. They do not believe it is appropriate that bodies that are about sport and about trying to promote health, activities and exercise among our young people should then water down the message by taking money from alcohol companies, taverns and pubs. Not only does it undermine that message but it has a direct impact in encouraging young people to take up drinking.
We strongly encourage support for this measure now that the government has agreed to the additional measures that are addressing sports sponsorship and the fund and now that the government has agreed to establishing a hotline. All this is, in fact, building on measures that they have already had in place, but this will enable better coordination and more easily accessible help and advice. The funding for the community initiatives is a very significant step forward. The extension of funding for social marketing is a very important step forward. Again, it is about a comprehensive approach. What all of the health experts talk about shows that properly targeted social marketing campaigns are particularly important. They have to be properly marketed and properly targeted and done carefully, but they play a very important role. On top of that the government has also agreed to mandated warnings on all advertising, which is another very significant step forward.
We think the initiatives around phasing out self-regulation of advertising by the industry is another particularly important step, because the evidence that we have seen, presented to the three community affairs committee inquiries that we have now had in the last 12 months, has indicated that there are problems. Certainly I have been very alarmed by evidence presented to the committee around the industry’s self-regulation. They claim it is very effective. But if you look at the ads that the self-regulation body has allowed through, you would be very concerned. They have allowed through ads that I think break the guidelines. Not only has that occurred but, in fact, where ads—the few of them—have been rejected they have mysteriously ended up on the internet, advertising alcohol on the internet. That is why we are also supportive of the fact that the government is changing the approach to self-regulation and also extending the purview into new media, which we think is particularly important because obviously the internet carries a lot of advertising and is a particularly accessible forum and medium for young people. So we are pleased that we are seeing those sorts of steps being taken by the government. (Time expired)
I thank those senators who made a contribution to the debate up to this point. I think there is a potential for other senators, who may want to make a contribution, to do so but I cannot predict that, I suppose. I remind the chamber and those who are listening of the very sensible comments that Senator Fielding made on Monday, 13 October last year. I quote from the ABC News website:
Senator Fielding says the seriousness of the global economic problems means he has reversed his opposition to the Medicare levy changes and the alcopops tax increase, despite him still having concerns about the legislation.
“There’s still about $3 billion worth of Budget that is exposed to the Parliament, and Family First is making it quite clear today that we’ll support the Government’s remaining tax Budget bills to bring about that stability,” Senator Fielding said.
“It’s important that Parliament do all it possibly can to bring that stability.”
As I said earlier, Senator Fielding was absolutely right when he made that statement. It is about having the available funds to provide the preventative health services and strategies wanted by Senator Fielding and those who I think have the interests of the health of this country at heart.
Can I say, Senator Cormann, that the disappointment that those in the public health field feel over the behaviour of the Liberal and National parties on this matter is bottleable. They are furious that the opposition in this place, the alternative government in this place, would take such an appalling approach to what could have been the most significant action—
I absolutely believe this, because I have read the evidence, which you refuse to countenance. The evidence says that we have reduced consumption of alcopops in this country by $124 million in the last nine months. That is the reduction in the consumption of alcopops. Add to that the fact that we know that alcopops are designed to be marketed to young people and under-age people. That is why they advertise on Facebook. That is why they put things into magazines that children buy.
If we do not pass this measure today, all that is gone. If we do not pass this measure today, all the work that we have done in the last 12 to 15 months will be undermined. Our government retains its commitment to turning around the culture of inappropriate drinking in this country, but if this legislation is not passed today that will be, in the minds of the community and particularly of the young people of Australia, seriously questioned. On the one hand, we are saying that we have to spend money to change the culture around binge drinking but, on the other hand, we make these things cheaper when we know the biggest lever we can pull to stop kids drinking is price because they have not got an expanding pocket and they do not have an expanding wallet. They are price limited. If we make them more expensive, the likelihood that fewer will be drunk is extremely high. That was the evidence that was provided to the Senate committee. I urge senators to do the right thing for the young people of Australia to keep them off alcohol, as the NHMRC says we should, for as long as we possibly can. This is a good measure, it is working, we know it is working, and I urge the Senate to support it.
