The power of one

Steve Fielding has one vote, which he has the right to exercise, although he could hardly claim to ‘represent’ Victorians, having garnered less than 2% of the Senate vote.  Yesterday saw him exercise that vote against the alcopops legislation, thereby sinking it by one vote.  This man is the mouthpiece for Family First, and says he acts in the interests of families.  So the conundrum is how voting down this measure, which was supported by medical and alcohol and drug groups, along with the $50 million of health funding measures to cut alcohol abuse and mandatory warning labels on bottles and cans is ‘family first’.  Teenagers, along with Brendan Nelson’s ‘ute men’, will now be able to buy alcopops without the 70% tax added.  [more]

Fielding refused to support the legislation unless the Government promised to close a ‘loophole’ that allows alcohol advertising on daytime television during sporting events.  He wanted to ‘decouple’ alcohol advertising from daytime sports, a move the Government considered to be too problematic to contemplate.  Many such sports sponsorships are long term and difficult to untangle.  Having scuttled the legislation, Fielding then felt entitled to blame the Government for his decision. "We all know that alcohol is linked to sport and that needs to be broken, the Rudd Government has missed an opportunity to break that link. It's crazy.”  Sure it’s crazy.

But presumably what’s not crazy for one opposed to alcohol abuse is to throw out an inhibitory tax that has markedly reduced alcopops consumption, together with all the additional funding extracted by The Greens and Nick Xenophon.

The ever-sensible Bob Brown called Senator Fielding’s stance irresponsible. "Senator Fielding is the boy on the burning deck saying I'm going to throw you a lifeline having set flame to the ship... he is scuttling legislation which has huge advantages for the Australian people and he'll be judged for it, ...but does he have the shoulders to bear the responsibility?"   Brown said Fielding “...was immature for saying he'd vote against the Bill because he hadn't got everything he wanted. The Government had agreed to two of his demands: warning labels on alcohol containers and an end to self-regulation of alcohol advertising.”  With Senator Fielding he said “it's 'give me what I want or no deal ... I'll dump all the gains made but the other senators''

This morning Fielding proudly thumped his chest, having proved he was a ‘big man’.  Was he trying to emulate Xenophon’s effort in getting concessions for the Murray Darling last time there was a stand-off?  Today he’s threatening to vote against the IR legislation.  It looks like this opposing stuff has gone to his head.

But all is not lost.  Today Eric Abetz said “...the tax on alcopops should not be the same as for drinks with higher alcohol content”, that “...the ready-mixed sweetened beverages help drinkers keep track of their alcohol intake”  and “...as a result young people will be able to be very sure as to the amount of alcohol they drink...if they mixed the drinks themselves, young drinkers might not know how much alcohol they were consuming”. .Abetz continued “...young women liked alcopops because they prevented their drinks from being spiked...they can put the top back on and hold the bottle rather than a glass which is a great protection.''  He rejected suggestions that cheaper alcopops meant teenage girls could get drunk more easily.  That's quite a silly question,'' he said.  So there it is from the expert.

It’s difficult to find anyone who agrees with Fielding’s stand.  Alcohol guru Abetz who sees “...the lower price a boon for young drinkers”, does, as does Peter Dutton who justified the Opposition's decision to vote against the tax increase on the grounds that it was a tax grab which had not tackled binge drinking.  No doubt Opposition members feel they have won something in Parliament, but will they have won many hearts and minds among the voters, especially those with teenage children?  Even the distillers, who welcomed the vote, seem to be embarrassed enough to offer not to demand the tax back, but to spend it on alcohol education.

So Fielding in exercising his ‘power of one’ has few supporters – the distillers, the Opposition, but is there anyone else?  It is not surprising that his reprehensible, stupid and illogical actions have so little support.

This sorry affair raises another matter, the political fallout for those who voted it down.  Fielding is already suffering a severe backlash, but as he is of no consequence politically in the long term, that matters little.  It’s the Opposition that will suffer the most ignominy as the Government warehouses ammunition for the next election – one can imagine what their alcopops ads will say.  Would the Opposition have preferred Fielding to vote for the legislation and let it off the hook?

