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Wednesday, 13 May 2009
Page: 2557

Senator SIEWERT (9:51 AM) —This Excise Tariff Validation Bill 2009 is part of a package that the government is introducing to deal with alcohol related harm. The bill collects the tax that the government has already collected. As Senator Cormann pointed out, it is the tax that was collected that they failed to get support for during the last session with their previous bill. The government is also introducing a new mechanism—which I will come back to in a minute—to continue to collect the tariff for up to another 12 months. And in June, presumably—from indications from the government—we will be debating the reintroduction of the bill, a bill validating the collection of the tax that was rejected by the Senate in the March sitting.

During the debate on the last bill, the Greens were willing to support that measure as part of a comprehensive approach to addressing alcohol related harm. We went very carefully, and have continued to go very carefully, into the evidence around alcohol related harm, and it is quite obvious from that evidence that a set of comprehensive measures to deal with alcohol related harm is needed, of which price is a key mechanism. We have always acknowledged the domestic and international research which said that the price of alcohol is a key mechanism in dealing with alcohol related harm. But you cannot use the price mechanism alone. That is also quite evident from the evidence. We therefore negotiated, in good faith with the government, additional funding for measures complementary to the price mechanism.

I will remind the chamber of what those measures were. They related to labelling—and other crossbenchers also held strong views on this, raising it with the government and negotiating with them—and mandatory warnings in all advertising on alcohol related products. A most critical measure for us was the fund that was established to deal with alcohol and the relationship of alcohol products with sponsorship, particularly for sports. The relationship between sports and sporting clubs and their reliance on alcohol related sponsorship has been identified as a key area that needs addressing. The fund that was to be established under our agreement was a voluntary fund which clubs could go to for sponsorship to replace alcohol related sponsorship. It was a key component of our package—to develop a hotline around alcohol, to continue extra funding for community based projects and for some social marketing. That package was negotiated in good faith with the government between us and Senator Xenophon. It was to get funded if the legislation got up—in other words, if the tax continued to be in place.

The tax, of course, did not get up and now we come to the issue that this tax is continuing. The bill that we are talking about is actually collecting that tax. To date, as I understand it, it has collected $424 million and, as has also been pointed out to the chamber, if that bill and the measure are not passed by tonight, the money goes back to distillers. Nobody in this chamber wants that money to go back to distillers. We have always been of the opinion that that money should be retained by the Commonwealth and spent on alcohol related harm. At the time of the debate, if people recall, we were very strongly told that it could not be done. As Senator Cormann pointed out, the opposition and crossbench supported a motion for validation of the tax and collection of that money and that it be directed to payments on alcohol related harm. We were told at the time that you could not do that. So there was no point in negotiating further with the government about expenditure of any of those funds on complementary measures because the government said they could not do it. Well, between March and now they have obviously either had new advice or have known all the time that they could keep that money.

One of the key questions here regards the next bill in this package that comes up in June. If that goes down, will the government continue to collect the tax for another 12 months?

Senator Cormann —Good question!

Senator SIEWERT —We have not been able to get a straight answer on that one.

Senator Cormann —Funny, that!

Senator SIEWERT —And that was exactly the same position we had last time. So you can understand the Greens concerns as to the position. I take it from Senator Cormann’s comments that they are the opposition’s concerns as well, and I understand that Senator Xenophon, from whom we will hear shortly, is also concerned. Come clean with the Australian public. What is the position? Is this tax going to continue to May next year regardless of what the Senate says? The Greens, for one, are clearly on the record in supporting the price mechanism, but we want to know what the government intends to do with this. We negotiated in good faith with the government around a package of complementary mechanisms because we believe that price is not the only mechanism that deals with alcohol related harm. It has to be part of a comprehensive package. That is the way we negotiated. The point here is that the government is continuing the price mechanism without those complementary measures.

