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Wednesday, 29 September 2010
Page: 338

Senator BARNETT (6:26 PM) —I am pleased tonight to speak to the motion on the address-in-reply to the Governor-General’s speech and to raise a number of issues, particularly with respect to health and healthy lifestyles. In the speech presented in this chamber by Her Excellency the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, she made it clear that the federal Labor government, in its wisdom:

… will invest in increasing participation in community sport and supporting our elite athletes, thus contributing to a more active and healthy society.

It is a laudable objective, of course, to invest in increasing funding for community sport. So I was scratching my head as to why this government would be saying such a thing when, on the other hand, they expect to chop the most successful and popular after-school program, the Active After-School Communities program, which was announced and started in 2004. Why would they say that they wanted to increase community sport and support for community sport when, in a matter of months, that program will conclude? The government did not make their position clear during the election campaign. Why not? Probably because they expect the program to terminate at the end of this year. In fact, the rumour mill is moving fast, and people are seriously concerned, because the government have not made their final position clear. All we can say is that we can expect that the program will conclude at the end of this year.

It is an incredibly successful program. It was launched by former Prime Minister John Howard in 2004 in Launceston, in fact—in my home town of Launceston, in my home state, at my healthy lifestyle forum to help combat childhood obesity. At that time, in the lead-up to the 2004 election, then Prime Minister John Howard announced the coalition’s anti-obesity strategy action plan, which included the Active After-School Communities program. The Minister for Sport at the time, Senator Rod Kemp, was also there to assist in the launch of that program. I am proud as Punch that the program was launched at my forum. I am proud as Punch that I was part of the thinking and the strategy behind getting that particular program announced and then, in due course, developed in conjunction with the Australian Sports Commission.

This is a very important program. This is a program which encourages children to be physically active, whether it be in a sport that they enjoy or some recreational activity. It is a fantastic program and it has been proved to be successful. There have been reviews, and the reviews all give it the big tick. There are some 150,000 school children across Australia in over 3,250 schools that have participated annually in the program. In Tasmania we have 90 schools and 5,000 students participating in the program this year.

At the moment the Active After-School Communities program employs some 180 staff nationwide, all of whom face a very uncertain future. In Tasmania there are five full-time employees and one part-time employee and they do a fantastic job. I would like to commend and congratulate specifically Blair Brownless, who is the state manager for the program based in Hobart. He is such an enthusiast. Of course, he is also an enthusiast for the Geelong football club—his brother is Billy Brownless. In my home town of Launceston there is Ralph Morris, who does such a fantastic job as a coordinator to make things happen. He does not need to do very much because the kids love it, the mums and dads love it, the families love it and the schools love it.

The shadow Assistant Treasurer, Sussan Ley, and I launched a petition on 18 June this year to save the program. My office has been inundated with responses and encouragement from families and children, who say, ‘We want the program to continue.’ Earlier today I was pleased to lodge in the Senate a petition with 320 signatures, not just from adults, mums and dads, but also from children who support the program. It is a great program.

Features of the program are that after-school sport and team-playing activities are provided, with funding for the regional coordinators—as I have said, there are five full-time and one part-time employee in Tasmania—and grants to help delivery costs, teacher-staff supervision, delivery fees, venue hire and equipment and transport costs, giving children an opportunity to participate in a variety of activities.

Is this is just directed to big cities? Is it just available to what some people would call city slickers? The answer is no. This program covers rural and regional areas as well. That is one of the fantastic things about the program: it gets to rural and regional Australia. Rural communities love it. In those communities we must remember that there are limited opportunities for children to participate in sport programs, and children are often left without the opportunities of their city counterparts due to the significant costs and the travel involved.

The benefits of the program are obviously the reduced risks of obesity and all the flow-on effects of that, the improved cardiovascular fitness and sleep outcomes, the increased confidence that it gives to the kids and the improved cooperation, social and leadership skills. These are not just problems for Tasmania; these are problems for this country. Frankly, we need to do better.

I want to refer to one of the letters in support of the program that I have received. It is from the Snug Primary School and it says:

On behalf of the Snug Primary School students I am writing a letter to you about stopping the Active After School Communities Program.

