Standing up for Canberra

Australian National Preventive Health Agency (Abolition) Bill 2014

One would have been forgiven for thinking that a Prime Minister who had previously been a minister for health might have led a government that was passionate about health care—but, when it comes to the Abbott government, nothing could be further from the truth. Immediately after coming to power it was clear that this government cared nought about preventative health and was, in fact, determined to undo so much of the very good work that had been done in this space over the last six years.

In November last year, in one of its first acts since coming to power, the Abbott government inexplicably cut funding to the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia. ADCA had operated since 1966 as the peak body for organisations working to minimise the harm caused by drugs and alcohol on an annual budget of just $1.6 million. ADCA was the non-government national peak body, representing the interests of the alcohol and other drugs sector and providing a voice for those who work to reduce the harm caused by alcohol and other drugs.

ADCA collaborated with government and non-government organisations, business and the community to promote evidence-informed, socially just approaches to confront the health, economic and social harm alcohol and other drugs cause individuals, families, communities and the nation. Members of ADCA included organisations, services, agencies and individuals engaged in alcohol and other drugs sector services nationwide. ADCA counted among its membership major university research centres, tertiary institutions offering courses in addiction studies and programs for alcohol and other drugs workers, officers of the law and the criminal justice system, policy analysts and administrators.

ADCA also offered a range of online services and resources to support the alcohol and other drugs sector in Australia, including the: National Drug Sector Information Service; the Register of Australian Drug and Alcohol Research; the National Inhalants Information Service; the Drug Database; Drugfields, which was a professional development, policy and practice information service for the alcohol and drug sector; Update, an alcohol and other drugs information bulletin board; and Drugtalk, an alcohol and other drugs discussion list. These services, like ADCA, have now all been abolished.

The decision to axe ADCA truly came out of the blue. Last year, under the Labor government, ADCA received an assurance of its ongoing funding. On 14 October last year, the new Prime Minister Abbott wrote to ADCA and said, 'I look forward to working with you in the years ahead.' Yet, just six weeks after the Prime Minister wrote these words, ADCA was axed. Understandably, ADCA has been wondering why. In 46 years this is the only government that has decided it can do without ADCA's advice.

The minister responsible for preventative health, Senator Nash, has failed to provide us with a reason. The AMA said closing ADCA was a bad idea. The National Alliance for Action on Alcohol said it was a bad idea. The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education said it was a bad idea. But the Abbott government and the minister ignored them all.

In February of this year, the Abbott government's already poor track record in preventative health worsened substantially when Senator Nash, through her chief of staff, ordered the removal of the health star rating website within 24 hours of its launch. This health star rating system is a voluntary system for food manufacturers to display star ratings based on the nutritional quality of their food. Two years were spent developing this system. It was two years of research, trials and consultation to work out how to improve food labelling—and it was pulled down within 24 hours. The health star system would have allowed people to more easily compare different brands of packaged food to see which ones are higher in hidden salts, saturated fats and sugars. It is a much-needed step in our ongoing battle against obesity.

After the website was taken down, it was revealed that Senator Nash's chief of staff, who had also played an instrumental role in the axing of ADCA, is the coowner of a lobbying firm that that has represented major food companies who were vocally opposed to the new health star labelling system. According to Fairfax, he also co-owns a company which, in turn, owns another that lobbied for the alcohol industry. This, to me, is the ultimate indicator of the Abbott government's attitude towards preventative health. The person hired by the Abbott government to be the key advisor to the minister responsible for preventative health had spent a considerable amount of their career working for, and still had a financial interest in, companies that actively and aggressively lobbied against the messages of preventative health.

It is no real surprise, then, that the next step in the Abbott government's war on preventative health was to abolish the Australian National Preventive Health Agency, which they seek to do through this legislation. Labor established the agency on 1 January 2011 to support the development and implementation of evidence based approaches to preventative health initiatives. The agency has a particular focus on the areas of obesity and harmful alcohol consumption. The establishment of a dedicated preventative health agency that could work across jurisdictions was widely supported. In November 2008, COAG had signed the National Partnership Agreement on Preventive Health, which included an agreement to establish a dedicated preventative health agency. The National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission's report of July 2009 and the final report of the National Preventative Health Taskforce of September 2009 had both also recommended the establishment of such an agency. Establishing the Preventive Health Agency also had the support of community organisations in the health sector, including the National Heart Foundation, the Public Health Association and the Royal Australasian College of Physicians—to name a few.

