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Thursday, 30 March 2006
Page: 153

Senator NETTLE (6:53 PM) —The incorporated speech read as follows—

The Cancer Australia Bill is designed to establish Cancer Australia which is to be a statutory agency based within the Health and Ageing Portfolio. The government first announced the intention to set up this organisation back in 2004 as part of its Strengthening Cancer Care election policy.

Cancer Australia’s main functions are to improve coordination within the cancer sector; to guide scientific improvements to cancer prevention, treatment and care; to coordinate and liaise between the groups and health care providers with an interest in cancer; to make recommendations to the Commonwealth Government about cancer policy and priorities; to oversee a dedicated budget for research into cancer; to assist with the implementation of Commonwealth Government policies and programs in cancer control; to provide financial assistance, out of money appropriated by the Parliament, for research and for the implementation of policies and programs in cancer control; and for other functions as directed by the Minister.

The Greens are broadly supportive of this move to set up Cancer Australia, and in particular would like to encourage this Government to further develop programs such as this that focus on preventative healthcare, which is central to The Greens approach to health.

The Greens strongly advocate a preventative approach to healthcare because it helps people to stay well rather than just treating people when they get sick. Preventative health care delivered at a community level is the best investment we can make in the health of this nation. And it makes both medical and economic sense.

From time to time this government makes claims that it is increasing emphasis and resources in the area of preventative health care. However its attitude to universally accessible Medicare over recent years has undermined much of this good work. This government’s move to a two-tiered healthcare system that is based on a private system for the wealthy and a public system for everyone else is the wrong direction. The Australian Greens believe that access to a bulk billing doctor is a fundamental preventative health care measure.

The Howard government’s unsteady approach to preventative healthcare is further illustrated by the blight of tobacco-related illness. As a major cause of cancer, tobacco and its advertising remains an area where this government has fallen well short of the mark.

While The Greens are pleased with the roll out of the new health warnings on tobacco products we are concerned that manufacturers and retailers are doing what they can to shirk their responsibilities. Anne Jones from Action on Smoking and Health Australia or ASH points out that:

“Stockpiling by tobacco retailers and peel-off health warnings are two of the tactics being used to delay smokers and potential smokers (ie children) access to the new, graphic health warnings on all tobacco products”

ASH recently conducted spot checks on around 50 tobacco retailers in Sydney in the first 15 days of March and found that:

“The new health warnings were yet to appear on tobacco products—suggesting stockpiling of old stock—as graphic health warnings are required by law to be on all tobacco products produced from the 1st of March.”

A trend being followed by cigarette retailers to re-package cigarettes in tins that don’t require a health warning is another way in which display of these health warnings is being avoided. One major brand is packaging its co-called soft-packs inside popular black metal tins with health-warning labels that are very easy to peel off. Similarly some Sydney Hotels are selling cigarettes in tins that only feature the Hotel logo in a deliberate tactic according to ASH to cover up the new warnings.

People question the strength of the government’s commitment to reduce lung cancer when they look at the ongoing flow of political donations from tobacco companies to Labor, Liberal and the Nationals. Last year nearly $170,000 flowed to the Coalition from Phillip Morris Ltd who has Nick Greiner on the board and British American Tobacco. The obvious question people ask is “What do they get in return?”

Another preventative healthcare area where this government is falling short of their responsibility is the pressing issue of childhood obesity. Approximately 1 in 6 Australian children are now considered overweight. Childhood obesity leads to higher incidence of diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and bowel cancer. Experts from the Australian Medical Association have recently expressed concern that the rise in childhood obesity may, for the first time in Australian history, result in a decline in the life expectancy of newborn children.

Concern with the level of junk food consumption, and in particular, the way that it is marketed to children, has been expressed by the Australian Medical Association, the Australian Dental Association and the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. Even the former Minister for Children, Larry Anthony, referred to the need to consider tougher regulations on junk food advertising.

In a recent survey of over 1600 Australians, 86 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that there should be more limits on advertising to children. Despite the widespread support for restrictions of junk food advertising from peak medical bodies and the overwhelming public support for such restrictions, there has been no indication that the Howard Government is willing to address this problem. They have so far lacked the political will to stand up to the manufacturers and advertisers of junk food and the television stations who broadcast such advertisements. It appears that pandering to pleas of the Coalition’s ideological brothers-in-arms is more important than listening to overwhelming public and expert opinion about what needs to be done for the health of Australian children.

And there are others areas that The Greens believe could do with an added dose of preventative care from this government. A vibrant nationally funded public dental scheme would allow lower and middle income Australians access to dental services. Because a regular checkup at the dentist for preventive maintenance is out of financial reach, many Australians now only see a dentist when expensive emergency work is required.

The same situation can be seen in the area of mental health, where early intervention is the key preventative mechanism to avoid a lifetime of mental health problems in later life. As I have said in this chamber before, the Howard government and other governments simply do not give mental health care services the priority they deserve, and this is well illustrated by the fact that Australia spends only seven per cent of its health budget on mental health issues while the OECD average is 12 per cent. The Greens yet again call on the government to take further action in this area, and in particular support additional resources for community based mental health care centres. We look forward to the report from the Senate Select Committee on Mental Health, and we hope that the government considers the committee’s recommendations positively.

Indigenous Health is yet another area of healthcare that requires significantly more federal resources and a good dose of preventative medicine. So many of the medical problems faced by the first Australians will be most effectively dealt with using preventative approaches based on poverty alleviation and community education. There is simply no reason anyone in a rich country like Australia in the 21st century should be living with the scourge of preventable 19th century illness such as rheumatic heart disease.

This leads me to my final point which is that The Greens believe one of the most all encompassing preventative health measures with significant benefits to both mental and physical health is based on the protection of our environment. The protection of our forests, our waterways and our oceans, the reduction of pollution and prevention of chemical exposure, and ensuring the purity of our food supplies are just some of the paramount preventative health measures that The Greens will continue to work towards for the benefit of all Australians.