Ending the program will cause a big upset to our school. Many students participate in activities and enjoy them greatly. It is a big part of our school Health and PE program for many students ...

and it goes on and on. I also have a letter from the Cancer Council Tasmania. I know senators on both sides of this chamber have some involvement and interaction with the Cancer Council Tasmania. They do a great job. What do they say? Darren Carr, CEO, wrote to me on 12August and said that the council:

... would like to congratulate the Government for initiating the Active After Schools Community (AASC) program. What a success it has been.

He was referring, of course, to the Howard government in that regard. He went on:

I am writing to advise of Cancer Council Tasmania’s desire for the continued support of the AASC program.

The opportunities created by the program in nearly 90 Tasmanian schools have had immense health benefits for primary aged children.

This is fantastic. He went on to say:

As you may already be aware, one quarter ... of Australian children were deemed overweight or obese in 2008. A lack of physical activity is one of the main causes of childhood obesity.

Unfortunately Tasmania has the lowest percentage of children participating in organised sport, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. If the AASC program were to lose its support and funding from the Federal Government, the statistics are likely to worsen and in turn would have a negative impact on the health of our children.

Obesity needs to be tackled from childhood because if it is not, obesity may persist through to adulthood. There is also an increase in the likelihood of developing diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and a variety of cancers.

Programs such as AASC have the potential to make a difference to these childhood obesity rates. Therefore we cannot let the Federal Government dismiss the funding and support of such a worthwhile program.

We call on all political parties to indicate their support for continuation of the  AASC program ...

I stand here tonight saying the community support it and the campaign should be supported. This program should be supported. I had the honour and privilege of being in the other place just a couple of hours ago to hear the first speech of the new federal member for Bass. I congratulate him on his first speech. I noted his special interest in community sport. He has had quite a background in that area and I note that and commend him for that. So I would say that this is probably the first major challenge that he will face, because during his speech he called for increased funding and increased support for community sport. The question is: will he support this campaign? The question for the new federal member for Bass is: will he lobby his Prime Minister? Will he lobby the relevant federal minister for education, the Minister for Sport and the minister for children? Will he join the campaign? Will he distribute petitions in his electorate of Bass. Likewise, to other senators and members in Tasmania and around the country: will you get behind this campaign to save this fantastic program which was started under the Howard government at the my healthy lifestyle forum. Will it happen? I do not know.

I also know that the Hon. Sharman Stone is a fantastic supporter of this program. She and I did a lot of work in Tasmania on her recent visit prior to the federal election in support of it. So I leave that open as a question for the federal member for Bass and say that this will no doubt be the first real challenge for him.

The petition I lodged in the Senate today says:

We the undersigned citizens agree that the federal government should continue funding the Active After-schools Communities program. The program was launched at the Healthy Lifestyles Forum in Launceston in June 2004 by former Prime Minister, John Howard. The popular and successful program has benefited 3,250 schools nationwide with over 150,000 children participating. In Tasmania alone, over 90 schools are involved with 5, 000 children participating ...

and it goes on. One of the features of the school sport and team-playing activities is that they provide funding for regional coordinators and so on. The program also gives children a safe place to go after school if no-one is home, and that is an added benefit. It is not just a health benefit but there are childcare benefits after school.

The federal government has committed funding for the program only until December 2010 pending a review. This is an issue for the staff. The staff are concerned about their future. Let me put the government on notice: staff are now looking for other opportunities. You will lose good people. Here we are at the end of September and you have got October and November. The school term will be concluded within a matter of months and by the end of the year you will find that those good staff will leave to find other opportunities. They have got no guarantee of their future. This is an issue front and centre for the government and I call on the government to heed the calls and the merits of this campaign.

I was at the Bridport Primary School in July, providing congratulations to the school up there for their wonderful work and presenting certificates to those involved. I noted at the time the sound health and social benefits and the community support for the program. Mike Furlong from the Bridport Bowls Club was very involved in supporting the Bridport Primary School. They have got bowls champions now coming out of the Bridport Primary School. It is fantastic. So the skills that are being developed flow through. So I call on the government to take that into account.

A couple of years ago, in 2007 before the election, the government said that obesity should be a national health priority. What are they doing about it? This is something that can be used to address that problem. At my Healthy Lifestyle Forum just two years ago Access Economics released a report which said that the obesity epidemic in Australia is estimated to cost around $58 billion a year. That is a huge figure. This is something for all of us to be aware of.