We are still here at the eleventh hour and Family First are throwing a lifeline to the Rudd government to break the impasse. We have recommended to the government a three-year set date for closing the crazy loophole that allows alcohol ads to appear during sporting programs. Three years is more than enough. We are trying to be reasonable and act in good faith. This link between alcohol advertising and sport needs to be broken. The industry knows that this is a serious issue. In actual fact, it appears some of the industry is prepared to move further than the Rudd government on advertising restrictions, from what I heard yesterday in the chamber. I heard yesterday in the chamber that someone in the industry was looking to restrict their advertising. I do not know whether that is true, but if that is true then it seems a shame that the Rudd government will not move on setting a deadline or a date for stopping this crazy link between alcohol and sport.
Clearly, we have a problem; no-one is denying that. I have never heard the government deny it, but for some reason it refuses to actually set a date, to stand up to the alcohol industry and say that sports programs should not be given a special exemption from the regulation that allows them to put ads on any time of the day for alcohol. No-one can justify it. The government has not had a day, a week or a year but over a year and a half to do this. Family First introduced a bill into parliament, the Alcohol Toll Reduction Bill 2007 , which had three measures in it: firstly, advertising restrictions; secondly, health warning labels on alcohol products; and, thirdly, making sure that the ads for alcohol are taken out of industry hands and into a regulatory body not in the hands of the industry. These three measures are pretty simple. These three measures do not cost the government a cent. The government has conceded on a couple of those points, but all three are not justifiable not to move. The government is willing to move on labels on alcohol products and it is willing to make sure that alcohol ads are out of the industry hands into a regulatory body, but on the big one, alcohol advertising and sport, this government cannot unhook itself even from that addiction. It has not got the courage to stand up to the alcohol industry and say that enough is enough. I am not even asking for it to be done today; I am asking for the government to set a date so we can all work towards when we will break that link between alcohol and sport.
You cannot justify why you would not do it. The Australian public want it. They are sick and tired of the link. As I stated yesterday, the cost of excessive alcohol consumption in Australia is $15.3 billion. That is what it costs the economy. That is a physical drag on the economy. One in five road deaths are alcohol related and 40 per cent of police work is alcohol related. These are your taxes and my taxes. Our streets are not safe because of the alcohol fuelled violence. We must act on this. We have thrown a lifeline to the government, and I am hoping that they do not just say to the Australian people that even a three-year start date is not acceptable. That is ridiculous. There is no use spending money unhooking sponsorship from sport if you are going to put your foot on the accelerator down to the floor and allow advertising and sport still to be so closely tied. You are actually reinforcing the message. You need to actually front up to the Australian people and stop hiding behind a blatant tax grab. That is where you started, and you have ended up with a few other bits and pieces and a bit of money to buy a few more votes, but you have got to address the biggest issue, which is that of alcohol advertising. Everybody knows it. It is like the elephant in your party room. This is a biggie and you will not stand up to it. It is a nonsense that you will not move on this issue.
So here is a lifeline—a three-year date: in three years you will definitely stop the crazy exemption given to sports programming that allows alcohol ads to appear any time of the day. It is a simple thing to do, and it is the right thing to do. All Australians want to see this addressed. As I said, Family First spoke about this issue with the Prime Minister before he was Prime Minister. This is a serious issue. We have brought this issue to a head because we have stood up to the government’s fraudulent position of saying that the alcopops tax is good enough. You have a major problem—a $15.3 billion problem; that is the alcohol toll—and the best that you folks can do is pull the lever on tax revenue and say this is going to fix it.
You have turned binge drinking into a tax problem. Binge drinking is not a tax problem; binge drinking is a cultural problem. We need to create a culture of responsible drinking in Australia. I drink; most Australians drink. We need to create a culture of responsible drinking where it is no longer acceptable to drink until you are blind drunk. We need to look at this as an alcohol toll. I use the term very specifically because people can relate to it. They can relate to it because of the road toll. Governments got fair dinkum with the road toll. It took a long time to get there. And what was the first response to some of the measures? It was: ‘Oh, don’t be a wowser!’ Remember the days when seat belts had to be worn? People would say, ‘Oh, I’m not wearing a seat belt; you’re not a man if you wear a seatbelt.’ Today a five-year-old kid will say, ‘Hey! You haven’t got your seatbelt on!’ That is the culture. It is not a tax problem. You do not turn binge drinking into a tax problem. You have hijacked genuine debate about addressing a very huge issue—a huge elephant that you will not tackle.
