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Wednesday, 25 February 2009
Page: 1739

Mr BRIGGS (9:56 AM) —I rise also to speak on the Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 and the Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009. The government claims that this legislation was designed to fund a new preventative health program and tackle binge drinking among teenagers, particularly girls. The price of ready-to-drink beverages and alcopops increased by 70 per cent overnight when this measure was announced in April 2008, and I will deal with the announcement in my remarks.

Drink prices increased by between 30c and $1.30 a bottle, depending on the level of alcohol content. This was the first and not the last tax hike of the Rudd government. It was expected, when announced, to raise over $2 billion. Under the tax increase, the level of excise jumped from $39.96 per litre to $66.67 per litre. Alcopops are now taxed at the same level as spirits. This is the government’s attempt, so they claim, to address the problem of binge drinking in younger people, particularly girls. They make the point—and the previous speaker tried to make the point—that it is a new problem. I would contend that binge drinking amongst young people is not a new problem. I think it has been a problem since alcohol was packaged. It certainly was a problem when I was at school and, unfortunately, in the past, at times, I have been part of the problem—

Mr Martin Ferguson —You didn’t break the law and have a drink!

Mr BRIGGS —Minister, I never would have undertaken any activities and broken the law—this was binge drinking after 18! It is not a new problem. Binge drinking is a very serious issue and it is a major concern, particularly for those of us who have young children, going forward. We need to educate our children on how to deal properly with alcohol use. It is also not the only problem for young people in society today. We have seen in recent times the problem with illicit drugs, particularly ecstasy at some of these dance and rave parties that have occurred or even at festivals sponsored by a very well-known Australian funded broadcaster. It is not the only issue that haunts young people and that is a challenge to young people. In fact, I would contend it is not the major issue which challenges young people. The truth is that the majority of people in our society use alcohol properly. They do not drink to excess and they do not become a statistic of violence or some of the other problems that occur with overindulging in alcohol.

The other truth is that the alcohol industry is a major employer in Australia. Whether it be through the wine industry in my electorate of Mayo in the state of South Australia or through the distilled industries, it is a major employer. So those on the other side should be careful not to take too much of a wowser approach to alcohol, because we are dealing with people’s jobs and people’s lives.

But what is the real purpose of this bill? The real purpose of this bill is a tax grab. It came from the finance department, it was built in the finance department and it will be implemented by the finance department. It is a tax grab. That is simply what it is. It is spin over substance. It was a measure drawn up to boost the budget bottom line. If it was a genuine attempt to address a health issue, why were the Minister for Ageing or the Department of Health and Ageing not involved in its formulation? We have seen another example of this kind of thing today. Last night the Prime Minister, under the cloak of darkness and under pressure from this SAS Defence pay bungle in which our great fighting men have been ripped off, announced another attempt at addressing executive remuneration. Of course, there is nothing serious in it; it is just another way to get the front-page story and to prevent any serious analysis of a major problem that his defence minister has.

This sort of thing was part of the strategy with the alcopops tax. It was sold to the Sunday newspapers on 26 April last year. There was an orchestrated announcement by the Prime Minister’s office. It was part of one of the wars. We all remember the shadow Treasurer in this parliament just before Christmas going through all of the wars that we are fighting. This of course was one of the early wars: the war on binge drinking. The Prime Minister briefed the Sunday papers and it got a great run, which is exactly what the hollow men in the Prime Officer’s office were out to do. They were out to get the good press about an issue and say, ‘We are going to fight this scourge of binge drinking amongst our young people and we have got this brilliant new way to do so, which is a tax.’

But like many—in fact, probably all—of the wars that the Prime Minister has announced, it was not actually designed to attack binge drinking. It was designed to attack the real problem of the budget bottom line. We know that this government cannot manage the budget bottom line. We had a situation where they inherited a $20-odd billion surplus and now we are $40-odd billion in deficit and looking at being about $200 billion in deficit in a short time. What they needed was a new tax to build the budget bottom line, and the hollow men said, ‘We need something we can sell as a war on a popular public policy issue.’ What they stumbled across in doing so was the war on binge drinking. So it is not a policy designed to address a health problem. It is a dog whistle. It is designed to make Australian parents think, ‘Oh, that’s great, isn’t it, that the Prime Minister is addressing an issue that my kids face every day. These poor teenage girls are overindulging in these RTDs and alcopops and we must stop it.’ But, of course, that is not what it was about; it was about lifting the tax revenue of the country.

