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One Principle of Liberalism Seemingly Forgotten in the Plain Packaging Debate This Week

The federal government’s plain-packaging laws have passed their latest hurdle, a legal challenge in the High Court of Australia which was struck down earlier this week, paving the way for the commencement of the policy from the 1st of December this year. The judgement was eagerly awaited with some predicting the costs of a potential loss at billions of dollars for loss of trademark and intellectual property.

But alas, this never transpired and we are just months away from olive green becoming the most hated colour in the country- or maybe it is already given that it was chosen as the colour for the so-called “drab packaging” that tobacco products will now be clothed in.

On the free choice side of the debate it was all about the right of companies to their intellectual property and trademarks despite the judgement by the highest court in the land.

But there was one element of liberalism that has seemed to be conspicuous in its absence from the debate over the plain packaging laws at least around and since the judgement and that is the ‘Harm Principle’ as defined by the philosopher, John Stuart Mill. This principle states that the actions of individuals should only be limited in order to prevent harm to other individuals. Writing in his book On Liberty, Mill stated “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Since the judgement, people have screamed, “well what about putting alcohol in the same ordinary and uniform packaging boat?”. I’m not exactly sure, but last time I checked, the decision to inhale dangerous amounts of alcohol was completely up to the user and the fumes, while awful and an assault on the senses for those within cooee of a heavy drinker, do not have the ability to kill.

That doesn’t mean the effects of alcohol, which have had increased public exposure recently won’t lead to harm to others, sadly they will and that is an horrific reality of a mind-altering substance. Moves have and will continue to be made in an attempt to reduce that harm that is caused to others around heavy drinkers. The difference here is that there is generally a safe level of alcohol consumption before your behaviour becomes thuggish whereas with smoking there is not. Violent offenders too can be that way with or without buckets of booze in their systems.

Putting harmful tobacco products in uniform packaging has only a little, in itself to do with affecting in a positive way the idea put forward by the 19th century political philosopher. But it may go some way to achieving that end.

To put cigarettes in olive green packs will likely not lead to an immediate cut in the rate of smoking as those already puffing away will likely continue as they know their brands well and the new packaging will have little or no impact on their decision-making processes. It’s even debatable whether or not the changes will have any real impact at all with no practical evidence The graphic pictures which couple with the health warnings may continue to contribute to a decline in the rate of smoking as evidence has shown.

But old-style army colour packaging, while possibly contributing to cutting down in the long-term the amount of people sucking back on a cancer stick, coffin nail, call it what you will, while diminishing the harm caused to others by this dreadful habit, will not completely remove that threat of harm to others. Only other measures can do that.

But surely any measure that does have at least some impact in diminishing the number of people smoking in the country surely removes the harm caused to some people and should be celebrated as a positive for public health. Second-hand smoke is bad after all and the less people blowing smoke in your face the better.

But given the danger that smoking is to not just the user, but those around them, the application of the Harm Principle could go much further. Think asbestos. That product causes awful sickness and death too, though smoking at a much higher rate, bu asbestos was phased out late in the 20th century and then banned by the government in 2003.

It is true also that a lot of the harm to others has been removed with many states banning smoking in a variety of public spaces which differs state by state, territory by territory. This can only be seen as a positive step forward.

Moves might continue toward an eventual ban of these slender killing machines, but only when the federal government finds within itself the ability to wean itself off the revenues generated in an attempt to change the behaviour of individuals. Then and only then will the true and full extent of the Harm Principle of John Stuart Mill be realised. That and it might well save substantial healthcare dollars which could be funneled elsewhere.

Question Time Ahead of Time

Parliament has now returned to Canberra after six weeks break and so has the associated noise and lack of courtesy and decency during Question Time. Things were looking up. There were wonderfully heartfelt speeches in the chamber at the commencement of Question Time in expressing the condolences of the parliament to the families of both Sargeant Blaine Diddams of the SAS and art critic and writer Robert Hughes who both passed away during the winter recess.

But that is where the respect and decency ceased. After over half an hour of speeches paying respect to Sgt. Diddams and Robert Hughes, which included a brilliantly animated and well-spoken speech by Malcolm Turnbull Question Time began.

Somewhat surprisingly at least, Question Time was dominated by asylum seeker politics. It was surprising insofar as it meant that the carbon price, the major battleground of this parliament did not even get even a skerrick of attention from the Coalition, nor for that matter from the government through their usage of the Dorothy Dixer.

What was also surprising about this is, given the outcome of the expert panel on asylum seeker policy, is that the government also used Questions Without Notice to heap attention on the issue. Now, it wasn’t a complete win for the Coalition. Nauru and Papua New Guinea will be used, but in a slightly different capacity than the outright detention under the Pacific Solution. But at the same time, asylum seekers that go there will likely languish for a very long period.