The tobacco toll is another toll. There is the road toll, the tobacco toll—and now the alcohol toll. Occasionally, the Rudd government say, ‘Look, with the tobacco toll we pulled the tax lever.’ Hold on! From memory you did not take the most popular brand of cigarettes and up the tax on that. Why? Because you knew there would be substitution. So all of a sudden you come to the alcohol toll and the best you mob can do is pull a tax on one particular product. Do you know how much the price, not the tax, has gone up? Do you think that is going to stop people from binge drinking? You have turned this debate into a tax problem and done all of Australia a very great disservice. This issue deserved better from a government that knew the issues. You knew that this deserved better than just pulling a tax on one product. It is a cultural issue; it is not a tax problem. We need to address that issue.
Three simple measures were not too much to ask: advertising restrictions, warning labels on alcohol products and getting alcohol advertising out of industry self-regulation. But no, you did not go there. You just pulled the tax lever. And then you masquerade around saying, ‘That’s going to do it all!’ And then at the eleventh hour you start giving a bit more money and you say, ‘Only if you vote for the bill will you get these other little bits and pieces.’ But what about the real issue of the advertising restrictions? I have given you a lifeline here—three years. Seriously think about it. Do not just steadfastly say, ‘Nothing we can do about that!’ I am sure in your party room that there is quite a bit of support for advertising restrictions. Listen to your conscience on this issue. You cannot justify to the Australian people why you will not tackle the advertising restrictions. Unhook alcohol addiction from sport. Show some real leadership. Show the courage that the Australian people voted you in on at the last election. Show them that same steely determination to stand up to the big players. Do not roll over at the eleventh hour—show some courage.
It appears that Senator Fielding has decided that gaining two of his three wishes is not enough. We have to remember that last year he supported this legislation. Now, having not got everything he has asked for, he is going to vote it down, with the opposition being his co-negators of the legislation. Senator Fielding is the boy on the burning deck saying, ‘I’m going to throw you a lifeline,’ having set the ship aflame. You cannot see anything here other than this lifeline from Senator Fielding scuttling everybody’s hopes and aspirations while he wants to say, ‘But I offered you a lifeline at the end.’
Senator Fielding is scuttling legislation which has huge advantages for the Australian people, and he will be judged for it. But the problem is: does he have the shoulders to bear the responsibility for what is really happening here today? The senator wanted an end to the self-regulation of alcohol advertising and the government has moved on that. He wanted warning labels on alcohol containers and the government has moved on that. He wants restrictions on the so-called loophole which allows the advertising of alcohol with sporting events on television. The government has not moved on that. Senator Fielding has made that a make or break matter, and break is the decision.
I happen to agree that it would be a good thing. It is Greens policy that that nexus should be broken. But here is where wisdom and sensibility, instead of silliness, in politics come into play. What we will get with the passage of the legislation and the attendant agreements made with the government is an end to damaging alcohol advertising without warnings. There will be warnings on alcohol advertising and on labels. Senator Fielding is throwing that out. There will be a $50 million plan—and Senator Siewert has spoken about this at length—which includes a hotline for people who are having trouble with alcohol. It will start to replace alcohol advertising for sporting groups. They will be given a choice because there will be public funding available. It also includes other measures which are going to help people who have trouble with alcohol. That is a big breakthrough indeed.
There will be an end to the self-regulation of advertising by alcohol producers because there will now be government representation involved—and that means people who have health in mind instead of just selling alcohol—in the regulation of advertisements to do with alcohol. And of course there is the tax itself, which we know from the real statistics has reduced the amount of alcohol being consumed. The flow-on to that is that it has curbed—not sufficiently—binge drinking. That is logical, because if you raise the price of a good then the good will sell less.
I, like everybody else, appeal to Senator Fielding to reconsider the situation here. It is not just saying, ‘I won’t let the legislation through.’ It is dumping a series of real measures, probably unprecedented in the life of this parliament, to curb the problem of drinking. It is a multibillion dollar problem, as well as a lifestyle problem and a problem that damages families. What Senator Fielding is saying is: ‘I won’t go along with this package to help protect families who are being damaged by alcohol abuse in this country. I would rather, to make a political point, dump that multimillion dollar regulatory package, which includes warning signs on advertising, that has been negotiated through the work of a lot of senators in this place.’ That is his right and privilege, but I say it is the wrong thing to do. It is not a sensible, considered, mature and responsible outcome. So be it.
