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Thursday, 13 August 2009
Page: 4874

Senator FIELDING (Leader of the Family First Party) (1:15 PM) —Today, as I rise to speak on the Excise Tariff Amendment (2009 Measures No. 1) Bill 2009 [No. 2] and the related bill, I feel a sense of deja vu and I imagine I am not alone. Today this Senate meets again to vote on a blatant tax grab that will do nothing to tackle Australia’s $16 billion alcohol toll. This is a tax grab the Rudd government has dressed up as the answer to Australia’s $16 billion binge-drinking problem. The Rudd government has surrounded this tax grab with smoke and mirrors to make the public believe it is doing something. This is the Rudd government’s showcase performance on binge drinking and it is all show and no substance. The Rudd government has spent a lot of time and effort working on this masquerade, hoping that the Australian public are gullible enough to think that a tax on one alcoholic product would halt the scourge of binge drinking in our communities. The simple fact is that a blatant tax grab on one product will do little to tackle Australia’s binge drinking problem. Australians are smart and they can see a political stunt a mile away—and that is what this is: a political stunt. Until there is a recognition by this government that we have to change the way we all think about alcohol and break that mentality of drinking to get drunk, nothing will change.

The Prime Minister has had plenty of time to deal with this issue. Back in 2007, when Mr Rudd was still only the Leader of the Opposition, I visited him in his office and warned him that Australia had a binge-drinking problem which was spiralling out of control. That was in 2007, before he was Prime Minister. I warned him that we needed to do more to tackle this problem that was impacting the very fabric of our society. This alcohol problem still accounts for around 40 per cent of police work and is the cause of one in five deaths on our roads. Forty per cent of police work is alcohol related—it is huge. I told him that we needed to do three things that were outlined clearly in my Alcohol Toll Reduction Bill 2007 [2008]. The first item in that bill was to restrict alcohol advertising and unhook alcohol from sport. The second was to put health warning labels on all alcohol products. The third was to get the advertising out of the hands of industry and into the hands of a totally independent regulatory body. However, although Mr Rudd listened, he did little.

I again visited Mr Rudd, this time when he was Prime Minister, and again alerted him to the serious issue of Australia’s alcohol toll. I again stressed the three real actions which the government could take to help address Australia’s alcohol toll. Again the government did little.

But, all of a sudden, perhaps after looking at the Treasury figures and deciding that the government needed more money for its spending spree, the Prime Minister woke up one day and decided that Australia had a drinking problem that, according to the Rudd government, could be solved by hiking up the price of one alcohol product. What a joke! Was that the best they could come up with? A blatant tax grab is not going to solve Australia’s binge-drinking problem. Australia’s alcohol toll is a genuine issue—a $16 billion drain on our economy each year. That is what it costs to mop up after binge drinking.

We need to change the culture of binge drinking to one of responsible drinking in Australia. In a survey released earlier this year, the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation revealed that more than 80 per cent of Australians recognise that as a society we have a drinking problem and that 85 per cent of Australians want more done to fix that problem. Close to one and a half years after the alcopops tax was introduced to curb binge drinking, more Australians than ever are demanding that more be done. They want the government to stand up to the alcohol giants and put an end to the link between alcohol and sport. Paul Dillon, a drug educator with Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia, was right when he said in an article in the Newcastle Herald:

Alcohol and sport are tangled together so tightly in this country that it is extremely difficult to work out where one stops and the other one begins and that is exactly the way the alcohol companies like it. As a result, there are very few sports now that don’t have a drinking culture.

It is an indictment that we have allowed alcohol to become so intrinsically tied to sport. The reason for this is that the only exemption in Australia that allows alcohol ads to appear on television at any time during the day is for sporting programs. It clearly ties alcohol and sport together and this link needs to be broken. Mr Dillon went on to say in the article:

It is time for this link to be severed—not because alcohol is bad or we should not be drinking but because it sends a mixed and confusing message to the Australian public.

Let me repeat it:

It is time for this link—

between alcohol and sport—

to be severed—not because alcohol is bad or we should not be drinking but because it sends a mixed and confusing message to the Australian public.

Perhaps the Rudd government is also confused. The Rudd government must be confused if it cannot see the harmful links between alcohol and sport and the way the alcohol industry has been allowed to use its influence to target future drinkers in our young. Plenty of other people can see it. Respected social researcher Hugh Mackay, in an article in the Age, writes:

… as a society, we’ve acted as if we desperately want young people to get hooked on alcohol as quickly as possible, drink as much as they want, whenever they like, and get smashed as often as possible.

