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Tuesday, 1 June 2010
Page: 4794

Mr DUTTON (6:07 PM) —This legislation—the Excise Tariff Amendment (Tobacco) Bill 2010 and the Customs Tariff Amendment (Tobacco) Bill 2010—is proposed as one of the recommendations of the Preventative Health Taskforce, which handed down its findings last September, and also of Australia’s Future Tax System Review. This will see a 25 per cent increase in the cost of cigarettes and tobacco products, aimed at producing the number of people who smoke. This is the first increase above inflation in the taxation on tobacco in over a decade. The expectation of the government is that this measure will increase revenue by $5 billion over four years. According to the World Health Organisation, tobacco is the second-highest cause of death in the world. It is responsible for about one in 10 adult deaths or five million deaths each year.

According to data in 2007 of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australia had one of the lowest smoking rates in the OECD with around 17 per cent of people aged 15 years and over smoking every day. However, Indigenous Australians are far more likely to smoke, with those in remote communities even more likely to do so. One in five Indigenous deaths is attributed to smoking—that is, 20 per cent of the Indigenous population. Higher rates of smoking can also be observed within lower socioeconomic communities and in other disadvantaged groups. The Taking preventative action report of the National Preventative Health Taskforce has identified that around 41 per cent of pregnant teenagers, 38 per cent of unemployed people, 34 per cent of people unable to work, 32 per cent of people with a mental illness, 78 per cent of male prisoners and 83 per cent of female prisoners are smokers. These are all groups where price increases for tobacco should have a real impact. As awareness of the negative impacts of smoking tobacco has increased, the proportion of people who smoke has inclined. Yet tobacco contains an addictive stimulant in the form of nicotine, which does mean that quitting smoking can be very difficult.

The decline in smoking rates in Australia, a fall of 40 per cent for men and 44 per cent for women, between 1989 and 2007 was among the biggest in the OECD. But, given that the total cost to Australian society of tobacco is estimated at $31½ billion each year, reducing the number of people who smoke and the quantities people smoke is vital. There has been a lot of discussion about what is the proudest part of Tony Abbott’s very successful record during his time in the health portfolio as part of the Howard government. This must rank as one of the most significant achievements of Tony Abbott as Minister for Health and Ageing. There were many other achievements: the increase from about $19½ billion a year that was spent on health when we came into government in 1996 to about $52 billion a year by 2007 and the record investment in public hospitals. Increasing the private health coverage from the low-30s per cent up to the mid-40s was I think one of Tony Abbott’s most successful achievements as health minister. Immunisation rates increased from 52 per cent up to 90 per cent—an amazing outcome for Tony Abbott as health minister. Tony Abbott increased PBS expenditure over that period and introduced reforms which put the PBS onto a sustainable path into the future, which was incredibly important with an ageing population. They are all significant events that Tony Abbott can be very proud of. People can understand that Tony Abbott, as opposition leader, has a proud track record not just as a health minister but also as a cabinet minister for about eight years in the Howard government. He is a person with experience. The fall in smoking rates over his term as health minister must rank as one of the highest of his achievements in that portfolio.

However, smoking is still the leading preventable cause of disease and premature death in our country, so considerably more work is needed to further reduce the rate of smoking. Australia does have a moderate tobacco price by international standards. Therefore, increases in the cost of cigarettes and tobacco products to bring Australia more in line with international pricing are not unreasonable. That is the reason the coalition first called on the government to increase the tobacco excise rate more than 12 months ago—not in reply to this budget but in reply to the one before that. We saw it as a legitimate means of trying to reduce the rate of smoking. Although it took the government some time to catch up, we have supported the measure proposed in this bill.

Increasing the cost of cigarettes and tobacco has proved to provide financial incentive for people to quit smoking, thereby reducing the long-term strain on the hospital and healthcare system. This coalition, when elected at the next election, will continue that commitment to the Australian people. We are genuine in our resolve to improve services in public hospitals and to improve the coverage of private health insurance beyond even the 10 million people who have private health insurance now in our country, because we want to ease the burden on our public system. We want to make sure that mums and dads who are waiting long periods of time in emergency departments in the early hours have better and faster access to health professionals. We want to make sure that we continue the great work of Tony Abbott when he was health minister so that we can improve health outcomes. We have some amazing statistics in this country when you contrast us to similar countries. We have something to be very proud of. We have a great number of graduating doctors coming through the system at the moment and I know, while some medical students have expressed concern about where they will be trained and where they will be doing their internships, these people have not just popped out at the two-year mark of the Rudd government. These are people who went to university because of new places created by Tony Abbott when he was health minister. So we want to make sure that, when the coalition is elected at the next election, we fix some of the mistakes that Labor has made in health.

There has been a waste of money in some areas in health. Putting GP superclinics alongside existing practices has caused great distress among doctors and practice nurses operating in those existing practices. What sense does it make to put millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money into a GP superclinic which sits alongside an existing practice, a practice that might be trying to help young people give up the habit of smoking or addressing the chronic disease that they might present with? Why would we put those surgeries under pressure and potentially have them close if a flood of those doctors go into the new GP superclinic when already there exists a viable practice?

There is a lot to be rectified. A lot of damage has been done not just to the health system but to the Australian economy in a very short period of time. This government has thrust our country into enormous debt. We started with $20 billion in the bank. This is a government that, instead of spending some of that money on health and instead of spending some of the stimulus package on health, decided to waste that money. That will make it more difficult for the coalition and indeed the next government to make the decisions about health that we want to, because we will have billions of dollars in interest each year to pay off Labor’s debt.

This is always the legacy of a Labor government. It always makes it hard to invest in health and the sorts of programs that we want to when we succeed a Labor government, because always Labor thrusts this country into debt. That is the Achilles heel that Labor brings to government. It is a burden that has now been thrust upon generations to come. It will take generations to pay Labor’s debt back, but the coalition is committed to doing it. We want to invest further in health at the same time as we manage the Australian economy responsibly. We support the bills. There is a lot more work that needs to be done in health. There needs to be a redirection of the investment in health. The coalition is the only party at this election that stands to serve the Australian people in getting better health outcomes for all Australians.