These and other details are set out in my book The Millennium Disease, which was launched by Tony Abbott just a few years ago. One quarter of all Australian children, or around 600,000 children, were overweight or obese, up four percentage points from 1995. The figures are getting worse; they are not getting better. The obesity rate for children increased from five per cent in 1995 to eight per cent in 2007-08. It shows a shift towards the higher and heavier end of the body mass index.

In terms of adults, 61 per cent of Australian adults are either overweight or obese based on the latest statistics. The facts and figures are getting worse, not better. We have an epidemic. We are one of the four fattest nations on earth, behind the US, the UK and Mexico. Australia comes fourth. All the trend lines are getting worse, not better. We need to do something about it. This is one area where we can make a difference. I call on the government to address these issues and to make that difference.

I now wish to move to another area of concern for me personally and, I think, for many others in this country. It is an area of considerable sensitivity, and that is the issue of euthanasia. I would just like to draw to the attention of senators and members and members of the public the report of June 2008 by the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee into Senator Bob Brown’s bill at the time, the Rights of the Terminally Ill (Euthanasia Laws Repeal) Bill 2008. The committee made a number of observations. The end result was that the way the bill was drafted at the time made it a dog’s breakfast and it needed to be substantially amended. Even Senator Brown in his report agreed with the committee’s conclusions that it needed to be vastly amended.

Subsequently Senator Brown did bring in a further bill with respect to euthanasia to provide the ability for the ACT and the Northern Territory in particular to have a right to legislate in this area. I have particular concerns, and have had for a long period of time, with respect to providing and supporting euthanasia, which involves one person being sanctioned to kill another. That is the long and the short of it.

I am particularly concerned about the safeguards or the adequacy of those safeguards. Clearly, with respect to the Northern Territory—and you can have a look at our report—there were inadequate safeguards in the Northern Territory at the time prior to the Andrews’ bill being passed and promulgated from our parliament in 1997 when their bill became effective. While the Northern Territory bill was alive and active it was clearly deficient in my view.

Have a look at the report. It is on the record. People will no doubt have to dig deep to review their own conscience on this matter. But that report does outline some of the arguments for and against, such as: the issue of the importance of palliative care and quality palliative care; the problem of adequate safeguards; and the possibility that it would lead to a slippery slope. For example, acceptance of voluntary euthanasia would lead to involuntary euthanasia and, indeed, euthanasia for lesser diseases and conditions. There is the potential for the erosion of the doctor-patient relationship. It places pressure on people to end their lives even when they are not ready, for example, to reduce the burden on their family or the health system. This is a particular area of concern. Whether it be the vulnerable, the old, the frail, the disabled or the weak, the pressures will be there. Once you introduce a bill like this, if it is successful there will be financial pressures. There will be a healthcare costs and pressures. There will be expectations of family and they will assume new dimensions.

I want to alert the public to Paul Kelly’s commentary today in the Australian. It is excellent in my view. Under the heading ‘Brown’s euthanasia bill a perilous test for Gillard’ he makes some very thoughtful observations, including quoting from this Senate report. Obviously, the sanctity of human life is critical in any of these decisions. In the case of the Northern Territory legislation, the impact on Indigenous communities must be taken into account and the way they see these issues. This is clearly a great concern.

Senator Bob Brown and Ms Gillard, the Prime Minister, see this as a top priority for the government and the Greens and that is why this bill has been introduced. I simply raise these concerns. I draw the attention of others to that Senate committee report. Hopefully, it will better inform senators in this place who in due course will have to exercise their views and, I assume and hope, their conscience on this matter.

In the remaining minute I have I want to ask a question and make an observation. The observation is that the Prime Minister did not attend the church service prior to the opening of parliament. I respect and understand that because she is an avowed atheist, but of course that would be the first time in my memory that that has happened in the political history of this country. I stand to be corrected and am happy to check the facts and figures there—and if somebody could do that then that would be good—but certainly to my understanding that was the first time the Prime Minister did not attend the church service.

The question I have is: why didn’t the Governor-General, Her Excellency, attend that service? There has been no reason given. I hope she will make that clear to members of the public. The public in general have a right to know. In past years the Governor-General has attended.