Transcript of Press Conference – Sydney – Plain Packaging of Tobacco, Appointment to Attorney-General, 13 December 2011
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13 December 2011
Topics: Plain Packaging of Tobacco, Appointment to Attorney-General
E & OE ONLY
Nicola Roxon: [inaudible]… and to tell you that the reason we've been here to gather with other non-government organisations, lawyers, academics, is to talk about the fight against tobacco and what it is that we can do to reduce the influence of tobacco companies in being able to target and market to our children, in being able… [inaudible] addict people to their products, of course being the harm that comes from tobacco-related disease, and the consequence, not just of that personal harm, but the cost to the health system for dealing with that harm.
I've been very passionate about this cause, but I am really aware that there are many people who have for decades worked in this area. And the work that we are now doing in introducing plain packaging in Australia really stands on the shoulders of the work that they have done [inaudible] be able to share information, advice and to look at the tactics that have been used in other countries by tobacco companies to see what lessons should be learned to make sure that we're prepared, and to also look forward to any other steps that can be taken to further reduce the harms of tobacco.
So, I'm going to ask Matt and Simon both to just say a few words, then we're happy to answer questions for your.
So, over to you, Matt, this man in the middle.
Matthew Myers: Thank you. Firstly, I'd like to thank Attorney Roxon.
Legislation like the plain-paper packaging only happens when there’s true champions You're fortunate in Australia to have a true champion with integrity to take the lead in the battle against the tobacco industry.
Anybody who has fought the tobacco industry understands just how challenging and difficult it is.
In addition, we're here to support your plain-packaging legislation. I think it represents the most important new fundamental change in tobacco control. For the first time in over a half a century, it will enable us to prevent the tobacco industry from using the images that have made their products so attractive to Australia's children and the children around the world.
When and if this legislation goes into full effect, I have no doubt, for the first time in history, the tobacco industry will be able to no longer lure children across the world into thinking smoking cigarettes is the way to look glamorous, virulent, beautiful. It is a fundamental change.
I think there's a second important point: the tobacco industry is doing to you what they're doing around the world, trying to circumvent your democratic process by using the courts and the international law tribunals to undermine the decision of the citizens and the Government of Australia.
It ought to be up to the Government of Australia to determine how you're going to protect your children, what you're going to do to ensure that your children do not become the next victims of the tobacco industry.
What we've seen with the lawsuits against you is similar to what we've seen with the challenge of the tobacco industry to Uruguay's [inaudible] increase of its warning labels, to recent proposals in the Namibia to strengthen its warning labels, to smoke-free legislation in Turkey.
It is part of a global strategy to intimidate and prevent governments from protecting their citizens.
The last thing I want to say is, I'm delighted to be asked to come here, because I think it's time for Australia to take a fresh look at an important new idea.
Currently, you are spending millions of dollars of governmental cost to pay for tobacco-related diseases caused by the tobacco industry's wrongdoing.
There's a fundamental question as to who ought to pay those expenses. The citizens of Australia or the tobacco industry executives, many of whom don't even live in Australia. I think it's time for the states of Australia to take a fresh look at whether or not there are legal theories that would allow you to recover those health care costs so that its not the citizens of Australia who are forced to pay them.
I'm delighted to have been asked to come and have the opportunity to have these discussions. I've been delighted with the reception that I've received so far.
And my hope is that a number of governmental officials and governmental entities will seriously undertake an examination about raising that fundamental question: who ought to pay for the health care costs caused by the tobacco industry? You, the citizens of Australia or the tobacco executives around the world?
Nicola Roxon: Now Simon, and then we'll open up to questions.
Simon Chapman: One of the most interesting things we've heard Matt talk about in the seminar today is, of course, the history of the states in the United States suing the tobacco industry with the historical Master Settlement Agreement; $208 billion dollars was the sum which was handed over by the American tobacco companies. And that was because of a whole raft of unconscionable conduct that the industry ultimately agreed that they had been engaged in.
These companies, of course, in the United States are exactly the same companies that operate in this country, and today, somebody will be diagnosed with a tobacco-caused disease, like lung cancer, who took up smoking at a time when that unconscionable, misleading and deceptive conduct was being conducted by tobacco companies in this country 20, 30, 40 years ago.
That's a tragedy and that's a wrong that needs to be righted.
Nicola Roxon: Okay, thank you.
So questions for any of the three of us.
Question: Minister, the Government had one serious failure in the High Court this year in relation to the Malaysia Solution. How confident are you of your legal advice on plain packaging? Can you afford to have a loss?