He goes on to argue:

If you want to change the way people behave, you need to make significant changes to the environment that shapes their behaviour.

We have tolerated appalling behaviour and often excuse violence on the grounds of drunkenness. In short, we have worshipped the stuff. If that is not sounding alarm bells to the Australian government, the Rudd government, whilst the best they can do is come up with a blatant tax grab that they hide behind, claiming that it is going to tackle binge drinking, then they are just crazy.

When you think about it, haven’t we just allowed this to happen, the way that alcohol is worshipped? Haven’t we all laughed at someone being completely, stupidly drunk? Haven’t we all nodded knowingly at the work colleague who cannot do their work after a big drinking session from the night before? This is a tough one for us to tackle. This is us looking at ourselves in the mirror and saying, ‘Are we happy with where we are?’ Let us face it: haven’t we as a society celebrated and applauded the drunk? It is changing a little. We turn to alcohol to celebrate and commiserate, to heal and bond with others. We have to question this. As Hugh Mackay so aptly says, we have raised alcohol to a status in our society that it does not deserve. By linking alcohol with sport, the government is normalising, sanitising and glamorising alcohol for future generations. This is our future, our kids, and we are allowing alcohol to be tied with sport in such a way that it sanitises, glamorises and normalises alcohol to our kids. If it was not so serious, it would be a sad joke.

But now we are seeing the nasty side of alcohol abuse: the wave of excessive violence in our streets, the glass used as a weapon to cut and scar, the beatings and bashings that stain our streets and our homes with blood. Binge drinking robs our society to the tune of $16 billion a year, and also inflicts an enormous emotional cost—splitting families apart and destroying relationships. It has been a year and a half since the alcopops tax grab has been in place, a tax the government promised would address binge drinking. It has clearly failed. The Brumby Labor government had to hold an emergency summit in April because the alcohol-fuelled violence in Melbourne was spiralling out of control. That is a bit odd, isn’t it? At that stage the alcopops tax had been in place for one year. So if the alcopops tax that had been in place for over a year was working in curbing binge drinking, why the need for an emergency summit? Because the $16 billion alcohol toll is not a tax problem, it is a cultural problem.

If the alcopops tax was really effective in preventing binge drinking, sales of alcopops would not have increased by 12 per cent in the three months to the end of June. If the tax hike was truly the magic elixir to solve Australia’s alcohol problem, the initial drop in alcopops sales, which occurred following the introduction of the tax, would not have been absorbed by increasing sales in other liquor categories. Our response to Australia’s alcohol abuse epidemic must be more than just a blatant tax grab on alcopops. It is like hitting a giant with a feather. The core change that the Rudd government must address is helping Australians to make the shift away from celebrating getting drunk and from tolerating the mayhem it unleashes on our society to one that refuses to tolerate a binge-drinking culture.

A significant way to break the culture of future generations is to cut the supply line between alcohol and sport. That is a biggie, isn’t it? I have spoken to the health minister, to the Treasurer and to the Prime Minister about removing alcohol advertisements during family viewing times before 9 pm, which would stop these alcohol ads from being shown during sports programs. I have again explained that I realise this will have to be a process that is phased in to accommodate television programming schedules already locked in and to allow the industry to unhook itself and to adjust. That is common sense, but they would not even go there. They just refuse to stand up to the alcohol giants. Why? The simple message to the Rudd government is this: show some guts and take a stand and stop hiding behind a blatant tax grab.

The alcopops tax is a complete fizzer. The Rudd government must make this important change and draw that important line in the sand and say, ‘That’s enough; enough is enough.’ Only yesterday it was revealed in the Australian that the Department of Health and Ageing had sought advice on the alcopops tax from the National Centre for Education and Training on Addiction. This national centre told the government that it needed to do more than simply increase taxes on alcopops if it was serious about addressing the problem of binge drinking in our society. It is no surprise the government decided to still not release the full report from the national centre.

I have one last thought. Picture this: you are alone at home with your young children watching football on television. The doorbell rings. A man stands at the door with his arms laden with alcohol products. He says he is there to sit with your children. He is dressed in sporting gear. He assures you that the children cannot drink the products he has with him but they can look as much as they like. Would you invite him in to sit on your couch next to your children? That is what you are allowing to happen by allowing the alcohol advertising to continue during sports programming. I ask senators to think about their vote on this issue and to stand up to the government and say, ‘You have got to do more than a blatant tax grab to address Australia’s $16 billion drinking problem.’