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Wednesday, 25 February 2009
Page: 1747

Mr HAWKER (10:33 AM) —In addressing the Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 and the Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009, I would like to start by taking up a few points that were made by the honourable member for Parramatta. I really feel that she is very confused. When she put forward her case, she came across as someone who is very confused. She started off by saying that the legislation addresses the abuse of alcohol. I would have to say that I think that is not the point of this legislation at all; we know it is all about a tax grab. The member then tried to infer that some members of the opposition are not concerned about binge drinking. That is absolute nonsense. There is not one person in this parliament or indeed in the wider community who would not be concerned about binge drinking. As the member pointed out, from her personal experience one of the more effective measures in addressing binge drinking starts at home—that is, parental guidance. To presume that this legislation will address this is nonsense; it does not. It is nothing more, or less, than a poorly targeted tax grab.

The member for Parramatta asked why people would want to get rid of having measured amounts of alcohol. I remind the honourable member that we are seeing substitution. What is the substitution? Part of the substitution is that people are switching to spirits and mixing their own drinks. As we know, when you mix your own drinks you do not necessarily mix them at the same strength every time. Indeed, you often mix them stronger. We keep hearing about ‘extremely sugary drinks’. But what is a Bundy and Coke? It is a sugary drink. You are saying to people that it is too expensive to buy Bundy in a premixed drink, where you know what the strength is, so grab a bottle of Bundy and some cans of Coke and mix it yourself. I would suggest to the honourable member that, as young people are telling her, that is what is happening. And, of course, there is very little control on the strength of the drinks. It would not be beyond the wit of anyone to realise that in some cases they are being mixed at a stronger level. Vodka and orange is another example, and the list goes on.

So when members of the government say this is closing a loophole, I think that is absolute nonsense. It is not closing any loophole. When they say the measure is working, that is nonsense. It is working well if you want to see an increase in beer sales, it is working well if you want to see an increase in straight spirit sales, it is working well if you want to see an increase in wine sales—and all of these are, of course, where the substitution is occurring. If members of the government seriously want to do something about the problems of binge drinking then this measure is clearly failing.

I do share the concerns about excess drinking by young people, but I do not support this legislation because it is not the way to solve it. It is poorly targeted. It is inconsistent legislation. It is poor policy. Clearly, this is nothing more than a tax grab. One year on, the government have been unable to provide any evidence that it has had any impact on binge drinking. In fact, independent advice going to the government flies in the face of their rhetoric; they have been told it is not working. A report to the government, updated this month, stated that overall levels of alcohol consumption and drinking patterns have not changed markedly over the past decade. That report was from the National Preventative Health Taskforce. The coalition will support sensible measures to reduce binge drinking but clearly this is not one of them.

Obviously there is a wide range of measures that could be brought in such as education; parental guidance, as I have already mentioned; law enforcement, where available; industry involvement; and rehab measures. In fact last year in the parliament I highlighted an example of what has been happening in Warrnambool in my electorate where a trial started in the nightclubs limiting access to high-alcohol content drinks after 1 am. After the trial had been going for a few weeks it was realised that it was so successful that it has now become a permanent measure. Those are the sorts of things that can be done and will work.

Let us now look at the minister’s second reading speech. She tried to make a number of points. She said:

… this measure—

that is, the measure in these bills—

… is backed by research, backed by health experts, and backed by the evidence.

I would suggest that there is no research backing what she is trying to do. Health experts are not saying this per se is the solution and clearly the evidence is not there. So after having imposed the tax for nearly a year, the government ought to have realised that this is nothing more than a tax grab and does not do anything. In her second reading speech the minister immediately went on to the issue of binge drinking, a separate issue and one that can be addressed in a number of other ways. If the government was serious about health and binge drinking, it would not be just going all out to get some more tax on this. In her second reading speech the minister also said that alcopops sales have slumped. That is not surprising—if you increase the tax by 70 per cent you would expect that to happen. Then she says:

Despite a smaller increase in full-strength spirits sales, overall spirits sales have fallen by almost eight per cent.