I might say to the government that I would have yielded more on this but we recognise the dynamics of politics. I could have attached to this piece of legislation some very, very big asks and made it impossible for the government to negotiate with the Greens. Senator Siewert, who was doing our negotiation, did not do that, but she got major advances. Senator Xenophon has done the same. But with Senator Fielding the attitude now is: ‘Give me what I want or no deal and I’ll dump all the gains made by the other senators which are going to help really tackle the problem of alcohol abuse in this nation of ours.’ That is what people want us to be doing. I can say that fair-minded Australians out there are going to look at this because it is not a net sum game. They are going to look at the losses incurred here today because of the opposition and its intransigence and because of Senator Fielding, if he does not change his mind on this.
It is not just poor politics. This is a terrible, improperly thought out and irresponsible outcome for the Australian people in the circumstances. That is where it stops: is this responsible or is it not? No, losing the gains that have been made here would not be a responsible move. I appeal to the opposition to think about that again. The opposition has tried very hard to say that the government should not be imposing this tax. But we have all worked very hard and the government has given ground on this. Minister Roxon has given ground on this. We have here in our hands a reasonable outcome and a commitment to tackle the problem of alcohol and, in particular, alcohol advertising in the future. This is not the end of it. We should be voting for it.
I will just take advantage of Senator Fielding being in the chamber to explain in a few words why Liberal and National Party senators will be voting against the motion moved by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health and Ageing. It seems that I am actually the only senator speaking to the motion, as everybody else has talked about the substantive tariff bills.
The motion before us is essentially that the Senate not insist on the requested amendments that we in this chamber passed yesterday. There were two series of amendments that we agreed to in the Senate yesterday. The first series related to validating the revenue collected so far to the tune of $300 million. There is absolutely no reason why the government should not agree to the validation of the revenue collected so far, just in case its substantive legislation does not have the support of the Senate. The only reason the government is not supporting the requested amendments that would validate the tax that has been collected so far is to, at three minutes to midnight—we are no longer in the eleventh hour—put maximum pressure on the Senate and more particularly on Senator Fielding. Senator Fielding has stuck by his guns and has been consistent on the issues he feels strongly about. As I mentioned earlier, the President of the AMA, Rosanna Capolingua, this morning reflected that Senator Fielding’s stance was very courageous indeed.
I am not going to go through all of the arguments again as to why the opposition thinks that this is an ineffective measure. It is a tax grab that does not have any health benefits attached to it. As such, we will not be supporting the substantive legislation. I want to point out the seriousness of the government’s actions in not accepting the requested amendments that would validate the revenue collected so far. Should this legislation be unsuccessful, I think it is very important for Senator Fielding to understand that the coalition would support legislation, which the government should introduce immediately, that validates the revenue collected so far. I am confident that with our support—and no doubt with the support of senators across the chamber—such legislation would pass. Finally, on behalf of the opposition I call on the government again to invest all of the $300 million that has been collected so far into effective and genuine measures to address the issue of alcohol abuse, as was called for by the Senate two days ago.
My position remains that I believe a number of the measures that have been agreed to by the government, as a result of discussions between the government and my crossbench colleagues, the Greens, are a quantum leap forward in dealing with alcohol abuse in this country. We will have for the first time mandatory warning labels on all alcoholic beverages. That is significant. There will be an end to the self-regulation—some would say the self-delusion—of the alcohol industry so that there will be pre-vetting of ads for the first time. There will be $50 million spent on a variety of very important measures. The sponsorship issues that the Greens have been advocating for are dealt with. That is an important step forward. There will be $20 million for community education campaigns—those grassroots campaigns that research shows make a very real difference in getting the message across to young people particularly when dealing with alcohol abuse. There is $5 million being spent on social marketing, which Senator Siewert referred to. That will target those groups in new and innovative ways to make a difference. And, of course, there will be the alcohol abuse hotline.
