Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Wednesday, 25 February 2009
Page: 1770

Mr IAN MACFARLANE (12:21 PM) —Whilst I have some sympathy with some of the comments made by the member for Capricornia—and I know that she is a parent, as I am—no parent can speak in this place on this bill without saying how concerned we all are about ensuring the safety of our children, particularly as they go through their teenage years but also as they go into their 20s and 30s. I guess a parent never stops worrying about their children. But in so speaking, and in opposing this Excise Tariff Amendment (2008 Measures No. 1) Bill 2008 and its cognate bill, at no stage are any members of the opposition abdicating that responsibility. Every father and mother worries when their daughters or sons go out at night, knowing that they will be drinking. As parents, my wife and I spent a great deal of time talking to our children in their teenage years—in those years before they started drinking. We also, of course, tried to set our own example in terms of drinking with moderation. I guess that is a challenge that we all set ourselves, and I think we all wish each other well on it. But this bill is not about ensuring the safe consumption of alcohol. This bill is just a tax.

Before leaving my experiences and moving to the context of this bill, I would like to convey a parent’s perspective on this. That is, quite simply, that if I have a choice between seeing my daughters go to a party with a sixpack of ready-to-drink premixed drinks or seeing them go with a bottle of coca-cola and a bottle of spirits then I know which I would prefer. In fact, I know which I actively encouraged. Just as my father actively encouraged me to drink beer rather than spirits, I encouraged them to drink a drink where they knew straightaway how much—as in the volume in the mixture—they were drinking. There is also the added advantage, particularly for those with a smaller frame, that it is difficult to consume a huge amount of pure alcohol if you drink these premixed drinks. It is much easier to pour half a glass of bourbon into a glass and then top it up with coke, thereby drinking three or four times the amount of alcohol in the same volume of fluid. So it was that perspective that annoyed me—and, quite frankly, frightened me—the most about this bill.

Having watched my daughters’ and their friends’ reactions to the huge jump in price of these premixed drinks, I know that there has been no decline in the consumption of alcohol as a result in that group of people. That is only one group of people, but I guess that if you cannot see for yourself then you will never see at all. What I see, on those rare occasions when I have to clean up after my daughters, is that the amount of alcohol being drunk has probably gone up—perhaps not by my girls but certainly by the boys in the group. We are told repeatedly how this legislation is targeted at young women, but the effect of it seems to be more on young men. I notice, when I clean away the empty cans and bottles in the morning, that there has been an increase in the volume of alcohol drunk.

I have noticed with some satisfaction—although I think it probably reflects the fact that they are now earning their own income—that my daughters are swinging back to RTDs and just paying the extra money. So they are just paying the tax. But at least as a parent I can rest at home knowing that they are not going to have a drink spiked or have some friend pour them a drink that is more spirit than soft drink. The member for Capricornia said that the aim of this legislation is to tax the contents of the can or the screw-top small bottle as a spirit because it is a spirit. I say to the member for Capricornia: I did grade 12 chemistry and I can assure her that the bottom line is that it is alcohol. Whether it comes from a spirit or from the fermentation of barley, it is alcohol that does the damage. A decision was made by our government to apply the excise to premixed drinks at the same rate as we applied it to beer, on the basis that both were being taxed on their alcohol content. To suggest that we have created a loophole and encouraged the growth of premixed drinks as a result shows, I think, the highly political nature of the way this government has approached this issue.

This whole legislation is a clear illustration of Labor’s preference for stunts over substance. From the very beginning, and under the guise of it being a health measure, this policy has been nothing more than a classic Labor high-taxing manoeuvre. It is a tax grab, pure and simple. Despite the Minister for Health and Ageing’s repeated attempts to dress it up as something else, it is nothing but a tax grab. Despite the mounting evidence that this measure will not have an impact on reducing binge drinking—which, from my experience, occurs more with young people drinking straight spirits than RTDs—this measure will have no impact on reducing binge drinking. This government has continued the charade, still trying in vain to make the case that this tax grab is a health measure. But the truth is that, one year on, this government has been unable to provide any evidence of its own that it is anything but a tax grab. The coalition does not dispute that binge drinking is a serious issue that must be addressed in society. As I said at the outset, no-one on this side of this House would dispute that for an instant. No-one on this side of this House is less committed to ending binge drinking than anyone over there. There is no monopoly on righteousness as a result of sitting on that side of the chamber. However, if there is no evidence that Labor’s tax grab on ready-to-drink products is going to have any impact on binge drinking then why are we persisting with it?

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare told the first Senate inquiry that the drinking status has been stable for almost two decades. There has been a modest increase in the apparent consumption of RTDs over the last five years. The preference for RTDs has increased slightly from 2001 to 2007, particularly in the older age groups—that is, particularly amongst people who see the convenience, as I said, of taking a sixpack in the esky or having a couple of cans after work rather than having to go through the process of mixing and measuring, and quite often not measuring at all.

The trend amongst under-18-year-olds is not clear. There has been virtually no change in the pattern of risky drinking over the period 2001-07, including among younger Australians. The government’s National Preventative Health Taskforce technical report No. 3 noted a downward trend in risky drinking by young people in the 14- to 19-year-old category over the period 2001-07. It also noted that the greatest increase in RTD consumption was amongst males. There goes the young female drinker theory proposed by those on the other side!

