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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 1627

Senator BIRMINGHAM (8:56 PM) —In speaking on the Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 and the Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009, it is a pleasure to follow on from Senators Fifield and Humphries, who have made very strong contributions and presented very clear, relevant and practical information as to why this government measure is a flawed one. That is not to say that the issues that some believe are at the heart of this are not serious, because they are. The impacts of problem drinking are quite serious in our community. They may not necessarily be as widespread as is suggested by some who speak with great rhetorical flourish about the extent of those impacts but there are very real impacts and there are some very real chronic and acute harms that accumulate from the abuse of alcohol.

I acknowledge this as I have seen it firsthand across a range of communities, in my personal circumstances and in my past employment. I heard my friend and South Australian colleague Senator Bernardi put on the record his family background working in the hotel industry and owning and running hotels. I place on the record my professional background, having worked for the Australian Hotels Association and the Winemakers Federation of Australia. In those roles I personally have seen some of the impacts of alcohol abuse. I have been there in pubs and venues to see the types of acute harms that can accumulate when people choose to drink too much. I have travelled to Alice Springs and visited the liquor licensing officials there in a number of the hotels throughout that community. I have seen the perpetual cycle of abuse and it is indeed not only an acute level of abuse—that is, abuse that occurs on the day and the harms that flow from that—but it is also a chronic level of abuse.

But I come back to the word I used before: ‘choice’, meaning that people choose to drink. That does not mean that we should not try to educate them—try to ensure that they understand the harms that can flow from abuse of these products—but we need to understand that there is no simple government measure that will fix it or change it. It is a complex problem. When people do things that in many instances they know have the potential to lead to harm, they are doing so for a whole range of very complex factors that stretch way beyond their hip pockets. Unfortunately, the government’s approach seems to go nowhere beyond their hip pockets. That is the great failing in the approach that is being put forward here by the government.

There is a real issue to try to minimise the harms that flow from alcohol abuse, as from the abuse of all other licit and illicit substances. And those harms require clear, coordinated strategies and sound policies, not simply a one-issue press release taken off the shelf and sent out for want of a good Sunday news story—which, frankly, is where this came from. They actually require government to think a little harder about how it can shift a cultural issue, because that is what this is. It is a cultural issue that runs to personal choice and personal responsibility, and it requires greater policy insight than this government has shown in dealing with this issue to date. In looking at a simple measure like a tax measure, government needs to ask itself a number of questions. What cost is there to the introduction of this tax measure? At whose inconvenience? Who does it harm? In what manner will it be applied? Based on what evidence is it to be applied to ensure that whatever its aims are they will be achieved?

Quite often, for governments, imposing a new tax measure or a tax hike is simply all about raising new revenue. In fact, that is usually—almost 100 per cent of the time—the reason governments adjust taxation upwards. But, even then, they need to question themselves as to the evidence on which they are basing that, because sometimes when you raise taxes you actually end up collecting less revenue. It has been known to occur that you can cripple an economy by raising taxes too far and therefore see less revenue raised. Or, as in this instance, you can predict a certain level of government revenue that might stem from your tax rise and discover some nine months down the track that it is only going to be about half that, at least for the category in question. Those are all questions that this government appears to have failed to ask itself before deciding to drop that great story to the Sunday papers—quietly, on a Saturday, under an embargo—to ensure that it got fabulous headlines about the ‘war on binge drinking’ across the national media one Sunday morning back in April last year.

In considering the alcohol debate we need to consider that there are different types of drinkers. There are those who are responsible drinkers and there are those who suffer from drinking at levels that put themselves at risk of chronic or acute harm. The overwhelming majority of people, though, are responsible drinkers. We see all sorts of statistics presented from time to time to support arguments about what proportion of people are or are not drinking at levels of risk. And we have seen just recently the National Health and Medical Research Council reduce the level for so-called safe consumption to just two standard drinks a day. When it is reduced to that level, a large proportion of Australians—unsurprisingly, I would contest—fall into the at-risk category, because if that is your definition then you will see lots of people pushing that two-drink limit. I suspect that most people in this chamber and most people in any other workplace, if they are being honest, would acknowledge that that is a frequent occurrence, if not in their life then in the lives of those around them. But it is a frequent occurrence that does not lead to any immediate acute harms in 99.9 per cent of instances and, indeed, does not lead to any necessarily long-term chronic harms in the vast majority of instances either. So they are not the ones that you should be targeting.