Is the Government assembling double dissolution triggers?  Certainly the Opposition is aiding and abetting that process, something Malcolm Turnbull may come to regret.  No doubt Fielding will continue to use his power of one to be a hairy-chested Opposition ally.

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Bushfire Bill

19/03/2009It is hard to imagine a more embarrassing nincompoop than Fielding having the final legislative say over everything the government was elected to do. What's often forgotten by the "tax grab" critics of the AlcoTax is that the tax on these inebriating lolly-water drinks [i]was set artificially low[/i] by the Howard government as part of the GST package. When the other alcoholic beverages was agjusted, alcopops missed the cut. It's not that the tax on them was lowered, [i]it wasn't raised[/i] along with the tax rises on other alcoholic drinks. The history of alcopops is one of technical compliance with excise laws mixed with cynical exploitation of vulnerable young people. Originally alcopops were brewed as "unhopped beer", that is with all the nasty taste and coloring taken out... essentially pure alcohol with a fizz. Then fruit juice was added... but they were still "beer" in a technical sense and thus benefited from the widespread discount on excise that true beers enjoyed, pretty much around the world: the "Working Man's Drink" if you like. Remember how "shandy" - half beer, half lemonade was once all the rage in the (now gone) "Ladies' Lounges"? Well, alcopops were the new shandy. To make an identical drink to an alcopop you could use grain alcohol (e.g. vodka) and just add the same flavouring. But that would not have entitled the liquor companies to the "Beer" excise discount. The taste would have been the same, but the tax would be much more, due to the method of creating the alcohol in the drink. This was a problem that perplexed liquor companies the world over (as mixing cordial with grain alcohol was much cheaper than going to all the trouble of brewing a fake beer), until someone - probably a paid lobbyist - came up with a bright idea: make a large contribution to the coffers of the governing party, point out the silliness of going to all the trouble of brewing a beer when grain-alcohol-plus-flavouring ended up exactly the same and [i]voila![/i], you got your poison exempt from all but token tax (and you had new friends who needed your donations). Hence other artificial alcopops got a guernsey as well, leading to "Bundy Man" and all the rest. But remember this: young girls getting pissed as newts, I mean really stonkered in wholesale proportions, is a phenomenon born of the rise of alcopops. Rudd's excise is definitely not a "tax grab" or a "hike". All it does is to equalise the tax on the alcopop type of drink to bring them into line with other alcoholic beverages. I'm surprised - and a little disappointed - that the government were too clever by half. Instead of pointing out the corrupt rigging of the excise regime during Howard's time and going into detail about how it came about, they went for the emotional angle: "Young gels in trouble". Far better to have stuck to the facts: the tax on alcopops was artificially low since the introduction of the GST in 2000, set low in reponse to a large donation (or several of them) from the Liquor Industry and [i]that's[/i] why the Rudd government was changing it. A simple piece of arithmetic could well have saved the day on this whole, sorry business. But no, Rudd's spin meisters flipped the switch to melodrama and now look at the mess they're in. But there's hope. Forget about Abetz's idiotic scenario - presumably young girls will wake up in the gutter surrounded by empty alcopop bottles, count them (according to Abetz they're conveniently countable) and then say to themselves, "Gee! I guess I must have been pissed!" by way of explaining their situation. What utter crap! What an utter fool that man is! The real hope - and please don't blame me for dwelling on tragedy, [i]they[/i] started it - is that the next timehalf a dozen teenagers wipe themselves out around a tree on a back road somewhere in the country, and it is revealed they were high on alcopops, their deaths will be down squarely to the loving, caring Fielding and his family friendly mates in the Liberal and National Parties. they had their chance. Consumption was down. The health authorities and the police had all begged for the bill to pass, but these [i]laissez-faire[/i[ junkies with a contrarian attitude to anything Labor were prepared to sacrifice their lives of their dauighters and sons (and worse, the lives of [i]others'[/i] daughters and sons) to score the cheapest, basest, most squalid of political points. Utter, absolute, total bloody shame on them.

