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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 1605

Senator BERNARDI (6:20 PM) —In rising to speak on the Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 and the Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009, I would like to let the Senate and anyone listening know that I come from a family that has had a great deal of interest in the wine and liquor industry. My father has been a publican and a restaurateur; I have been involved in hotels, as have my brothers and my mother—and quite proudly so.

As a publican, I have seen—and I am sure other publicans have seen—all manner of behaviour as a result of inebriation. On occasions, it may be fair to say that some of us have been affected in one way, shape or form in regard to that. However, I do not believe, frankly, that a great deal has changed over the last decade—certainly since my first exposure to the hotel industry. People will, unfortunately and regrettably, sometimes overstep the mark in regard to the consumption of alcohol. Sometimes this is indeed intended. They go out and deliberately set out to become inebriated. They think that it is going to enhance their good time. Others on occasion simply have one drink too many and, appropriately, find themselves perhaps unable to function at their full capacity.

Society has done a great deal and taken a great many steps to ensure that a great many of the harmful effects of overconsumption of alcohol have had their impacts reduced within the community. We have had anti-drink-driving advertisements and laws in place. That has certainly changed people’s behaviour for the better. I regret, as I am sure all senators do, that so many people continue to flout the law in this regard. But to suggest that there has been an increase in binge drinking goes against every instinct in me and every piece of anecdotal evidence that I have seen accumulated over the course of my 40-odd years of life. There are lots of young people who experiment with alcohol. Some will see that as a coming of age while others will regard it as a dereliction of responsibility, either by parents or society as a whole.

To increase the tax regime on a single alcohol product or a variety of alcohol products in the same category is, I think, addressing the wrong problem. If you have an epidemic of binge drinking, the problem concerns how it is that children get access to alcohol when they should not have access to it. Are hoteliers or publicans flouting the law by selling alcohol to children or are children just being as ingenious as they always have been in obtaining what they can, where they can, whether it be when their parents are out or from a compliant adult or from one of their friends who looks somewhat older than they are? There are any number of reasons that people can obtain alcohol when they are not entitled to it.

It is really gilding the lily to suggest that simply because someone has a drink that happens to be a whisky and coke in a can, or any other ready-to-drink beverage, it is somehow a greater crime or a greater problem than if they were to drink a beer, which has a similar or the same alcohol content. It gilds the lily to such an extent that, instead of addressing what is, I think, a serious issue in our community—notwithstanding the fact that I do not think it is any greater than it has been over past decades—it is being dressed up as a health issue when the government is really just trying to extract billions of dollars from the Australian community. I think that is wrong.

I say that in all genuineness because I do not believe that the Australian people need any more taxation, quite frankly. We have to remember where this tax was conceived. This tax was conceived when there was a war on inflation and we had to slow the economy. We had to slow the economy because inflation was the genie that was out of the bottle—this was less than 12 months ago. This shows how clearly the Rudd government have misread the Australian economy. They dressed this new tax up and said, ‘We are going to save young people from themselves.’ These are the same people who handed out billions of dollars in their cash splash and said that it was okay for people to spend that money on poker machines or drinking or on any other vice they liked. It did not matter as long as it was spent. And yet there are probably millions of Australians who have been penalised by this illegitimate taxation increase because it has been dressed up as a measure to stop binge drinking.

I will put my hand up and say, ‘I am very happy to have a ready-to-drink can, because it is convenient.’ It means that if I am going out to a barbecue and I do not feel like having a beer or a wine I can have a premixed drink and know exactly what dose of alcohol I will be getting. I am not alone. Many people in our community find this to be a convenient way of enjoying alcohol responsibly. Sure, some people choose to abuse it by consuming too much. But people choose to have too much of any number of products they consume, including alcohol, no matter whether they buy a carton of beer instead of a six-pack of beer or a flagon of port instead of enjoying a more moderated dosage. If people want to get stonkered, they will. If that is what they want to do, that is what they will do. The way to change that behaviour is to educate the person, to help them through if they have a problem with it and to make sure that we change the attitudes of society towards the acceptability of it. That is part of the deal that we have got to do.

