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Wednesday, 25 February 2009
Page: 1829


Mr CHESTER (4:49 PM) —It is with pleasure that I join the debate on the Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 and the Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009. On 26 April last year the government gazetted increases to the rate of excise and excise equivalent customs duty applying on selected beverages from $39.36 to $66.67 per litre of alcohol content. It is worth noting that the Australian Taxation Office and the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service have been collecting the excise and excise equivalent customs duty at the higher rate since 27 April 2008. I note that the Minister for Health and Ageing, in her second reading speech, commented:

No-one who reads the newspaper or watches television can be unaware of the problems caused by binge drinking. Community leaders, police and health experts alike agree that action needs to be taken.

I say from the outset that I believe that the minister is well intentioned in her attempts to address the plague of binge drinking and the associated violence. I say that most genuinely; I believe the minister is very concerned by the escalation in violence that we have seen on our streets. A lot of that has been related to the overindulgence in alcohol. What I do say, though, is that the stated objective of this legislation, which is to reduce the incidence of binge drinking and the associated violence, although well intended, has been misguided. The previous speaker just claimed that the strategy is working because sales of ready-to-drink alcohol products have dropped. But that is a flawed argument when the strategy is meant to curb binge drinking. Not one shred of evidence has been presented that in the period of the last 10 months there has been any success at all in terms of reducing the incidence of binge drinking in our community.

The success of this strategy should be measured in terms of less violence on our streets, fewer hospitalisations of drunks or less binge drinking amongst young people—not purely by whether the sales of any drink products have dropped. I will make the point further on that I believe that a lot of the problem is that people being involved in the excessive drinking of alcohol is more of a cultural issue. They are simply substituting one product for another and continuing to overindulge, and the increase in the alcopops tax is really just a tax-grab masquerading as a health initiative. Unfortunately, we have not seen any evidence to suggest that the alcopops tax has resulted in improved social behaviour, particularly in relation to young people and the incidence of binge drinking. There has not been a shred of evidence to suggest that this has actually occurred. People are still getting drunk, they are still causing the same level of mayhem in our community and they are unfortunately using different forms of alcohol. Even worse, I fear many are resorting to illicit drugs—in particular, amphetamines.

Doubts were expressed from day one as to whether this excise increase would actually work and, as I said, the government has no proof thus far that it has been effective. In introducing this legislation, the minister has attempted to address what I think everyone on all sides of this House would agree is a particularly important issue in our community. But it is an issue which is very difficult to address, and it is not going to be resolved by simply increasing the tax on one product. I fear that there is a drinking culture deeply embedded in Australian society. I am no wowser by any stretch of the imagination. I enjoy a drink—in fact, there are occasions when I enjoy several drinks. Some of them are ready-to-drink products and some are red wine or beer. But I think that I am fairly typical of a lot of people in our community in saying that the imposition of a tax on one particular form of alcohol, increasing the cost, will result in substitution. I have seen it amongst many of my colleagues, friends and family members. Instead of reducing their alcohol consumption, they have simply substituted one form with another.

Drinking is a cultural issue in Australia, and one of the areas that the government and our society need to tackle with far more enthusiasm is the leadership provided by our role models in the community. If we are serious about addressing cultural binge drinking, we have to start addressing it at a much more public level. I refer, particularly, to some of the buffoons that you see on our various football shows. In Victoria it is the AFL Footy Show and in New South Wales and Queensland it is the rugby league Footy Show. I have seen many occasions on which public drunkenness is actually celebrated on these shows. I have seen reporters associated with the shows attending awards nights intoxicated, and they think it is a heck of a joke to be interviewing someone else who is suitably inebriated. If we are serious about addressing the issue of binge drinking, we will need to start tackling these issues in a far more aggressive manner and make it very clear that there is a standard of behaviour that we expect from our community leaders and that our sportspeople are among those.

We need to lead by example, not just at that level but also on the home front. These are far more difficult issues than simply increasing a tax. No-one is prepared to talk in any great detail about the example we ourselves set in our own homes. Much of the attitude children develop towards alcohol is learnt on the home front, and if we as parents continually rely on alcohol to have a good time it certainly reflects on our children. These are some of the more difficult issues that the government is going to need to at least discuss and consider in its approach to binge drinking, and they go way beyond simply addressing the issue of the alcopops tax.

One of the areas that concern me greatly in regional communities is that we are not offering our young people enough alternatives to attend functions or be involved in community activities which do not involve alcohol. We have a cohort of people—probably aged about 13 to 18—in our community who are faced with a situation where there are very few options of entertainment or activities which do not involve some level of alcohol. Most community groups and sporting organisations are in a situation where they rely on sales of alcohol to fund their organisations. On the one hand, government—not just this government but many governments—refuses to fund sporting organisations to the full extent that is required for them to improve their facilities and run their organisations but, on the other hand, we tell them they must be involved in the responsible service of alcohol. It is a catch-22 situation for the sporting clubs. They need to make a quid and they choose to make it at the bar because that is the most likely place they are going to make it. Government suggests that they are doing something wrong in doing that but is not prepared to come to the party and help fund their activities. It is a state and federal government issue and it is something that is going to require a more coordinated effort in the months and years ahead. It is inevitable that the sporting clubs, whether they be football clubs, cricket clubs or surf-lifesaving clubs, will encourage greater alcohol sales because it is in their interests to maintain the activities of their clubs.

