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Wednesday, 24 August 2011
Page: 9180

Mr TRUSS (Wide BayLeader of The Nationals) (12:03): I am a nonsmoker; in fact I have never smoked. I have never contributed a cent to the government's cigarette excise tax, and I certainly have no intention of starting. But I guess I have, like everyone in my age bracket, spent quite a bit of time in smoke-filled rooms—particularly before I came into this parliament—attending meetings and functions and just participating in everyday life.

Of course in my early days in this parliament, whilst no-one smoked in this chamber to my knowledge, people certainly were able to smoke right through the rest of the building. There was something of a tortuous campaign over quite a lot of years for smoking to be ended in this place. I can still, I guess, smell the memories of Alexander Downer's cigars wafting down the ministerial corridor. Of course, he was not the only one. There is no doubt at all that the nation's attitude towards cigarette smoking and the perils of smoking has changed. Indeed, I spend a lot of time in my own office and in other places encouraging people to give it up. I suppose I am not coming from very sound ground in that I never had to give it up myself because, fortuitously, I never started. But certainly it is beyond question that cigarette smoking has damaged the health of many Australians and that the decline in cigarette smoking is welcome.

Having said that, this legislation is not going to do anything to reduce the number of people who smoke. As a National I believe first and foremost in the freedom of the individual, and that governments should stay out of the lives of people where there is no clear reason to be there. Australians do not like to be preached at by politicians or anyone else about how they should live their lives. Sometimes when governments intervene the cures end up being worse than the problem. This legislation to impose plain packaging on cigarettes has been described by some as a 'nanny state initiative' and by others as a waste of time. My chief criticism is that for all the cost and the inconvenience it will not deliver any result.

The government, like many previous governments, came into office promising to get rid of regulations: 'one in, one out' was the slogan at the 2007 election. Since Labor have been in office they have created 1,235 new regulations on the last score that I saw and they have repealed 58—another broken promise. This is another piece of regulation that is going to be added to the network; a piece of regulation that will achieve no worthwhile benefit.

As proposed, the legislation represents a significant problem for small retail operators and consumers. It threatens to drive customers from small business into the arms of the retail giants. To cap it all off, as a smoking prevention measure, as I said before, it simply cannot work.

Cigarettes are already required to be stored in places in shops out of the sight of the purchasers. They have to be in closed cupboards—doors in front of the cigarette displays—so people cannot see the cigarettes. They cannot see the packets, let alone what is on the label. So how is this change in the labelling arrangement supposed to deliver monumental reform? In the shops where people might be tempted to buy they cannot even see the packets—it is against the law to display the packets—so why does the colour of the label make a difference?

I heard the previous speaker talk about decorative packaging attracting people to smoking cigarettes. Putting aside the fact that the packaging is not very attractive even now, and assuming that this takes a little attraction away from the decorative appearance of the packs, who would know? They are hidden at the key time away from the customer's sight. They are hidden behind doors so that they cannot be attractive to customers, no matter how decorative the packaging might be.

Wrapping cigarettes in olive coloured plain packets has been proudly proclaimed by Minister Roxon as a world first. That is true, but it is also just Labor-speak for 'untested, untried, unnecessary and with no evidence that it can possibly work'. It is a smokescreen. It is legislation introduced simply to claim some moral virtue but which will achieve absolutely nothing. It is designed more to change the subject away from the carbon tax and Labor's other administrative failures—in particular, Labor's fundamental promise to deliver health reform. Former Prime Minister Rudd said that, if that promise could not be delivered, there would be a referendum to ensure that the Commonwealth had the powers to deliver it. But that has now been abandoned. The Commonwealth walked away from delivering any kind of reform in health. Its fundamental agenda in delivering better services in health to the Australian people has been abandoned, and instead we have this smokescreen, this issue put up in lights which will make no practical difference to people's health. It is only to take their minds away from Labor's failures on matters that really count.

Smoking rates are falling and they will continue to fall, regardless of this legislation. It was the coalition in 1997 that launched what was at the time the biggest ever national advertising campaign against smoking. It was something people could see, something that made them aware of the issues; not something hidden behind closed doors in a retail outlet. It was the Howard government and Tony Abbott as health minister that introduced the graphic health warnings on tobacco products in 2006—again, something that people could see, that was ever-present, when they chose to buy cigarettes and when they took a cigarette from the packet.

Under the coalition government the prevalence of smoking fell markedly, from 21.8 per cent in 1998 to 16.6 per cent by 2007. The decline in smoking rates in Australia, a fall of 40 per cent for men and 44 per cent for women between 1989 and 2007, were among the biggest in the OECD. The fall in smoking rates among women was the biggest in the OECD. So there have been significant achievements. There has been progress made in reducing cigarette smoking. From my perspective I say that is welcome. But this measure will make no contribution to actually reduce smoking rates that can in any way match the rhetoric that is being delivered by government members.