That is very convenient and very selective but it does not point out what has occurred with other forms of alcohol. I mentioned beer, which is generally the preferred drink of younger men and teenage boys—who are hopefully over the age of 18. As I say, the change to mixing similar drinks to those you can buy that have a measured amount of alcohol is fairly questionable, particularly if they are mixed at home.

Of course the government have been very embarrassed by the incompetence in the inaccuracy of the estimates of the revenue they were going to raise. When it was announced, there was going to be some $3 billion raised. Just a few months later when the bill came in it was down to just over half of that at $1.6 billion. What sort of advice is this government getting? Why can’t the minister at least get somewhere close on this? It is the sign of an incompetent minister.

Let us now look at some of the professional advice around on what the impacts of this measure might be. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare is the first organisation I want to quote. When they appeared before the Senate inquiry they made a number of points. There has been some effort to try and sort of suggest there has been an increase in binge drinking. This has been part of the justification. We had the big announcement on a Sunday by the government saying, ‘We’re going to attack binge drinking.’ It was another one of those publicity stunts that we are getting used to do with this government. The Institute of Health and Welfare said:

… there has been virtually no change in the pattern of risky drinking over the period 2001-2007…

I think that blows away that myth. It went on to say:

… the dominant alcoholic drink preference for young males … has been regular strength beer…

The government’s National Preventative Health Taskforce noted a downward trend in risky drinking by young people 14 to 19 years old over the period 2001 to 2007. So the justification for these bills becomes even thinner. In The Lancet in August 2008 researchers from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of New South Wales surmised:

Although the Australian Government’s recent decision is likely to arrest the increased sales of premixed spirits—

well, that is fairly obvious—

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

So all the arguments being put up by government members just fall away. There is no evidence to back them. Access Economics have been commissioned to do a report looking at trends in alcohol related hospital admission by young people. What they found is that the data collected so far did not support claims the alcopop tax had reduced risky drinking by young people. They went on to say:

… hospital admissions for young people 12 to 24 for alcohol related diagnosis in May and June 2008 were higher than the same months in previous years …

That is after the tax had been increased on these drinks. The emergency department presentations by young people aged 12 to 24 were higher in May to August 2008. It is the same thing. Obviously this tax is not working. As I said, there was an overall increase for the months after the ready-to-drink tax relative to the months before. Also combined admissions and emergency department presentations for females were substantially higher than in previous years and also higher than the months pre the tax rise. So here we have the real evidence to show that this is, as we said at the beginning, nothing more than a tax grab. Access Economics did qualify that report because they said they need time to gather more data, but the trend is rather damning when you look at what the government claims to have been able to achieve and what is being done.

Next I want to look at what I think is a very interesting interview conducted with some of the Heywire winners who came to Canberra earlier this month. Many members had the opportunity to meet some very impressive young Australians who came from all around the country. In an interview for the ABC the question was put about binge drinking. The interviewer said that that minister, Nicola Roxon, was talking about the alcopops tax and saying it had worked in that it had collected less than they had budgeted. The interviewer asked:

But what do young Heywire winners think? They are just the targeted age group of 16 to 22 years of age.

The interviewer asked them:

Who here thinks that the—increasing the price of these mixed drinks has worked? Anyone?

[Group responds] No.

The interviewer then asked why. And the answer was:

Because when you put the tax up on the alcopops it’s not really the drink that people drink to binge drink anyway. It pushes them to drink boxed wine and straight spirits, which can potentially be more dangerous.

This is what young people, who actually know what is going on out there, are saying. The interviewer went on to ask this particular Heywire winner:

You are a singer in a pub in Launceston … So, do you see people curbing their drinking because of increased price?

Neve, the singer from Launceston, said:

No, not at all. Not at all.

And then there was widespread laughter. What that says is that the young people are laughing at what this government are claiming to do—which is not exactly a sign of good policy.

Further on in the interview, one of the winners of Heywire said:

I think the consensus amongst us yesterday was, while at the beginning of our conversation, that the tax had actually fuelled the binge drinking.

