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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 1533

Senator FIELDING (Leader of the Family First Party) (1:31 PM) —Australia is at a crossroads and we as a parliament must make a decision: do we support the government’s attempts to hide behind a blatant tax grab with this Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 and related bill? We all know the alcopops tax is just a revenue raiser. Some believe it goes a small way to changing the binge-drinking habits of Australians, but does it do enough? Back in September 2007 Family First introduced a bill called the Alcohol Toll Reduction Bill. It was quite clear, quite specific, in its three-pronged approach. One part was to do with having health warning labels on all alcohol products. The second part was to look at advertising restrictions. The third part was to look at getting alcohol ads out of industry hands and into the hands of a regulatory body. Those three things would do more than the alcopops tax.

In regard to having health warning labels on alcohol products, it would be such a simple thing to do. The government should stand up to the alcohol giants and enforce responsible drinking messages on alcohol products—all of them—through alcohol labels. Secondly, they should stand up to the alcohol giants and restrict alcohol advertising to late at night. There is a crazy exemption that allows alcohol ads to appear at any time of the day because of sports programming. There is already a regulation in place that says ads for alcohol should appear late at night, but it is blatantly disregarded for sports programming. Thirdly, the government should get the alcohol ads out of the hands of the industry and into the hands of a regulatory body to make sure we do not tie things like being successful in sport, being successful in life and being successful in relationships to alcohol.

The key thing is: do we want to make the tough decisions and expect more from our government in its efforts to tackle this terrible problem of binge drinking? I imagine all of us in this chamber know someone who has struggled with a drinking problem, who has found themselves in the grip of a problem that rules their life—a problem that often leaves their family devastated and unable to cope with the fallout. We have all read the reports on domestic violence and street violence. We all know the terrible consequences that alcohol bingeing has on our families and especially on our children. Today we have an opportunity to say that we want more than just tax on one product to address this growing problem.

In fact, we demand more. We demand it for those children who huddle frightened at night in their homes as an adult with a gutful of alcohol rages. We demand it for those black and blue, bruised women who turn to strangers at refuge centres for support and solace after a loved one has turned them into a punching bag. We demand it for those young men and women enjoying a night out who end up in the back of an ambulance after becoming the target of a drunken thug on our streets. We demand it for all of us in the community who fear the uncertainty of our streets, where a simple look or an accidental brush against a stranger can invoke an assault.

Family First acknowledge that the Rudd government has announced it will spend some money from the revenue raised by the alcopops tax on health measures. But we are disappointed that the health measures announced last week do little to tackle the epidemic of binge drinking. Let us have a look at them: healthy eating programs for children, bike paths and breastfeeding programs. All are worthy, but they are nothing to do with alcohol abuse.

Australia’s alcohol toll is going to be a hard problem to fix. It is going to take a long time and require an enormous amount of work and commitment to change the cultural mindset that exists in Australia about alcohol. We need to change the belief that the only way to enjoy yourself and have a good time out is to get blind drunk. We need to create a culture where it is no longer cool to egg on your mates to drink until they are stupid, because someone with a drinking problem is not funny. We need to create a culture where it is no longer okay to harass women, to get into fights, to vomit in the street and to damage property because ‘I was drunk and I didn’t know what I was doing’.

Victoria’s new chief commissioner, Simon Overland, said on his appointment to the role that the biggest drug and social problem facing Victoria is alcohol abuse. He said:

It’s an enormous driver of the road toll, it’s a factor in family violence, it’s a factor in sexual assault, so alcohol is the most problematic drug in our community.

Like Chief Commissioner Overland, I am not a wowser and I enjoy a drink responsibly. But this tax does nothing to help those who do not drink responsibly, and that is why this government must do more. I applaud the comments by Chief Commissioner Overland that public drunkenness must become as hated by the community as much as drink driving is today.

We also know there is a big link between alcohol advertising and sport. Alcohol companies spend over $40 million a year on advertising during sports programs, and it is not because they like to watch sport. It is because, as Fosters spokesman Troy Hay said, ‘Sport is popular and it’s a way of us getting our brands in front of people.’ All of us here understand that business is business, but this parliament many years ago made a decision about restricting advertising of alcohol on television to programs after 8.30 pm. That decision was taken because others before us who came here to determine laws for Australia realised that unrestricted advertising of alcohol on television was causing harm. They understood that unrestricted advertising of alcohol was targeted at vulnerable teenagers and children and that restrictions should apply. But, unfortunately, a lifeline was given to alcohol companies with a loophole allowing alcohol advertising to be broadcast during sporting programs. This loophole allows ads promoting alcohol to be shown on Australian television at any time of the day, so long as it is during a sporting program. Research shows that one in three Australian kids under the age of 12 has seen these ads. Research shows that 72 per cent of Australians want alcohol advertising restricted until after 9.30 pm. That is almost three-quarters of the Australian population who want these ads stopped. Why is the government not listening to their demands? The government refuses to stand up to the alcohol giants and trots out the tired argument that sporting programs would not survive without the dollars pumped into them by the alcohol companies. That is the same old argument that was used decades ago when the push to get tobacco advertising off our screens began. The argument was that without the tobacco dollar sport would crumble. It clearly has not, and it will not if alcohol ads are banned.

Alcohol companies spend $40 million on alcohol advertising, but ordinary Australians have to fork out $15.3 billion to clean up the mess that binge drinking and alcohol abuse create in Australia. Those who are pushing for this tax to go through can spin it any way they like, but the facts are that alcohol related admissions to Victorian hospital emergency rooms have risen dramatically in the last decade. They have risen five per cent for males but, more disturbingly, they have jumped 10 per cent for women. Alcohol causes 4,300 deaths each year. More than half a million abuse cases are directly related to alcohol. Alcohol factors in one in five road deaths. And alcohol accounts for 40 per cent of police work in Victoria.

As I said before, Australia’s alcohol toll is not an easy problem to fix. Research shows that young people care about their friends and are often concerned about their drinking habits, but they do not know how to help them, how to raise difficult topics with them. Health warning labels on alcohol products would open the door to those discussions. Health warning labels give people the information that the choices they are making when it comes to drinking alcohol should be thoroughly considered because drinking too much has consequences. We are not talking about horrific, graphic labels; we are talking about the first step on the long road to changing the mindset of binge drinking within our society.

I think it is time we did so much more to help people struggling with this problem and to give hope to those families and communities dealing with the terrible fallout from binge drinking and alcohol abuse. This government must take real steps to change the culture. It must put health warnings on alcohol products with effective key messages warning of the damage excessive alcohol consumption can cause. It must do the hard yards and shut down the loophole that allows alcohol advertising on television during sports programming. It must stand up to the alcohol industry and govern for those 72 per cent of Australians who want these ads gone from sporting programs.

Today we have an opportunity in this chamber to improve Australia beyond measure. I urge those in this chamber to say that no longer will our society be tarnished by a culture of binge drinking and no longer will getting blind drunk be used as an excuse for bad behaviour. We must listen to those we answer to, the men and women of Australia, and act to create a better society for our children, a culture where alcohol fuelled violence and abuse can no longer threaten our communities.