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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 4865


Senator BIRMINGHAM (12:38 PM) —Sometimes this place has a tendency to feel a little bit like groundhog day. Today is one of those instances, not just because we started the day, for the third day in a row, with the CPRS legislation but because we find ourselves back here once again today debating a flawed piece of government legislation that the Senate has already dealt with appropriately, by knocking it back at that stage. It is unfortunate that we are here again looking at this government’s alcopops bills, the Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 [No. 2] and the Customs Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 [No. 2], which quite clearly are nothing more than a tax grab. It is disappointing to be back here again having to do this, because this is a narrow measure—a narrow measure that really does not do what the government claims in terms of striking at the heart of abusive drinking or drinking at risky levels. Instead, it is about revenue, pure and simple.

My colleague Senator Cormann summed up the many arguments against this measure and the approach taken by the government, in great detail and very eloquently, and I do not wish to go over those arguments again. Suffice to say it is the case that it looks likely that this measure will pass. That, too, is disappointing. But what has changed since these bills were first considered by the Senate, of course, is the fiscal situation of the country. Frankly, we now know that the Rudd government need the money—pure and simple. They need the money, they need the cash, from this measure. That is why it is likely to pass, why the debate has changed and shifted in the months since the bills were first rejected. It is disappointing that Australia is in this position, thanks to the profligacy of the Rudd government—their excessive spending, the way they have thrown money away left, right and centre.

These bills are a sign to Australians of what they will face in the years to come, because the only way Labor’s debt will be paid back will be through higher taxes. Higher taxes on alcopops, higher taxes on every part of Australians’ lifestyle and work life, will result from the government’s debt binge, because that is the only way it will be paid off: higher taxes and/or lower services—less for health, less for education, less for the environment. That is the result that we are likely to see.

But I do not wish to dwell on the overall aspects of this legislation. I want to focus particularly on one part, which I raised in my speech last time, which I raised in the committee stage and which I raised with the government. It relates to the shoddy drafting of some of the changes that were meant to capture ‘malternatives’, things that snuck in as a result of the initial introduction of the alcopops tax and tried to take advantage of other tax rates for other alcohol products. In particular the issue I raised previously was that of ginger beer, representing a constituent of mine in South Australia, Angove’s Family Winemakers, who have been makers of ginger beer for a long time. They make the Stones Ginger Beer product, a product with a history dating back hundreds of years. It has been made to the same formula, with the same ingredients and processes since the 1700s. Ginger beer is not a product that is causing widespread alcohol abuse in Australia. I have heard nobody argue that it is. It is incredibly disappointing that the government has failed to listen to those concerns.

It is disappointing because this was raised in the committee report into this legislation back in March. The committee noted at the time that Minister Roxon, in introducing the amendments, indicated that the government was prepared to make further changes to the proposed definitions in the event that any unintended consequences were identified. The Department of the Treasury confirmed in its appearance before the committee that it would consider the particular issues raised by Angove’s Family Winemakers. The committee went on to express its belief that, should there be any further amendments to the new definitions, the government would be mindful of not creating further loopholes but would consider these concerns. The government-dominated committee seemed to believe that this issue could be addressed. Indeed, the supplementary explanatory memorandum made it clear that the amendments were not designed to affect the taxation of conventional products. Well, nothing is more conventional, nothing is more historical, than a product like ginger beer. So it is of great disappointment that the government has not listened to this concern. I raised it during the committee stage of the last debate with the then parliamentary secretary, Senator McLucas, on 17 March. Senator McLucas said:

We are in continuing discussions with your constituent … We understand that he is producing a product legitimately and it is a quality product. He is not trying to get through a loophole as some of the other producers have tried to do.

Sadly, those discussions have led nowhere fast. And Angove’s Family Winemakers finds the same bills presented, with the same terms, with the same catch that will ensure that they get caught out. That, frankly, is an unfair slug on an innocent producer of an innocent product. Whatever the merits or otherwise of the rest of this debate, I urge the government to pause, to take the time over the next few hours, during the likely pause in debate on this legislation, to think about bringing in some amendments to ensure that Angove’s are protected, to ensure that ginger beer is taxed as it should be—as a beer. That is the market it competes in. That is the market it is up against. Its taste profile, with a strong ginger element, is such that there is no way it is competing with alcopops. It does not have, as the brewers call it, ‘sessionability’, which in a sense is a phrase for those who might binge, who might consume to a great extent. I urge the government, and plead with the minister, to go away, talk to Treasury and get these changes in place.

Debate interrupted.