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The alcohol advertising code’s not-so-independent Chair

The Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) Scheme has announced that former Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr Harry Jenkins AO, has been appointed as the “Independent Chair” of ABAC, commencing on 1 July 2018.

In an ABAC Scheme media release announcing the appointment, Mr Jenkins couldn’t have been more positive about ABAC, describing it as having “kept pace with the times”, “attuned to new and ever-emerging issues”, “proactive and dynamic”, and that it is “demonstrating its willingness to be ahead of the curve”.

In the same release, the CEO of the Brewers Association and Deputy Chair of the ABAC Management Committee expressed the enthusiasm of the Committee for their new appointment, “We’re just wild about Harry”.

We, however, are not convinced.

Attempts to appear independent

Previously, the role of the Chair rotated among alcohol industry members of the Management Committee. In 2015, the ABAC Scheme appointed an Independent Chair in an effort to “provide independence, continuity and a fresh perspective” for the Management Committee.

ABAC is clearly taking steps to give the appearance of independence in their administration by appointing an Independent Chair. But an ‘appearance’ is all it is. The Independent Chair is appointed to the Management Committee by the Directors of the ABAC Scheme. Directors that represent the three alcohol industry peak bodies that fund ABAC – the Brewers Association of Australia, Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia and the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia.

If the media release comments are anything to go by, it appears that the alcohol industry representatives can carefully handpick an Independent Chair whose values align with theirs. The statement that the ABAC Management Committee is “just wild” about the new Chair is a case in point.

Role of the Independent Chair

There is no publicly available information outlining the Chair’s role. The position may have been established as a result of a recommendation in the Australian National Preventive Health Agency (ANPHA) 2014 Alcohol Advertising Report, which examined the effectiveness of current regulatory codes in addressing community concerns about alcohol advertising. The ANPHA report included a recommendation that the ABAC Scheme:

Appoint an independent chair to the ABAC Management Committee, who is not associated with the alcohol or marketing communications industries.

However, it is not clear what influence the Independent Chair can have on the ABAC Scheme’s administration, codes, rules and procedures.

There is no requirement for the Independent Chair to have been previously involved in politics. Yet, the Management Committee has chosen to fill the role with a politically-connected individual. The media release acknowledges the importance of Harry being “highly regarded across the political divide”, which suggests that the position may have a lobbying role. Clearly, having previously worked in Parliament in any capacity provides invaluable knowledge and access to contacts in decision-making roles, and is a good platform for ABAC to continue to promote self-regulation of alcohol advertising.

More of the same?

This is ABAC’s second Independent Chair. Mr Jenkins, who represented the Labor Party, replaces the Hon Alan Ferguson, a former Commonwealth Senator for the Liberal Party who has been in the role since mid-2015.

Even with an Independent Chair, self-regulation by the alcohol and advertising industries has repeatedly been shown to be a dismal failure. ABAC has failed to ensure alcohol advertising is socially responsible and to protect young people from exposure to alcohol advertising. The self-regulatory and co-regulatory codes are continually criticised by public health experts for being narrowly-worded, inconsistent and incomplete. And there are clear conflicts of interest with the alcohol industry acting as the regulators – like foxes guarding the henhouse.

Mr Jenkins’ comments don’t acknowledge the significant failure of ABAC to protect young people from exposure to alcohol advertising in Australia to date. Given the new Independent Chair holds ABAC in high regard despite strong criticism of its effectiveness, it is unlikely there will be any meaningful changes to the ABAC Scheme any time soon.

We’ll leave it up to the readers to decide what level of independence an “Independent Chair” can attain if handpicked by alcohol industry CEOs who are “just wild” about him. It is no longer enough to tinker at the edges of self-regulation. There clearly continues to be an urgent need for independent, legislated regulation of all forms of alcohol marketing to protect young people in Australia.

Danica Keric

Danica Keric is a Senior Research Officer for the Alcohol Programs Team at the Public Health Advocacy Institute of WA.

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