The problem with this measure is that it is just taxation; it is a pecuniary taxation measure that targets everyone who enjoys reasonable consumption of alcohol. It does not address the fundamental root cause of the problem of alcohol abuse, which may be self-esteem, or society’s ideals or other issues. It does nothing to redress the consumption of alcohol. I do not just say that anecdotally, because in the Senate committee report on ready-to-drink alcohol beverages—and I have to say it was excellent, particularly the report at the back from the coalition senators—the Australian Drug Foundation presented some data that was obtained by ACNielsen. I am advised that this is the most comprehensive and up-to-date data on overall packaged alcohol sales in Australia—this is off-licence consumption where you go to a bottle shop and take away the drink of your choice. In the month on month figures from January 2008 to January 2009 there was an increase in consumption of nine million standard drinks. Yes, there was a change in the consumption of ready-to-drink beverages—of course there was because they had just put the price up enormously. And people said: ‘I do not want to drink them. I cannot afford to spend $30 on a six-pack of ready-to-drinks, so what will it do? I will buy some beer or I will buy a big bottle of spirits and mix them myself.’

Where is the common sense in this debate? If you put up the tax on one product it simply transfers the consumption to other products or, indeed, to other substances. The increase in monthly consumption of standard drinks was nine million and that data says it all to me. I am approaching this from a position of realism, because I have lived and worked in the hotel industry and I have been exposed to it for all its good and all its bad. I will not stand by and listen to the people in the liquor industry being condemned by the other side of this chamber when its products are enjoyed responsibly by so many people. The people involved in the ready-to-drinks industry and the spirits industry are defending their own interests, and the interests of people who responsibly enjoy ready-to-drinks or spirits, and they have exposed that this is nothing more than a taxation grab that is not going to make a meaningful difference to alcohol consumption or binge drinking in this country. These industry representatives have been scathingly condemned for that by the other side of this chamber. Anyone would think we were dealing with an illegal product. We are not. We are dealing with a legal product that is enjoyed responsibly and the other side simply want to tax it to fight their war on inflation—a war that we know was phoney and unnecessary.

Sitting suspended from 6.30 pm to 7.30 pm

Senator BERNARDI —When you are giving a speech in a debate and your contribution is broken as mine has been by the suspension of the sitting, you are able to reflect on what you have already said. In case I stated it incorrectly, I want to reaffirm to the Senate the point I was making about the increase in net alcohol consumption in terms of standard drinks. I referred to a nine million increase in standard drinks year on year. What I want to clarify, to make sure it is understood, is that this is a nine million standard drinks increase in one month alone compared with the figure for the same month in the previous year. So, in January 2009, nine million more standard drinks were consumed than in January 2008. I am repeating this so that, firstly, the Senate understands exactly what I meant and, secondly, to highlight once again the folly of this tax on one sector of the alcohol industry. It has simply translated consumption from one product to another. The social engineers are well at work within the Labor Party, dressing up this tax and saying they are saving young people from binge drinking. Really, they are not saving people from binge drinking; they are transferring binge drinking or any alcohol consumption into other products and penalising, unfairly, millions of Australians. And they did it because they desperately wanted to grab some additional revenue to slow the economy when growing an economy was evil and was going to be the recipe for doom because the inflation genie was out of the bottle, as Mr Rudd said. We know that was a myth. We know that was a hoax. We know that this government clearly has no idea and no capacity to manage an economy. But, gosh, it knows how to tax.

Ever helpful, I would like to suggest that if the government were serious about redesigning the tax system within the alcohol industry it would look to a more measured effect. It would not target a particular product that, in this case, has about the same alcohol content as a standard beer. It would not target a product that gave people a measured dose. If it were serious about this it would ensure that all products containing alcohol were taxed according to their alcohol content. I know that any number of people would disagree with that, but the fact is it makes sense—and, if we cannot bring common sense into this equation, what can we do? We have to have common sense in how we write and interpret legislation. To those who argue against it, I say: a beer with five per cent alcohol is the same as a ready-to-drink with five per cent alcohol or another beverage with five per cent alcohol. They are the same: they have the same impact and effect on people—unless I have missed something here about alcohol affecting people differently depending on what it has been mixed with.

