Speech on the Australian National Preventative Health Agency (Abolition) Bill 2014

03 June 2014

Dr CHALMERS (Rankin) (18:10):  It is my honour to follow the member for Dawson. The member for Dawson is often entertaining but almost always wrong. He is wrong in this case about the Australian National Preventive Health Agency (Abolition) Bill 2014. As hard as it is to believe, this bill does abolish the Australian National Preventive Health Agency, and in doing so it takes Australia a huge leap backwards in the area of public health. It is being abolished not because it was not doing good work but because it was a proud achievement of the former Labor government. In that respect, the short-sightedness when it comes to investing in the future is breathtaking.

The abolition of this agency is not an isolated assault. It comes on top of tens of billions of dollars in cuts to hospitals, attacks on Medicare and the scrapping of the National Partnership Agreement on Preventive Health—all in this one horror budget. The $360 million worth of cuts to the national partnership funding, for example, will see the closure of countless programs that were tackling obesity, that were increasing physical activity and improving healthy eating for adults and children right around the country. Not only will this government make it harder for Australians to see the doctor; they will make it harder for people to develop the healthy lifestyles that will keep them away from the doctor's office to begin with.

The government is trying its absolute hardest to turn Australia's proud system of universal Medicare into a two-tiered American style health system in which only the richest have access to good quality health care. Labor will resist this government's attempt to undermine the founding principle of our health system, that Australians should get the health care they deserve and not just the health care they can afford.

Cuts to preventative health are just one of many cruel cuts in the Abbott government's budget of broken promises and twisted priorities.   The day before the election, the Prime Minister now famously went on Sunrise on national television and told Australia that there would be no cuts to health and that in fact funding for health would go up. Like so many others, this has proven to be a broken promise and a clear demonstration that this Prime Minister and this government just cannot be trusted when it comes to health care in our country.

Cuts like these are not just cruel. They are not just crazy. They are both. Cuts to preventative health will cost Australians in the long term, placing a greater burden on the hospitals and primary health care providers of tomorrow. But it goes further than this. Investment in preventative health is investment in healthier, happier and far more productive communities. This government's attack on preventative health funding is an attack on those communities—on my own community in Rankin—and will lead to worse health outcomes for countless Australians.

I spoke in this place last week about the human face of this budget of broken promises and twisted priorities. I would like today to talk about the human face of the brutal cuts to preventative health in the budget, including the cuts to the National Preventive Health Agency and also the national partnership that I mentioned a moment ago. After the budget a couple of weeks ago, I met with a group of very concerned locals—devastated locals—who described to me the devastating impact of the health cuts on the Good Start Program on the Maori and Pasifika communities that this program seeks to support. The Good Start Program does some tremendous work in my area and in the member for Forde's area as well, reaching out to Maori and Pasifika families to combat community health problems like obesity, unhealthy eating and physical inactivity.

Health statistics amongst the Pasifika community in Queensland are really scary. The death rate for diabetes among Queenslanders born in Oceania is almost 230 per cent higher than the rate among Australian-born Queenslanders. Maori and Pasifika people are also far more likely to suffer from heart disease, vaccine-preventable diseases and smoking related diseases as well.

It is not okay for a government to sit on its hands as a sizable group of its residents die prematurely from preventable diseases. We need to do all we can to make sure that the Maori and Pasifika kids that live in my community, kids that I see around Rankin every day, live lives as long, healthy and productive as other Australians. We need to do all we can to eliminate the health divide that continues to widen not only between Pasifika Australians and the general population but also between low-income Australians and the better off, rural Australians and the city-dwellers, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and the rest of us.

My community is incredibly fortunate to have a program like Good Start. It is a disgrace to see that it only has a few more weeks to run. The electorate of Rankin has the second-largest number of New Zealand-born residents of any community in Australia, with almost 14,000 people. As such, my area—and that of the member for Forde—is hit harder than many by the higher incidence of preventable disease among Maori and Pasifika Australians.

This is one reason why the last Labor government invested so much in preventative health in Australia. It is why we introduced the Australian National Preventive Health Agency: to lead a concerted national approach to preventative health in Australia. It is why, through national partnership agreements with the states, we funded programs like Good Start to attempt to narrow that divide in health outcomes among the general populace.

Good Start has entered into partnership with several schools and community groups in my area to work collaboratively to improve health outcomes. They have tailored the fundamental lessons of community health—which are nutritious eating, physical exercise and moderation in alcohol consumption—to the large Pasifika and Maori community in my area, and it is beginning to work. The preliminary evaluation of the Good Start Program in schools, conducted by the University of Queensland in the second half of last year, is really encouraging. The report says:

Preliminary results show that the Good Start Program is having a positive effect on knowledge and attitudes with regard to both fruit and vegetables, and physical activity—both important lifestyle influences of chronic disease.

This is an excellent outcome for health and wellbeing in my community but unfortunately one where the investment is about to be cut off.

