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Wednesday, 28 March 2007
Page: 147

Senator BOSWELL (Leader of The Nationals in the Senate) (7:07 PM) —I wish to raise in the chamber today an issue of utmost importance, not just to the families of Australia but to the country as a whole. There is a massive problem in Australia with the lack of involvement by our young people in organised sport and fitness. Too much time is being spent in front of the TV, PlayStation or computer and not enough at sporting fields, ballet halls and swimming pools. When you ask young children what their favourite game is, many will reply PlayStation 3 or Nintendo. Gone are answers such as cricket, footy, netball or even marbles. This lack of involvement is being caused by a number of things, including the length of the working day for parents, the high number of children in after-school care and the fear of many parents of injury or harm if their children are not safely seated in the lounge room.

However, one of the biggest factors in this whole debate is the rising cost of participation in children’s sport. At the moment, most parents are signing up their children for winter activities such as soccer, football, netball or hockey. It is not unusual for families to be faced with a bill of over $100 for each child just for the opportunity to be part of a team—that is, before uniforms and travel costs are included. Individual sports such as swimming, dancing and athletics are even more expensive, yet the value from a public health point of view of young people being physically active is huge. If children are not involved in some form of organised physical activity, there are severe implications for their weight, self-esteem and wellbeing.

Much has been written in the media about the physical implications for the nation’s children of obesity, including diabetes, heart disease and early onset of puberty. The mental implications of childhood obesity are also very important. The lack of self-esteem and the self-loathing and doubt that can be manifested by overweight and obese children and teenagers affects them for the rest of their lives. The most recent focus has been on the food that our children eat, on the influence of fast food advertising and on the importance of educating parents and children on healthy eating choices. The other side of the equation, however, is equally important: exercise and physical activity. The government has a responsibility to help every Australian family get moving.

Evidence suggests that the rising cost of participation in sport is a massive barrier to increased involvement. Ask any parent who has active children to list the cost of that involvement and I am sure that everyone in this chamber would be staggered. The limited available official data from the ABS household expenditure survey indicates that, for households with dependent children, the amount spent on sporting club subscriptions increased by 88 per cent, from 92c per week in 1998-99 to $1.73 per week in 2003-04. This is a much bigger increase than the growth in average incomes of these households, which was 32 per cent over the same period. That 88 per cent increase in sporting club subscriptions in five years does not include new boots, swimmers, goggles, uniforms, ballet shoes, bats, rackets, gloves and protective helmets, nor the petrol required to transport children to fixtures.

The sports participation component of the CPI has also been significantly greater than the increase in the overall CPI. For example, between June 1998 and December 2006 the sports participation component of CPI increased by 54 per cent, while the CPI increased by 28.5 per cent. Whilst the nature of both of these statistics cannot guarantee that the expenditure is only on children, the reality is that most families are paying more to be involved in physical activity. This increase is significantly higher than the CPI and is leading to families not allowing their children to be involved.

Sporting club costs are rising to the point where cost becomes the determining factor in a child’s involvement. A number of factors have most likely contributed to rising costs in these areas. The Senate Economics References Committee review of public liability and professional indemnity insurance stated that sport and recreation organisations have been most likely disproportionately affected by increases in the cost of public liability cover. Increased premiums for insurance have most probably been passed on to sports participants. Some increases cited in the review included the following: Surf Life Saving Australia Ltd premiums increased from $153,000 to $600,000 from 1996 to 2001; Soccer Australia premiums increased from $42,785 to $440,000 over one year; and Australian Swimming premiums increased between 150 and 350 per cent among affiliated organisations.

Also compounding the pressure on clubs and sporting organisations is the push for public authorities to move to full-cost recovery for the hire of premises. Council and government owned sporting fields are in many cases no longer made available to clubs at subsidised rates. As well, some clubs have to employ professional people in roles such as treasurer, secretary and canteen convener because the voluntary support from the community is not as available as it used to be.