Nicola Roxon: Thank you. Well, look, I'm very confident that we've got good legal advice and that we are on solid ground. As you would know, if you are doing something that is a world first and is new to Australia, that means it will be tested especially if you're doing it to a tobacco company, who are known to be very meticulous.
So, those issues will get ventilated in the High Court. We're not going to be in a position that we allow ourselves to be intimidated because they are threatening litigation and telling the world that they have deeper pockets. We can't - they've done that to individual sufferers, who have tried to sue them in the past. They can't do that to our government, simply bully us by saying they'll out-spend us or litigate in lots of different areas. We're determined to defend these laws. We think they're good laws. And Australia's Parliament has made very clear all parties support this legislation, and we believe that we should have the right to now implement the law that the Parliament has supported.
Question: Can your game plan be identical to that in the US, being that it's - it was in individual states that sued over there? Should that also be the case for individual states here, do you know?
Nicola Roxon: Well look, I would welcome individual states considering the issue of whether they might take some action. They, of course, do bear a lot of the health costs caused by tobacco-related disease, and I'm pleased that a number of officials and ministers around the country from our state jurisdictions are meeting with Matt while he's here.
He's here to talk about how the case worked in the US. Not for us to decide to be copycats, for us to look at the lessons learned, to see if there is an application here to look at what the next step is in tobacco control, and we are certainly considering those things very carefully.
Question: So what advice has he offered in terms of the tactics of tobacco companies in fighting these claims?
Nicola Roxon: Well, obviously, some of that is appropriately behind closed doors, but a lot of it is public, and that's for us to be aware that the tobacco companies operate as international organisations. They use the law in every way that they can. We have to be prepared to use the law as well, and we are prepared to.
But ultimately, this is a very important public health issue. We've, over decades in Australia, been successful at gradually reducing our smoking rate down to 15 per cent. We want to get down to 10 per cent. And we think that this plain packing measure will be part of our efforts to reduce smoking here in Australia.
Question: George Brandis has put out a media statement, he's accused you of being the high priestess of political correctness, and says that you've got your priorities wrong going into your new role, and that you should be looking at crusading against criminals rather than tobacco companies.
Nicola Roxon: Well, perhaps, unlike Mr Brandis, I think I can do more than one thing at a time. But I do actually also believe that this reveals a message within the Liberal Party and a [indistinct] Liberal Party [indistinct] this legislation that they fundamentally are more comfortable siding with the tobacco companies.
So, when anybody like me comes out and says, let's hold them to account, they get very uncomfortable.
I don't understand why the Liberal Party can't wholeheartedly support measures which are designed to protect our children, which are designed to reduce what is a harm in our country. They did vote for this measure [indistinct] shown themselves to be the most unwilling of supporters, and that's a shame.
Question: Minister, not to get too technical but will your argument therefore in the High Court turn on the government's right to turn - to implement these policies as government legislation taking precedence over companies, does that accept therefore the companies might have an argument in relation to patenting and intellectual property?
Nicola Roxon: Well look, I've said as Health Minister, and I need to tell you that I will say as the Attorney-General as well, that I don't intend to conduct the litigation in the media. There's going to be a lot of twists and turns in this litigation. We will fight any allegations that they may - or any challenges that they issue to our legislation with every possible legal argument that is [indistinct]. I don't think it's my role to put into the [indistinct]. That process has started in the High Court and that process has started in an international tribunal. And we're happy to keep people informed about that process but I'm not prepared to [indistinct].
Question: Robert McClelland has come out and said that he didn't want to leave the position of Attorney-General. I was just wondering did that make you feel like it took the gloss off you receiving the position?
Nicola Roxon: No, look, I can completely understand that. To some extent I am torn too. I loved being the Health Minister. I had a very successful and happy and rewarding four years as the Health Minister. Everyone feels some sense of loss when there is still more to be done in a portfolio.
But I think Rob has done a really good job. He's been a very stable Attorney-General. I think he's taken that role seriously. He's provided good advice to the government and I look forward to now stepping into that role, and similarly providing that sort of advice to the government.
Question: Can I get you to respond specifically though to Mr Brandis's comment about being the high priestess of political correctness. He said in his release that you earned a reputation as an obsessive social engineer, high priestess of political correctness, and you need to put law enforcement, national security and the administration of justice ahead of pet of ideological causes.
