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Tuesday, 12 May 2009
Page: 3453

Mr DUTTON (12:33 PM) —I rise to talk on these cognate bills: the Excise Tariff Validation Bill 2009 and the Customs Tariff Validation Bill 2009. By way of background, we come to this debate today because around the time of the May budget of last year the government announced that it was going to put in place a 70 per cent tax hike on one particular category of alcoholic drinks. The government refers to those drinks as alcopops but they are otherwise known as RTDs, premixed drinks or ready-to-drink drinks that people commonly see in bottle shops and in hotels and clubs around the country.

The vast consumption of these drinks is done by responsible consenting adults. At the margins, of course, there are people who drink to excess and there are people who binge drink. That is a serious issue for this country. We provided the government the opportunity in the last sitting period, some seven or eight weeks ago, to validate the tax which had been collected over the preceding 12 months. We made that offer because we did not want to see the revenues collected returned to the alcohol industry. We did not do it because we agreed with the government’s tax imposition. We did not do it because we were changing our position; in fact, our position on this issue has been consistent—in stark contrast to that of the government, from day one.

Our position has been consistent in that we have said to the government, from the time that this announcement was made 12 months ago right up until this morning when we were making public comments, that this bill was never about addressing the real issue of binge drinking. This bill has always been about a tax grab by a desperate government. This bill has always been about an agenda from the Treasury as opposed to the agenda of the Department of Health and Ageing. The Department of Health and Ageing realises, of course, that this bill and this measure by the government merely encourage consumers of alcohol—in particular, young people—to move from one product to another.

In actual fact, despite there having been two Senate inquiries on this very issue over the course of the last 12 months, nobody—not the Minister for Health and Ageing, this government or this department—has been able to produce any evidence that this has curbed binge drinking. The minister refers to a drop in sales of some 30 to 35 per cent of these RTD products, but she is very careful not to make the point that this has curbed binge drinking, because all she is saying, by suggesting that the drop-off has taken place in the consumption of this particular product that has had a tax spike, is that people have moved from that product to another product. I ask parents right around the country: over the course of the last 12 months since the Rudd government made this announcement, has there been less consumption of alcohol by teenagers in your household? Has there been a drop-off in the number of teenagers or people presenting to emergency departments on Friday and Saturday nights with alcohol related injuries or conditions? The answer is no. The government has not been able to provide one shred of evidence that this measure has gone any way towards curbing the issue of binge drinking.

I have made it very clear as part of this debate—and certainly, in all of the public comment that we have made and the private discussions that we have had, we have been consistent—that this government, this country, needs to do more in relation to binge drinking. We will support reasonable, sensible measures that go to curbing binge drinking. We will support the government in measures that it puts forward which break the culture in this country of binge drinking. We are like most parents, most responsible Australians, around the country who say that responsible, consenting adults who consume alcohol should do so reasonably and responsibly. We support that, but at the same time we need to make sure that wherever we can we break that culture of binge drinking because it does have serious ramifications.

If this were a measure which went even part of the way to doing that, we would provide bipartisan support to the government. But clearly this has always been about a grab for tax. This is a government so far now into debt that it will take at least a generation to repay the Labor government debt. This is what happens every time a Labor government is elected in this country. We have seen it at a state level right around the country. During the boom times of the last 10 years, Labor governments have been racking up billions of dollars of debt. In my own state of Queensland, the Labor Party has racked up $74 billion of debt over the course of the last 11 years at a time when the previous federal government—the coalition government—was able to repay Labor’s $96 billion worth of debt, put $60 billion into the Future Fund and leave this government with a surplus of $22 billion only 16 months ago. This is a government which has turned that $22 billion in the bank into a $60 billion or $70 billion overdraft fully drawn. Anybody in business would understand thoroughly that this government cannot manage money. In a state of desperation, this government went out with this so-called health measure to try to raise what they described at the time as about $1.6 billion.