The other interesting fact from the research is that price has an impact—a fact that, as I said, we recognise—but that it is highly likely that the effectiveness of the impact of that price mechanism will be diluted as it continues to be implemented if those complementary measures, such as dealing with alcohol advertising, sponsorship, opening hours and the like, are not in place. This is why we so strongly want those mechanisms in place now. From the Greens point of view, the issue here is that we are negotiating in good faith on a bill that puts in place a price mechanism. The government said that they would fund it if the price mechanism got up. The point here is that the price mechanism is continuing, regardless of what the Senate said, yet the complementary measures are not. That is bad faith on the part of the government. It is bad faith on the part of the government not to be telling the Senate and the community at large what will happen to this tax after June.

We understand that the government think that the Greens are, because we support the tax, in a difficult position. But we support the tax as part of a comprehensive approach not as just a revenue-raising mechanism—which, it is quite plain from the government’s approach, is what this is about. If they are not prepared to put the funding into the complementary measures we have negotiated, it is quite plain that this is about revenue raising. It is not about dealing with alcohol related harm; hence our very strong concern that the government, in bad faith, are not prepared to start funding the mechanisms. We expect that those mechanisms are to be implemented as the tax is rolled out. The package we negotiated was $50 million. We are not expecting the whole $50 million to be delivered this year, because we expect those mechanisms to be rolled out as the price mechanism is rolled out. So of course we expect them to be delivering on a pro rata basis as the price mechanism is rolled out.

I should indicate now that I want to refer this to the Committee of the Whole, because I have some questions that I want the government to answer that we have not been able to get a straight answer out of them on. Will this tax continue past June—that is, if the bill is debated in June? The government may delay the debate on the bill until later in the year because they have 12 months, as we understand it. We want a straight answer. Will this tax continue after June? Of course, the problem for the government is that they have not been able to give us a straight answer on that question. We want a straight answer on that point.

We believe it is absolutely essential that these complementary measures are in place. The evidence, we believe, is clear that the alcopops price mechanism to date has been having an impact. We do see from the evidence that there has been some substitution. You can debate the level of substitution—if you give the same evidence to a group of people they will still argue over the degree of substitution that has occurred. So, yes, there has been some substitution but, overall, the number of drinks drunk in Australia has decreased. We believe that that is what the evidence shows.

We also are dismayed at the continuing rate of binge drinking in Australia. The issue with the rate of binge drinking is not just about alcopops; we acknowledge that upfront. But alcopops are a very important component, and the reason the Greens are so concerned about that is that it is a particularly targeted component of the drinks market—targeted at young people, when they are most vulnerable, when they are starting to drink. We definitely believe that these products—particularly the sweet products—are targeted at a vulnerable market, to get young people and young women in particular into drinking alcohol. We believe, despite what the industry says, that these products are particularly marketed at that section of the community, at that cohort. Who else, quite frankly, would be drinking those sweet ones? So there is not a doubt in our minds that those drinks are focused on young people. But the price mechanism alone does not and will not work—that is plain from the evidence that has been collected both in Australia and overseas. That is why we are so strong on the point that we need a comprehensive approach.

We also believe that we need to be moving towards a volumetric approach to taxation on alcohol products, and we have been very upfront about that in the debate. We want the government to be moving in that direction. We understand there are continuing problems with the volumetric approach. It seems to me that there is no perfect approach to taxing alcohol. But we acknowledge that, in the absence of that overall move to date, there is a need to move more quickly on certain products. Alcopops are a particular product that, as I said, we need to be moving on now.

The point here is that we are getting confusing messages from the government. Is this really about addressing alcohol related harm—the harm that costs our community up to $15.4 billion each year? And that figure does not put a price on the damage that is caused through domestic violence, the break-up of homes or the psychological impacts that they have. That figure of $15.4 billion is just the cost that people can actually quantify.