Ad astra reply

20/03/2009Thank you BB for your edifying account of the history of alcopops, much of which I was not aware. Your description of the events leading to the development of alcopops exposes the anomalies created on the way, which I agree would have been a more appropriate focus for the Government's attack on this form of alcohol. It could have mounted a logical attack on an unjust tax arrangement, but instead chose the emotional angle. Probably the Government's spin doctors figured that playing on emotions was a more fruitful approach, as at that time alcopops use was newsworthy, with young people, particularly schoolgirls, getting smashed, as I remember it around schoolies week. I always prefer logic to emotion as sound logic is hard to refute. A talkback caller on ABC 774 Melbourne today insisted that alcopops contain caffeine so that drinkers remain alert and keep on drinking, instead of getting sleepy with alcoholic drinks without a stimulant. Checking this in Wikipedia I came across a table that details which drinks have added stimulants. For example Smirnoff Ice does, whereas Bacardi Breezer does not. Most listed did not contain stimulants. The reference is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_alcopops Whether this legislation will ever reappear is unknown. It looks as if the Government has decided that those voting it down should be exposed to public ridicule, as indeed Fielding has been in the media, but its real target is the Opposition. Already Nicola Roxon has coined a new name for these drinks [i][b]'malcopops'[/b][/i]. That just might stick. As you say, the most telling impact of lowering the price of alcopops will be the predicted rise in use and the social consequences, young people lolling about in the streets hardly able to walk, and more tragically, involved in road trauma. We can be sure that press photographers will be out in force looking to record such events for the evening TV news, and the Government will be poised to pounce, not on Fielding, but on Turnbull and the Opposition. It will be difficult, even for Turnbull with all his resounding oratory, to counter that.

Ad astra reply

20/03/2009BB, have you read the article in today's [i]Australian[/i] [i]Alcopop firms behind $70k given to Libs[/i] http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,,25213431-2702,00.html ? It confirms your suspician that the distillers made donations to 'the governing party'.

janice

20/03/2009I was also unaware of the history of alcopops BB. I agree that the Government was ill-advised to play on emotions rather than the simple truth. I don't think the media are going out of their way to expose Fielding to the ridicule he deserves. He is a dolt at the best of times, but he is also stupidly allowing himself to be used by the Coalition to ensure there is maximum obstruction to the Government's bills. Truffles keeps saying he is waiting to see exactly what is in a bill before he commits to supporting it or not. I think he waits to see what Xenaphon and Fielding (in particular) have to say and then formulate his response accordingly. A Double-dissolution is looming as the only way to remove the 'power of one' from Fielding who is unlikely to survive an election, and should Xenaphon manage to get himself re-elected he might suddenly find some extra grey cells and use them for the advantage of the nation, not himself and his narrow agenda. Yes, Ad astra, Truffles sees himself as a great orator when in fact he is full of flowery, sugary phrases that lack sincerity. He's got a long way to go to meet the standards of Obama and even Keating. Listening to his pieces of brillant oratory re the Vic. bushfires and the sad losses of our soldiers in Afghan made me feel somewhat billious.

Ad astra reply

20/03/2009janice, the thing that most annoys me about Truffles is the supreme authority with which he makes pronouncements, as if all he has to do is simply utter the words to make them true. He talks with such a superior tone when he proclaims Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan are incompetent, that they don't understand economics, that their stimulus package is ill directed and too big too soon; when he calls Kevin Rudd egocentric and Julia Gillard stubborn for not accepting the Coalition's IR amendments. So far, according to the polls, the people are ignoring him. But he bats on undeterred; it can only be his massive ego and self-confidence that keeps him going. Once he deflates, he's a goner.

