Thursday, April 29, 2010

Smoke And Mirrors

It has been suggested that the introduction of plain packaging for cigarettes from July 2012, along with an immediate increase in excise from midnight tonight has been deliberately timed to distract us all from the decision to delay the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Certainly, it is a stunt which has attracted a great deal of attention, and generated some debate, but whether it is enough to deflect attention from the federal government’s growing list of fumbles, failures and flip flops is doubtful. In fact the only thing that is likely to cause us to forget them is the fact that there are now so many it is becoming difficult to keep track of them all.

There should be no doubt that postponing the Emissions Trading Scheme amounts to abandoning it. If it is ever revived, whether in 2013 or later, it is likely to be more expensive, more complicated and more difficult to pass than it is now. Not one, but two elections will be conducted before it could possibly come into effect, and the chances of Kevin Rudd still being around at that stage are becoming increasingly remote. Even if he is, there is every chance that any future version of the scheme will bear little resemblance to the one which has effectively been scuttled by Tony Abbott’s relentless campaign against it.

As such, the dumping of the plan represents one of the most significant policy backdowns by any government, somehow transforming from the “greatest moral challenge of our time”, to “oh well, we won’t worry about that right now”. But it is far from the only policy retreat exhibited by this government. The COAG agreement on health is not an agreement for the Commonwealth to takeover hospitals at all, with the states now set to retain administration of the new system even though it was the states that were blamed for the administrative failures that have prompted the need for reform in the first place. Then there is a list of other backflips as long as both of your arms.

Let’s see, there’s Grocery Watch, Fuel Watch, private health insurance rebates, general practice superclinics, childcare centres, and of course the bungled and ultimately abandoned home insulation program. But while the government might well wish that we would overlook this ever increasing list of embarrassments, that doesn’t necessarily mean that increasing tobacco excise and introducing plain packaging for cigarettes is just a smoke and mirrors trick to distract our attention.

The fact is that there is nothing good that can be said for cigarettes. There is no benefit to smoking, the adverse impact on health is beyond dispute, the addictive nature of tobacco is insidious, and the social cost is enormous. Research indicates that packaging does have an influence on the decision to purchase, and it is blatantly obvious that higher prices due to increased excise act as a successful deterrent. The simple fact that the smoking rate among adults has already been reduced from about 30% down to just under 17% over the past thirty years has amply proven that.

If that is a distraction, then it is at least a useful one.

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