Tobacco excise is a vital preventative health measure

plain_packaging_2.jpgMr STEPHEN JONES (Throsby) (17:18): Earlier today the Leader of the Opposition advised the House that I have been promoted to the front bench, which is a great honour for anybody who sits on this side of the House and any Labor MP. I was promoted to the health portfolio, and I was very keen to ensure that the first speech I gave after being promoted to the front bench was in this important area. This is essentially a public health measure.

The Excise Tariff Amendment (Tobacco) Bill 2014 and the Customs Tariff Amendment (Tobacco) Bill 2014 amend existing acts. Essentially, they increase the rates of excise and customs duty on tobacco through four staged increases of 12½ per cent, commencing on 1 December 2013, and index the rates of excise and customs duty on tobacco to average weekly ordinary time earnings instead of the consumer price index. I support the legislation. I think it is important. It reflects Labor's commitment to improving preventative health across the board and easing the pressure on our public health system.

The legislation that is before the House today had its genesis in a Labor policy initiative. Many who have followed it from go to whoa would be aware that when it was announced it did not enjoy the same bipartisan support it enjoys in the House today. Indeed, the then shadow Treasurer, now Treasurer, had some very unfavourable things to say about this proposal. Indeed, his first, and instinctive, comments were to support the interests of smokers in this area against the interests of public health. Thankfully, more sanity has prevailed and the government is now bringing this legislation before the House. It enjoys our wholehearted support. We support it because we know that tobacco excise works.

Looking around the world, despite the April 2010 increase, taxes are still relatively low in Australia as a percentage of the final price of tobacco products. The World Health Organization recommends that tobacco excises account for at least 70 per cent of the retail prices of tobacco products. According to the 2013 WHO report on the global tobacco epidemic, excise tax as a percentage of the average price of the most popular brand of 20 cigarettes in Australia is around 51 per cent. Australia lags behind other comparable countries in relation to excise tax-price ratios. For example, excise tax as a proportion of price for most popular brands of 20 cigarettes in France is about 64 per cent, in the United Kingdom is 62 per cent and in Ireland is 60 per cent. In New Zealand, our nearest neighbour across the ditch, it is 61 per cent. The contrast for total tax as a proportion of price is even starker. In France, for example, the total tax as a proportion of price for the most popular brand of 20 cigarettes is 80 per cent; in the UK, 77 per cent; in Ireland, 79 per cent; and, in New Zealand, 74 per cent. Compare that to Australia, where total tax as a proportion of the price is only 60 per cent. So there is still a bit of headroom in our taxation and excise arrangements when it comes to tobacco products.

I am pleased that those on the other side of the House are supporting this legislation and bringing it forward as members of the government. I am disappointed that it does not extend to a total approach when it comes to the tobacco industry. We know that tobacco kills people. It is the only product that, as a former Labor health minister said, when used exactly as the manufacturers intended it to be used, will kill you. And yet we find that on the one hand you have sound legislation like this being brought before the House and on the other you have members of the coalition party accepting donations from the tobacco industry.

The Liberal Party has accepted more than $3 million in donations from big tobacco since 1999. Happily, they have been shamed into embarrassment on this, but that cannot be said for all members of the coalition party. As recently as 4 February the National Party's federal director, Scott Mitchell, confirmed that the party was still accepting tobacco donations with open arms. It is extraordinary, isn't it? On the one hand we are bringing this legislation before the House for a proper public health purpose and on the other hand we have members of the coalition party putting their hand up and saying, 'We will support the tobacco industry by taking their donations.' That is extraordinary in and of itself. It is even more extraordinary when you understand that the government minister who is charged with responsibility for preventative health is a member of the party which has its hand out and is accepting donations from big tobacco.

Over the last couple of weeks we have heard much in this House and the other place about the conflicts of interest that exist within the office of the Assistant Minister for Health and that exist now with the financial contributions that have been made to the National Party, the party of the Minister for Health. It is time, as we see government member after government member come the dispatch box and stand here in support of the legislation, that they do the right thing, take the next step and say, 'From this day forevermore we will disavow donations from big tobacco.' That would be the right thing to do if they want to send an important signal, if they want to send a powerful message, that they stand in a bipartisan way in opposition to big tobacco and the harm tobacco products cause as every new generation of young Australians takes up the habit. Yes, it can be done through the taxation and excise system, and that is a good thing; but, as political and community leaders, we can go a step further and say, 'We will lead by example and we will not take donations from this industry, because we want to see the sunset of this industry and see that happen sooner rather than later.'

This is important legislation. As I have said, it follows from policy initiatives that were brought forward by the previous, Labor, government, and we have a proud record in government of dealing with public health initiatives which are aimed at reducing the incidence of smoking. Our plain packaging legislation was another piece of legislation which originally did not enjoy the support of those opposite. It is now in place and, I hope, entrenched, having survived several legal challenges to its validity. It is this sort of action, this sort of leadership, that is needed if we are to tackle and succeed in ensuring that the scourge of the diseases caused by smoking are addressed. This parliament has a role in showing leadership on the issue. I commend the legislation to the House.