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Wednesday, 25 February 2009
Page: 1729


Mr DUTTON (9:12 AM) —At the outset, the coalition does not, of course—as any Australian would not—deny that there are binge-drinking problems among some in society. And we are certainly concerned about those problems, as any responsible person would be—any adult; in particular, any parent who is concerned about their teenager going out on a Friday or Saturday night. We share those concerns and we are genuine in our efforts to try to address that particular concern that parents have at that formative stage of a young person’s life. This coalition will stand wherever we can to rectify what is a serious problem.

But the coalition is opposed to these bills, which seek to validate a substantial excise increase imposed on one category of alcohol products: ready to drink, or RTD, beverages. The government claims that it increased these taxes as a health measure—a measure aimed at cutting the rate of binge-drinking, particularly among young women. But it is, of course, as we now understand, nothing more than a tax grab; a measure drawn up in the finance ministries to boost the budget bottom line. On both health and tax counts, it is clearly a failure. The fundamental question here is: if this was a genuine health measure, why were the minister and the Department of Health and Ageing not involved in its formulation? Why did this particular measure emanate from finance ministries, and why was the health department not consulted when, in its coord comments to the ERC, it actually opposed this particular measure?

The next question that the government needs to answer is: where are the ‘hundreds of millions of dollars’ Minister Roxon said would flow to preventative health measures when she appeared on the Nine Network’s Sunday program on 27 April, the day the measures were brought into effect? Instead, the government will spend a relatively meagre $53 million on the National Binge Drinking Strategy, comprising $14 million for community initiatives to confront binge drinking, $19 million to assist young drinkers, $20 million for anti-binge advertising, with each of those measures funded from existing programs. We support programs, but much more needs to be done.

No further indication has been given by the government of how much of the alcopops revenue they are prepared to allocate to preventative health measures. Perhaps the hundreds of millions of dollars were never going to materialise, because this is a prime example of how media spin is more important for this government than real outcomes. That is particularly the case in the health portfolio. This proposal was rolled out at midnight on 26 April in an orchestrated announcement from the Prime Minister’s office for the nation’s Sunday newspapers. It is part of the Prime Minister’s ‘war on binge drinking’—one of the Prime Minister’s many wars. Is it a health measure or a tax grab? The Australian reported on May 17 that the excise increase first emerged ‘in a Finance budget submission couched in terms of closing a tax “loophole”’. As Christian Kerr wrote in the Australian:

Was the alco-pops tax motivated by concerns about the health of teenage girls or the health of the budget surplus?

It is a very reasonable question to put. And the question remains today because the government has been unable to provide any firm evidence, amidst the welter of its rhetoric, that the tax has had any impact on binge drinking whatsoever. The bills before the House—make no mistake about it—are purely about the tax impact. The near 70 per cent increase in excise on RTDs from $39.36 per litre of alcohol content to $66.67 per litre—an increase of almost 70 per cent—will raise $1.6 billion across the estimates. This is less than the $2 billion when the tax hike was first mooted, and far less than the $3.1 billion estimated in the last budget. Current estimates are that the government has collected somewhere between $220 million and $345 million with this tax binge.

RTDs are now to be taxed similarly to full-strength spirits, rather than at the same rate as full-strength beer—which more appropriately reflects their alcohol content. It is a position that the Labor party denied in 2004 that they would take. And the now Minister for Resources and Energy, Martin Ferguson, was reported in the Australian at that time as saying it would be ‘unfair to do so’. Minister Roxon argues in her second reading speech that it is logical to do so—so much for consistency from this government!

The minister makes much of the fact that RTD sales have slumped by, she says, 35 per cent since the excise was increased, and she then has to admit that sale of full-strength spirits have increased over the same period. The minister says that the increase in full-strength spirit consumption is small, neglecting to put figures on it, but the rise has been somewhere between 19 and 21 per cent—as I am advised—and certainly anything but small. She also neglects to mention, of course, that among young consumers, sales of beer, wine—in particular, cask wine—liqueurs and cider have also risen, some markedly. One survey, Roy Morgan for DSICA, reported the sale of cider was up 349 per cent in the June to September last year, compared to the year before.

This government was warned that this is exactly what would happen—that there would be a displacement effect and that consumers would switch from one product to another. The minister relates how companies have skirted the tax by making new RTDs based on beer or wine. But again, the government was warned that this would happen. It claims it is a sign that its tax measure is working. It is more likely, though, that the market is being met with a different product.

The minister told the parliament that all of this was significant and an achievement. But even some of the groups who support the government’s actions acknowledge that they certainly do not know whether young drinkers have simply switched to higher strength alcohol products. The minister quotes a series of figures to show just how serious the binge-drinking problem is, but the most comprehensive source of data is the National Drug Strategy Household Survey conducted by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Let us look at what that authority has to say.

