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Wednesday, 25 February 2009
Page: 1844

Mrs BRONWYN BISHOP (5:51 PM) —I was interested, when listening to the end of the member for Kingston’s address, to hear her starting to cite some figures dealing with the quantum of tax that is being collected on spirits alone without mentioning cheap wine, for instance, or a whole variety of other things which can be substitute drinks. I think that is very relevant to this debate on the imposition of a new tax by the Labor Party which in the budget papers was going to raise them $3.1 billion. I think it is most interesting to go back to the budget papers of May, bearing in mind that this initiative was announced on 27 April 2008. They state:

The Government has increased the excise and excise-equivalent customs duty on ‘other excisable beverages not exceeding 10 per cent alcohol by volume’ to the same rate as for full strength spirits, on and from 27 April 2008. This measure has an ongoing gain to revenue which is estimated to be $3.1 billion from 27 April 2008 …

I think it is very interesting that the revised figure is $1.6 billion that the initiative will collect. That immediately suggests to me that fewer alcopops were bought and that the people who were previously drinking those drinks simply did not give up taking substances which would give them the sufficient high which they were striving to get. It suggests to me that they have selected one or another of a range of things that are available. Firstly, there is the very easily cited example that they would move to buying full bottles of spirits and Coke, or whatever goes with the alcohol. Instead of having a measured dose of alcohol, as occurs in the alcopops, it would be more likely that there would be a much larger dose of alcohol than would have been the case if they had been drinking alcopops.

The previous speaker, and many speakers on the government side, have neglected to mention what I think is the elephant in the room—that illicit drugs represent another alternative. When we look at the coverage of the phenomenon of so-called binge drinking, we see an increase in violence. One of the things that have become very obvious is that violence becomes very much more pronounced among those who start taking drugs such as ice. Violence becomes a very serious and significant addition to the behaviour of people when they are under the influence of such drugs.

We see a lot of reports in the papers which say that a person has been seen to be intoxicated, and there is a presumption that it must be alcohol. This has been the case with drink driving over the years, but we did take action with regard to that and we did introduce limits on the amount of alcohol that could be consumed before driving, but there has been a reluctance by governments to introduce proper testing for illicit drugs of people who are driving, yet in Victoria they have started a program and are starting to measure outcomes. I think the results are worth putting into this debate. Information from Arrive Alive, which is a joint initiative of VicRoads and the Victorian Department of Justice, says:

Drink driving is a major community issue, but so is drug driving.

In 2003, 28 per cent of drivers killed had a blood alcohol content of 0.05 or more. In the same year, 31 per cent of drivers killed tested positive to drugs other than alcohol.

In 2008, they say:

Drink driving contributes to around 20 per cent to 30 per cent of driver deaths on Victoria’s roads each year. Drug driving, where one or more illicit drugs are present, is found in approximately 40 per cent of driver deaths.

In other words, the incidence of people dying with alcohol in the bloodstream has gone down but the number of people who have died because they had illicit drugs in their bloodstream has gone up. Going back to the report that I did whilst I was Chair of the then House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Human Services called The winnable war on drugs: the impact of illicit drug use on families, it became quite clear that the use of illicit drugs is undercounted within our society and there is this accent that says that we must concentrate on alcohol.

All along we in the opposition have said that this new tax on alcopops was just a drive to get $3.1 billion more in tax. We said it was part of the $19 billion of new taxes that were in the budget. I think that has been borne out very much by the minority report of senators in the inquiry which was carried out by the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs. Evidence from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare noted that there had been virtually no change in the pattern of risky drinking over the period from 2001 to 2007, including among young Australians. Yet those figures that I just gave on deaths in Victoria show that there is an increase in the use of illicit drugs.

You do not have to be very smart to work out that young people may find that alcopops, which have now risen so dramatically in cost, could be replaced by a less expensive pill which will last all night. Then there are the incidents where young people take illicit drugs—usually amphetamines of some description—and wash them down with alcohol. The problem is this: the government has chosen to defend what is simply a tax grab by dressing it up as an earnest health issue which needs addressing. Nobody would say that we do not want to lessen the amount of binge drinking that happens. But we also have to be far wiser and acknowledge that the problems with young people and what is known as binge drinking can so often be far more than that and can involve drug use as well. Yet, with the harm minimisation policies which are pursued, we see that Australia has now become the highest user of illicit drugs per capita in the OECD.

The harm minimisers have been in charge for 20 years, and they have failed. But they have always placed the stress on the need to deal with alcohol and never the need to deal with drugs. I think this debate gives us the opportunity to seriously go back through the research and look at the figures that are staring people in the face. If you are concerned about addiction in young people, to whatever substance, and about the increasing violence in society then you must address the drug problem.

The minister is going to provide a total of about $86 million worth of advertising and programs designed to combat binge drinking, yet nowhere do I see in the health portfolio a continuance of the programs that were initiated when we were in government to warn young people about what drug use does to you. You need only to look at the cover of the report that we did on this to see what a few short years of drug taking can do to the appearance and life expectancy of a young person. This is something that should be made known.

In supporting the opposition’s position on this legislation to increase tax and to have a tax grab, I think that we should look further than what the minister has had to say by way of trying to defend the hole in the budget. The estimated revenue from alcopops has already been revised downwards to $1.6 billion. That shows there has been a move away from this product but on to something else. We really do need to address the problem of illicit drugs and what they do not only to individuals but to families and the people who are around them.

The Federal Police have developed a harm index whereby they can show that, for every gram of illicit drugs they take off the streets, there are enormous savings to the Australian people in a whole variety of ways. There is a saving on policing, there is a saving on health issues and there is a saving that results from behaviours that are prevented from happening because the drugs did not get into the bodies of the people who would otherwise have used them.

Returning to the question of the tax, I think the evidence given to the Senate inquiry by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare showed that there had not been, up until the introduction of the tax, an increase in young people’s binge drinking. In fact, the figures show that there has been a lessening of it. But figures now coming out of Victoria show that there is an increase in the use of drugs in the Australian community—and that needs to be addressed.

But this legislation is a new tax on alcopops; it is precisely that. It is a new tax which is not attached to a health initiative at all; it is merely a $3.1 billion tax grab. Of course, with the government’s decision to spend $42 billion of taxpayers’ money on the so-called stimulus, the minister is no doubt desperate to try to salvage what is left of the $3.1 billion—that is, the $1.6 billion—to somehow make a lesser hole in the budget figures. But that is not a good reason to support a tax. It is a bad tax. The opposition is opposed to the introduction of new taxes, particularly at this time.