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Children's health: Goals for Aussie Kids: Blueprint number five. [Speech at] Monash Medical Centre, Melbourne, 3 February 2006

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It’s great to be here today - in a world class medical centre that rightly prides itself on its high standards of care and innovative research and with a room full of people who drive the delivery of that professional care and research.

Labor’s Blueprints

Today I am making the fifth in the Labor series of Blueprint speeches.

Last year I delivered Labor’s Blueprints on national security, solving Australia’s skills crisis, developing an Australian fuel industry and our Blueprint for rebuilding national infrastructure.

Policy Blueprints - each of them tackling issues that I regard as national priorities, vital for our country’s future.

A common thread runs through them all - Labor’s vision that if Australia is to grow, to prosper and be secure we must be able to stand on our own two feet in the world.

That instead of squandering the prosperity of the good times we should be protecting our future prosperity.

Making our own way and paying our own way.

Not allowing ourselves to be held hostage to foreign oil.

Not being forced to import skilled workers because we won’t train our own kids.

Not careering towards a debt trap that will see us hit 500 billion dollars in foreign debt sometime before the next election and not grounding our exports in a gridlock of crumbling infrastructure.

The prognosis is clear - unless we fix these problems we will never stand on our own two feet.

And the cure is clear too. We need a government that expends its energy on building Australia - that doesn’t spend all its time systematically undermining our values and way of life.

A nation-building government to protect our prosperity and build our future.

It’s this conviction that drives the policy Blueprints I’ve released so far.

Our Blueprint on national security

Practical measures to upgrade security where we’re most vulnerable - our airports, ports and shipping lanes; round the clock Coastguard protection; a Department of Homeland Security; and an Immigration Department that works.

Our Blueprint for rebuilding infrastructure

A national infrastructure audit to produce a priority list of what needs to be done; optimum conditions for infrastructure investment, freeing up superannuation funds to invest in ports, roads and bridges and harnessing the investment resources of the public and private sectors.

Our Blueprint on fuels

Building an Australian fuel industry based on diversity; expanding the variety and volume of local product and exploring and developing new fuel options like biofuels and gas to liquid.

Our Blueprint on skills

Training Australians first and now - increasing the number of young Australians completing apprenticeships through incentives including Skills Accounts to get rid of TAFE fees. Plus the $2000 Trade Completion bonus and encouraging school students into traditional trades through the Trades Taster program.

These Blueprints are statements of our intent, our goals, the principles we apply and the structures we need to get the results Australia needs.


I’ll be releasing more detail in the drive to the next election and I can guarantee that Australians will have plenty of time to consider our policies and make an informed choice between now and when they cast their vote.

Children’s Health Blueprint - Goals for Aussie Kids

Today I’m announcing Labor’s fifth Blueprint - a Blueprint devoted to building a healthy future for our most precious asset - our children.

This will be reinforced next week, when Shadow Health Minister Julia Gillard releases a substantial discussion paper as the basis for consultation and continuing community debate to develop priorities, responsibilities and funding levels to deliver on our plans.

At the centre of both our Blueprint and the discussion paper is Labor’s commitment to building stronger communities and a brighter future for our families, our children and our grandchildren.

Because investing in our kids is Australia’s future.

Labor’s Children’s Health Blueprint Goals for Aussie Kids sets out a framework of goals to build a healthy future for our kids. Goals that will drive a coordinated national campaign to improve our kids’ health and wellbeing

through prevention, early detection and effective treatment.

It’s a big challenge, but I’m convinced that with determined national leadership and with all of us working together - parents, health professionals, teachers, the whole community - we’re more than up to meeting this challenge.

As a nation we have a long tradition of this. Not least in the days when serious epidemics threatened the lives of our children. I know this only too well, because as a six year old child, I contracted polio.

The memories remain with me. All the kids in our street crowding around as I was carted off - they’d never seen an ambulance up close before. Alone and pretty scared in hospital - in those days parents weren’t encouraged to keep bedside vigils.

And all of us recuperating polio kids, dressed in little brown uniforms, curious about the older patients in iron lungs - many destined to live out their lives there.

Well, I was one of the lucky ones. Painstakingly following an exercise programme devised by Sir Donald Bradman when his own son fell victim to polio, I recovered unscathed.

Apart from its influence on my childhood, I now see the polio epidemic as a time when a whole nation mustered its energy and resources to defeat a deadly disease; manufacturing the Salk vaccine and administering it to all its people.


A time when the nation’s leaders set themselves the goal of eradicating polio and did it. Implementing a national vaccination effort that saw deaths from polio fall from more than one thousand between 1945 and 1955 to four in the last 40 years.

Today the nature of the health problems threatening our children has obviously changed. But the response we need hasn’t. It’s all about national leadership in pursuit of national goals.

The same national leadership that declared war on polio back in 1956 and won.

The same national leadership that Labor brings in its Children’s Health Blueprint - Goals for Aussie Kids.

This Blueprint lays down a framework of goals, the principles we will apply and the structures we will put in place for getting the results our children deserve.

It’s a comprehensive children’s health agenda across all age groups to guide and shape our children’s health programs in government.

An agenda based on the conviction that so much more can be done to improve our kids’ health and wellbeing through prevention, early detection and effective intervention and treatment.

And it sets goals that will drive a co-ordinated campaign across the country; universal goals for every Australian child no matter where they live or who their family is.

