The alcopops excise rise started life as a tax increase masquerading as a stunt last year, back when there were regular accusations the new Government didn’t have anything to do while it waited for all its reviews to be conducted except talk about its budget surplus.
Ah, halcyon days.
These days the Government doesn’t go in to bat much for tax rises, in general preferring to hand money out rather than take it away, which makes the alcopops excise increase even less core business than it used to be.
In the likely event the excise gets voted down, the only political issue will be the optics of handing back several hundred million dollars’ worth of excise to Big Grog. In a variant of the adage “if you owe the bank $100m, it’s the one with the problem”, alcohol companies have belatedly realised they have a problem and are scrambling about what to do with the $300m-odd already generated by the excise. Claiming they’re directing it into health programs won’t cut it, because if a single cent finds its way elsewhere, they’ll cop a hammering.
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The Government can stand back and wash its hands of that mess, despite being its authors, declaring that only the recalcitrant Senate stood between them and stopping teens from binge drinking. The Coalition, the Greens and Xenophon/Fielding will wear the blame out in Voterland, where the idea of taxing alcoholic lollywater is liked. It will also serve as a handy response whenever the Opposition talks about fiscal rectitude.
But either way, its lasting political significance will be no more than that of another stunt, Fuelwatch, which fell by the wayside last year after inquiries, theatrics and Parliamentary ranting, and was promptly forgotten.
In contrast, the Government is deadly serious about getting its IR bill through, which is why Julia Gillard has been hyperactive in negotiating with the Greens and the two unherdable cats from Victoria and South Australia. The Coalition is the fifth wheel in the process and knows it. In contrast to the epic debate last week, the issue wasn’t even debated in the joint partyroom this morning, where IR spokesman Michael Keenan briefly discussed some new technical amendments to the Government’s bill and there was no further discussion.
The point repeatedly being missed in all analysis and commentary on the Senate is that this remains an astonishingly — almost disturbingly — popular government, and voters’ instinctive sympathy is with it rather than the Senate. Repeated obstruction by the Senate of the Government’s agenda will, as long as the Government displays some flexibility and willingness to negotiate, be a political problem for its opponents, not the Government, for some time to come.
Not that that applies to its ETS bill, because Penny Wong has not displayed the slightest interest in discussing the bill with the minor parties. Her sole interaction so far has been to write to the Greens, Xenophon and Fielding asking that the bill be referred to the Senate Economics committee.
Proper consultation takes time and effort, but not a great deal. It involves offering private briefings to senators and their staff, keeping them in the loop on intended process, sitting down first at officials’ level and then face-to-face to discuss issues over the course of a number of meetings so that positions can be debated, advice sought from bureaucrats, possible deals discussed. And even if you can’t get agreement, it makes independent senators more inclined to negotiate the next time.
On something urgent, or ostensibly urgent, like the stimulus bill in February, that process has to be considerably shortened, but on a long-gestating bill like the ETS, consultation would have been straightforward and only required a simple investment of time and energy by Wong.
Perhaps she wanted to, but was constrained by the Prime Minister’s Office. Perhaps Chris Evans, Government Leader in the Senate, has his own way of doing things. In any event, Wong appears high-handed and uninterested in negotiating on one of the most important issues facing the country. It makes for a dire contrast with Julia Gillard, who, because she’s deputy leader and is trusted to run her own portfolios, was already having tea and bickies with independent senators when Coalition MPs were still flying into Canberra last week to argue over the bill.
It also shows what’s really important to this Government.