Did Senator Fielding and spirits lobby group DSICA do a deal over the recent alcopops tax bill legislation? Was the spirits lobby group DSICA’s agreement to instruct its members to stop advertising on TV before 9pm in exchange for Fielding’s move to stymie the government’s proposed tax?

It certainly looks that way — Senator Fielding has issued a media release claiming that this decision by the spirits industry “is a significant breakthrough and one Family First negotiated”. However, he has not revealed the terms of his negotiations and whether the advertising restriction was contingent on his opposition to the alcopops bill.

DSICA’s media release is more circumspect on the issue of a deal over the legislation, merely stating that the decision to limit advertising “follows a long committed campaign by Family First Senator Fielding”.

DSICA may not be going public on its tactics but it beggars belief that the industry would agree to such a move without some quid pro quo. Certainly, there is evidence that DSICA was shopping around the Senate for a deal, as is clear from comments made by Senator Xenophon in the Senate during the debate over the Bill.

The day before the Bill was voted down, Senator Xenophon stated “I note from information I have received from my Office that today the spirits industry has volunteered to have a year-long ban on all television advertising of alcohol products if the alcopops bill does not go through.”

Given these comments and the subsequent statements from Senator Fielding and DSICA, it looks like the spirits sector has made a calculated bid to wear a limited advertising ban (which may have been imposed anyway by this Government) in return for maintaining the tax anomaly which makes alcopops so accessible to young people.

If this is the case, it’s a smart move by the spirits industry. DSCIA has even managed to include an exit strategy for the advertising restrictions, by planning a review of their impact on binge drinking after 12 months. Of course, while the tax break is in place, a limited advertising ban will do little to change demand for alcopops. This leaves the door open for the industry to reverse their ban, on the basis that it did nothing to reduce the harmful effects associated with these products.

If Senator Fielding’s claim to have brokered this agreement with the spirits industry is correct, he should make the terms of his negotiations public, along with any other commitments he has made to interest groups in return for his vote. If his concern about alcohol-related problems in the community is genuine, he needs to explain why he believes that advertising restrictions are more likely than tax increases to reduce consumption of alcopops.

He also should correct his false statement that the Government claimed the alcopops tax would solve the binge drinking problem. Of course, the Government made no such claim and only ever presented the tax as part of an overall strategy to reducing binge drinking, alongside other initiatives such as health promotion campaigns and funding for community and sporting organisations.

The Government’s approach was sensible and pragmatic. Binge drinking is a major health and social problem and the accessibility and attractiveness of alcopops are one of its causes. Increasing the price of these products is an important strategy to reduce consumption of alcohol by price sensitive young people, who are most at risk of alcohol mis-use. Advertising restrictions are another potential strategy which should be considered, but not at the expense of fixing the alcopops tax break.

However, when faced with the current Senatus Horribilis, getting the policy right is not enough. Despite reaching agreement with the Greens and Senator Xenophon over the Bill, the Government has had this important component of its overall binge drinking strategy undermined by Senator Fielding’s decision to block the tax.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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