Trends in youth drinking, as I said, were unclear. In the August 2008 edition of the Lancet, researchers from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre of the University of New South Wales stated that the Australian government’s recent decision is likely to arrest the increased sales of premixed drinks; it is unlikely to substantially reduce the overall rates of usual or binge consumption.

Access Economics’ report on trends in alcohol related hospital use by young people, prepared for the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia, found that data collected so far did not support the claims that the alcopops tax had reduced risky drinking by young people. Access Economics said the time frame was too short to draw firm conclusions but stated:

The tax may not have reduced alcohol consumption by young people because—

they may have—

switched to other products.

I wish not to go over the same ground as previous speakers but to highlight what they said: there has certainly been a switch. In some cases it has been to spirits and in other cases it has been to wine. The switch potentially enabled those people to buy more alcohol for the same budget they had prior to the introduction of the RTD tax. The bottom line is that this tax has done nothing to lower the incidence of binge drinking. Instead, the evidence suggests it has only served the purpose of shifting young people’s drinking habits from ready-to-drink to straight spirits. That should strike fear into the heart of every parent. It should strike fear into the heart of every person who supports this tax. Reducing the amount of revenue and having no impact on the quantity of alcohol consumed is the net outcome. Therefore, as a tax measure and as a health measure, it has been a complete failure.

This proposal was released with the usual Rudd government fanfare on 26 April last year and, of course, given the tag ‘a war’—this time a war on binge drinking. The tax has been collected ever since. But, like most of the Prime Minister’s media-driven stunts, in the intervening months this measure has fallen victim to its own stunt-driven nature. The slug in excise on RTDs from $39.36 to $66.67 per litre of alcohol content will raise $1.6 billion across the forward estimates; however, this is a dramatic drop from the $3.1 billion in revenue estimated in the last budget.

One of the biggest flaws in this tax grab is the absence of real measures to address binge drinking. The government promised hundreds of millions of dollars would flow to preventive health measures, yet current estimates are that the government has collected somewhere between $220 million and $345 million through this tax and spent nothing like it in return.

I have in my electorate an extraordinarily committed young man called Adair Donaldson. He is a young solicitor who has come up with a meaningful program to address the dangers young people face when they drink or take illegal drugs. Adair has done an enormous amount of work and spent an enormous amount of his own money—tens of thousands of dollars—because he is so committed to this program. The Putting Youth in the Picture program has been launched almost entirely as a result of his efforts. This multifaceted campaign, which includes teenagers, schools, parents, sports groups and community leaders, is a fantastic example of how committed people are to solving the problem of binge drinking. There have been no media stunts. There have been no lies told. He has created a program that is directly targeted at the grassroots problem and has ensured that he gives teenagers and young people real examples and plenty of information to make their own decisions about alcohol consumption. It is described as a ‘brutally honest’ approach and it has already had success in connecting with youth, truly engaging young people on this issue and changing their attitudes to binge drinking. I have sat with Adair through several scenarios that he has had filmed and put on DVD, and it is chilling for me as a parent to watch them. Those of us with good memories will think back to our own youth. It would have been a great thing to have a program like this when I was a teenager.

We are dealing with a situation where we need to get this message out, and this program will certainly do it. It has attracted widespread interest in Queensland and also from major bodies such as the NRL and AFL players associations, who have engaged Adair in utilising this program. It also includes amongst its supporters local government associations and the PCYC. This is a real program focused on actually addressing the problem. It is working now, on the ground, in addressing binge drinking while the Rudd government continues to say, ‘Our programs will be starting soon.’ Again, I draw comparison between Adair’s program and the one which the member for Capricornia has described. Her program may be worthy but it is not widely implemented, and Adair’s program is already having an immediate effect.

When Adair came and saw me I suggested to him that he write to the Minister for Health and Ageing, which he did. Despite the fact that this program is already delivering benefits and would continue to do so with just a fraction of the funds that the Rudd government has claimed it will commit to preventative measures, it was not given a second thought. It is good enough to be adopted by football clubs—and I will not name them—in the NRL, some of whose players have been featured in the media from time to time for misbehaving, to say the least, as a result of alcohol consumption, but according to the minister for health the program is not good enough for her to take the time to look at it. If the Rudd government is serious about addressing the causes of binge drinking, it is programs like this that must be given support in place of a tax grab. If this government is serious about binge drinking, it will have to do more than just increase taxes. If the Rudd government is serious about reducing the incidence and impacts of binge drinking and is not just focused on generating headlines, it must incorporate a wide range of measures, including education, law enforcement, industry and community involvement and rehabilitation. Until it does that, serious questions remain about this bill, because the government has been unable to provide any evidence that it is anything other than an empty, tax-driven ploy that will have no impact on binge drinking.

Mr Deputy Speaker, as time will not permit me to read all of the contents of Putting Youth in the Picture, I ask permission to table that document. I urge those members who are seriously interested in this issue to take the time to read it and those members who want copies of further information, including the DVD, to contact me. I would be happy, in place of this tax grab, to do something meaningful to address the issue of binge drinking. As I have said all the way through this speech, the coalition does support sensible measures to reduce binge drinking, but this tax grab is not such a measure.

Leave granted.