Speech in Parliament on tobacco taxation

2.43pm | April 18, 2016

We have heard this afternoon that there are some senators in this chamber who are concerned about tobacco taxes taking money out of people's pockets. On the Labor side, we are more concerned about tobacco taking years off people's lives. We heard a quite moving testimony from Senator Bilyk about the very personal cost that came about from tobacco-related disease.

Earlier this year, the Labor party proposed an increase in tobacco tax because we believe in putting people's health before tobacco company profits. We know that these taxes will make it more expensive for people to continue smoking. We do not apologise for this. That is, of course, the point. The World Health Organization considers tobacco taxes to be one of the most effective interventions that we can make to get people to stop smoking. Pricing is one of the strongest policy levers we have in helping people to quit. This is especially the case for people who are part of the price-sensitive groups, particularly young people. All of the evidence points to the importance of preventing people from becoming addicted in their early years.

Our tax framework was one part of a broader policy. We put forward a series of excise rates while we were in government, and it was Labor that conceived and executed the plain packaging policy. Tobacco consumption fell approximately 13 per cent in the two years since plain packaging came into effect. While Labor was putting in place innovative policies to cut Australia's smoking rate, the Liberal and National parties were still taking donations from tobacco companies. These, of course, are the very companies that would later commence international arbitration proceedings against the Australian government to try to get the taxpayer to compensate them for their lost tobacco profits. Labor had stopped taking donations from those companies in 2004. The Liberals did not stop until 2013, and the Nationals, it seems, were still taking money as recently as last year.

We were happy to read reports that the government was going to get on board with the Labor policy and perhaps support higher taxes on tobacco. So it was a little bit surprising this afternoon to hear the coalition senators speak against tobacco excise in this debate. It might be that they just did not get the memo, or it might be that this is just another run up to yet another policy backflip on tax from this government. That would be disturbing not just in regard to the merits of the particular issue at stake but also because an increase in tobacco excise is the sum total of tax reform that we have seen from the government so far. We think that tobacco taxes are important. They are important for smokers. They are important for the health system. They are important for the budget. But they are not a comprehensive tax reform plan.

It is said that some people grow into high office. This Prime Minister seems to have shrunk into it. The Prime Minister took office promising economic leadership and, as it turns out, all that this means is refusing to take any tough decisions whatsoever about tax. The Prime Minister promised that everything would be on the table. Instead, he has spent the last nine months taking things off the table. He took the increase to the GST off the table. He flirted with negative gearing and then took that off the table, and he took capital gains tax off the table also. He very briefly had a discussion about double taxation and the role of states in income tax, and that very odd idea had a shorter lifespan than most butterflies do. We were promised a mature discussion, but it turns out that the Prime Minister is incapable of having a discussion with his Treasurer, let alone a discussion with the public or with the parliament.

We would be happy to see the coalition abandon their former corporate donors and support Australian smokers in quitting, and tobacco taxes are a critical part in this. This government has proven to be great at quitting. They have quit following constitutional precedent, they have quit responsible government, and now it seems they have quit tax reform. It might be really good, though, if they could support an increase in tobacco excise and help a few others to quit this horrible habit.