Sir Ian Crisp

20/03/2009Tax legislation dressed up as social policy is always bad. The alcopops tax legislation was bound to die aborning following a story in Livenews (May 2008) that summed up the mendacity associated with this ill-conceived tax. “Govt admits alcopop tax won’t affect binge drinking” carried the story of alleged federal Minister for Health Nicola Roxon who was forced to stop short of declaring the $3.1 billion tax would see an end to binge drinking. Instead the very altruistic Ms Roxon said it would make alcopops "less attractive to young people". That same headline “Govt admits alcopop tax won’t affect binge drinking” was supported by another headline in The Sydney Morning Herald of August 2008: “Binge drinking tax won't help – experts”. Writing in The Lancet, Dr Christopher Doran and Dr Anthony Shakeshaft of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre said that binge drinkers will switch from RTDs to unmixed spirits. This also answers your challenge that it would be difficult to find anyone who agrees with Fielding’s stand. More evidence to support the above themes comes from the figures supplied by the Liquor Merchants Association of Australia (LMAA). It provided information that showed that following the 70 per cent tax hike on RTDs, an extra 266,000 litres of alcohol had been sold. Allowing for a 10 per cent error in the figures it’s still plenty of booze. “The ever-sensible Bob Brown”; when I read that the scales fell from my rheumy eyes. Surely if Bob Brown is allegedly ever-sensible we are fast approaching the time when the lion shall lie down with the lamb. Ad Astra, it takes a fecund mind to accept the notion that a government has little trouble collecting a tax without supporting legislation but that same government can’t unravel the complexities of booze, advertising, sponsorship and sporting bodies. Consider this Ad Astra: it’s 2009 and one harmful drug is not allowed to be promoted in any way but another harmful drug is allowed to be emblazoned on the side of a bus or used to baptize a bunch of footballers who have just won a premiership. What happened to the facient PM…the can do PM…the man who signed Kyoto…why can’t he create legislation that breaks the nexus between sport, booze, sponsorship and advertising? Another correction if I may: Eric Abetz is not the ‘go to’ man when matters of ebriosity arise. Such matters should be referred to Andrew Bartlett. Ad Astra, I accept that you are plugged into the vox populi and Fielding will be mugged if Kev747 calls a DD. But you should ask Kev to delay it to enable you to vet any independent candidates seeking to enter the senate. We wouldn’t want any independents thinking independently would we.

Sir Ian Crisp

20/03/2009Tonight’s news on the ABC (Sydney) is carrying a story about Senator Fielding getting praise from the Bird of Paradox (Julia Gillard). It appears that the Bird of Paradox and Fielding struck a deal on the IR legislation that will finally kill off the dreadful Howard Work Choices. Ad Astra, you might just have to write a puff piece telling us what a nice chap Senator Fielding is. I might keep your "The Power of One" for future reference.

Bushfire Bill

20/03/2009[i]"Ad Astra, it takes a fecund mind to accept the notion that a government has little trouble collecting a tax without supporting legislation but that same government can’t unravel the complexities of booze, advertising, sponsorship and sporting bodies."[/i] You don't have to accept any "notion" other than the law, which says it is perfectly legal and proper to impose regulations as long as they are backed up with legislation within the prescribed period. This happens all the time. It has happened under all governments and jurisdictions. Your argument is a complete red herring. The issue with alcopops is that the government sought to sell the regulation (subject to legislative ratification) as an emotional issue. The Opposition, heavily lobbied by the Liquor Industry, sought to appease their mates. Fielding, confused, bewildered, his heart continually on his sleeve, sought to make himself important in the grand scheme of things, as only small minded person does. Xenophon, superficially plausible, intelligent and worldly, is running his own agenda of vanity laced with megalomania. The people? They only [i]voted[/i] for a government to get on with the job of governing. What do [i]they[/i] matter? As late as a couple of days ago we had some twirp in [i]The Australian[/i] writing a diatribe claiming the government had no Work Choices (or rather, [i]anti[/i]-Work Choices) mandate. We had Turnbull today accusing Gillard of arrogance in sticking to her "15 employees" election promise. "It's just a number," cried Malcopops Turnbull. Well, what was "25 employees" - the Liberal position - wasn't [i]that[/i] just a number too? Who was the more arrogant? The party that won government on a platform - published, microscopically examined and vivisected by its critics - and then voted upon, positively, overwhelmingly by the public, to limit unfair dismissal to companies of under 15 employees, or the Opposition, who sprung Work Choices on an unsuspecting public and still can't believe they actually [i]lost[/i] an election? Who is the con man here? The one who makes the deal, or the one who, having shaken hands and accepted defeat, then - condemns the other side for not "negotiating". It's always a "Test" for Rudd and his government. We hear "test" this and "Test" that. The test was the 2007 election. The platform couldn't have been clearer, starker. Yet the otyher mob (and I include Fielding in this, and Xenophon) [i]still[/i] think they can lambast the government for not "negotiating", for being stubbornly dedicated to fulfilling their clearly enunciated election promises. The gloves are off in national politics (if they were ever on). I say Labor should start to play nasty and dirty with the Opposition and with the likes of the chest-beating, God-bothering, inept Fielding. No DD, that would be too nice for them. a slow burning political fire would satisfy far, far more.