The Preventive Health Agency plays a leadership role in preventative health and health promotion, it coordinates, analyses and advises on key statistics and data in relation to chronic disease and prevention and it delivers and administers the Preventive Health Research Fund. One of the key benefits of the Preventive Health Agency is that it does work across jurisdictions. It supports all Australian health ministers in managing the complex challenges of preventable chronic disease. The agency has also worked with Medicare Locals to implement preventative health measures at the primary healthcare level.

I want to talk now about one of the recent initiatives of the Preventive Health Agency. As part of the National Binge Drinking Strategy, the agency ran the 'Be the influence—tackling binge drinking' campaign to help give young people the tools to cope with peer pressure and ensure every night out is a good one. The message of this campaign was that drinking responsibly and having a great night out can go together. In fact, a night out is always better when you are in control and do not put yourself at risk or risk being a burden on your mates. The campaign focuses on communicating with youth where youth are, and so the campaign centres around social media—Facebook, Twitter and Instagram—music festivals and sporting events.

Recently the Department of Finance, through the Cross Agency Social Media Forum—a group of social media users across the Public Service—tracked which government departments, agencies and campaigns attract the most Facebook 'likes' and the most Twitter followers. This research found that the Be the Influence —Tackling Binge Drinking campaign Facebook page is one of the most popular Australian government social media pages in history, with over 189,000 likes to date.

The reason I mentioned this is that so many of the government speakers on this legislation have lambasted the agency for using social media for campaigns and for thinking outside the box when it comes to delivering preventative health messages. But, I ask those opposite: what better way is there to communicate with young people—like you do, yourselves—than in the spaces that they use, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram? The fact is that an ad in a newspaper simply isn't going to cut it when it comes to sending a message about binge drinking to teenagers. Plus, it is expensive.

In their speeches on this legislation, some of those opposite have also spoken about preventative health as a luxury. They have said: 'Let's fix tertiary health first. Once we have done that we can consider looking at preventative health.' What those opposite fail to understand is that you will never 'fix' tertiary health unless you invest in preventative health.

The speeches of those opposite on this legislation have shown just how out of touch they are when it comes to preventative health. They just do not understand it and they do not support it. They think of it as easily dispensable, an overreach of government or an added extra. They fail to understand that preventative health is a crucial component of public health policy, pivotal in ensuring a strong and sustainable health care system.

Let us not forget that abolishing ADCA, pulling down the Health Star Rating website and abolishing the Preventative Health Agency are not the only attacks on preventative health from this government —far from it. The Abbott government's budget of broken also promises to: scrap the National Partnership Agreement on Preventative Health; scrap the National Partnership on Improving Public Hospital Services; cut hospital funding; increase the cost of prescriptions; significantly downgrade the role of Medicare Locals; rip $125 million out of Aboriginal health programs; and introduce the GP co-payment, a financial barrier that will deter people from accessing primary health care. That is just what we know about.

I would call this a sustained and brutal attack on our health system, not to mention a broken promise from a Prime Minister who said as recently as the day before the budget that there would be no cuts to health. The government calls this making our health system more sustainable. That is complete and a nonsense. It shows again just how little understanding the government has about the benefits of preventative health. Investing in preventative health is the best way—in fact the only way—to ensure we have a sustainable health system in the long term. Labor opposes this legislation because we recognise the need for long-term, sustained investment in preventative health. We recognise that preventive health is pivotal to ensuring a strong and sustainable health care system. Abolishing the Preventative Health Agency is shortsighted. The cost to future generations of Australians will be immeasurable.

Finally, I want to add that the Australian National Preventative Health Agency is located here in Canberra, and many of its hardworking, dedicated and specialised employees are my constituents. So tonight, I want to say to them: thank you. Thank you for all that you have done for the health of this country. It has not gone unnoticed. I know that many of you are now in a state of uncertainty, unsure if you will have a job at the end of the month, unsure if the work you have dedicated your lives to for the last three years will continue. I want to assure you that Labor will continue to fight for preventative health and oppose the Abbott government's reckless and damaging cuts to health.

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