The current estimates are that the government has collected somewhere between $220 million and $345 million with this tax binge. Part of the reason for the great leak on 26 April was that it would be part of this massive strategy of preventative health measures for our young people, so that they would understand better how to deal with alcohol, and to prevent the problem of binge drinking occurring. We had Minister Roxon on the Sunday program on 27 April—a coincidental performance, of course, when the story appeared that morning—saying that hundreds of millions of dollars would flow to preventative health measures from this new tax. Of course, that is simply not true. What we have is $53 million from existing resources, which comprises $14 million for community initiatives to confront binge drinking—I am not sure what that is designed to do; $19 million to assist young drinkers—I presume to assist them in understanding binge drinking and not of course helping them to do it; and $20 million for anti-binge-drinking advertising.

As I made the point, this is from existing resources, not from the hundreds of millions of dollars that the minister proposed would be used for this campaign. That is further evidence that this is a spin over substance, front page over health policy, approach of the government, because what they really needed was extra tax revenue. This of course was in the pre-financial crisis days. This was in the days when the inflation genie was out of the bottle and they were spinning the line that they were reducing the budget spend to help take pressure off inflation—right at the wrong time, as it turns out, and that has cost many Australians their jobs. It was part of that campaign at that time. Equally, at the same time, they were looking at their budget bottom line and thinking, ‘We need some extra revenue.’ And this looked like a good one because the hollow men could sell this to the Sunday papers, as they did, and it got a good run. The minister went on Sunday the next day and got a good run out of that. She promised hundreds of millions of dollars for preventative health measures, which of course, on this side of the House, we support. However, that just has not happened. What has happened instead is a tax grab.

What we on this side of the House wanted to see when this was announced was a genuine attempt at addressing a serious issue—not just the issue of binge drinking but the multiple issues that affect young people as they grow into adults and go through the pressures of becoming a young adult. Of course, many of them do overindulge in alcohol. But, as I said earlier, many of them also have issues with illicit drugs, which cause a great deal of harm to many young people in our community. Unlike alcohol, which you can use in a measured way—and most do—illicit drugs of course you cannot. So many of our young people get caught in the cycle of trying different illicit drugs, and it all too often damages their lives. It seems to me that if we were serious about addressing this binge drinking issue, we would also be looking at that as one of the other challenges for young people moving into adulthood. Of course, illicit drugs have to be a major part of that strategy. It is disappointing to us to see that the promise of hundreds of millions of dollars on a preventative health campaign turned into simply $50 million designed to run some ads, as it appears to have done.

Let us deal with the health issues that the government claim they are designing to address with this new tax. In the last couple of days we have seen a report released by the respected economic firm Access Economics, the firm which the Labor Party often like to quote—and which they quoted back at us with great fervour when we were in government about how respected and beyond repute they are. The Access Economics report on trends in alcohol related hospital use by young people since the introduction of the alcopop tax found that data collected so far has not supported claims the alcopop tax has reduced risky drinking by young people; hospital admissions for young people 12 to 24 years of age per 100,000 population for alcohol related diagnoses in May and June 2008 were higher than for the same months in previous years; and emergency department presentations by young people 12 to 24 years per 100,000 population for alcohol related causes were higher in May to August 2008 than in previous years. There was also an overall increase for the months after the RTD tax relative to the months before, and combined admissions and emergency department presentations for females were substantially higher than for previous years and also higher than in the months pre the tax rise in 2008.

Access Economics said that the time frame was too short to draw firm conclusions but that the tax may not have reduced alcohol consumption by young people because they may have switched to other products—and that is really the point here. It is all very well to address the issue of binge drinking and, as I said earlier, we on this side of the House support a campaign to highlight and address the issues of binge drinking. But what strikes me as passing strange is that the government has implemented a new tax which has moved people from a drink which is at least measured to bottled spirits where they measure it themselves. I am sure those on the other side of the House, like many on this side of the House, would be well aware that when young people are doing the measuring themselves things can get out of hand very quickly. That is not to say they cannot overindulge in the ready-made drinks either. However, when I was talking to a very well-known and respected hotelier in Adelaide in recent days he made the point that the sales of spirits in his bottle shop have gone through the roof. Young people come in and buy a bottle of vodka and a two-litre bottle of Coke. While the first couple of mixed drinks may be reasonable, as they run out of Coke the later drinks become a lot stronger and a lot more dangerous. I am sure all those in this House would agree that it is extraordinarily dangerous for a young person to drink a bottle of vodka.

