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.