This all leads us to the outstanding issue that Senator Fielding is concerned about. I want to make it clear that I commend the advocacy and work that Senator Fielding has done on this for many months. He has been consistent in his concern about tackling alcohol abuse in this country. My concern is that all of those good measures will be lost. Rather than looking at the whys and wherefores of who is right and who is wrong we need to put this in context. There is an opportunity now to move forward in a very significant way to tackle alcohol abuse in this country with the programs and the mandatory warning labels on bottles, casks and cans. Senator Fielding has been a long-term advocate of these things, and he deserves to be commended for that. This is a quantum leap forward in terms of what we have seen previously with tackling alcohol abuse in this country.
If the government is prepared to agree to a process of winding back alcohol advertising with sport and if it is prepared to put in a not insignificant sum of money to have advertisements dealing with alcohol abuse in the context of sports broadcasts, that would go a long way in dealing with the concerns of Senator Fielding. Advertising during sports programs could well have an effect on reducing consumption. That is what the research from the University of Connecticut that I referred to the other day has found. If there are funds set aside not only for the social marketing that Senator Siewert referred to to specifically target groups but also for advertising to get the message across about alcohol abuse, I believe that would remedy in a significant way the concerns that Senator Fielding has set out.
My fear is that we will throw the baby out with the bathwater. My fear is that we will lose this quantum shift in terms of the way we look at alcohol abuse in this country. I do not want to be critical of the opposition or indeed of previous Labor governments, but they have done very little in terms of dealing with this. This is a breakthrough. It is fundamentally important that we grab this opportunity. There is a real opportunity here for Senator Fielding to hold his head high, even though he has just left the chamber—and I am not sure whether that is a good or bad sign. There is a real opportunity for Senator Fielding, along with my crossbench colleagues, the Greens, to take credit for some significant reforms in this area.
I do not want us to go back to the bad old days of self-regulation and no pre-vetting of advertising; to retain the status quo of no warning labels on alcoholic beverages; to not have funds in place, significant programs in place, to tackle alcohol abuse, and the social marketing that will actually break through and cut through to young people in particular; to have no hotline; and of course to not substitute current alcohol sponsorship through a $25 million fund. These are all things that will shift and change the culture of drinking in this country, and the damage caused by advertising and sponsorship. Let us not abandon those very good measures because we cannot get everything, because the ideal world cannot be achieved right here and now. So my plea to my colleague Senator Fielding—and again I accept fully his sincerity, his genuineness, in tackling this problem—is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I urge him to support the package of measures, with some modification perhaps in terms of addressing a number of his key concerns, so that we can get on with this and have a good piece of public policy in place.
I thank those who have contributed to the debate. Like Senator Xenophon, I do not know if it is a good thing or a bad thing that Senator Fielding is not here, but I do hope he takes the opportunity to listen to this contribution in which I will try to talk through the issues that he has raised.
Various senators have talked about the progress that we have made over the last 12 months in terms of changing the culture around binge drinking. We talked yesterday about the extra $50 million that will go on top of the $53.5 million committed last year, the $872 million in a broad preventative health strategy and the commitment from this government—the huge shift in government thinking that has occurred with the change of government—to curbing the inappropriate use of alcohol. What might happen today is that that culture shift that Senator Fielding so desperately wants, I think it is fair to say, will be severely undermined. The gains that we have made around alcohol advertising and alcohol labelling that the crossbench senators have negotiated will be undermined. The $50 million extra in services—through the community-level initiatives, through increased social marketing and advertising and through the telephone hotline—that everyone agrees is an improvement and a way forward will be undermined. I think that the cultural shift that Senator Fielding is so concerned about will, if he does not support this legislation, be undermined.
Senator Fielding appealed to me to listen to my conscience. I appeal to him for the same reason. If this legislation is not supported, we will revert to the days when alcopops were cheap, and alcopops designed for and marketed particularly to young people and under-age people will be back. The level of alcohol abuse happening in young children will be back to the levels that it was. I do not think this is what Senator Fielding wants but, unless he supports this legislation, that is what he will get. And, I am sorry, but the advances that we have made on the requests that Senator Fielding has legitimately put on the table are significant.
Changing the sport and alcohol relationship is not something you can do with one decision. It is a longstanding relationship that, as Senator Bob Brown has said, will take time to change. There is a reliance—something that Senator Fielding clearly finds abhorrent, and others do as well—of sports on sponsorship by alcohol companies. Senator Fielding thinks that should change and change now. I say to him that, practically, that will take a long time to turn around. That is not to say that there is no desire for something to happen in the future, but Senator Fielding’s demands of government are impossible to deliver. One might wonder why he would ask for something that I think he knows, in his heart of hearts, is impossible.
