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Wednesday, 24 August 2011
Page: 9244

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (16:25): I rise to speak on the Tobacco Plain Packaging Bill 2011 and the Trade Marks Amendment (Tobacco Plain Packaging Bill) 2011. In doing so, I would like to commend the member for Maranoa for his contribution, which we have just heard, because I think he raised some very important points along similar lines that I intend to take with my contribution to the House this afternoon.

There has been a lot of discussion in this debate that I think has been very positive in nature, in the sense that members on both sides have committed themselves to the desire to reduce the incidence of cigarette smoking in our community. The negative health impacts that tobacco products can have are well understood, and there have been some excellent contributions by members who are keen to ensure that the rate of smoking amongst young people and amongst our Indigenous community is targeted more heavily in the future. But I fear that a lot of this debate in terms of the legislation being put forward by the government and, in particular, the minister's approach to prosecuting her case in the public domain have been more about political stunts and lecturing the opposition than about actually achieving an outcome which is desirable for the Australian community.

I believe that there is genuine goodwill from members on both sides regarding reducing the smoking rates in our nation. I look back on the coalition's record, in particular, in its efforts on tobacco control. The coalition does have a proven track record of reducing the rates of smoking in Australia, and that record dates back more than 40 years. The Minister for Health and Ageing has often criticised the current Leader of the Opposition and former health minister, Tony Abbott, but it was Mr Abbott, in his role as health minister, who introduced the graphic health warnings on tobacco products in 2006. In fact, the coalition presided over the biggest decline in smoking rates whilst in government. Under the coalition government, the prevalence of smoking among Australians over the age of 14 declined from 21.8 per cent in 1998 to 16.6 per cent in 2007.

I make those points from the outset to underline my view that there is a commitment on both sides of this chamber to reducing the incidence of tobacco use in the community. Having said that, I do not think there is a silver bullet now. I think the easy gains, if you like, have been gained. We have been very successful in driving down the smoking rates in Australia over the past three or four decades, and I sincerely believe that it is going to be hard to drive them down much further. I am not convinced that the Tobacco Plain Packaging Bill will achieve very much at all. I fear that this is more about political posturing than about achieving an outcome in reducing the rates of tobacco use in the community. I fear it will not work, but hopefully history will prove me wrong and the figures will be reduced in the years ahead.

I am also concerned that, in going down this path, the government has exposed Australian taxpayers to potentially expensive legal action. This issue has been raised by other members in terms of the intellectual property of the big tobacco companies and the value they place on their brands. We have exposed ourselves to legal action, and I am not given much comfort from the reassurances from this government, given this government's long history of mishaps, to say the least. This is a government that could not put insulation batts in people's ceilings without burning down homes, tragically costing the lives of young Australians. This is a government that could not get value for money when it came to building school halls. So I am not filled with great confidence when I am reassured by those opposite that they have got legal advice that everything will be okay in relation to this issue.

Some of the other concerns that I want to raise, which were also touched on by the member for Maranoa and others on this side of the House, relate to very legitimate issues that have been raised by the small business sector. Small business people have taken the time to contact me, as I am sure they have many other members of parliament, and some of the issues they have raised deserve more consideration by the government, particularly in relation to the lack of consultation, some productivity issues and even some safety issues that they have presented to me. When I say safety issues, a couple of things have been pointed out to me. When you are running a small business and you have to turn your back on the customer to go to obtain a packet of cigarettes from behind a screen door, you are exposing yourself and your staff members to an added safety risk, either of assault or robbery. That is a legitimate concern that has been put forward by the small business sector. I go back to the point that the tobacco products are already behind a screen. The whole concept of plain packaging is to avoid that marketing opportunity. But, in states like Victoria, the tobacco products are already behind a screen. So I am not sure exactly what the government thinks it will achieve by putting the tobacco products in a plain package behind a screen. I raise that point because I think the small business sector has a great deal of concern about the identification of the tobacco products. When they open that screen they will see a wall of green or beige or olive or whatever the colour is that the government finally decides on for these tobacco products, and it will be difficult for the staff to identify the particular brand of cigarettes that they are going to obtain. This is a very practical problem and I am disappointed that the government has not engaged with the small business sector and tried to come up with a solution.