It has actually fuelled the binge drinking. That is what the young people are saying—it has fuelled the binge drinking. And this government claim that the reason for bringing this tax in is to reduce binge drinking. Clearly, it is not working; it is failing. That is why it is such bad legislation. The Heywire winner went on to say:

Because I know in my area it’s even got worse because people are just buying straight grog. So, if they got rid of the tax and just went back to Cruisers, they know how much they’re drinking and what they’re drinking.

Government members ought to take note of what young people are saying, because, clearly, this tax is not achieving what the government claim it is. It is nothing more than a disguised method of trying to raise revenue.

Maybe we should look at what some of the editorials in a couple of the newspapers have said—and they have been scathing of the minister. Earlier this month, on 6 February, the editorial in the Australian, headed ‘Policy on the rocks’, said:

The alcopop tax rise was a rort that wouldn’t work.

Pretty strong words. It goes on to say:

There was never anything to drink to in the 70 per cent tax increase on alcopops in the budget last year. It pushed prices up at a time when the Government was banging on about fighting inflation. It discriminated against drinks preferred by the politically powerless—young people and older workers who like pre-mixed spirits. And the way it was sold assumed we had all had a few too many and would believe anything—that the tax was a way of stopping binge drinking among the young, of encouraging teens and those in their 20s with a taste for potent sugar hits to drink less, that the $680 million in extra revenue over four years it would generate was entirely incidental.

This was a triple-distilled fib and the Government has now been caught.

Pretty strong words—and it is about time some members over there stopped carrying on with this nonsense of trying to pretend otherwise. The editorial went on to say:

The tax is now expected to generate only half the additional income originally anticipated—

because people are switching drinks. The editorial goes on to talk about what happened in New Zealand when they tried to do the same thing and found that it did not work. So we have not learnt from that. The editorial makes the point that it is nothing more than a ‘cynical stunt’. It concludes by saying:

The alcopop excise is policy snobbery—on the rocks.

Lovely words.

But let us look at another editorial. The editorial in the West Australian at the end of January is headed ‘Time for Roxon to admit that alcopops tax is not working’, and says:

The Federal Government has been caught out in its tax on alcopops. Either it did not think through the big increase in excise on pre-mixed spirit-based drinks, or it cynically chose to camouflage a common-or-garden tax slug as a health strategy.

They have probably summed it up and exposed this government policy for what it is: it is not a health measure—as has been clearly demonstrated by what young people are saying and what these editorials are saying. The editorial goes on to say:

There is evidence to suggest that the tax slug has not made a scrap of difference to the overall level of alcohol consumption amongst the group it targets and may even have caused it to increase.

It also points out:

… Health Minister Nicola Roxon says only that there is “strong evidence” to support its effectiveness, but she has failed to reveal it.

She has been caught out and exposed. I think members opposite should hang their heads in shame if they think that they are going to come into this chamber and carry on with this nonsense as to why they support this bill. It is not a health measure and it is not working.

I mentioned the Access Economics report. It talks about hospitalisation rates for alcohol related harm among 12- to 24-year-olds. Report author Lynne Pezulla was quoted as saying:

“If anything, hospitalisation rates of young people due to acute intoxication and harmful use of alcohol worsened in the months following the Government’s tax increase on ready-to-drink products.”

She went on to say how people were moving on to use rum and coke and other things. And what did the health minister do? She went back to some figures from the year 2000. Come on, Minister: the young people of 2000 have now grown up; we are talking about today. The minister is obviously desperately clutching for straws. She really has not a feather to fly with in her argument to support this tax increase. As a health minister, one should in fact question why she is even sponsoring it as a health measure.

I have no hesitation in saying that I will be voting against this legislation. I think it is poorly targeted. It is, as I say, nothing more than a tax grab. It is poor policy and there is some early evidence that shows that, rather than achieving what is claimed—to assist in reducing the amount of binge drinking amongst young people—it may well be that it is increasing the amount of binge drinking. I think the government has failed on all counts, and clearly this legislation should be opposed. If the government had any real concern about binge drinking, they would be looking to far more effective measures than trying to put legislation like this through.