So the issue for us is this: of course we want the government to keep the $424 million that has been collected to date. The Greens, in principle, believe in the price mechanism. We are deeply concerned at the approach that the government has taken to this. We are deeply concerned that the government has not told the Australian community what it intends to do with the revenue measure if it goes down in the Senate in June. We are deeply concerned about that. Our position is this. If it does continue for the next 12 months, the government will have collected probably close on $1 billion over the two years of this tax, which is getting close to the $1.6 billion that, during the debate last time, was the figure down to which it revised the budget forecast on the measure. But, given that it has collected $424 million of this tax already, if you double that you are getting close to the $1 billion mark in the just over two years that this mechanism has been in place.

The government has not rolled out the complementary measures that it committed to rolling out as part of this measure, which is supposed to be dealing with alcohol related harm, binge drinking and, hopefully, starting to address the drinking culture in Australia. We need to start addressing the issues around the abuse of alcopops. There is absolutely no doubt that the sales of alcopops have increased in Australia; in fact, Australia has the dubious record of being the leader in the sale of alcopops around the world. They are marketed very heavily at young people, particularly young women. There is no doubt that that is the market that the alcohol manufacturers target. You only have to look at some of the advertisements to identify the fact that they are targeting that particular market, despite what they say. It is very peculiar that the alcohol manufacturers claim that they do not target that market—you only have to look at the advertisements to realise that they do target it. If you can start addressing the drinking culture in that age group, then you will of course be addressing it as they age. But there are other sections in our community where we also need to be dealing with the drinking culture and alcohol related harm, which is why we need these other measures.

That is also why we need to break the nexus between sport and alcohol advertising. At the moment the message is clear in Australia: to have a good time at sport you have to drink alcohol, or after you have a good time at sport you drink alcohol. That is not the message that we should be sending to our young people. That is why the Greens put this measure to the government, and I am hoping that that is why the government said that they would support that measure, because it is a very important measure.

On social marketing: it is so important that we have a range of messages that address key markets. You cannot just have one marketing campaign that sends one message and hopefully targets all the people that we are trying to target in our marketing campaign, so we need to invest very heavily in that campaign. I am sure Senator Xenophon will talk in more detail about the community projects because they are an area that I know he is particularly keen on, and the government also said they would invest more money there. If the government believe that the price mechanism should continue, surely they will believe that they should start these comprehensive projects and this comprehensive package now, as they are rolling out this measure.

I have asked this question before, and I expect an answer in this debate: what will the government do after June? Is this tax going to continue or not? They need to show good faith with the Senate and they need to show good faith with the Australian community. If this tax is going to continue, what are they going to do in May next year? You can guarantee that it will be like Groundhog Day. We will be in here having the same debate. In fact, they might as well just table the Hansard now, and then we will not have to bother to show up, because they will be putting it in place again, saying, ‘We want to validate this tax.’

Senator Cormann —It’s very arrogant, isn’t it?

Senator SIEWERT —It is very arrogant. And they expect that the opposition and the crossbenchers will go, ‘Oh, yes, because we don’t want that money going back to distillers.’ And, no, we do not. So the government think they are being very clever by forcing us to vote at the last minute—we have to have this done by midnight tonight—by catching us at the last minute, and saying, ‘If you don’t, it’ll go back to the distillers, and you don’t want that to happen, do you?’ No, we do not, but we expect the government to be honest and come up with a more thorough way of dealing with this issue.

I repeat: the Greens fundamentally believe in the price mechanism, but it is part of an overall approach. That is why we tried so hard to get a package up that at least started to address the other measures that the government need to address when they address alcohol related harm. It is not just a simple issue of putting one tax on one product. A comprehensive approach is needed, and we need to make sure that we have that comprehensive approach in place.

The government has shown bad faith with the Greens and the crossbenchers in the package that we negotiated. It has shown bad faith with the community, because it will not tell us what it intends to do with the tax if the bills go down in June. The Greens do support the collection of this money, but we are extremely disappointed in the approach the government is taking. As I said, I ask that we go into Committee of the Whole so that we can question the government and get some vital information that I think it is important for the Australian community to know.