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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.

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