Treasurer, Scott Morrison, has declined to rule out a tax on sugar, only hours after Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce said it was a "bonkers mad" idea that his party would never countenance.
Asked twice on Adelaide radio whether he supported the proposal to tax sugary drinks to fight obesity, the Treasurer said only that it was a well-intentioned suggestion, but his focus was elsewhere for now.
Mr Morrison repeated Mr Joyce's line that the responsibility for diet rested primarily with parents.
"That's certainly something [my wife] Jenny and I seek to practise with our own kids and we all know a bit too much sugary drinks, you know what the kids are like in the afternoon,” he said.
“You try and avoid that wherever possible," he said.
"I think a lot of parents are trying to take this into their own hands.
“But look, everyone has lots of ideas for new taxes.
“What I don't get distracted by, is I don't see any of those suggestions as an excuse to not deal with the expenditure problem."
Mr Morrison's stance echoed Health Minister Sussan Ley, who said on Tuesday the government did not support a sugar tax at this time, but would continue to consider evidence.
Greens leader Richard di Natale will push for a parliamentary inquiry into obesity to provide more ammunition for its own plans for a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks.
But Mr Joyce flatly ruled out a sugar tax – which is being pushed by the Grattan Institute to fight surging obesity – and advised Australians who wanted to lose weight to "eat less".
He said the idea of a tax on sugary drinks was "bonkers mad”.
“But now it's getting more and more momentum so we have got to come out straight away and say, 'we are not going to be supporting a sugar tax,” he said.
Mr Joyce said if the government started down the slippery slope of making moral judgments about foods "it'll just end up with a lot of incredibly angry farmers".
In a report released on yesterday, the Grattan Institute's Dr Stephen Duckett recommended a tax of 40 cents per 100g of sugar in soft drinks, sports and energy drinks which would add 80¢ to the cost of a two-litre bottle of soft drink and raise about $520 million a year.
Shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said through a spokesman that Labor did not support the proposal either, making implementation a long shot.
But Mr Di Natale said the Greens would introduce a private members' bill to implement the tax if the government doesn't act.
"Up to 30 per cent of the sugar Australian kids consume daily comes from nutrition-free sugar-sweetened drinks.
“A tax on these drinks will drive down consumption and should form a part of the response to childhood obesity in this country."
Rural health minister, David Gillespie, said measures already in train – such as the Healthy Food Partnership and the "health star rating" system – were changing the formulation of some foods and should be given time to work.
Australian Food and Grocery Council chief executive, Garry Dawson, said there was no evidence that a sugar tax would have any effect on obesity.
Mr Dawson said even the Grattan Institute acknowledged in its report that the effects of a sugar tax would be a negligible few hundred grams less weight for the average Australian, and the $520 million cost of the proposal would far outweigh any benefits.
"It's the regulatory equivalent of a fad diet. It's suddenly fashionable but, like a fad diet, it's not going to solve the problem."
Convenience stores released their own research showing most Australians think a sugar tax would not help reduce obesity and would increase the cost of living and threaten businesses and jobs.
- This article first appeared in The Australian Financial Review