Even if tobacco companies' challenge to the government's plain packaging tobacco laws might have been somewhere between unlikely and quixotic, this morning's win for the government in the High Court is a big one, if only for what might have happened if it had lost.
For a government relentlessly challenged on its competence and that has seen one major reform struck down already when the High Court rejected the Malaysian Solution, a loss would have been another brutal moment for a beleaguered government.
Instead, it gets to celebrate a win over an industry widely reviled in the community. Plain packaging laws might be an intrusive nanny state intervention designed to drive the last few Australians dumb enough to smoke off their drug of choice, but few voters are too bothered; last year support for the plain packaging laws was 49-34 per cent, according to Essential. Even the Coalition eventually fell into line and backed the legislation, though not before giving then-health minister Nicola Roxon an extended opportunity to berate them for receiving donations from tobacco companies.
Expect now Attorney-General Roxon and her successor in the health portfolio, Tanya Plibersek, to revisit that matter in question time today.
Tobacco companies had argued that plain packaging amounted to expropriation of their trademarks. The High Court dismissed the claim and awarded costs to the Commonwealth, but the majority and the court has yet to release its reasons.
But this is also an important win internationally. The government's initiative is a world first and an international coalition of tobacco companies and tobacco-producing countries have mobilised against it in an effort to kill the initiative before it can be demonstrated to reduce smoking (tobacco companies maintain it will increase smoking).
Key Big Tobacco ally Ukraine and Honduras have complained about the laws to the World Trade Organisation. A public consultation process on plain packaging laws in the UK came to an end last week; the same tobacco companies have used the same tactics in the UK as in Australia, such as using front organisations to circulate material against plain packaging.
Plain packaging is the second issue on which Labor's reforms have generated an international backlash from multinationals; the mining tax, even in watered-down form, appears to have fulfilled the fears of mining multinationals of encouraging other countries to impose heavier taxes on mining, with several African, Central American and South American countries all introducing higher taxes. The tax is subject to a High Court challenge here as well.
This story first appeared on www.crikey.com.au on August 15. Republished with permission.