My other concern with alcopops, as I said earlier, is the issue of substitution. The first time I received feedback after this legislation was announced was when I was right in the middle of the Gippsland by-election campaign. I was in one of the shopping centres in one of my towns and a mother came up to me and said that she had caught her son and three of his mates at a party. They were taking mouthfuls of bourbon from a bottle and then taking a bit of Coke with it, saying that they were mixing their own drinks. It may be a funny story but, on reflection, it indicates that these young people had just substituted their previous product—they used to buy a bourbon and Coke type drink—with just mixing their own drinks in their mouths. They were young men, 17- to 18-year-old teenagers, and pretty unsophisticated in terms of their knowledge of alcohol and what they were doing. Certainly there was no measured shot of alcohol involved. It concerns me that what we have seen is simply a replacement.

Unfortunately there is a culture of binge drinking where people drink to harmful levels. At the start of a night—at the start of a party, an occasion or whatever it might be—it is the deliberate intent of these people to get wasted. This is not about which type of alcohol they prefer. They will find the cheapest type of alcohol they can get and they will simply substitute it. While the minister’s attempts to address binge drinking are certainly well intended, I do not believe that the tax increase is actually having any result at all out there in the community. There has not been a shred of evidence presented to the House in the subsequent 10 months that there has been any reduction in the level of violence or the incidence of binge drinking in our community. If we are not prepared to accept the fact that there is a culture out there of people who will just simply substitute whatever product they can get their hands on—the cheaper the better—then we are really missing the point in trying to address this issue at its root cause.

Targeting the ready-to-drink products alone has been particularly unscientific in that regard, and I do not believe it is going to achieve the stated health aims. Common sense indicates to me that people within the community will simply substitute one brand of alcohol for another. I give the example of a club on the South Coast of New South Wales, which I attended prior to the Christmas break, where a bottle of bourbon and Coke was $9. That would be about the cost of three pots or middies—I am not sure what you call them in New South Wales. People were simply not buying that particular product but transferring their choice of alcohol to something else. The concern for me—although I do not have any evidence to support my concern—is that, by pricing these products at these sorts of levels, you may end up encouraging young people to experiment with illicit drugs. I would much prefer that, when my children get to the legal age for consuming alcohol, they consume alcohol which has been produced within strict health guidelines, in comparison to sampling amphetamines which have been cooked up in some criminal’s kitchen or other establishment. It is a real issue for us that ready-to-drink products are being priced at such a level that people may find it more attractive to purchase ecstasy and other types of amphetamines.

When the shadow spokesman spoke earlier this morning, he clearly highlighted that the opposition’s position on this legislation is based on the fact that it is simply bad policy. It is irresponsible of those opposite to suggest that they somehow have a mortgage on empathy with our community or concern in our community in relation to the issue of overindulging in alcohol and the associated violence. It reflects poorly on this chamber if we are always slinging arrows backwards and forwards at each other, when I do believe that there is genuine goodwill on both sides of the House in relation to curbing the incidence of binge drinking and the associated violence that goes with it. If this were a genuine health measure—and I take up this point from the opposition health spokesman—why did it emanate from the finance ministries in the first place and not from the health department? I fear this is more about being a tax grab than anything to do with actually improving health outcomes.

At different times during this debate we have talked about research. Today in the Financial Review there was a report about research by Access Economics—and I acknowledge that the research was commissioned by the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia—which showed ‘that there had been little or no change in the impact of high-risk drinking by young people since the introduction of the increased tax on ready-to-drink products’. It quotes the Access Economics director and health economist, Lynne Pezullo:

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.

I do not make that point with any great relish, but it is basically saying that our incidence of alcohol abuse and associated violence—young people placing themselves in harm’s way—has actually increased over the past 10 months. There is no joy in quoting that information from Access Economics. It proves the point that slaying this dragon will be hard and will require more than simply increasing a tax. An article in the Australian also quotes Ms Pezullo as saying:

The analysis showed young people who moved away from the premixed drinks, such as vodka and lemonade or rum and Coke, to other alcohol could end up buying more standard drinks for $20 than before they switched.

That is my genuine fear—that we are simply going to be in a position where young people substitute products and go on their merry way overindulging in alcoholic products.

A question that has been raised in this whole debate is: if the bill is defeated, what will happen to the money raised? I believe hundreds of millions of dollars—in the vicinity of more than $220 million and perhaps up to $345 million—has been raised from this tax grab over the past 10 months. I believe it should be directed to some real programs to curb binge-drinking problems. I hope that, if the bill is defeated, that money can be directly hypothecated back to anti-binge-drinking initiatives—more than just advertising programs, although I do freely acknowledge that that is a good start.