The results of the study are fantastic, but the schools and community groups involved with Good Start do not need these academic studies to tell them how important their work is. Woodridge State High School, in my electorate, have described the program as 'outstanding' and attribute a substantial increase in HPE results among Good Start participants as a sign of its success.

Te Korowai Aroha, an organisation devoted to raising the profile of Maori and Pacific islander people in my area, have a strong working relationship with Good Start and nominated them for a public sector multicultural award last year. Together, they have worked towards offering healthier options at the annual Waitangi Day festival at the Kingston Butter Factory, in my electorate.

The Mater Child and Youth Mental Health Service coordinator describes the Good Start Program as 'a crucial service for the Pacific island communities in Queensland' and as a 'vital health service'—'the only culturally tailored service in response to chronic disease'.

And yet, because of this budget of broken promises and twisted and sick priorities, funding for Good Start will cease on 1 July this year. The result is that hundreds of children in my area who already have the scales of probability of future health issues tipped against them will miss out on these unique, life-improving, culturally tailored education programs. A Change.org petition calling on the Queensland Minister for Health, Lawrence Springborg, to continue the Good Start Program is already attracting lots of support, and I would encourage all of those who care about this issue to get on board with that survey.

The government's short-sighted position when it comes to preventative health funding is a clear indication of their warped values and priorities. They can find room in the budget to pay $50,000 to millionaires to have babies. They can find room in the budget to give superannuation tax concessions to the wealthiest 20,000 Australians. They can find room in the budget for a $100 million union witch-hunt and $20 million for marriage-counselling vouchers. But they cannot find room in the budget for preventative health services to improve the life quality and life expectancy of some of our most disadvantaged Australians.

It does speak to the difference between the two parties. On this side of the House, when we were in government, we did recognise the value of and the need for long-term investment in public health. We did see the need for a National Preventive Health Agency to drive a long-term agenda of improved public health outcomes and to develop the infrastructure necessary for important programs to get off the ground.

You only need to look at the list of programs and projects that the agency manages to see its importance. For example, there is the independent review of the advertising of unhealthy food and drinks to children; the National Binge Drinking Strategy and the associated investigation into the public interest case for establishing a minimum floor price for alcohol; and its National Tobacco Campaign and the My QuitBuddy smartphone app that it developed to help Australians stop smoking. The app has been downloaded over 265,000 times, and over 40 per cent of smokers using the app reported being smoke-free after six months. That is a whole lot of people living healthier and happier lives directly as a result of the work of the Australian National Preventive Health Agency. It is also a whole lot of people who are far less likely to develop smoking related diseases, saving the health system money in the long term.

The Labor Party understands that spending on preventative health is an investment that will pay off in the future. Apart from it saving us money to treat preventable diseases in the future, studies have also shown that improving general health also, in turn, improves economic wellbeing. So these cuts to preventative health have the potential to lead to a less productive workforce and a less prosperous economy in the months and years and decades to come.

Cuts to preventative health also underline the hypocrisy of this government's approach to health policy. The Treasurer and the Minister for Health have attempted to justify their $7 GP tax as some kind of attempt to ensure the sustainability of Medicare. But, at the exact same time, they attack the sustainability of the health system through these cuts to preventative health, which defer the burden of health spending into the future.

Their hypocrisy on this point just shows that their attack on Medicare and the health system is ideological and has no basis in rational and strategic thought. As I said before, the short-sightedness of this cut is absolutely breathtaking.

The Labor opposition will be opposing these cruel cuts to preventative health, as we will be opposing the brutal attacks to Medicare in the weeks to come. We are not doing so just because they are a broken promise by the Prime Minister, although they are most certainly that. We are doing so because these cuts will lead to a worse Australia in the future, an Australia which is less healthy, less active and less economically productive. My community in Rankin, the people I represent, the people who send me here, will be worse off as a result of these harsh health cuts.

Mr Van Manen:  Have you been there?

Dr CHALMERS:  I am there in that community in Logan City much more than the member for Forde is. At four mobile offices in my electorate on the weekend—four more than the member for Forde would have done in his electorate, because he would have hidden from this budget of broken promises and lies—people came to me concerned that they would no longer be able to afford the health care—

Mr Van Manen:  Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order. I think the member for Rankin can focus on his electorate. We are out in the electorate plenty. I am happy to explain the budget to my constituents.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr Broadbent):  There is no point of order.

Dr CHALMERS:  I would have thought the member for Forde would be too embarrassed to interject on something like this, given we both represent the same city council of Logan. As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted, at four mobile offices in my electorate on the weekend, people came up to me concerned that they would no longer be able to afford the health care that they need. It is on behalf of my entire community—and on behalf specifically of the local Maori and Pasifika community, who will miss out on this vital public health education program I have spent some time on today—that I will be voting against these health cuts. Anyone who votes for them is consigning our communities and our country to a sicker and poorer future, and that is unforgivable.