A number of figures have been bandied around by the government. The minister before used the figure of $424 million that had been collected from this tax hike over the last 12 months, so we can agree on that figure for the time being. Nonetheless, these are considerable revenues. What really called the bluff of the minister was when the minister embarrassingly had to front up to a media interview—to a doorstop—with the Treasurer. It is funny that the minister should mention the term ‘dancing marionette’ because really that is what she had written all over her when she was standing there in the shadow of the Treasurer at that joint press conference. Humiliating it must have been for this minister, because this minister knew from the start that this was never a health measure. So poorly handled was this measure by the health minister that she was sent out not to front the media by herself, such was the incompetence, but with the guidance of the chief puppeteer, the Treasurer. The Treasurer stood there, took questions, made comments and essentially belled the cat in relation to what this was always about. The health minister had to stand there embarrassingly and listen to the Treasurer’s own words. The Treasurer spoke about this being unfinished business from the last budget:

… Budget measure from last year remains unpassed.

…         …         …

Bear this in mind: we are in the middle of a global recession. It’s vital in these circumstances that the Government has the capacity to pass its program, and we are determined to pass our program.

What he is talking about is this tax grab, the reliance on this revenue, not as a measure to address binge drinking but merely as a measure to try and patch up a black hole. What is important to remember in this debate is that when we came to the last sitting period the government put forward the bill, it went to the Senate and the Independent senator sensibly joined with the coalition to oppose the measure. We did that not lightly but for all the reasons that I have just outlined. In light of the government’s stance, we offered the government the opportunity to validate the tax that had been collected already. The government made the announcement originally that its proposal was to increase the tax and collect it at a higher rate. The government, as many people who have followed this debate would know, then had a 12-month window in which to validate by legislating the collection of that tax. Of course, we are right up against the 12-month mark today and that is why, embarrassingly, this minister has had to come in and interrupt the business of the House on budget day to ram this through. That is the situation that this minister finds herself in. At the time of the last sittings, we offered the government the opportunity to validate the collection of the tax. We were scolded at that time by the minister because she did not believe that the opposition’s position was valid in offering the opportunity to validate the tax which had been collected. It was quite a remarkable stance then, and I thought at the time that it really was something that the minister may regret. Here today the minister is offering up the same legislation that we were proposing seven or eight weeks ago—to validate the money which had been collected already, as I said before, not because we were of a mind that this was a good health measure, or indeed that it was good tax policy, but because it was our wish that the money did not go back to the alcohol industry.

Our aim from here—the government now having moved on as part of this debate and having secured this revenue—is that the government as it goes forward allocates some of this money to breaking that culture that we spoke about before. We in this country need to have sensible measures, similar to those we put in place that broke the culture of people failing to wear seatbelts in motor vehicles, that over a generation essentially broke the habit for many of drink driving and that addressed some very serious health threats to this country, such as AIDS, over the last decade or two. These are the sorts of programs that this government needs to put in place to break the drinking culture.

People who go out on a Friday or Saturday night to their local hotel or to a party, and parents with teenage children or young adults who go to parties, need to be reassured that they can mix in those social environments without being threatened by somebody who is under the influence of alcohol and/or illicit drugs. That is, of course, part of what is at the core of this debate as well, and we have seen next to nothing from this government on that. There is a real threat in this country when teenagers use illicit drugs. Much of the footage the government now relies on and much of the footage that people see on their TV sets on a Friday or Saturday night is of young people in emergency departments, at licensed venues, in the street and in the gutter in some circumstances. They are in a terrible state. To the untrained eye, many people would say that this is solely a consequence of inappropriate consumption of alcohol, but in many cases—indeed, in most cases—this behaviour has arisen because of not just the consumption of alcohol but also the taking of illicit drugs. That also brings about much of the violence that we see.

The minister will refer to an announcement that she made in recent weeks, but this government has dropped the ball on illicit drugs. They have always taken a softer stance on drugs, and that was underscored by the fact that it took this minister almost 16 months to put forward a proposal to address some very real concerns that exist in our community. I make that point because it really is an indication of how this portfolio is being managed under this government.

Health is an issue that was promised priority at the last election. This government promised to fix public hospitals by mid-2009. That was the promise the Prime Minister made. Those words appeared on the Prime Minister’s website because those were the words he spoke in the November 2007 election, but since that time they have changed from ‘fixing public hospitals’ to ‘improving public hospitals’. Since that time, in a recent press interview the minister watered down the language even further. I ask Australians listening to this debate today who are worried about the state of health in this country: have public hospitals in your local community improved over the last 16 months? Have outcomes for patients in this country improved since the election of the Rudd government? At the last election the Prime Minister promised that he would fix public hospitals, and there are only six weeks left before that deadline runs out.