It would appear likely that the Coalition strategy from today, to focus on the half backflip of the Gillard Government on this area of policy will continue in Question Time on Wednesday. Not wanting to give up the opportunity, the Coalition will almost certainly continue to highlight the recent history of the ALP in asylum seeker and refugee policy. This should continue even though the new amendments will be supported by the Coalition. This attack will also likely continue even if the bills pass the House of Representatives before Question Time at 2pm.

What is far from certain regarding this policy shift on asylum seekers is whether the government will continue to highlight the importance of implementing the policy when the Coalition have agreed to support it in parliament.

Electricity prices were raised during Question Time, once, just to break up the monotony for the briefest period of time and this could again make an appearance in Dorothy Dixer’s and maybe in questions from the Coalition if refugee policy doesn’t completely dominate.

Failing asylum seeker policy dominating Question Time again, it is within the realms of possibility that the parliament could return to the tried and tested debate over the carbon price with the Abbott-led Coalition attacking the policy and the Gillard Government attempting to highlight the compensation package associated with the price on carbon.

Another likely inclusion, at least as far as the government’s questions to itself goes is the High Court case on plain packaging of tobacco products. This case today ruled in favour of the government, allowing them to proceed with their legislation. It’s almost certain that the Labor Party will dedicate at least one question to this matter.

Whatever the fuss that’s focused on, it all begins from 2pm Wednesday.

In a Year of Decision and Delivery is it the Number of Bills or the Reform Nature of the Bills That Matters Most?

Much has been made of the frankly dreadful year that the Gillard led ALP Government have endured in 2011 against the Abbott led Coalition. The Government has claimed that Tony Abbott is a “wrecker”, but the evidence just does not stack up on that, in fact it points to him having not succeeded in that at all. The only bill shelved so far has been the so called ‘Malaysia Deal’ and that would have been an absolute shame to have seen it go through the parliament.So what matters most when deciding whether the “year of decision and delivery” has been a successful one for the Government? Is it the quantity of bills passed by the parliament (apparently 250 when parliament adjourned for 2011) or is it the quality? In other words depth and reformatory nature of the bills passed.

As just mentioned, no less than 250 bills have been passed by this Labor Government in this sitting year of parliament. A pretty impressive number one would have to admit on the face of it, meaning that a lot of work was certainly done by the Government in the relatively few sitting weeks of parliament.

What the 250 bills passed does not tell is the nature of the bills or the complexity of the legislation that was put before the house. Indeed, the sheer number of bills passed indicates to me that the absolute vast majority were not of a major policy shift or innovation. It indicates that the vast majority were indeed lacking in controversy and by nature, mostly amendments and additions to existing legislation.

So then we must look at the amount of bills of a major nature that made it through both houses of  parliament or those that have gone through the Lower House and are likely to pass the Senate early in 2012.

This year saw the passage of the National Broadband Network (NBN) related bills, the Carbon Tax legislation (all 18 related bills) and the bills for plain packaging of cigarettes through both houses. The Minerals Resource Rent Tax went through the Lower House just last week and will be off to the Senate early next year.

The sheer number and complexity and indeed controversial nature of the major bills passed means some credit should be given for getting them through the parliament at least.

The carbon tax however, is still at this stage a major political problem for the Gillard Government with the public not at all expecting a carbon tax from our current Prime Minister and getting one after a blunt promise was made that Australia would not have one. So effectively, you could cross that off the list.

The NBN is an extremely expensive proposition that will continue to cause some problems but is more popular than the carbon tax and therefore unlikely to see votes seep from the ALP. However, if cost predictions blow out or there are roll-out problems this could cause major headaches the the Labor Government.

The Minerals Resource Rent Tax looks fairly certain to pass parliament, perhaps with further amendments from the Greens in the Senate and is a popular policy with the wider electorate. The Government though will have to watch that the revenue predictions are correct and that a hole doesn’t open up when the Government begins to fund some of the tied in schemes.

The plain-packaging laws are an entirely new proposition globally with the Australian Government being the first to embark upon them. On the face of it, the idea seems to be a very sound one given the immense costs to the health budget from the deadly product. There will be a worry though about trademark infringement which may end up costing the ALP Government significant money.

So the Government you can safely say has completed a fair volume of work in 2011, which if you are of the same ideological bent as me, is not always a good thing, in other words, likely created even more regulation. There are also cautious congratulations due for plain packaging of cigarettes for fear of court challenges and a ‘watch this space’ for the cost and revenue impacts of the NBN. The Carbon Tax and mining tax, well you have heard enough anger about those already.

So clearly it is more about the depth and complexity of bills  far over and above the sheer weight of numbers which are often just a ‘quick fix’ amendment or addition. By any estimation though, the Gillard Government has had a truly awful year, a large blame for that the carbon tax broken promise, but that was not the only thing.

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