I add that as a practical problem because we heard yesterday in the House the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, the member for Kingsford Smith, Mr Garrett, talk about issues of literacy. The minister said in his speech that we know that around 40 per cent of working Australians, that is, some 4.5 million working Australians, do not have adequate literacy skills for employment. I am pleased the minister is here today. I am not trying to have a go at him at all but there is a real practical concern here with people with poor literacy skills. Minister, I think you made a good point, but these people with poor literacy skills will be opening these screen doors and they will have trouble reading the brands. They will have trouble reading the names on these cigarette products. The government really should engage a bit more with the small business sector to at least allow them, when they open the screen door, to have some level of branding so that people with poor literacy have some hope of identifying the product that has been ordered. These are very practical implications of this bill which the government has not thought through.

One member on this side suggested that perhaps there would be an opportunity to put a small brand as an illustration on the base of the packet of cigarettes to enable easy identification for staff members. In which case, if it is on the base of a cigarette packet it is hard to believe it will provide any great marketing opportunity for the companies when that packet is always going to be upside down in someone's shirt pocket. It will hardly be an opportunity for them to promote their brand. That is a very practical implication of this bill which the government has not thought through. I think lack of consultation with the small business sector has been part of the problem.

The concern has been raised with me as to whether this creates more opportunities for organised crime in terms of the capacity to easily counterfeit the tobacco products. I have no information to back up that suggestion either way other than to say that the allegation is out there in the community that it would be easier to develop a counterfeit cigarette when there is no branding allowed on it. You run the risk of more tobacco products coming into the country and the government will miss out on its excise, which clearly this government is addicted to more than most cigarette smokers are addicted to nicotine. I raise these points in good faith because I do not think the government has thought through many of the aspects of the plain packaging legislation.

I wonder whether the government in its rush to present this bill to the House really thought about the simple fact that there are no reports or research material which actually backs up the position it is taking. I remember one of the ministers tabling, in one day, 11 reports, I think it was. I thought, 'Here we go; this is going to be the substance behind this whole debate.' So I got all those 11 reports and I read through them. There was some interesting material amongst them but it was inconclusive at best, and there are many unanswered questions about whether this legislation will actually work. I would have thought that a health minister and a government that are serious about tackling a problem like this would have evidence based material to put before the House to justify the position they are taking. It is hard to know with this government where the nanny state starts and where the government begins. And that is a concern expressed right across the community in relation to this government.

Another concern that I would like to raise in the time I have left is this: what is next? What is next from this government in relation to this plain packaging approach? We already have members opposite murmuring about products which are high in fat. Are we going to end up with plain packaging for all fast food outlets? We have a lot of pressure developing in the community at the moment in relation to alcohol products. Is that going to be the next target of the nanny state? I am concerned that we have a product which is legal, and the brand value and the property rights of the companies involved are being eroded by a government without any compensation. My concern is not so much for the big tobacco companies because, quite frankly, I think they can look after themselves. I have no great love whatsoever for the product or the industry. But I am concerned about what is next. Are we going to head down the path of eroding the rights of legal companies? What will this government take on next? Will it be the fast food industry or the alcohol industry?

For the sake of the debate, I also wonder whether this is the best use of the government's resources in terms of tackling this issue of tobacco consumption. There is no discussion of issues which I think have the potential to reduce the take-up of smoking even more—issues related to product placement in films. I wonder why the government has not been prepared to look down that path. Would the government even consider making it a condition of the receipt of Screen Australia funding in the future that there be no tobacco placement whatsoever—prohibit the product placement of tobacco products in films which receive Australian funding? That would be an equally contentious move; I acknowledge that. But I wonder why the government has not been prepared to look at measures which I think will de-glamorise smoking and take on the big tobacco companies in a way that I believe would be more effective.

In conclusion, I note that this is an unproven measure. There is great concern within the small business sector about whether it will be easy for them to implement. The practicalities of it in the workplace will make it difficult for small business owners in particular and their staff. It will be difficult for people who have trouble with literacy, and I do not think the government has considered that. I have the overarching concern that I am not convinced that this government actually has its legal advice in place. I fear it is exposing the Australian taxpayers to a costly legal action for very little gain.