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Monday, 3 June 2013
Page: 4984


Mr CHRISTENSEN (Dawson) (18:44): Sugar is one of the backbone agricultural industries of Queensland and the nation. The Australian sugar industry is one of the world's most efficient producers and exporters of sugar and is the leader in the adoption of sustainable farming practices. Indeed, as a nation we are the third-largest exporter of sugar in the world. We have some 6,000 sugarcane growers in Australia, some 4,000 mainly-family farms growing sugar along Australia's eastern seaboard, and there are more on the west coast, near the Ord. The sugar industry directly and indirectly employs and supports 40,000 jobs throughout Australia and underpins the economic stability of many coastal communities, particularly in Queensland. In that state, sugar is the social fabric that has woven itself through the development of towns up and down that state's coastline.

The sugar industry has seen its fair share of challenges. Canegrowers have battled on amid floods and bad weather, the deregulation of their industry, a corrupt world market, the recent forward-pricing debacle and also cane disease, such as smut, orange rust and now yellow leaf. These have all been the enemies from within for the sugar industry. But in recent times the sugar industry has also faced attacks from enemies without. Those enemies take the form of the nanny-state brigade, who would seek to regulate and control the consumption of sugar—as if we, the consumers, were all children who needed to be told what to do. The end result has been a contraction of the sugar industry, putting those 40,000 direct and indirect jobs associated with the industry at risk, putting the livelihoods of those 6,000 canegrowers—and in Queensland the near-4,000 farming families—at risk, right around this nation.

When I was a child there was a television commercial that was done, I believe, by the canegrowers organisation. It told us that sugar was a natural part of life. Today, we are told by this chorus of dietetic dictators that sugar is a poison, that sugar is toxic and that sugar is addictive—akin to drugs like heroin. The self-styled experts who use these words preach selective and mostly anecdotal information about sugar and health, which basically seeks to undermine consumer confidence in the safety of sugar. They demonise sugar, not based on sound evidence but on opinion and conjecture.

The nanny-state brigade claim that sugar is one of the key nutrients that are instrumental in the development of obesity. The reality is, there have been a number of major expert committees around the world that have looked into these exact claims, and all of them have concluded that there is no evidence of harm that can be attributed to current sugar consumption levels. Indeed, in this country, the National Health and Medical Research Council did a recent scientific review of the Australian Dietary Guidelines. They found in that review no conclusive link between sugar intake and obesity. In fact, they gave the papers that tried to peddle the story about a link between sugar and obesity a grade of D, which is akin to the D that you get on a report card at school—in other words, a fail. They noted that the evidence base for the claims—that there was a link between sugar and obesity—was poor, that the studies were inconsistent and that it was difficult to separate changes in total energy consumption from changes in sugar consumption.

I just wish the NHMRC had listened to their own advice, because they also went the way of the nanny-state do-gooders, by changing the Australian Dietary Guidelines from recommending that people should 'consume only moderate amounts of sugars and foods containing added sugars' to recommending that people 'limit intake of food and drinks containing added sugar, and particularly limit sugar-sweetened drinks'. That change could now be used to influence Food Standards Australia New Zealand to set standards for food production in this country.

The World Health Organisation no less has found that the fundamental cause of obesity and being overweight is an energy imbalance between the calories consumed and the calories expended, so it is more complex than just removing sugar from the equation. There are calories outside of sugar—and there is the question of exercise. I am no poster boy for public health but I have to say that I cannot and do not blame sugar for my physique. It did not come about by putting too much sugar in my cups of tea. It did not come about because I selected only products with added sugar in them. It came about because of poor decisions to do with dieting, consuming foods high in fats and calories, and a lack of exercise, so I blame myself, not sugar, for my weight gain.

The facts speak volumes when it comes to sugar and obesity. The Green Pool Commodity Specialist compiled a report last year entitled Sugar consumption in Australia: a statistical update. The report found that sugar consumption in Australia had actually fallen by 9.3 per cent over the past eight years from 46.26 kilograms per person per year in 2004 to 41.97 kilograms in 2011.

The report also found that over the past 60 years consumption of sugar in Australia had fallen by 15 kilograms per person per year—that is a 26.4 per cent drop from the peak of 57 kilograms per person per year in 1951. No-one can say in those same time frames that obesity has declined in this country. This was found in a paper entitled

The Australian paradox: a substantial decline in sugars intake over the same timeframe that overweight and obesity have increased. The name of the report says exactly what the report found. One of the authors of that report was Professor Jennie Brand-Miller who holds a personal chair in human nutrition in the Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise and Eating Disorders at the School of Molecular Bioscience at the University of Sydney. The other author was Dr Alan Barclay, the Chief Scientific Officer, at the Glycemic Index Foundation and a spokesman for the Dieticians Association of Australia.

The Dieticians Association of Australia have also come out saying that this attempt to demonise sugar and link sugar directly to obesity is not helpful. The same view is shared by the Australian Diabetes Foundation. Dr Alan Barclay, who I have just talked about, is quoted as saying:

‘Sugar’ is not the issue—it is far more complicated than that.

He goes on to say:

… casting sugar as the ultimate villain and calling for regulation is misleading, unfounded and unnecessary.

Despite the facts that are on the table, this demonisation of sugar continues to be peddled in the press, almost unchallenged, and now it is leading the nanny-state brigade to call for attacks based on the content of sugar in food—in other words, a sugar tax. Other countries have introduced such a tax, including France, Finland, Norway, Hungary and Denmark, with little or no impact on obesity levels. I note Denmark actually repealed its sugar tax, because it has an impact on industry and jobs.

It is no surprise when you find a failed policy with industry collapse and job losses that you also find the Greens. Last week the Greens in Tasmania—their Tasmanian health spokesman—publicly called for the introduction of a sugar tax. He said:

The proposal for a federal sugar tax has merit as the obesity epidemic means that all options must be seriously considered …

This is not just some thought-bubble by a lone Greens MP; it is Greens policy that was announced by their former leader Bob Brown at the tax summit in 2011. Bob Brown said that a sugar tax should be introduced. As we have seen with so many other issues, including the carbon tax, that where the Greens push, Labor often follows. But it will not take much of a push because, back in 2009, my immediate predecessor as the member for Dawson, James Bidgood, called for a tax on food with a high sugar content. That is a disgrace for a person who was the representative of a sugar seat.

Now we have a chance to unit in this parliament: Labor, Liberal, National, Katter Australia Party and maybe even the Greens—I do dream, I know. Now is the chance to unit behind this motion and rule out a sugar tax from ever happening in Australia. The industry needs to be supported. It needs to be strengthened. It needs to be assisted through the removal of red and green tape and the opening up of new markets. What it does not need or ever needs is the demonisation of its product, sugar, and a great big new tax on sugar. I ask the House to support the sugar industry, to support cane-farming families and to support this motion. Thank you very much.