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Tuesday, 17 March 2009
Page: 2914

Ms ROXON (Minister for Health and Ageing) (6:07 PM) —I move:

That the requested amendments be not made.

The government rejects the amendments proposed by the opposition in the Senate and intends to proceed with its original legislation. I might add for the benefit of the House that I will speak on this first message. Of course, there is a second message. Our arguments for rejecting the Senate’s requested amendments are the same for both, and I intend only to speak to this first one.

I am pleased to say that, after intensive but constructive negotiations, the government has reached agreement with the Greens and Senator Xenophon such that the government is prepared, if this bill is passed, to invest an additional $50 million in a range of measures designed to tackle binge drinking, including a fund to provide sponsorship to local community organisations who provide sporting and cultural activities as an alternative to other forms of sponsorship, an additional investment in community level initiatives designed to tackle binge drinking to enhance those already announced earlier this year, enhancing telephone counselling services and alcohol referrals, and a possible expansion of existing social marketing campaigns. These measures will only proceed if the legislation passes both this House and the Senate unamended.

The fact is that there is no silver bullet on binge drinking. The government does not have a silver bullet, the opposition does not, Senator Fielding does not, the Greens do not—nobody does. That is why we need to take a range of comprehensive steps in this area, and that is what the government have been doing since we were elected—through COAG, through our binge drinking initiatives, through the Preventative Health Taskforce and through the extra initiatives that we have put on the table today, including some changes to advertising regulations. Public health experts from around the country support the government’s actions, but this is going to fall at the last hurdle because the Liberal leadership do not care about binge drinking and because Senator Fielding is prepared to walk away from a range of these significant enhancements.

I have to put on record that I have a great deal of respect for Senator Fielding. He has been a longstanding opponent of binge drinking. He has done much to bring this to national attention, including having a private senator’s bill in the Senate. So I would urge him to support this bill, which is part of a comprehensive government approach to alcohol. It picks up on—and the offers that have been made to Senator Fielding pick up on—two if not 2½ out of three of the proposals he has been arguing for for a long time, and we urge him to think closely about whether he wants to give up the opportunity to have those measures introduced by the government. We have done more to tackle binge drinking than any previous government, so I am disappointed that, despite the major initiatives that have been put on the table, Senator Fielding has indicated he may be prepared to walk away from these major reforms.

The Liberal Party say that the measures should be terminated so that in future alcopops would be sold more cheaply. Supporting changes that, going forward, would mean selling cheaper drinks specifically designed to disguise the taste of alcohol with sweet or coloured water and marketing them to teenagers is not consistent with our values and we cannot support it. Neutering this proposal is not consistent with our values. As a result of the opposition’s failure to show moral leadership on the issue, in just a few short weeks teenage girls will be back paying pocket money prices for these alcohol laced drinks. What is more, the distillers will get a windfall over the next few years of $1.6 billion. That is certainly what I call a decent shout.

The Rudd government is taking a stand, showing leadership and standing up to the alcopops industry. Who is against this measure and who is for it are instructive. Over the past year my colleagues and I on this side of the House and in another place have cited statistics, expert researchers, police commissioners and media reports on alcohol abuse and misery, and against this measure are only two groups: the distillers, who profit from selling these alcopops to young people, and the Liberal Party. The truth is, however, that there is no evidence which will be strong enough to break the connection between the Liberal Party and these alcopop profiteers. Any evidence which is presented—whether it is consumption data from the ATO, data from Nielsen or other statistical data from the National Household Survey—will never be enough for the Liberal Party. Expert evidence from public health researchers across the country to the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs inquiry into the bill last week counts for nothing when it gets between the partners in that close relationship.

No-one can seriously dispute that the best evidence is that pricing works to discourage demand. As alcopops are targeted at young people, we are trying to close a tax concession which affects their price. As I have said, public health experts from around the country have given evidence to the Senate committee inquiry and, given the time, I am not going to quote all of those. But let me just use one example—that is, the President of the AMA, Rosanna Capolingua, saying it would be a retrograde step not to pass this measure. We are determined to curb the excesses of binge drinking. We want to do what we can to protect the community. There is no one single answer, but we think this measure can be part of the answer. We are supporting it in its original form, and I urge the opposition and minor parties in another place to help us protect the health of the next generation and their wellbeing into the future.