Ad astra reply

21/03/2009It’s hard to know where to start Sir Ian. So let’s begin with [quote]“Tax legislation dressed up as social policy is always bad.”[/quote] Is it? By whose authority do you make such a claim? Is this received wisdom or do you have some evidence? Next, was the alcopops tax [quote]‘dressed up as social policy’[/quote]? Or was it both a tax and social policy – a tax being used to support the social policy of diminishing consumption? There’s nothing unusual about that. Increasing tax on cigarettes has been used for years to inhibit consumption. Social researchers are adamant that price increases have an inhibitory effect on consumption. So the Government needed more revenue and it was concerned about binge drinking to which alcopops was contributing (unless you have evidence to the contrary), and there was an anomaly, as pointed out by BB, that alcopops were being taxed at only the rate of beer, and it appeared to the Government that was something that needed remedy. So several birds were being killed with the one stone. Nobody expected the tax to stop binge drinking. We don’t need newspaper headlines to enlighten us of that. Many people binge on other forms of alcohol. But young people, especially girls, favoured alcopops (as evidenced by the large sales), and because of their sweet, easy-to-drink characteristics, (unlike hard spirits) there was a tendency to over-consume and get stoned quicker than if they were swigging hard spirits. So inhibiting alcopops consumption by way of a heavy tax is socially sound policy. Don’t you agree? Nobody suggested that if alcopops consumption went down because of the tax that other forms of alcohol would not be used. Of course they would; it doesn’t take a learned article in [i]The Lancet[/i] to inform us of that. The question is whether young people mixing their own spirits with cordial is more dangerous than drinking ready-made alcopops is debateable – but there are plenty of self-styled ‘experts’ who will give an answer for what it’s worth, which is little, because nobody really knows. I can’t believe that you would believe what the LMAA says. Have you seen and analysed their data? The Access Economics study sponsored by the liquor industry was quickly shown to be flawed and has disappeared from view. The Senate Committee on alcopops concluded that there was not enough evidence to draw a conclusion one way or the other. We’ll have to wait and see. So let’s get down to tin-tacks. The Government needed revenue to do what we expect it to do. So it imposed a tax, as Governments do. It targeted a product that has been inappropriately taxed in the past. It was not a ‘tax grab’ that opponents would have us believe. It was simply a tax that corrected an anomaly. The Government hoped that social good would also result. As a result of Fielding’s intervention, all the good that might have been achieved has been lost. The tax collected is lost (although there have been some suggestions about how to hold onto it), but even more significantly all future tax, $1.6 billion over the forward estimates, has been forfeited, and all tax thereafter. When the budget is already in deficit, that’s means more damage to the bottom line. Not smart politics, not smart for the country, not smart for anyone in receipt of Government support – some people or some projects are going to miss out. So I reassert that Fielding’s actions were reprehensible, stupid and illogical. The fact that he later ‘brokered a deal’ with your ‘Bird of Paradox’ Julia Gillard over IR is neither here nor there. He’s unpredictable – sometime he does what seem to be sensible things; sometimes the opposite, but he still exercises ‘the power of one’. Following the alcopops backlash, I suspect he was in need of a little love and a hug. No Sir Ian, I’ll not be writing a ‘puff piece’ about him.
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