Nicola Roxon: I'm happy for you to quote at length any Liberal Party Opposition's person that you want to, but I don't have to agree with them. I believe that I can do more than one thing at a time. I think it's very important for us to be taking this fight [indistinct], and continue to be a priority. And I will absolutely continue with the strong record our government has in making sure that counterterrorism measures, national security laws and others are in order.
But, unlike Mr Brandis, I don't actually think it's important or appropriate for me to discuss the sorts of briefings I'll be getting, when I'm sworn in as the Attorney-General, on ASIO and other national security matters.
Question: How will your personal style differ from that of Mr McClelland [indistinct]?
Nicola Roxon: Oh look, I don't think that's an assessment that I should make. All of us as politicians are different, we all have different strengths and weaknesses. I think Rob has done a good job and I am very excited to have this opportunity. I know similarly that I've done a good job in Health and that Mark and Tanya are very excited about stepping into this role. As politicians you do and have to be able to be versatile and I'm looking forward to the new challenges in this role.
Question: This tobacco plain packaging issue is something that you've been really passionate about. Are you disappointed that - you know, you mentioned before about having to leave a portfolio without seeing it the whole way through. Is that something that concerns you?
Nicola Roxon: No, I'm not. Look, the Prime Minister made clear yesterday that one of the things I will take with me to the Attorney-General's portfolio is the continuing fight against big tobacco. It is one that's now moving into the courts. So that's an appropriate thing to do. But ultimately we're all part of the government. We're not just individuals. I will be equally proud when I see our cancer investments, our GP Super Clinics, our funding arrangements with the states, the after-hours phone service that mums and dads could use if their kids are sick at night, coming online across the country.
And I'll be just as proud as part of the government when that happens as the Attorney-General, as I would have been if that happened when I was the Health Minister.
Question: Will you be urging the states to take on individual claims as suggested earlier against healthcare costs from tobacco damage?
Nicola Roxon: Well look, I wouldn't be so presumptuous as to do that. What I [indistinct] is I would ask my state colleagues, and in fact we're enabling some of that discussion by having that [indistinct] here from the US and available to a number of state officials and ministers. Like us, I think they should consider whether there are options that can be taken. I don't think [indistinct] position about [indistinct]. But I think it's a good discussion to be having here in Australia, [indistinct] the international expertise that [indistinct]. Of course, the home grown expertise that we have is some of the world's leading tobacco control advocates like Simon Chapman and others [indistinct] right here in Australia.
Question: As Health Minister… sorry.
Nicola Roxon: I think there's a couple a bit further out who are after wanting a question. [Indistinct].
Question: Have you taken any legal advice on compensation yet?
Third time lucky sorry. Have you sought any legal advice yet on the compensation?
Nicola Roxon: Well look, we're going to take legal advice and have been taking legal advice on these sorts of things. I don't think it's appropriate for me to publicly discuss those. What we are doing publicly is making clear to the community and to the tobacco companies and to the state and territory colleagues that we are looking at options for what is an appropriate way for us to make sure that we can continue to reduce the levels of smoking in Australia, and that we can look at whether tobacco companies are appropriately being held to account for the costs that are incurred when their products are used as instructed.
Question: Just wonder if I ask Mr Myers a question…
Nicola Roxon: Sure.
Question: In relation to what the Shadow Attorney-General has said, you would have come across political Opposition to what's been alleged here to be social engineering. What's your response to that kind of criticism when you're trying to change tobacco laws, or get compensation when they're saying that you know you should look at targeting crime and national security.
Matthew Myers: I think tobacco poses a unique harm to the citizens of Australia and indeed the world. It is the number one preventable cause of premature death and disease in Australia, and the tobacco industry's behaviour has been unique in the level of wrongdoing and the duration of wrongdoing over many decades.
I think it raises a fundamental question of the right of government to protect the citizens from that kind of wrongdoing on a product that kills when used exactly as intended.
Simon Chapman: Can I say that also as a public health professional… can I say as a public health professional, I'm often astounded about the lack of perspective and the parochialism in this argument because if you go for example over to the Islamic world, there are many countries where the sale of alcohol, let alone the display of packaging of it, is completely outlawed.
And this government isn't outlawing cigarette, it is just taking a modest step really compared to that. Nobody says well has the international alcohol industry stormed into the World Trade Organization about Saudi Arabia or Sudan or any of these countries and said, how dare they for religious reasons have the temerity to ban products like alcohol.
Nicola Roxon: Okay, thanks very much guys. Thank you all for coming.
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