May 25, 2011
A DAY after quelling backbench unrest about comments by Malcolm Turnbull, the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, faces a revolt over his refusal to back plain packaging for cigarettes.
A group of senior MPs, led by the former whip and cancer survivor Alex Somlyay, are planning to tell colleagues today that they will be voting for the plain packaging legislation, whether Coalition policy allows it or not.
Mr Somlyay has the backing of two West Australian MPs: Mal Washer, a GP, and Ken Wyatt, the first indigenous member of the lower house and a strong advocate for Aboriginal health.
A source said they planned to tell the Coalition party room they were prepared to cross the floor to support the government measure, which Mr Abbott and his leadership team refuse to embrace and which is fiercely resisted by the tobacco companies.
Mr Abbott, a former health minister who beefed up the health warnings on cigarette packets, says he is not convinced the plain green packets with graphic health warnings will help reduce smoking. Other Liberals argue tobacco is a legal product and the companies have intellectual rights over their brands.
Mr Somlyay and his colleagues will argue that the companies’ preparedness to spend millions of dollars on a legal challenge and public campaign shows they believe the measures will harm sales.
”Losing branding rights is a small price to pay for a substance that kills 19,000 people a year and costs us over $20 million,” said an MP who plans to support the group.
The group hopes to enlist the support of other Liberal doctors, including Andrew Southcott and Alan Eggleston.
The Health Minister, Nicola Roxon, has accused Mr Abbott of baulking at supporting the packaging because the Liberal Party still accepts donations from tobacco companies.
During the weekend and yesterday, Mr Abbott brushed off demands by some backbenchers that he sack Mr Turnbull from the frontbench because of his critique last week of the Coalition’s climate change policy.
Sources close to Mr Abbott say he argued that sacking Mr Turnbull would only spark a brawl just when the Coalition was high in the polls and the government was struggling. Despite widespread dismay over Mr Turnbull’s comments, no one in the party has complained to him directly.
Mr Turnbull’s comments were not mentioned in the shadow cabinet meeting yesterday. Nor was there discussion of reports about a falling out between Mr Abbott and his shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey, after Mr Hockey was set on by his colleagues for proposing changes to the taxing of trusts.
Yesterday, the Coalition sought to swing the climate change focus back on the government’s plan to put a price on carbon. But with the release of a report by the government’s climate commission again underscoring the need for action, the differences of opinion were on display.
The opposition spokesman on climate action, Greg Hunt, issued a statement saying: ”The Coalition recognises the world is warming and that humans are having an impact on that warming”. But other Coalition members, including Nick Minchin, Barnaby Joyce and Dennis Jensen, questioned this.