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Monday, 16 March 2009
Page: 1631


Senator COLBECK (9:16 PM) —I rise to make a contribution to the debate on Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 and the Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009, which, I must say, has been a long time coming. I recall asking Senator Conroy in this place in question time—I think it was last June—where the legislation was and whether drafting instructions had been made for this piece of legislation. Unfortunately, Senator Conroy did not know. It was quite embarrassing for him that he could not answer the question. It was a topical issue. The government had been telling us ‘to get out of the way and pass the legislation’ and had been goading us in public by saying that we were ruining this massive surplus that they generated, which has now disappeared into a significant deficit I might note. But they were telling us ‘to get out of the way and pass the legislation’. So we thought: ‘Let’s ask where the legislation is.’ Unfortunately, when we asked Senator Conroy, he did not know where it was. We happened to ask him the same question the next day. You would have thought that a minister who was prepared for this debate, having been asked a question and deciding to take it on notice, might have done some preparation and found out where the legislation was and what the drafting instructions were. But, unfortunately for Senator Conroy, he still did not know, which gives a demonstration of the complete disarray that the government has been in with respect to this measure.

It has been poorly conceived, poorly designed and poorly handled all the way through. There has been a continuation of selective quoting of statistics to try to put the government’s perspective. It has been quite dishonest the way that the government has managed this, even from the perspective of the figures that it wanted to quote as to the revenue that would be raised from this measure when it first started. I might note that I do not think the Department of Health and Ageing was even consulted on the calculations of this; it was done between Treasury and Customs. The first figure that came out was about $2 billion. That was the first figure that we were told. Before long, that number had been raised to $3.1 billion that was going to be raised by the measure. At that stage, the industry told us that that was above their projections for the growth in RTDs without the new tax. So, clearly, the government had no idea what it was doing. It had made no consultations as to the effects of the measure that it was proposing and it was just hoping that it got it right.

Close to 12 months on, here we have the legislation. We had asked about it, we had been told the drafting instructions had been issued as far back as June last year, and here we have the process just starting. One thing I can say has been a feature of this whole process over the last 12 months is that I do not think that anyone genuinely believes the government in any of the arguments that it has put up. I know that there are some people who are desperate to believe what the government is saying and there are people out there who have genuine concerns about the impacts of alcohol in our society. I know that that is shared on both sides of the chamber, having been through several Senate inquiries myself and having watched the work of the Senate committee in its most recent inquiry. There are people who are desperate to have this issue dealt with in a genuine way by the government, and they were over the moon that their issue had been recognised. That was their perspective.

I went to the drug and alcohol awards in Melbourne one Friday night last year because, as the then shadow parliamentary secretary for health, I considered that it was one of my responsibilities to attend a function of that nature but also, with children in the demographic that this measure was supposedly targeted at, I was interested in talking to the representatives who were there. I might note that this was one of Kevin Rudd’s beachhead issues and this was one of the big deals that he was running with through the election campaign. It obviously showed through in their polling and the focus group work. It was one of those beachhead issues, and he was going to declare war on binge drinking. Despite all that, nobody from the health portfolio of the government was in attendance. They sent a separate parliamentary secretary. I think Mr Shorten was the parliamentary secretary who attended and who took great delight in getting up on the stage to make presentations at one stage in the evening and telling the opposition ‘to get out of the government’s way and pass the legislation’. Poor old Mr Shorten did not know that the legislation had not been prepared yet. He was concerned that we were standing in the way of a tax measure. There is no doubt that this was dreamt up in Kevin Rudd’s office as a tax measure. They needed money, they knew they needed money, they were saying that they were going to cut spending but in effect what they did was put in a huge tax slug at the last election and this was part of it.

They tried to dress it up as a health measure. But, as I said, nobody believes them. My local paper said at the time, ‘Mr Rudd, this policy is plain wrong.’ They put that on the front page of their newspaper. What did they say back in May last year? ‘Our kids turned to the hard stuff.’ We have heard previous speakers tell us that that is what is happening—there is a significant increase in the sales of full-strength spirits. The government tried to play that down. They tried to, again, selectively quote figures to say that the combined sale of RTDs and spirits is down—and it probably is. But they took no account of substitution when they put their figures together. They did not even look at that. That was not part of the process that they considered. Again, it demonstrates how poorly this whole issue has been handled right from day one. As I said, it has been poorly conceived, poorly designed and most certainly poorly handled.

The government, at the time of announcing this measure, promised to spend a large slice of the revenue on a new national health preventative program. The revenue was then estimated to be $2 billion over three or four years. As we have already discussed, the figure has gone up as far as $3.1 billion and now is down to $1.6 billion after a year of getting some real data and doing some real work on how this process might work. A large slice of the extra revenue raised by the higher excise was to be poured into a new national health preventative program. We are yet to see the results of that. I would be interested to see what the crossbenches do with respect to this. I know that during our initial Senate inquiries one of their real concerns was to see what the investment by the government into these programs was. Those in that social sector who are concerned about the effect of alcohol want to see what large slice of this excise increase is going to be spent. We have heard nothing of that. That has completely disappeared from the government rhetoric—again, a promise was made as part of the process, but where is it?