This is what they said to the first RTD Senate inquiry. The drinking status of the Australian population has been stable over the past two decades. There has been a modest increase in the apparent consumption of RTDs over the past five years. The preference for RTDs has increased slightly, on their evidence to the Senate inquiry, from 2001 to 2007, particularly in older age groups. The trend among under-18s is unclear. There has been virtually no change in the pattern of risky drinking over the period 2001-07, including among young Australians. The increased availability of RTDs does not appear to have directly contributed to an increase in risky alcohol consumption. The dominant drink for young males is beer, followed by RTDs. There is no clear trend in preference for RTDs among males under 18 years in the period 2001-07. Young females have an equal preference for RTDs and bottled spirits. Again, there was no clear trend in preference for RTDs among under-18-year-old females. Notably, for girls aged 16-17 years, there appeared to have been a decrease in the proportions drinking at risky or high-risk levels. In summary, they say that the increased availability of RTDs does not appear to have led, in and of itself, to an increase in risky consumption.

That is a summary of the advice given by that authority to the Senate committee. Then we go to the report of the National Preventative Health Taskforce’s Alcohol Working Group, which notes a downward trend in risky drinking by young people aged 14-19 years, over the period 2001-07. The trend was apparent for both males and females, though less pronounced for females. It noted the great increase in RTD consumption was among males. The trend in youth drinking was unclear. Victorian data on young people between 12 and 24 years of age found no clear trend in rates of risky drinking. They also made this point: increasing the price of individual products may not necessarily achieve the goal of reducing per capita consumption of alcohol. That is the advice that the taskforce gave to the Senate committee.

In the August 2008 edition of the Lancet, researchers from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales surmised that although the Australian government’s recent decision is likely to arrest the increased sales of premixed spirits:

… it is unlikely to substantially reduce the overall rates of usual or binge consumption.

The Access Economics report on trends in alcohol related hospitalisation by young people can be summarised as follows: data collected so far did not support claims the alcopop tax had reduced risky drinking by young people; hospital admissions for young people aged between 12 and 24 years per 100,000 population for alcohol related diagnoses in May and June 2008 were higher than some months in previous years; emergency department presentations by young people aged between 12 and 24 years per 100,000 population for alcohol related causes were higher in May to August 2008 than previous years; there was an overall increase for the months after the RTD tax relative to the months before; and combined admissions and ED presentations for females were substantially higher than previous years and also higher than months pre the tax rise in 2008.

Access Economics said the time frame was too short to draw firm conclusions, but it concluded that the tax may not have reduced alcohol consumption by young people because they may have switched to other products. A switch potentially enabled them to buy more alcohol for the same budget than prior to the RTD tax.

It is also important, of course, as part of this debate to listen to consumers, in particular to what teenagers have had to say. I report some of their accounts, as broadcast on ABC 666 in Canberra on 12 February. When asked whether increasing the price of alcopops had worked and whether it had cut drinking levels, as a group they responded with a resounding, ‘No.’ As I say, some of these people need to be listened to. Some of the quotes from this broadcast are as follows, firstly:

When you put the tax up on the Alco pops, it’s not really the drink that people drink to binge drink anyway. It pushes them to drink boxed wine and straight spirits.

The second quote:

Jemima … are the kids drinking any less? ‘What I find is that they … buy … just straight spirits.’

The third quote:

I think the consensus … was … that the tax had actually fuelled the binge drinking. I know in my area it’s even got worse because people are just buying straight grog.

If the minister thinks that those comments are not common amidst a large segment of young people to whom she should be paying attention, perhaps she should visit the Facebook website where people have spoken in loud voices. On Facebook she will find a group called Aussies Against the Alcohol Tax Increase, and it has more than 70,000 members. A Galaxy survey asked whether Australians thought the tax on RTDs was effective and whether it should be scrapped. The survey produced the following results: only 12 per cent of people thought the tax was effective; 78 per cent thought it was ineffective; and 77 per cent thought it should be scrapped—that is exactly what this government should do. They should scrap this tax, which it tried to portray as a genuine health policy. The government have produced no evidence to indicate that it has done anything to improve the health of young Australians.

The important point to make in this debate is that the coalition will stand with the government on reasonable measures to address the serious problem of binge drinking, but we will not stand in this parliament and say to the Australian people that we support what is nothing more than a tax grab by a government fast running out of revenue. They have tried to dress it up as some sort of a health measure to pull the wool over the eyes of Australian families, in particular parents who are deeply concerned about the activities of their teenage children and young adults in pubs, clubs, venues, private homes and parties around the country on weekends. We want to make sure that this is a government which addresses a serious problem and not a government hooked on tax revenues because they love to spend in other ways.

My call today is for the government to abandon this measure. My call today is for the Senate to make sure that this bill is rejected and that the tax collected over the last 12 months not be remitted to the industry but that it be preserved for education and other measures. My call today is for the government to abandon this measure. It is bad policy. It is about a tax increase. It is not about helping young people with drinking problems. It is not about helping to curb teenage binge drinking. It is all about tax. They should end the tax and they should put up measures funded from that $200 million or $300 million, whatever the figure turns out to be, that they have raised over the last 12 months and put it towards education programs, towards counselling, towards rehabilitation and towards diversion programs to provide support to those community groups who support people in most need during difficult times in their lives.

