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Wednesday, 25 February 2009
Page: 1790

Mr MARLES (1:50 PM) —I rise to speak in support of the Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 and the Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009. In the year 2000 the Liberal Howard government, for reasons best known to itself—and we can only speculate as to what those reasons were—introduced a loophole, a tax concession, if you like, for alcopops, otherwise known as ready-to-drink spirit based alcoholic products. It worked in the following way. Up until that point, spirits based products had an excise tariff of $66.66 per litre of alcohol content applied to them. But, in relation to pre-mixed drinks, that figure was reduced to $39.36 per litre of alcohol content. It had this effect: you could go out and buy a bottle of bourbon and you could buy a bottle of Coke and you could mix the drink yourself to get a drink of bourbon and Coke. You could also go out and buy a premixed can of bourbon and Coke in the same quantities and with the same measure, and what would happen is that those two drinks, which were in essence precisely the same, would have completely different tax regimes applying to them. Indeed, you would be drinking the premixed drink at half the tax rate of the drink you mixed yourself. As I say, why that occurred is best known to the government of the day, but that it occurred was a very dangerous exercise in public policy, in the context of what has evolved as a significant binge-drinking problem in this country.

One in ten 12- to 17-year-olds are now drinking at levels which are defined as being risky. Twenty thousand girls in this country between the ages of 12 and 15 are reportedly drinking daily or weekly. The number of young women between the ages of 18 and 24 who are admitted to hospital for alcohol related reasons has doubled in the last eight years. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reports that the proportion of treatment episodes for which alcohol is the main drug responsible for people between the ages of 10 and 19 being treated has risen from 15 per cent to 23 per cent in the past five years. Of course, drinking in that way has an enormous adverse impact on a person’s health, but it also has an impact on the health of others and on the health of the society in which we live. Three-quarters of a million Australians are physically abused every year by people who are under the influence of alcohol. The social cost to our nation of alcohol misuse has been estimated at $15 billion a year. Only last year the New South Wales Police Commissioner, Andrew Scipione, said:

… something like about 70 per cent of every police engagement with a member of the community in the streets of NSW has alcohol as a factor.

Against that backdrop, why a government would seek to provide a tax concession for alcopops beggars belief. But that is what they did. It particularly beggars belief when you consider that alcopops are a product designed specifically for and targeted specifically at young people. They are the people who drink alcopops. Alcopops are designed with bright colours. They are designed to taste sweet to disguise the alcohol in the product. By any measure, if what was sought by this tax concession was to increase the consumption of alcopops then it works. It works spectacularly, because the sales of alcopops increased by 250 per cent since the year 2000. The percentage of girls between the ages of 15 and 17 who reported that an alcopop was the last alcoholic drink that they had consumed rose from 14 per cent in the year 2000, before the tax break was introduced, to 62 per cent in 2004. For girls in the same cohort who were described as drinking in a risky manner, the percentage who indicated that an alcopop was the last alcoholic drink that they had consumed in 2004 was 78 per cent. That figure rose threefold after the year 2000.

This is an issue of enormous concern for the people in my electorate of Geelong, and indeed I spoke about it in this place on 16 September last year. For me, there is something of an interesting story to the speech I made in this place in relation to binge drinking among young people. At the time, I had working in my office a young work experience student, Sumeyra Eren, from Matthew Flinders Girls Secondary College in Geelong, a member of that exact cohort—a girl between the ages of 15 and 17. The task I set her during her week of work experience was to prepare a speech for me which I would make in this place. She could prepare that speech on any topic that she chose, but the one that she chose was this: binge drinking amongst young people. For young people in this country—for young people in Geelong—binge drinking is a huge issue. In the speech that she prepared she talked about a party that had occurred at Tettenhall Ridge in Belmont in Geelong on 31 August last year. It was arranged through MySpace and MSN and saw, in the middle of the night, 200 drunk and disorderly young people milling around in the streets, throwing bottles and cans and being raucous in what was a quiet suburb.

Alcohol fuelled violence has been a key issue within the CBD in Geelong over the past few years and indeed was behind a measure that this government took to the last election. That measure, which we have introduced since being elected to government, was a $300,000 commitment to improving the safety of the Geelong CBD. An interesting community response to the issue of binge drinking and the lack of safety which it was creating in the centre of Geelong has been taken up by the local paper, the Geelong Advertiser, and the Geelong Football Club—in particular its captain, Tom Harley. Those organisations have come up with the Just Think campaign, a campaign very much aimed at young people. It is not intended to be a wowser campaign and it is not intended to tell people that they cannot drink, but what it does seek to do is to say to those people who are about to drink that they should ‘just think’ when they start consuming alcohol. They should think about what their drinking does to themselves, about what their drinking does to their families, about what their drinking does to their friends, about what their drinking does to their community and about what their drinking does to their health. It has been a spectacularly successful campaign within the community of Geelong. It has received the support of the Premier of Victoria, Mr John Brumby; it has received support from the then Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon; and it receives support in this place during question time from the Minister for Health and Ageing, Nicola Roxon. Indeed, the Geelong Advertiser, being a News Ltd paper, has spread this campaign to other News Ltd papers around Australia, and the Cairns Post has taken up this campaign and is running it within that city.

What is very clear when it comes to the issue of binge drinking and how we tackle this problem is that money counts. When you are talking about young people and binge drinking, you are talking about a group of people who do not have money readily available to them who are very sensitive to the price—

The SPEAKER —Order! It being 2 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 97. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the member will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.