I believe that this government will make a major announcement in relation to health in the budget tonight—and all of us have some theories about what the budget will contain. The government has performed poorly on health over the last 16 months not just with public hospitals but on a range of issues. Minister Roxon, who is sitting opposite me, has been involved in a number of bungles. There was one in the last 24 hours which has the potential to cost Australian taxpayers millions of dollars. This portfolio has been handled poorly. They have failed to meet any of the objectives that they put in place. That is why the media machine tonight will be working overtime to announce a big package on health that will try to deflect some of the criticism that they will rightly cop over the coming months in relation to their failings in health policy.

We have engaged with a number of stakeholders in the debate that is currently before the House. It is true to say that there are a number of people who strongly support this measure and a number who strongly oppose this measure. Many people within the health community, in evidence given to the Senate inquiry and in our other contact with them, have indicated that they are supportive of the government’s measure. The minister is happy to trot out those lines on whatever occasion gives her an opportunity to do so. The government fails to acknowledge as part of that debate that many of the same proponents would prefer to see a 70 per cent tax hike across all alcohol products—and, no doubt, increases well beyond that for some of them would be ideal as well. That is not what the government has proposed; that is not what is on the table.

The evidence over the last 12 months shows there has been a displacement effect. People have clearly moved from consuming premixed drinks to mixing their own drinks. For the first time in 15 years, over the last 12 months there has been an increase in the consumption of heavy beer. Young males who previously consumed Bundy and cola or some other premixed bourbon drink, for argument’s sake, have gone to either mixing their own drinks—and the sales of bottled spirits have gone through the roof over the last 12 months—which in many cases means they are consuming more alcohol, or consuming heavy beer. There is no other element to this debate that has been present over the last 12 months which would have driven a change in that behaviour.

If we look at the consumption pattern for young women over the last 12 months, we see that many have moved from consuming premixed drinks to mixing their own spirits or—and this should cause all in this debate some concern—having a third person at a party mix their drinks for them. In many cases that person is unknown to them. It takes away the peace of mind that some parents had in knowing that their young adult was taking premixed bottled drinks that would be opened by them at the time of consumption. That has raised serious concerns about the implications of this poorly thought out policy.

These are all things that we need to take into consideration as part of this debate. If it had not just been a tax spike on one product, if the government had proposed some other reasonable measure, then there would have been occasion for just and reasonable debate. But the reality is that, with the way in which the government has approached this debate—so ill thought out has it been—they have not been able to provide one shred of evidence. Despite all of the resources of the Department of Health and Ageing, the state health bureaucracies, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and Treasury, they have not been able to produce any evidence that this has curbed binge drinking in this country over the last 12 months. That is the reason that they must stand condemned. They must stand condemned for this policy and for their option to put in place a measure which was otherwise going to return over $400 million to the alcohol industry. This government was ideologically prepared to be stuck in a position where they were going to give back $400 million to the industry.

In closing, that is the reason that at the time of this debate in the last parliament we offered up this same opportunity that the government is offering up today—to validate the collection of those taxes. That is an opportunity which the minister scoffed at at the time but now, embarrassingly, has had to agree to and to put on the table to make sure that there was not a loss to revenue. It says a lot about the way in which this government handles debates. It really goes to what the core of the Rudd government is all about, and that is all spin. They have teams of people, in this building and outside, working on media lines. Ministers in this government have to run press releases by the Prime Minister’s office. We are in one of the strongest democracies in the world. We have some very intelligent people—not without exception—who sit on the front bench of the Labor Party. Not all of them—I accept that. Nonetheless, these are mature people who have to run their comments through the Prime Minister’s office, such is his management of every word they say.

It is remarkable, but it is not surprising, given the track record of the Minister for Health and Ageing in this portfolio over the last 16 months, that they would want to micromanage every word that came out of that office. It is completely understandable. It is part of the reason that the Treasurer was out there pulling the strings up and down and why the minister was having to cringe at the second microphone. This has been an embarrassing and humiliating defeat for the government. We will continue to prosecute the argument. We will continue to fight for good policy that will affect the difficulties and terrible outcomes of binge drinking. But we will not stand by and be silent whilst this government puts forward a proposal which is deeply flawed. By its own admission, the government could not provide any evidence that it has gone in any way to address the outcomes they stated at the start of this debate. We support the bill on that basis and we do not want to see this money go back to the alcohol industry, but we will continue to fight for better health outcomes for all Australians.