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Monday, 22 June 2009
Page: 6742

Mr DUTTON (5:55 PM) —In rising to speak on the Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 [No. 2] and the Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 [No. 2], for the benefit of the House I want to revisit some of the history of this prolonged debate on the excise tariff and customs tariff amendment legislation. To say the least, this is a debate which has gone on for some time, and people have been very emotive in relation to the stances they have taken and their responses—and understandably so; it is a debate of that nature. When the government initially announced this change, there was huge fanfare in the Sunday papers, and the Prime Minister claimed that this was a measure which was going to fix binge drinking. When we have a look at the evidence that was provided both at the time and since, particularly over the course of the evidence that has been given to two Senate inquiries, there has not been any evidence from the government as to how this measure will address binge drinking. The reality is that the Minister for Health and Ageing was not aware of this measure until she fronted up to an ERC meeting during the budget period of May last year. This was a measure put forward by Finance and Treasury, not by Health, and that was, of course, to become very important and crucial as the debate unfolded. It was crucial because this clearly is a government that is desperate for revenue.

On the initial figures that were projected, the costings around this particular measure put forward by the government suggested that there would be some $3.1 billion over the forward estimates, or over the four years, and that extra revenue would be created as a result of this particular measure. There has been considerable debate since that time and a revision of those figures, not just once but on a number of occasions, by the minister and the Treasurer. Despite the fact that this never was a measure that was championed by the health minister, it was one that was landing in her lap, unexpectedly, as I say, as a result of that ERC process. She was ‘handed the baby’, so to speak, and had the job of going out and selling the message.

It became obvious, as the debate went along, that this was the case. It became obvious to people who were participating in the public debates, to people who were looking at these matters in Senate inquiries and to stakeholders who had an interest in this particular measure that this was not a health measure at all. In actual fact it was about raising revenue, fairly and squarely—nothing more and nothing less. So the minister was arguing the case because it is this government’s position in contemporary debates to dress these measures up in incredible spin, and their spin on this particular revenue-raising measure was to try and sell it as a health measure. They wanted to try and trick the Australian people into believing that somehow this was going to address the problem of binge drinking.

Throughout all of this debate we have said that we are very concerned about binge drinking. In fact, we said it well before this debate, and I repeat the claim today that the coalition have remained concerned about binge drinking. We are concerned that people—in a minority but, nonetheless, a very important minority—are engaging in drinking behaviours which are unacceptable for a number of reasons. Not all of them are related to health. A number relate to social outcomes, because some of the activity is undertaken particularly by teenagers, who are mixing alcohol with illicit drugs. Their social behaviour reported in a minority of cases but, nonetheless, on a regular basis, remains completely unacceptable.

So when the Prime Minister went out to grab a headline in a Sunday paper, it was certainly clothed in spin. It was a situation where this government wanted people to believe that it was doing something that in actual fact it was not doing. I know the minister has raised a number of points during the course of this debate about consumption patterns, and she has tried to peddle the idea that somehow this has led to a change in the consumption patterns of young adults and that, therefore, somehow the government has gone some way towards achieving its outcome to curb binge drinking when in actual fact that is not the case. In the latest budget papers, the RTD tax hike is projected to raise $1.7 billion over the forward estimates. Compare that to the figure that was provided in the initial response by the government at $3.1 billion. But, importantly, what the minister neglects to recognise in this debate, a very important debate, is that revenue from imported spirits is expected to be up by 20 per cent in 2008-09—that is an extra $245 million in excise—and that Treasury attributes that growth to substitution of RTDs with other alcoholic products.

That is indisputable because it shows—this has been recorded in Treasury’s own budget papers, and I direct anybody who has an interest in this matter to look at the budget papers from this year’s budget, where Treasury makes this exact claim—that what has taken place here is a substitution of RTDs with other drinks. Incredibly, beer excise will grow by eight per cent in the financial year 2008-09. While it is expected to be lower in 2009-10, it does project that it will grow over subsequent years. The reason I make that point is that it is absent from any of the dialogue that the minister is engaging in, trying to inject her own statistics and those that sit favourably with and for the government. She has neglected to mention these particular figures. The reason that has happened is because, for the first time in 15 years, there has been a take-up of heavy beer. That is a concern and one that will occupy a large part of the debate as we go forward in relation to this particular measure.

