Yesterday, Health Minister Nicola Roxon excoriated long-serving Nationals’ MP Paul Neville for supporting the best-known export of his Queensland electorate, Bundaberg rum.
Roxon railed that a Bundaberg rum poster in the window of Neville’s parliament house office was more evidence of the Opposition’s ‘flippant’ attitude to that great national crisis, binge drinking.
Backed into a corner on the alcopops tax grab, Roxon has become steadily more indignant in her rhetoric. Not only did Roxon rely on a pretty thin evidentiary base to support the tax increase, the Government has also shied away from addressing cheap bulk wine (particularly casks) which is the product of choice of many problem drinkers, including young binge drinkers.
Demonisation is a popular way for pollies to fight their way out of an awkward, tight spot. The idea is to portray your opponent as not just wrong but also evil. A glorious battle between good and evil is much easier to conduct than some messy argy-bargy over facts.
Roxon has divided the world into two irreconcilable groups. On one side, there are the good and virtuous like herself and her government colleagues who are engaged in permanent war against binge drinking. Their team includes the thoughtful and morally upright citizens in our community like parents, health professionals and police commissioners.
And the other side? Well, it’s made up of actual evil-doers in the alcohol distilling industry and the ‘flippant’, like the now outed rum promoter from Queensland. People like Neville, Roxon wants you to believe, are wantonly undercutting her great moral crusade against binge drinking.
Flippant is a wonderful word. I had a school teacher who used to thunder, a lot like Roxon does, about our lack of seriousness. We were naughty boys and girls. The charge of flippancy is a way of undercutting your opposition without addressing their arguments.
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But Roxon also has to parse her language very carefully. She wants to be seen to be ever-so tough on drinking without offending the electorally significant wine industry. That’s why she referred to distillers yesterday and left out winemakers and brewers in her list of evil doers.
Presumably, that’s also why she got Amanda Rishworth, Member for Kingston (which includes the McLaren Vale wine region) to ask her the Bundaberg rum question. Rishworth has already proven herself to be a strong supporter of the local wine industry, promising water security for the area. In her first parliamentary speech this year she also spoke proudly of the area’s “magnificent vineyards”.
In Roxon’s confected moral universe the wine industry is OK but rum, a 120-year-old Queensland industry based on a by-product of local sugar milling, has become morally indefensible.