They are busily trying to palm off other measures and other spending as being part of this process. They cancelled a program the previous government had in place and rebadged it. It took them until late last year to get their advertising program underway—rebadging about $57 million that came out of the previous government’s advertising budget, which they criticised when they were in opposition. They criticised those advertising programs, but they rebadged them. Then when they brought their advertising out it was not the most effective. It was another group who came out with an advertising program that actually followed the research about the most positive influence on kids who were consuming alcohol—family. Again, the government have put absolutely no resource towards programs that will assist families deal with their drug and alcohol issues. There has been no resource allocated out of this large slice that they promised of the $2 billion or $3.1 billion or $1.6 billion. There has been no contribution.

It was the ‘Children See Children Do’ alcohol advertisements on television that were the most effective. They are great ads. The father at the barbecue asks the young son to go and get him a beer from the fridge. As the son comes back from the fridge to the barbecue he morphs into a father who asks his young son. It is a very powerful message. Yes, we have a significant cultural issue with alcohol in this country. I do not think there is anyone on any side of the debate who would disagree with that.

During my time on the Senate inquiry it was a pleasure to work with members across all parties. This issue has been dealt with very seriously and very genuinely. There were doubts expressed all the way through about this measure. It is quite interesting to note that there is no definitive evidence presented in the government report to say that this measure has been effective. Yet the dissenting report demonstrates that witness after witness stated that there is absolutely no evidence that this measure has had an impact on harmful drinking—something that the government members would not, or perhaps could not, put into their report.

It is really a pity that the government have taken the approach that they have on this. I said before that there has been a process of selectively quoting statistics. We saw that with the figures on young girls who had a preference for use of RTDs. The government quoted figures—I think it was from 14 per cent up to 67 per cent—for the growth. They did not mention that it had gone past that and come back. They just quoted the gross numbers. They did not say that the number of young girls in the age group they were talking about who were drinking had reduced. Even though it was slight, there had been a reduction. They picked the most emotive, the most selective, statistics and gave them to their backbenchers to come in here and parrot out in their presentations, to dutifully speak off their speaking notes and selectively quote statistics provided by the minister’s office. And yet those who have been to the committee hearings, listened to the evidence and been bombarded with the statistics from all sides—those who have been through that process—know that what the government have been trying to tell us through this debate and the selective quoting of statistics is not right. That is why nobody believes them.

As I have said, there are people who desperately want to believe them, because there are people who are desperately passionate about this issue. Anyone who has seen their kids or other kids in a really sick state through the consumption of alcohol would be passionate about this. But the government has not made a case for the parliament to pass this legislation. If you look at the other minority reports, they continue to have doubts about the veracity of this measure.

In fact, in my local paper there was even a report about the government’s youth delegates to the United Nations. These two young people had travelled all over Australia. They had been all over the country. And one of the issues that they were taking to the UN, to represent this country, was how ridiculous this measure was and how it would not be effective. The kids know. They know how to effectively get around this measure. And I am sure that in time, when the government actually decide to release the figures properly, we will see that. I recall seeing an answer to a question on notice given to Senator Cormann that this information is not in the public domain. The government actually tried to suppress the real data as a part of this process so that they could continue to run their selective arguments in the media and pretend that this was a measure that was going to work.

As we have seen through the committee reports—three inquiries now—there is no evidence that this will work. The government did not take into account issues such as the transfer effect. I think Senator Birmingham’s balloon analogy puts it perfectly: if you squeeze a balloon in one area, it is going to pop out in another area. It is quite clear that there is a redistribution in the consumption of alcohol. I can tell you, I have seen it among the young people that I know. They have moved from RTDs to wine and back to beer. They will find a way. They know what their budgets are and they will find a way to get around it. Most disturbingly was the suggestion by one young person I know that, if the government keep this up, there is an easy way out: ‘For 30 bucks I can get a pill’—probably less, for all I know, but that was the comment that was made to me—‘It’s cheaper, it’ll last longer and I don’t have to worry about all the hangover in the morning.’ That was the most frightening—


Senator McLucas —You be very careful there.


Senator COLBECK —I am being very careful, Senator. But that was a comment that was made to me by a young person in respect of your measure.


Senator McLucas —Well, don’t prosecute it in here.


Senator COLBECK —They said to me, ‘We’re not stupid; we know how to deal with this.’ And it worried the hell out of me, I can promise you, because that is the last thing I would want to see. That is why I want to see this measure dealt with properly by the government—not with dishonest numbers, not with selective quoting of figures like you have done over the last 12 months, not with a completely dishonest approach to this legislation. Don’t come in here telling me you have been genuine about this—it was a tax measure dressed up as a health measure!


Senator Cormann —They didn’t even talk to the health department.


Senator COLBECK —They didn’t even talk to the health department when it was being designed. You cannot come in here and tell me that this was a genuine process. As I said at the outset, this was poorly conceived, it was poorly designed and it is most assuredly being poorly handled—and the Senate should not pass this legislation.