Senator Fielding talked about leadership needing to be applied. From day one, this tax has been called a controversial tax. I heard it again on the radio this morning: ‘the controversial alcopops tax’. If that is not showing leadership, Senator Fielding, then I am not sure what is. We have had leadership from the top on the question of inappropriate use of alcohol, and I really think that Senator Fielding’s dismissal of this practical measure that is changing the way that our young people will drink is dismissive of the comprehensive approach that our government has had. It is simplistic to say, ‘If you don’t change the relationship between sport and sponsorship by alcohol companies, then you won’t get anything.’
Senator Fielding showed a misunderstanding, I think, of the differences between public health treatment and the changes to the way we deal with alcohol and tobacco. Senator Fielding does not understand—and I think Senator Siewert said it perfectly before—that, when it comes to tobacco, there is one answer: don’t do it. When it comes to alcohol, the answer is different: do it carefully.
Senator Fielding asked why we did not tax one brand of tobacco at a different level from another, as we are doing with the alcopops tax. It is because they are all equally as bad. We increased the tax on all of them progressively over time because no tobacco is acceptable. That is the difference between tobacco and alcohol. As Professor Tanya Chikritzhs said to the Senate inquiry last week as to why you treat alcoholic products differently:
… not all beverages are equal in the amount of harm that they are likely to be associated with.
So when you have a product that is designed and marketed to a group of very vulnerable people—that is, young children—we have to treat it differently. Since 2000, there has been a 254 per cent growth in the alcopops market. Alcopops are designed to be marketed to our young children and it is appropriate that we treat them in a different way.
I am disappointed that Senator Fielding did not understand the differences and made a flippant remark about why we did not tax one brand differently from another. Senator Fielding talked about the $15.3 billion impact of alcohol on our society. He talked about the one in five road deaths attributed to alcohol. He talked about the 40 per cent of police work related to alcohol. I say to Senator Fielding that, if this legislation is not passed, it will be back to those ‘good old days’. That is what we will get. To describe the way negotiations have occurred over the last few days as ‘throwing a lifeline’ I think misrepresents the good faith bargaining, the honest and open way we have tried to negotiate with Senator Fielding in the knowledge that he has a desire to achieve a change in the culture in inappropriate use of alcohol.
But let us leave it to the public health experts. One after another they have been in the media in the last 24 hours urging all of us—not just those on the crossbenches but those who sit in the large block opposite—to follow our consciences and do the right thing for our kids. One after another they have been urging us to vote for the health of our children. In fact, one public health expert said that not supporting this legislation is like flushing the vaccine down the toilet. We have an opportunity to do something, to vaccinate the nation to assist us on the way. It is not a silver bullet but it is something that will assist. One public health expert said, ‘Not voting for this is flushing it down the toilet.’ I am very disappointed. We have come a long way in the last 15 months. If this legislation is not carried, it will put us back.
That the committee does not press its requests for amendments not made by the House of Representatives.
Order! There being 31 ayes and 31 noes, the votes are equal. The effect of this vote is that the disposal of the bills proceed without the request. The rationale for this outcome is that the requests required majority support to be made in the first place. The equally divided rule indicates there is no longer a majority in favour of proceeding with the request and the bills therefore proceed to the next stage in their original form.
Together with Senator Cormann, I intend to move an amendment to that motion. The amendment is as circulated, with two words added. I, and also on behalf of Senator Cormann, move:
At the end of the motion, add “and, should the question for the third reading of these bills be negatived, a message be sent to the House of Representatives informing the House that, if further legislation to validate the collection of the revenue so far under these measures were to be presented by noon on 19 March 2009, the Senate would be disposed to expedite the consideration of that legislation”.
The amendment speaks for itself. In anticipation of the third reading not succeeding, it is a message to the House on the revenues collected under this measure to say that the Senate would look seriously and expeditiously at considering a measure from the House if it wanted to retain those revenues.
In speaking to the motion that Senator Brown has just moved: the actions of the government today have been reckless. They have put the Senate and the parliament into a position where the $300 million collected so far might well have to be returned to the liquor industry. That is not something that anyone in this chamber wants. The government tomorrow should introduce the legislation called for in this motion and fix up its stuff-ups, quite frankly.