Teaching Law

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Live Cattle Exports and Plain Cigarette Packaging: Public/Private Tensions

There are two hot issues in the twittersphere and in the Australian press at the moment that involve a similar paradox - live export of cattle from Australia and cigarette packaging.  While the latter issue has attracted the attention of libertarians, the former takes a more directly economic focus.  Both however involve an intersection between the public and the private.

The cattle industry in Australia is of course regulated in a number of ways, including in terms of animal welfare and public health.  The live export trade is trending though because of the horror attendant on footage of inhumane treatment of live animals in Indonesian abattoirs. Public outcry has resulted in the suspension of live exports to Indonesia until the welfare of cattle can be guaranteed.

While petitions have gained widespread public support, there has been criticism of the government's decision.  The mayor of Charters Towers for example, asks just how far policing of cattle treatment will go.  Similarly, the ABC reports the loss of 'real Indigenous jobs' as a result of the suspension of exports.  Both these arguments are based on economic impacts of the decision - a decision made based on public interest grounds ie animal welfare, that affect private or market based interests. 

Cigarette packaging might seem a world away from live cattle exports, but this issue shares a similar tension.

On the one hand, the Australian government's policy on smoking is based on a public health argument.  Senator Penny Wong in a radio interview identifies that tobacco companies 'market their products and what this does is remove one of the mechanisms for marketing, which is the labelling'.  Cutting smoking will in turn improve public health outcomes and reduce the cost associated with health care for smoking-related disease.

On the other hand, there are two libertarian arguments against a plain packaging policy.  The first of these rests on the right of an individual to engage in whatever behaviours they like - such as smoking.  'Who is the government to tell me not to smoke?'  The second lies in what amounts to compulsory acquisition of the intellectual property in tobacco companies' logos and packaging. 

Part of the debate about the plain labelling is uncertainty about whether it will actually work to reduce the number of smokers.  In one sense though this is a side issue to the tension between the public and the private.  So while this is a cost-benefit (economic) argument (that would require some evidence that plain packaging would result in the cost savings assumed), it is also a values-based argument. This argument goes along the lines of how much regulation of private interests do we want and expect.  Likewise, live exports represents a values-based argument: in what circumstances do we make regulatory decisions that impact on economic interests.

Perhaps what is needed is a debate about the values upon which we make decisions to regulate.  This is not simply a big government/small government issue, but rather a prioritisation of public values.  Such a debate would forestall the need for focus groups or emergency and reactive online petitions to force government action.  It would lead as well as reflect community expectations, and map a clear pathway towards good policy and clear and consistent foundations for regulation.

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