As 2011 grinds on, the commentariat declares with increasing certainty the death of the great reformist spirit of the Labor party. After the Barry O’Farrellanche in NSW, the public seems to agree.
But Health Minister Nicola Roxon’s renewed battle against Big Tobacco proves that Labor’s thirst for reform is yet unquenched. If weeks ago Kristina Keneally and Julia Gillard were lamenting that "the people didn’t leave the Labor party, the Labor party left the people", then Roxon’s push for more cigarette regulation is a sure sign the party will never again leave the people alone.
The courageous scheme spits in the eye of Big Tobacco by forcing them to distribute cigarettes in snot-green packaging splashed with pictures of gangrene and rotting lungs, with the aim of saving children from being suckered in by glitzy packaging. I for one welcome the change — children are notoriously susceptible to marketing. They think branded items taste better than no frills. Now when kids are bum-puffing down behind the BER school hall they’ll be able to choose based on taste alone — another victory for the consumer.
Moreover, kids will be freed from the kind of endemic schoolyard bullying that follows branding. Discrimination against teenagers who could only snatch a pack of Longbeach from their Mum’s purse will be a thing of the past. No longer will the Peter Stuyvesants and Benson & Hedges of the world be able to look down on their lesser siblings.
But it’s a strong policy for reasons other than protecting children, and to suggest that it’s another ineffective, moralistic regulatory intervention at the expense of consenting adults is a shallow political ploy by counter-Roxon forces. Leading the charge of the wreckers is the Liberal Party, who every day gleefully palm yellow envelopes passed under the table by the nicotine-stained fingers of Philip Morris’ and British American Tobacco’s grim agents of death.
The ALP and their sponsors are holding the line with standards held high in their fight against the Libs and big tobacco. What better comrades in the trench of morality’s army than Lion Nathan brewing, Clubs Australia, Goldman Sachs and Raytheon Defence Systems?
It’s inexcusable that the Liberal Party could refuse to support a push to protect Australia’s children from the predations of saleable goods they can’t legally purchase anyway, especially with a former health minister in the opposition leader’s chair. How dare they? The shadow health minister, Peter Dutton, has been running the opposition’s tired old line that there should be "a strong case made" before proceeding with broad-based market regulation. What a hoary old chestnut, trotted out on every issue — "the BER isn’t costed properly", "the carbon tax has no detail", "miners are great people, really guys, serious!"
Dutton should go jam it, because this is a great policy. The packaging decision comes as part of an overall government strategy to combat smoking that has been costed both economically and politically. For instance, Roxon ruled out a 68 per cent increase in excise recommended by the preventative health taskforce, opting instead to stick with the Rudd government’s 25 per cent increase in April 2010. Considering the inelastic nature of cigarette demand, this is akin to only milking the cash cow once a day, rather than 2.72 times, restraint for which the health minister should be commended.
After all, it’s difficult to strike the balance when you’re trying to protect low income earners, pensioners and the disabled from being able to afford both their daily packet of Winnie Blues and a few spins on the pokies.
As for the political cost, Ms Roxon’s courageous decision earns her a rightful place in Labor’s proud tradition of making the hard decisions — regardless of the rank and file. The main recipients of Labor’s welfare state largesse have the highest rates of cigarette smoking: unemployed people (41 per cent), the permanently incapacitated (38 per cent) and those in the lowest socioeconomic bracket (29.9 per cent).
But when it comes to health and the public purse, no effort should be spared by the party to condescend to its supporters.
If you’re unemployed or disabled in Goulburn or Lithgow, having a few darts down the pub is probably one of the only ways to relax in your town. Now your Kent Slims will be splattered with a picture of an amputated limb, a sure way to remind you of how great your life is already. A coup for the party that takes pleasure in the lives of hard-working, ordinary Australians.
Hopefully the new packaging will help shift these unfortunates off cigarettes and prevent new smokers from taking up the habit. Instead they could find other, more productive ways to spend their time, like attending ALP sub-branch meetings to decide what to ban next. More likely they’ll amuse themselves by voting for Tony Abbott.
When all is said and done the ALP should be applauded for having the minerals to engage in real reform. To you, Nicola Roxon, I raise my glass. While I still can.
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