We need to provide more support to law enforcement agencies to curb the growing problem of violence on the streets, which is not just related to alcohol but, importantly, related to the use of amphetamines and the mix of amphetamines and alcohol. That is the real problem that this government needs to address. This government is more concerned about the media cycle than it is about addressing the binge-drinking concerns that parents have around the country in relation to their teenage children and young adults. This is a government which is more concerned with the Sunday paper media cycle than it is with trying to address genuine health concerns.

This is a government which have, of course, spent all of the money that they inherited from the previous government. All of the money that was in the bank has now been spent by this government. Not for one moment will they be able to address the difficulties being faced in this particular area because they do not have the revenues now to spend on these measures. This government should own up to the fact that this program was never supported by Health. The coord comments never supported this measure. This was proposed by ATO, Finance and Treasury as a tax loophole that needed to be fixed—a way this government could, on their initial estimates, gain $3.1 billion in revenue. This was never about trying to address the genuine health issues in relation to binge drinking and alcohol consumption. It was all about tax right from day one.

If this minister has the guts or integrity that she claims she has, she should come into this parliament and declare that to be the case—she should draw a line, start again and put together a suite of programs which will properly address binge-drinking issues in this country. This is a minister who, frankly, has no control in cabinet whatsoever. That is clearly the case. The previous health minister would certainly have been able to carry a much better argument more persuasively than this health minister at both cabinet and ERC. This is the reality that needs to be faced by this parliament. This is a health minister who cowers in cabinet. This is a health minister who has rightly been nicknamed ‘Reba Roxon’ after her mentor, Reba Meagher, in New South Wales, because this is a government that does not have a handle on health policy. This is a government that seems to be adopting the same health policy outcomes and the same health policy management that the New South Wales Labor government has done. That is bad for health policy not just today but also into the future.

If genuine concern is to be expressed by those members opposite as part of this debate, they need to recognise that this is a tax grab. It is a tax binge; it is not about helping those young Australians that deserve help. Nothing has been said by this health minister about the way they are going to address amphetamine use in particular, which is a real concern for young women. On Friday nights at clubs, it is a real concern not just for young women but for young men as well, because there is a combined intake not just of alcohol but of party drugs as well—in particular ecstasy, which is freely available. This government has not considered, as part of these measures, that very important part of this discussion.

The other important issue for the government to address is the spiking of drinks. Many people, particularly young women, are concerned at parties, nightclubs and other venues about ordering spirits that are mixed by somebody else. They have a very just concern, because the prevalence of drink spiking is a real problem in this country. It is a national disgrace, frankly, that anybody would conduct themselves in that way. Ready-to-drink spirits, which come in a can or bottle, have given parents whose children do drink responsibly a way to overcome at least that concern when their teenage child is out drinking on a Friday night. To push those young adults into a position where, at a party, they have to rely on a third party—in some cases not known to them—to premix their drinks because they cannot afford to buy an RTD is a sad reflection on this government. And it is a sad reflection when a young person who does have the capacity to drink responsibly goes out to enjoy a night with his or her friends, finds that they cannot afford an RTD, goes to a full-spirit mix and finds themselves in a position where that drink could be spiked. That is also a significant part of this issue and needs to be addressed by the government.

So there is a long way to go in this debate. But the important call today is for the Senate to recognise that the government has the ability to call an end to this tax impost. It has the real ability—with revenues already raised—to redirect that money into education programs which would see a real effort to curb some of the most dangerous drinking. It will take away the broadbrush approach of this particular policy announcement, which has an impact on people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s who go to parties or decide to consume alcohol through an RTD product, who think that they are acting responsibly. The majority of people drink responsibly, and this tax is an attack on them as well, because now many of those people have gone to cask wine—for argument’s sake—which is much cheaper and available in much greater quantities. Many people have gone to mixing their own drinks or, as I said, relying on others to mix those drinks which, in many cases—on the evidence provided to the Senate inquiry, anecdotally and through other avenues—means that those people end up consuming more alcohol. Teenagers at a party who are mixing spirits from a bottle of Bundaberg Rum or Malibu, or whatever it might be, will generally—and most people with common sense would tell them this; I am sure there would not be any argument from members opposite—consume more alcohol in that mix than they would through a premixed, bottled or canned drink.

So the coalition will continue to fight in this debate because we want to make sure that we attack the problem of binge drinking but we do not support the government doing it through a tax grab. This government has not been able to provide one shred of evidence that this is a policy that has impacted positively on young people. Despite all the calls, we have had to demand in a Senate inquiry that this information be produced. Even at Senate estimates, the department was directed to not provide the detail sought by the senators, and that is a very sad reflection on this health minister. The department should be able to release the information—if they have it—to show that this measure is working. Then we could have a properly informed debate. But, for as long as the government refuses to produce even one shred of evidence that this measure is working, how can they seriously stand here in this parliament as part of this debate and say that it is anything but a tax grab?

That is why we oppose these bills and that is why we will be opposing them in the Senate. It is incumbent on this minister to demonstrate to the House today exactly how she is going to properly address this very serious concern and how she is going to carry the arguments in public. People want to hear how the Labor government is going to live up to its election promise of continuing to fight this war. We oppose the bills and we oppose them with good reason.