Of great concern is the link between lower income families and sporting activities. A research report by the University of South Australia found a strong correlation between participation and family income. The study determined that parents of junior sport participants were predominantly in white-collar occupations. In particular, the data suggested that the direct and indirect costs favour children from high-income families with a flexible daily routine, or those having one parent at home full-time or part-time to provide transport and other means of practical support. The authors of a similar study cited in the research concluded:

There can be no question, on the basis of the findings of this study, that there remain substantial socio-economic barriers to children’s participation in club and representative sport.

I believe there needs to be a greater incentive for parents to get their children into physical activity, and for the last few weeks my office has been working on a proposal of a tax allowance for the registration and tuition costs of children’s sport. Last week the Australian Sports Federation Alliance contacted all MPs with an extremely similar plan. We were working in parallel, and I have since met with the alliance to consolidate our approaches. Both the Australian Sports Federation Alliance and I have called for a taxation deduction of at least $250 per child per annum, up to their 17th birthday. I am also proposing that families who do not have a taxable income should be able to present their receipts for up to $250 to Centrelink to receive a proportional payment equivalent to the tax rebate.

The net benefit to families via both systems would be about $75 per child per year. This benefit would allow families to claim for the equivalent of one winter sport and one summer sport registration, or a more intensive program like summer swimming lessons. I am also proposing no bottom age limit, as I believe that teaching young children the importance of an active lifestyle is absolutely important. The most common activity for children under five is swimming lessons and—especially in Queensland, where water is the focus of so many family activities—the more youngsters that we can save from drowning deaths and injuries by this government incentive, the better.

The ASFA’s proposal notes that similar actions have recently been taken by the Canadian government to provide tax incentives of up to $500 per child for children’s sporting involvement. The Australian Sports Commission has a long-established definition and criteria for recognising which activities are defined as sports and which sporting bodies are recognised. ‘Sport’ is defined as:

A human activity capable of achieving a result requiring physical exertion and/or physical skill which, by its nature and organisation, is competitive and is generally accepted as being a sport.

According to this definition, then, eligible activities would be undertaken at least once a week and for a period of at least 10 weeks and would include, amongst others: swimming, dancing, team sports, horse sports, gymnastics, athletics and martial arts. Extra curricular activities which have limited or no physical activity component, such as chess, yoga, drama or music classes would not eligible for rebates. I seek leave to have the rest of my speech incorporated in Hansard. (Time expired)

Leave granted.

The incorporated speech read as follows—

I am suggesting that tax deductibility would also not be available for the cost of transport or equipment like shoes or uniforms but would cover officially receipted costs such as registration fees, ground fees, and tuition costs. This benefit would encourage more families to consider a sporting activity enabling sporting organisations to cover the cost of registrations, insurance, and location hire. Parents would still bear the majority of the costs of their children’s involvement in sport but the incentive bonus would enable more children to become involved.

I am also aware that some health funds offer rebates for activities that promote a healthier lifestyle. However this is usually only available with the most expensive level of cover and few families can afford this.

Mr President, there are currently over three million school age children in Australia at the moment and this policy could help improve the health and fitness outcomes for every one of them. This idea is supported by hundreds of sporting greats in Australia who know and understand the value of involvement in physical activity on a regular basis.

I believe that action should be taken as soon as possible to halt the decline in young people’s involvement in sporting activities and I look forward to the opportunity to further develop my proposal and that of the Australian Sport Federation Alliance with the minister for sport, my colleague Senator Brandis.

The minister has tackled the complexities of his new portfolio with great competence. As a minister, he understands the importance of this issue for the health of our nation, and as a father himself I know he understands the added pressure that the high cost of sporting involvement is having on Australian families. His children have been involved in sporting activities, he has taken them to practice and games, outfitted them and most importantly paid the bills, so he knows how the costs mount up. I believe the minister would want to take every action possible to assist the young people of Australia to get physically active on a regular basis.

We are not talking about elite sport here, we are referring to the under-8s cricket match on a Saturday morning at the council oval, the local dance studio, and karate lessons in the CWA hall. It is local children undertaking local activities at a local level that this policy initiative is aimed towards.