The ones that quite clearly need to be targeted are a much smaller proportion of the population who drink to great excess. What is that great excess? It seems a little hard to get to the bottom of that when it comes to government policy making. If I refer to the government’s work and the work of the Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs in its majority report, I see references to binge drinking, to risky drinking and to high-risk drinking. But can I find a definition at all as to who we are trying to target and what volume of consumption enters that risky zone, that binge zone, so that it is worthy of and warrants this punitive type of tax based clampdown? I cannot find it anywhere. The government has launched a war on binge drinking through the Sunday papers, yet it does not seem to know exactly what its target is. I contend that, if a government wants to launch a war, it should know what its target is and it should know what it is aiming to seriously and genuinely achieve.

Today, as Senator Fifield mentioned, is the fourth to last day the government have on which they can deal with this issue. I referred before to this being a Sunday paper announcement back in April last year. This matter was gazetted on 27 April 2008. Here we are with just three more sitting days to go and the government finally bring it to this place for debate. What have they been hiding from? What have they been avoiding? Why haven’t they had the courage to come in here and debate this before? Is it that they were hoping to acquire the evidence? As Senator Cormann and many others have so clearly detailed, they have failed miserably if that was their objective. Indeed, Senator Fifield highlighted that the concluding remarks in the majority report of the community affairs committee inquiry into this bill demonstrated—and this is according to government senators—that the evidence was ‘partial and inconclusive’ and said:

… it was not possible to definitively conclude that this reduction in consumption had resulted in a reduction in levels of risky and high-risk consumption of RTDs …

Well, what have they been waiting for then? Surely, if they have waited since April last year to bring this on, one would have expected the government to have generated some evidence to back up their claims that this measure is one worth pursuing. Instead, we have government senators acknowledging that, basically, there is no evidence; there is no relevant data.

It is backed up, of course, by many of the witnesses who appeared before the Senate inquiry into this matter. I give particular credit to Senator Cormann for his work in the minority report of Liberal senators tabled with the overall report into these bills. Senator Cormann and Senator Colbeck have worked hard to prosecute the argument that this is a flawed tax measure introduced by a government desperate for cash, not the health measure they present it as. Senator Cormann presents in this report, along with Senator Humphries and me, some 10 witnesses—not one, two or three but 10 witnesses—all of whom highlight the paucity of evidence when it comes to the impact of this tax measure.

We have Professor Ian Webster, probably a lifetime worker in the alcohol sector and Chairman of the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation—indeed, a foundation that was established from another failed attempt by a government to increase excise. Professor Webster says:

I haven’t seen any evidence which has found a decline in alcohol problems in the community since it was introduced.

He has not seen any evidence, as of course the government senators have not. We have the AMA advocating that ‘data collection to obtain that evidence is required’. They are not the only ones advocating that because, as Senator Fifield again highlighted, it was the first recommendation of the government’s majority report. They have had since April last year to collect the data, but it ends up as the first recommendation of their report. You do have to wonder what they have been doing and, if they cannot present a compelling case today for the passage of this legislation, then the Senate should have serious misgivings about allowing its passage at all.