The coalition have said that we will support the bill, but there will be provisos and some amendments because we are concerned that the interests of small retailers are protected. Specifically, the government's consultation with small business has been mismanaged to the point where small business has simply been shut out. Small retailers are concerned that the government's plain packaging proposal will adversely impact on their stock management and complicate their point-of-sale dealings with their customers, causing difficulties in differentiating between packets that look almost identical. The legislation will cause damage to small business. It will add to their costs, reduce their profitability and cost jobs.

In June a report by Deloittes commissioned by the Alliance of Australian Retailers found that plain packaging of cigarettes would have a detrimental impact on service stations, convenience stores, newsagents and milk bars: 'It will result in creating a new competitive advantage in favour of the major supermarket chains.' This is not just an inevitable consequence to small business of a decline in cigarette smoking; this is an initiative which will actually result in people instead of buying their cigarettes from a small local retailer, buying them at the major supermarket chains. So the effect of the lost business for small retailers does not improve smoking rates; in fact it transfers more of the custom, more of the retail sales, to the large supermarkets. This study had really quite incredible figures: a staggering 61 per cent of tobacco consumers and 71 per cent of non-tobacco consumers would choose a supermarket over a small retailer rather than experience the inconvenient delays which this legislation will create at smaller shops.

We know that small retailers are already doing it tough. They are mired in an industrial relations mess; they are forced to lay off staff due to inflexible hours and the work provisions that are legislated. They have the additional cost of a carbon tax ahead of them as well.

Under the legislation as drafted, staff will be tied up with longer and more confused customers, not sure whether they have the brand they choose, wanting to bring them back later when mistakes have been made, spending extra time identifying which brand is which in a shelf where every packet is supposed to look as near as possible to the same.

When your primary business driver as a small retailer is the convenience that you provide—you set yourself up as a convenience store—anything that impedes that valued proposition is a killer. In fact, according to Deloittes research, a 34 per cent reduction in tobacco customers coming through the doors of small retailers would see small businesses lose up to $1,880 a week; $942 a week for the average service station. Small business is the backbone of our economy. We rely on it so much in regional Australia and they are all feeling the pinch. For many, this will be the straw that will break that backbone. These legitimate concerns did not even get a look in. These bills were both referred to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health and Ageing. The committee's sole focus was on the health impacts of the bill. Small retailers were denied the ability to even present their case. This has been a glaring fault in the government's entire process. Even the committee's chair, Labor's Steve Georganas MP, stated his view that those aspects of the bill should have been referred to the economics committee and the legal affairs committee. He noted that his committee did not have the scope to deal with retailers' concerns, so they were effectively shut out.

Based on the concerns raised with me and my colleagues by small businesses during the consultations with them, the coalition is moving an amendment to the Tobacco Plain Packaging Bill 2011 that will allow the use of the tobacco company trademark on one of the two smaller outer surfaces of the cigarette carton. That will at least help them with their stock management but will make no difference in drawing attention to the particular brand's trademark at the retail level. The intention is to help overcome these stock management concerns without undermining the public health intent of the packaging proposal.

Australia's bulldust barometers are well tuned, and they have been red hot on this government for a while. In May of this year a Galaxy poll commissioned by the Institute of Public Affairs found that 55 per cent of Australians believe we have become a nanny state and that government intervention and control in our lives has gone too far. The figure in regional areas is 59 per cent. The poll showed that 73 per cent of people think governments are preoccupied with making regulations and imposing control over people's everyday lives rather than focusing on more important issues such as genuine health reform, crime, education, roads and transport.

Mr John Roskam, Executive Director of the IPA, said the polling showed that Australians are fed up with governments making rules that overly interfere with their lives. He said:

An important part of the Australian way of life is the freedom to do what you like as long as it isn’t hurting anyone else. But at the moment, governments are trying to create rules for everything from where I can fly a kite with my children, to how I can enjoy a quiet beer or what sort of food I can eat.

I guess his complaint is illustrated by the latest new campaign to try and put health warnings and cigarette package-style labels on Australian wine. Imagine buying your bottle of Grange—a once-in-a-lifetime investment for most people—and having it all covered up with appalling pictures which make the product look unattractive.

This government have never found a tax they do not love, and they have certainly added significantly to cigarette taxation. That was a tax grab masquerading as health reform. Today we have labelling regulations which are all designed to give the impression of health reform but in fact will do absolutely nothing to reduce the level of cigarette smoking in our country or to improve the health of the nation.