In the contribution to the debate of the Minister for Health and Ageing, she referred to the National Binge Drinking Strategy. The strategy includes $53.5 million, of which $14.4 million is for the community-level initiatives which I referred to before in terms of the culture of binge drinking, $19.1 million is to intervene earlier to assist young people to assume personal responsibility for their binge drinking and $20 million is for an advertising campaign. Each of those in their own right has a great deal of merit, but it is only $53.5 million and we have already supposedly raised in excess of $200 million over the past 10 months from this tax grab.

One of the things I would like to refer to in relation to the National Binge Drinking Strategy is the $14.4 million to invest in community-level initiatives. This highlights the need for sporting codes to be involved. We have the situation in regional areas—and I assume that it pretty much occurs in suburban areas as well—where young men and women interact with adults from a very early age. We have a smaller population base—we need our teenage boys, for example, playing in senior footy teams and we have young girls playing in adult netball teams. They are exposed to the culture of sporting clubs—football, cricket, netball, tennis and even lawn bowls—and alcohol can play a very important part in the whole culture of clubs. I believe that supporting young people through early interaction with adults and giving them an understanding that you can enjoy alcohol responsibly is something that we should aspire to. I do not believe that we are doing anything even near enough in that particular area. I accept that the National Binge Drinking Strategy is doing some work with sporting clubs but I believe we have a long way to go in that regard, particularly in regional areas, where it is such a focus of community activity. We have a real opportunity to show our young people how they can enjoy themselves in that environment without overindulging.

I believe there is a misunderstanding about what is actually happening out there in the community in terms of the impact of this type of tax. The government is basically failing to understand the mentality of some of these binge drinkers. We all acknowledge that there is potential for self-harm and incidents of violence associated with overindulging in alcohol, but simply increasing the tax on one product is not ever going to address the bigger issues that I have already referred to. It is not going to be easy, and I do not envy the minister her task in this regard—neither do I pretend to have solutions at my fingertips, but I think that simply increasing the tax and declaring a war on binge drinking is not going to be the answer.

I am very keen to work with the government in good faith to help reduce the incidence of binge drinking in our community and the violence which is associated with it. It is going to take a lot more than a tax grab, and it is going to take a lot more than simply, to gain a media headline, nice words about declaring war. This is a war that needs to be won very much at a grassroots level: house by house, street by street, town by town and city by city. People are concerned across the spectrum of political life, and our communities are concerned about the incidence of binge drinking and the level of associated violence. We all accept that action is needed, but there are genuine doubts and concerns on my side of the House that the alcopops tax is not the silver bullet which has been presented to us. It is going to take a lot more than simply a tax hike on one alcohol product. Action is going to be needed in advertising and education, which I understand is underway. We need to lead by example in our homes as responsible adults. We need to demand better standards from our television shows and our sporting stars and celebrities. And we need to fund programs to rehabilitate and help those with a drinking problem.

We also need to be supporting those community and sporting clubs I referred to earlier. I will give you a classic example. In the small country town where I live, Lakes Entrance, we organise an annual New Year’s Eve fireworks display. New Year’s Eve in coastal towns of Victoria has been synonymous with a fight night in the past. It has been a night where people have wandered the streets, getting drunk, causing trouble and then waiting for the fireworks at midnight. That has been the typical experience of some of the coastal towns in Victoria. About eight years ago I was involved with my local business and tourism association and we made the decision that we would try to reclaim New Year’s Eve as a family night, so we decided to run an alcohol-free event. We would have a family fireworks display at 9.30 pm and another at midnight. I think this was actually one of the first times that this was done in Australia—to have a 9.30 pm fireworks display to encourage family groups back to the foreshore to enjoy what should have been a night of family entertainment. By making that evening alcohol free we hoped to encourage more family groups to get involved.

The point I would like to make is that we were very successful in organising that event. The police supported us, our local business community supported us and our local council supported us. We have been running that event for the last seven years. The rate of arrests in our community has plummeted. For the last two years we had no arrests whatsoever and we had two the year before that, so it has been very successful in that regard. We have not been able to secure any funding from the state and federal governments to support us in that endeavour on an ongoing basis, so our community raises about $50,000 or $60,000 a year. We do not get any support from the state and federal governments to run an alcohol-free event, a family event, on New Year’s Eve. I make this point more just to emphasise that if we are going to be preaching to our young people about the possibilities of enjoying themselves in an alcohol-free environment, without the temptation to binge drink, we need to put the money up to support the community groups and sporting clubs I mentioned before in their endeavours in that regard. I hasten to add that we have received occasional funding from the Victorian state government after a major flood event. It was more of an economic stimulus that was provided for our town as a one-off payment, but we have not been able to secure any ongoing funding for that type of activity.

This is a complex issue. There are severe social and economic impacts which we are all aware of, but there is a huge human toll involved. I urge the government to continue to pursue this very serious issue, but I just caution that it is going to take a lot more than a tax grab. I assure the government that the National Binge Drinking Strategy is a positive step, but I think that much more needs to be done in relation to excessive drinking.