By focusing on just one alcohol product there is a balloon effect. It is one of those instances where you squeeze at one end and it pops up at the other end. That has been quite evident here. The opposition and others have been saying that this would be the case from day one, from 27 April last year. We have been very consistent on the point that there would be substitution—in some instances potentially from licit substances to illicit substances, but certainly substitution amongst the alcohol categories. Whilst the government was very reluctant, it seemed, to reveal terribly much data at all in response to Senator Cormann’s probing questions, we do have the Australian Taxation Office clearance data which shows a 17 per cent increase in full-strength spirits sales since the alcopops tax hike was whacked on, and a 6.1 per cent increase in beer consumption. So certainly the balloon effect is well and truly at play here. They have tried to squeeze and hold RTD sales, but it has popped out elsewhere. Senator Fifield and Senator Humphries and others made very good contributions outlining the impact of that especially when it comes to full-strength spirits. If you drive up the sales of full-strength spirits, you drive up the risk that goes with that. And that risk is very real. It is the risk that comes with taking home or taking to a party a bottle of spirits containing 20 or 30 standard drinks and usually taking it along with one mixer bottle containing 1.25 or two litres of soft drink to go with it. You know that if the whole lot gets consumed in one hit—

Senator McLucas —Where is your evidence for that?

Senator BIRMINGHAM —My evidence, Senator McLucas, is the ATO clearance data that I just cited, showing a 17 per cent increase in the sale of full-strength spirits. Senator McLucas, if you wish to take that on, I can line up hotelier after hotelier who will tell you what the consumption trend is and what the purchasing trend is. It is one bottle of spirits in one hand and one bottle of soft drink in the other, and that is what they walk away with. There is a serious risk if that is their drinking pattern.

I do not disagree that there are some who abuse every category of alcohol including RTDs, and I said at the beginning that we need to work out serious ways to tackle those issues. But, if you really want to focus on tackling that issue, be careful not to squeeze the balloon and create an even bigger problem elsewhere. That is a serious risk that exists there.

In the short time that is left I wish to touch on one specific issue. The government introduced the RTD alcopops tax and then discovered over the following nine months or so that a whole lot of ‘malternatives’, as they have come to be known, have sprung up. We saw beer based and wine based alcopops appear in the marketplace, so a couple of weeks ago Minister Roxon rushed some changes into the House of Representatives to try to cover off those loopholes. It makes some level of sense to try to cover off those loopholes; it highlights the flaw in the government’s approach. It is a bit like trying to plug holes in a dyke: once you get one, another leak springs up and you are continually trying to catch up with yourself.

But there have been some unintended consequences as a result of the government’s moves to broaden the definition. One of those relates particularly to constituents of mine in South Australia—the Angove Family Winemakers. Angove’s have the licensing rights to produce Stones Ginger Beer in Australia. Ginger beer is not exactly a huge-volume product. It is not a product that I sample on a terribly regular basis, I have to say, but nonetheless it is a very traditional product that has been made since the 1700s. Angove Family Winemakers, a wine business in the Riverland in South Australia that has been producing beverages for seven generations now, decided that it would take on as a family business the Australian licence for Stones Ginger Beer. They had a history of making other Stones products as well in this country.

Unfortunately, they discovered, after no consultation with them or broader consultation around the place, that the government’s changes to the definition of beer shifts Stones Ginger Beer from being taxed as a beer to now being taxed as an RTD. That is very disappointing for them. In making their beer they strove to make sure that it would fit the definition of beer. They wanted to be able to call it a beer, they wanted to be able to market it as a beer and they wanted to make sure that it fitted the right definition. They could have made it from wine based spirit and it would have been taxed less, but they chose not to because they wanted to make the real deal and be authentic about it. Now they are an unfortunate victim of these changes by the government.

I note in the majority report—and I give full credit to Senator Claire Moore, the chair of the committee, for her approach to this issue—that the government has suggested that Treasury will look at this issue. Looking at it will not be good enough. My concluding questions to the government in this speech on the second reading, which I will pursue in the committee stage, are these. Will you move amendments to fix the definition of beer to protect this traditional beer product as the definition of traditional wine products has been fixed? Will you look after this small business, this small niche beer product, just as other niche products in the wine area have been looked after? Will you ensure that your unfair measures that have now been whacked on a small South Australian family business are lifted—at least from them—should you manage to convince the Senate to pass this bill? Though I hope you do not pass this bill, I do urge you as the government to consider this issue. (Time expired)