So we have a refusal by this government to take on any serious reform. I understand there are sensitivities around introducing a volumetric based taxation system into the alcohol industry because it will affect a number of key sectors, including the wine industry. But let me put some cards on the table here. I am a great supporter of the wine industry and I think Australia’s future in wine lies in the upper, premium end of the market where we can add good value because we have outstanding grapes. If we are going to continue to compete in the lower, bottom end of the market I think we are going to get swamped. I say that not because I wish it to happen but because we see overseas countries that are lower cost producers and sometimes do not have the same resource restrictions that we do, most prevalently through government inaction on the Murray River which is reducing some of our wine grape growers to such meagre allocations of water that they cannot adequately grow grapes.

Rather than tackle that issue and take a sensible and measured approach and say, ‘Let’s look at how we can make a transition in this regard,’ this government says, ‘No, if it is something with sugar in it which is in a can that you have to open to drink, and if it contains alcohol, then it is the evil causing our kids to binge drink.’ It ignores the millions of people who drink responsibly in this country. And, as I said, it has been proved that the government’s approach has not decreased consumption of alcohol at all. I quoted the figures before, showing that nine million more standard drinks were consumed in January 2009 than in January 2008. Those figures are not in dispute; they are from a reliable dataset that is incorporated in the outstanding report that Senator Cormann and others have contributed to. If we accept that this bill has had no reasonable intended effect, and we say it is flawed and is no longer about slowing the economy—although the Rudd government is doing an enormously good job at slowing the economy and decimating families across the country—then what is it about? It is about cash. It is about Labor reverting to type: ‘We want your money. We think we are better equipped to decide how it is spent. We think we are better than you at deciding what is good for you.’ That is the theme of this government, except when it wants to throw billions of dollars out in a cash splash and says to people: ‘Yeah, you can go out and play the pokies and drink to your heart’s content. It doesn’t matter what you do with your money as long as you spend it.’ That is the ill-considered policy contradiction of this government.

One question that has to be asked now is: if this revenue measure is not endorsed by the Senate, what happens to the $290 million from this tax that has already been collected? Frankly, there are any number of ideas. The alarmists will tell you that the alcohol industry wants it back and is demanding it back. The people in this industry have been characterised in the most vile and vicious way by those who are seeking to make a political point. It is really quite grubby when a legal industry is targeted so horribly in the name of defending a very flawed policy.

The coalition wants to see the $290 million in tax spent in a positive way that will benefit the community—through education. That is why I support the amendment moved by Senator Cormann in the second reading debate today. It is very important that we make a positive contribution to the community, particularly when there has been such a stuff-up by the government, who have lost control of their own legislative agenda. It has been such a stuff-up because it has not had a meaningful impact on binge drinking; there is no evidence to support their goals, and no anecdotal evidence; and it does not pass the common-sense test.

If a bill does not pass any of those tests, what should we be doing? We should be making the best out of it. Let us make the best out of this. Throw this silly legislation in the bin or, if you cannot do that, amend it so that the $290 million or so is spent in a positive manner. Will the Labor Party do that? It is a challenge to the Labor Party. It is going to be a challenge to the other senators in the chamber as well to see whether they will accept such a positive and inspired amendment as was moved by Senator Cormann.

We have to get serious about this. No more monkeying around. The Australian people have been sold a pup by this government. This government said that there is not a sliver of economic daylight between them and the economic conservatives. We now know that that is not true. This government said it would stand up for working families. We now know that that is not true, because there are fewer working families, and the working families who enjoyed a ready-to-drink beverage can no longer do so at a reasonable cost.

This government has been making slipshod decisions on the run, desperate for an agenda. It found an agenda and this agenda is absolutely flawed. It tried to slow the economy. It was so successful at slowing the economy that the economy is now teetering on recession. These are the issues that the Australian people are concerned about. They want to know that their standard of living is not going to be jeopardised and they do not want these hidden, grubby, low, taxation measures. And I say ‘low’ taxation measures because that is the scale at which they were slipped in, not because they are low-tax measures. They are low because the government slipped them in under the guise of worthwhile policy. They were slipped in under the guise of health measures, which has proved to be ineffective. This government is spinning out of control and this legislation needs to be rejected.