Getting Abbott off the habit

“KICK the habit, Mr Abbott.” Them’s fighting words! This is the other face of reforming Health Minister, Nicola Roxon.

In her monumental stoush with big tobacco she has also put a heavy calibre shot in the guts of the Liberal Party. And it’s worked – the Libs have finally conceded and will support plain packaging of tobacco.

Big tobacco has come in ready to fight. But Roxon has responded to the fisticuffs with gloves off. Tobacco companies are frenetic in their opposition to something they ironically argue will make no difference to smoking rates.

There are even arguments that plain packaging will fund terrorist organisations.

Their claims fail the “scream test” – if it will make so little difference, why are the tobacco companies putting so much effort into resisting? Secondly, the World Health Organization supports the move so strongly that Roxon has been granted, on World No Tobacco Day, a timely special award by director general Dr Margaret Chan.

The tools big tobacco are using include getting American Congressmen to write to the Australian Government, asking the Malaysian Government to do the same and they are using world trade negotiations as one of their tools to defeat this move by the Gillard Government.

But their product is different from all others – used as directed, it kills half of all the people who use it.

Big tobacco is operating just the way they are portrayed in the biting movie satire “Thank You for Smoking”, where Nick Naylor, who represents cigarettes, explains: “That’s the beauty of argument, if you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.”  Also sounds like oppositional politics – and Tony Abbott is a master exponent!

British American Tobacco gives 97 per cent of its global donations to the Australian Coalition, Roxon told Federal Parliament.

This is the habit that she wants the Opposition Leader to kick. Being addicted to big donations is a disaster for democracy and nowhere is it clearer than with big tobacco companies who are taking extreme measures to resist the important health initiative of plain packaging.

This is the same Tony Abbott who as health minister did nothing new to reduce the scourge of tobacco use in stark contrast to his conservative colleague Michael Wooldridge, who was proactive across a range of anti-tobacco initiatives and Liberal backbench MPs such as Mal Washer – a GP who, despite the tight numbers in Parliament, provided leadership by announcing he has the courage to cross the floor on the issue.

This raised the spectre of a split in the Coalition lines. The reality is that the Leader of the Opposition has to balance truckloads of money going into the Coalition coffers against legislation that will improve the health of our community.
It has taken huge pressure from within his own ranks and from health organisations to get him to move on what should have been obvious.

Donations do influence political parties. It is obvious to anyone who watches politics. How could big donations not have an influence? Blind Freddie can see it! Why don’t politicians and political parties allow themselves to see it? A desperate government in the twilight of its term in NSW took action on political donations because it knew that the community understands the impact of this sort of money on governments.

The tobacco wars should serve as a catalyst for reforming the system of political donations across the country.

If this awful product can have such an influence, what about other businesses such as developers, pharmaceuticals gambling, alcohol or junk food that are driven to put profit ahead of the public interest?

The admission made by then-Premier Kristina Keneally in shepherding this funding reform through the NSW Parliament is that such donations do influence, they do have an insidious effect and, as such, tainted funds are entirely inappropriate to provide support for political parties.

The NSW approach of legislating limits on spending in elections at the same time as banning particular donations provides a blueprint for protecting our democracy from this insidious influence.

At least instead of his whining opposition to almost everything the Government does, Abbott has announced the Liberals will not oppose the plain-packaging legislation. However, this situation highlights the need to take the Liberal Party off the tobacco companies’ teat and use the opportunity as a catalyst to improve democratic institutions by providing genuine leadership in political party donation reform.

Michael Moore was an independent member of the ACT Legislative Assembly (1989 to 2001) and was minister for health. He is currently the CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia.

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