The whole idea of the health policy aspect of this was to reduce the amount of alcohol young people were drinking, I would have thought, but in fact the outcome is that they are drinking far more dangerous levels of hard liquor than they were before. That is extraordinarily dangerous and very badly thought through by those on the other side of the House. It is not about health policy; it is about a tax grab. This is what this policy is about, and any claim that this is about reducing the number of young people binge drinking is completely false. It is completely spin over substance, which is the trademark of this Prime Minister.

The question is: is binge drinking getting worse? We changed the laws, because presumably there is an attempt to reduce the amount of binge drinking since evidence suggested that it was getting worse. But a report to the government’s National Preventative Health Task Force—technical report No. 2—which is broadly supportive of taxation action to reduce drinking, notes a downward trend in risky drinking by young people 14 to 19 years of age over the period 2001 to 2007. The trend was apparent for both males and females, though less pronounced for females. It noted that the greatest increase of RTD consumption was amongst males and that trends in youth drinking were unclear. Victorian data on young people between 12 and 24 years found no clear trend in the rates of risky drinking, and increasing the price of individual products may not necessarily achieve this goal. Of course, we know that. What will happen is that if the price of the RTD goes up young people will go to the next cheapest thing or they will pool their money and buy a bottle of spirits. If young people want to drink they will drink unless alcohol is banned completely, and we know that will not work. We know that the laws which the minister just commented on, about people not being able to drink until 18, are always ignored in our country.

The point is that this policy is not about reducing binge drinking. It is about tax. It is about increasing the revenue base of our country. If it were a serious policy about reducing problems for young people with alcohol and drugs then we would see a serious and substantial campaign to address this. In fact, we would see the money raised from this tax pumped into these campaigns, but we do not, of course. We do not see any of the money from this new tax pumped into these campaigns. We see the money from this new tax pumped into government revenue. This is where the disgrace of this policy is.

I commented that we have seen, through evidence given to me in my electorate, increased sales. We also have actual evidence presented. The minister claims that RTD sales have slumped by 35 per cent since the excise was increased, but then she had to admit that sales of full strength spirits have also increased. The minister says that the increase in full strength spirit consumption is small but neglected to put figures on it—but the rise has been somewhere between 19 and 21 per cent, which is barely small. In fact, it is nearly the complete reduction in the RTD sales.

This is the point I was making earlier: the dangers of this are that we are pushing young people into harder liquor and harder drinking habits, with serious consequences. I say to this parliament that this is the danger of this policy. It is a very ill-thought-through policy, where we have encouraged the use of hard liquor amongst young people by increasing the price of premixed drinks. The attack is on young girls.

This is the problem with this government. We see, time and time again, spin over substance. They say one thing but really mean another. It is the Hollowmen approach to public policy, where you have a tax implemented for the purposes of increasing the financial revenue of the government being sold as a health policy. It is not a health policy. If it was a health policy there would be a large emphasis on the prevention of binge drinking through a well-funded education campaign, and the money being raised by this tax would go not into general government revenue to bump up the budget bottom line but into a serious campaign to address a problem in our society. It would also be a wide-ranging campaign that would look at all the other issues which our young people face going into adulthood, including illicit drugs and drink spiking in hotels, which is a big problem for young women. It is a problem which many of us on this side of the House have had experience with. We have seen the effects of this type of problem.

The opposition are opposing this legislation in the House of Representatives and we will oppose this legislation in the Senate. I understand Independent senators are minded that way as well, but of course we will have to wait and see. We oppose this legislation because it is a tax grab; it is not a health policy. This is not a genuine attempt to address a health issue in our country. It is not an attempt to make our young people safer or more educated about the serious impact of overconsumption of alcohol. This government should scrap the tax grab and go back to the drawing board. It should go back to the drawing board and work out a genuine health policy to address this issue. The government has produced no evidence that it has done anything that will help the health of young Australians through this policy. All it has done is help its own budget bottom line, and it is a disgrace. It is a disgraceful move to sell a policy as a health policy when all it is is a tax grab. In fact, it has dangers for the health of young people in our country, and I think the government should be ashamed of this very poorly thought through and spin-over-substance policy that it has presented.