By Ian Neubauer

A Senate vote that was finally expected to see the RTD tax passed into law yesterday (Jun 25) has been pushed forward to August after a block of Coalition and independent senators refused to debate the bill in the current sitting of Parliament – citing outstanding business on more urgent matters.

The bill was defeated by one vote when it was first introduced into the Senate in March following the Government’s inability to prove the measure had helped deter binge drinking since it came into effect in April last year.

However, an announcement by the Liberal Party on Monday (Jun 22) that it would vote in favour of the bill to help reduce the deficit was thought to have rendered the debate irrelevant, with the Government now holding more than enough votes to enact the bill into law.

But in another twist of fate, an 11th hour rebellion by the Nationals and a number of Liberal Senators has re-invigorated the debate and highlighted disunity within the Liberal-Nationals Coalition. 

Speaking to TheShout on Wednesday (Jun 24), the Nationals leader in the Senate, Senator Barnaby Joyce, maintained the RTD tax hike was a thinly disguised tax grab and not a health measure as the Government maintains.

He said the Nationals would stand by their principals and either vote against the bill or abstain to vote when it is reintroduced to the Senate to defend the interest of its constituents in Bundaberg and other rural areas where RTDs are produced.

Their plight was brought to Canberra on Wednesday (Jun 23) when 11 workers from the Bundaberg Rum Distillery travelled to Canberra with their local representative, Paul Neville MP, to attend question time in the Senate.   

“Slugging the products of our distillery with an extra tax will inevitably have hurt local jobs, and I don’t want to see a single one of these workers suffer because of a high-taxing, high-spending Government,” Neville said.

“Having local workers sitting and watching what happens will drive it home to the Government that this unfair tax will have a serious impact on local distillery workers and their families.”

Neville said he opposed the bill on a number of grounds, “one being the lack of equity which comes from this $450 million-a-year tax being levied on only 8.5 per cent of the liquor market. Secondly, the tax has made no appreciable difference to the amount of drinking taking place, and has instead prompted a move to bottled spirits, beer and imports,” he said.

“I also object to all pre-mix drinks being labelled as ‘alcopops’, which is simply not the case. But my greatest reason is that there are no demonstrable health benefits to imposing this tax – a fact admitted by the deputy secretary of the Health Minister’s own department.”

Neville’s argument was mirrored by Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing, Liberal MP Peter Dutton, even as he reluctantly jujstified the back flip earlier this week as a necessary measure to shore up the public purse.

He said alcohol consumption had remained unchanged since the RTD tax hike came into effect last year as consumers had simply switched to cheaper categories of alcohol, like beer and wine.

Yet it did not stop the Australian Drug Foundation (ADF) – a public health agency funded by the Federal Government – commending the Liberal’s back flip for all the wrong reasons.

“I guess for some of these members of the Opposition, they may need a bit more time. But the facts are irrefutable. This tax is working,” the ABC reported ADF head John Rogerson saying.

However, another public health agency, the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia (ADCA), said the Government needed to drive more of the money it collects from alcohol excise toward education and prevention programs to effectively tackle the binge-drinking culture.

“Australia’s epidemic of binge drinking recognised by the Prime Minister in 2008 will not change without more funding being directed towards education and prevention programs,” ADCA chief executive, David Templeman, said yesterday (Jun 25).

“We cannot get complacent that the job is now done. This kind of cultural shift needs to happen over the long term, so we need ongoing commitment from the government, the liquor industry and all areas of the alcohol and other drugs sector in order to see real change.”

The Senate’s next session – and the next opportunity for the RTD tax hike to be re-introduced into Parliament – will take place on August 11. 

The Shout Team

The leading online news service for Australia's beer, wine, spirits and hospitality industries.

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