There is some substitution away from RTDs. We know that. In the period May 2008 to March 2009, ATO and customs clearance data showed the consumption of full-strength spirits rose 18 per cent. The same data showed that beer consumption rose five per cent. There have been a number of reports which give the lie to the figures that this government has included as part of this debate.

The important thing to remember in this debate is that what has changed over the period that this government has been in power is that it has completely trashed the economic situation, the budgetary outlook, of this country. We started with a cash-in-the-bank position when this government came into power in November 2007, $22 billion in the bank, but this government is now projecting over the forward years to have a debt of some $300-plus billion. That is a remarkable turnaround in only 12 or 18 months, quite remarkable. The reality is that that has made it difficult for the opposition, for anybody who is making a contribution to this public debate, to recognise what has shifted in this public debate. The ingredient that has shifted is the fact that this government is desperate for revenue. We have said that we will go to the next election with a position which is more economically responsible than that which this government will put. We have said that because we have a history of balancing the books in this country.

We had a position when we were in government, and of course before that, when we were in opposition, and we have a position now, in opposition, that we would be responsible, restore the economic validity of this country, pay off Labor’s debt, as has always been the case, and put back to work the millions of Australian people who have lost their jobs directly as a result of the decisions of this government. This government wants to blame everything on the global financial crisis, but the reality is the rate at which this government is spending money makes it very difficult not just for the government but for the opposition in relation to decisions about policy as we go forward. There is a significant revenue impact in relation to this particular measure, and we do not intend to make the economic budgetary position any worse than this government is proposing. We want to make sure that we have a position which is more economically responsible. That is our track record. That will be our record when we get back into government, and that is the reason that has led us to make the decision not to oppose this particular bill.

It is remarkable that the health minister, over the course of the last 12 or 18 months, has not engaged in a forward-looking program of health measures at all. This is a health minister who hides behind two reports which claim to be reporting back to the government by 30 June. The government is even of a mind to say that it would, remarkably, not have anything to say in relation to its claim that it would fix public hospitals by mid-2009 until it received these reports back from Christine Bennett and Professor Moodie—that it could have nothing to say about whether or not it had fulfilled its claim to fix public hospitals by mid-2009 until it receives these reports, which might talk about some options in the health space over the coming years. Unsustainable though it is, it is a quite remarkable position for this government.

This is a health minister who has squarely lost the debate at every turn, at every opportunity that she has engaged in and on health policies that she has talked about. It is interesting the alliances that form in this place, but we need to make sure that people understand the facts in this debate. We need to recognise that this is a minister who never projected this policy; this is a minister who stood beside the Treasurer at the time because there was difficulty in her being able to carry the press conference by herself. That gave great credit, obviously, to our claim that this was all about revenue. That is why our position is as it is in relation to this debate.

We say to the government: today is the opportunity to go forward and seriously engage in a debate about how they are going to curb binge drinking. This debate has to be conducted by both sides of parliament because it is a serious issue. If we are going to proceed in a bipartisan way, let the government signal that that is their intention. We will happily sit down with them to talk about how we are going to change a culture that has built up over a long period of time. Just like the campaigns around drink driving or the wearing of seatbelts, we, the opposition and the government, need to make sure that we engage constructively on ways we can change that behaviour—which occurs amongst a minority of people, particularly in the younger demographic—and provide better health outcomes into the future.

As I say, the reality is that most people do drink responsibly. That is important to remember when having this debate. We will not be pushed off this very important debate because the government’s health policy is at sea. The spin that they consistently carry on with has been found out in recent days. This was one of the first examples. History will record that this was one of the first instances of true Rudd government spin. History will record when it was first announced by the Prime Minister in the Sunday newspapers. He suggested that this was some genuine attempt to address the problem of binge drinking, but history will record that it certainly was not.

That is our position in relation to this debate. We look forward very much to a serious debate about binge drinking and the ways we can address that problem in the years ahead.