Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s uncomfortable dissembling over the past day or so on the subject of tobacco taxation has been absolutely priceless to see.
Or maybe it’s not priceless. The Labor Party suggests Abbott’s discomfort carries a price tag of $3 million, that being the total amount the tobacco industry has donated to the Liberal and National Parties since 1998.
But this is a very rubbery figure, as we shall shortly see.
First, the background. Labor has cleverly blended policy and politics in an attempt to kill two birds with one stone. A hefty increase in the tax on cigarettes will help fill an increasingly large hole in government finances bringing in an extra $5.3 billion (over four years), courtesy of smokers. At the same time Labor seeks, as its brand new advertisement says, to portray the Opposition Leader as a politician beholden to the tobacco lobby. Here’s the “Abbott stands for cancer” ad:
Now, about those rubbery figures.
Labor’s ad highlights the fact that between 1998 and 2012 the Liberal Party took $3 million in donations from tobacco companies. (The actual total is $2,692,045. If the Nats are included, it’s well over $3 million.)
But to present that figure in isolation is also extremely disingenuous, given that Labor also copped money from big tobacco over that period.
Not nearly as much money, it is true, but still a substantial sum. Some $630,000 went into Labor’s coffers between 1998 and 2003, compared with about $1.2 million going to the Coalition parties over the same period.
True, in 2004, Labor announced it would no longer accept donations from tobacco companies, which is laudable. Since then, it has received nothing, and the Coalition has received $2 million.
An honest ad would either have included a disclaimer about past Labor practice, or would have taken 2004 as a starting point.
The other big number the Labor Party ad cites is $31.5 billion, which it says is what smoking costs the Australian economy each year. This figure is credible. It comes from analysis done for the federal Department of Health and Ageing, and refers to the years 2004-05.
(We might add, given the Abbott Opposition’s recent proclivity for questioning the impartiality of figures produced by the federal bureaucracy, that this work was done at the behest of the Howard Coalition government.)
The rest of the ad is essentially just a series of grabs of Tony Abbott, in various interviews over the years, defending the right of tobacco companies to make political donations, and the right of the Coalition parties to accept those donations.
To quote one of these grabs: “I don’t see why, if they want to make a donation, we shouldn’t accept it. It is legal to smoke.”
Legal it may be, but it’s still something to be discouraged, because of its enormous personal and social costs. And it is that distinction which Abbott appears not to grasp, which makes him vulnerable to Labor’s attack.
Only the most naïve would believe that companies donate to political parties out of an altruistic urge to support democracy. They donate either for reasons of ideology, or to buy influence, or some combination of the two.
It is not unreasonable for the average voter to wonder what the tobacco companies get in return for their handsome support of one side of politics.
It is even more reasonable for those who know a bit about the cross-pollination of key personnel in the ranks of conservative politics and Big Tobacco to be even more curious.
We refer in particular to Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor.
Crosby was federal director of the Liberal Party when the Coalition first realised the electoral benefits of vilifying asylum seekers. Mark Textor, the Libs’ polling and PR maven, is credited with personally coming up with Howard’s election slogan, “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”
Crosby and Textor specialised in the politics of division and brought to Australia new techniques and terminology. Textor has been accused in parliament of push-polling, in which electors are
telephoned, purportedly by a pollster who, in questioning them about their voting intention, plants negative and often malicious information about the other side.
Crosby/Textor also refined the art of wedge politics, which is a stratagem by which you find a social issue on which your side of politics is united, but which divides those on the other side.
About a decade ago Crosby and Textor went into business together, and are now known as Crosby Textor Group, selling their special skills around the world. Among the organisations they sold them to were tobacco companies.
Right now, their UK operation – and Crosby in particular – is at the centre of a huge row over its links with tobacco. It has been credibly alleged that Crosby Textor entered into a contract with Philip Morris worth potentially £6 million, even while Crosby was working as electoral strategist for the Conservative government of David Cameron.
Coincidentally, the government abandoned plans to legislate, as Australia has done, for plain packaging for cigarettes. Some very pointed questions now are being asked about whether Crosby interceded with Cameron on behalf of his clients. Crosby denies it comprehensively.
To date, Abbott has done nothing to put to rest any conspiracy-minded suspicion about the personal and political links between the Tory-leaning and tobacco. He has resolutely refused to be drawn on whether Australia’s Opposition will support Labor’s proposed tax hike on ciggies.
What makes this reticence all the more peculiar is the fact that there is plenty of evidence on the record that Abbott’s fellow Liberals support the idea of making smoking more expensive.
The then Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull, in his 2009 Budget reply speech, advocated a 12.5 per cent increase in tobacco excise.
“Tobacco,” he said, “is the single most preventable cause of ill health and death in Australia.”
In 2010, Abbott’s own health spokesman, Peter Dutton, enthusiastically supported a rise in tobacco tax, and promised: “This Coalition, when elected at the next election, will continue that commitment to the Australian people.”
Bottom line, it’s a pretty sure bet the Opposition will in the end support the increase, just as in the end it supported plain packaging for cigarettes, despite Big Tobacco’s vehement opposition.
Whether the Opposition takes the next step, and stops accepting donations from the tobacco industry, is more uncertain.
The biggest question of all, though, is how much longer the tobacco companies will keep giving money to the Liberal and National parties. They don’t seem to get much in the way of bang for their millions of bucks.
And sure enough in 2011, the last year for which we have returns from the Australian Electoral Commission – and after the Coalition deserted them on plain packaging – Big Tobacco gave the Libs less than they have at any time since 1998.