Our goals are unashamedly ambitious - some of them can be achieved quickly; others will take longer and a few will only be fully achieved over a generation.

They are based on a simple but irrefutable truth:

And that is:

The most important investment a country makes is in the healthy future of its children.

Or to draw on the sentiment of Nelson Mandela:

A society that has a soul is one that nurtures its children.

A society that is good for children is good for everyone.

Some might consider this a bit simplistic; stating the obvious. But as we begin the sixth year of the new millennium and despite the extraordinary advances


in medicine, there’s an alarming body of evidence that reveals we’re failing to nurture all our children. Our society is not uniformly good for children.

That somehow, despite all the modern medical miracles, Australian children today are no fitter or healthier than those of previous generations. True, they’re better protected against the traditional threat of infectious diseases but these have been replaced by new, insidious ailments - what has been described as “modernity’s paradox”.

We know that an estimated 78,000 lives have been saved by childhood vaccination against diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, poliomyelitis and measles. That in the last few decades, better nutrition, hygiene and housing and healthier mothers have helped reduce child mortality rates. But, despite the long-term improvement in social and economic conditions, our children are not as fit and healthy as they could or should be.

There are more low birth weight babies, rising rates of developmental disorders, more children with autism, asthma, diabetes and allergies. Many more children are diagnosed as obese, yet ironically, there’s an epidemic of

eating disorders.

An alarming number of children suffer mental health problems - including depression, anxiety and schizophrenia - and tragically youth suicide remains a significant problem.

In indigenous communities, disadvantage condemns children to infant mortality rates three times higher than the rest of the population, higher hospitalisation and morbidity rates and unacceptable outbreaks of diseases like trachoma and rheumatic fever - diseases almost unheard of among other Australian children.

Overall, too many Australian children and young people are dying from diseases and conditions that can be prevented. More than half the deaths in this age group are the result of accidents, poisonings, violence and suicide.

Research Australia, a major biomedical research group, reports that the longevity and quality of children’s lives is at such risk from these “modern” health problems that we’re in danger of losing many of the health gains of past decades.

Not through a return to the 50s epidemics of diphtheria or whooping cough but rather the pervasive effects of the chronic illnesses and disorders of the new millennium.

Australian child health expert and former Australian of the Year, Professor Fiona Stanley, views the decline in children’s health as both heartbreaking and inexplicable.


She says:

“It’s anguishing for someone like me, who has been working in child health for a long time - 30 years or more - to see these patterns in Australia today. When we know so much about child development, health and wellbeing - why are we seeing this?”

But most alarming of all, are the fears of medical experts that, for the first time in our history, our children face a reduced life expectancy. At the rate we’re going, future generations of children simply won’t live as long as we will.

To bequeath the next generation with the expectation that they’ll have a shorter life than their parents, is both terrible and unacceptable. An early and undeserved death sentence which we must overturn.

Goals for the first term in government

It goes without saying that we all believe every child should reach their full potential; get their best shot at life’s chances.

But it is more than just the wellbeing of each individual that’s at stake here. The economic and social health of Australia, as a whole, is on the line.

That’s why the health, development and wellbeing of all our children must be a national effort - a social and economic priority demanding national leadership.

National leadership that delivers.

Not the hollow rhetoric and motherhood statements we get from the incumbent Health Minister:

É Safety nets riddled with holes; É Rolled gold guarantees that turn out to be simply fools’ gold; É Empty promises to train Aussie doctors and nurses; and É Self-indulgent thought bubbles about the Commonwealth taking over

the states’ hospitals.

This is the Howard Government’s tired political strategy, all spin and no outcomes. What we need is real national leadership - a minister dedicated to health; a government determined to get the job done.

After 10 long years of the Howard Government what this country needs is a Labor Health Minister - a Labor Government.

So I announce today that Labor in its first term in government will move immediately to achieve three of the most critical goals contained in our children’s health Blueprint.

These priority goals are:


É Comprehensive screening of all new born babies for metabolic disorders, hearing problems and foetal alcohol syndrome;

É A national campaign to turn around the rapidly increasing incidence of childhood obesity; and

É A new approach to adolescent health to give young people the resources and treatment they need to tackle mental health problems, suicide and substance abuse.


In its first term in office, a Labor Government will implement full screening of all newborn babies.

In cooperation with state and territory governments, all babies will be screened for the early diagnosis of hearing problems, foetal alcohol syndrome and genetic and metabolic disorders.

While the states and territories currently undertake screening programs for a range of medical conditions, there’s evidence that some babies are missing out. Research data has found that babies born at home, those born to indigenous mothers and those discharged early from hospital are among the babies who currently don’t get screened and whose problems can go undetected.

Having recently become a grandfather, I know the joy that accompanies the arrival of a new family member and the relief we all feel when early screening confirms that everything is OK.

I believe every Australian baby deserves the benefits of universal screening and every parent the reassurance that their child is getting the best. Because without early diagnoses and treatment the prognosis for children with problems is far less optimistic.

For example, we know when it comes to hearing problems in babies, where the experts now recommend intervention as early as six months, the cost of delayed detection can be life-altering. It means the difference between good speech, language and educational outcomes and poor communication skills.

Increasingly we are seeing the need for universal screening for foetal alcohol syndrome to detect those children whose health and development is at risk from alcohol consumed by their mothers during pregnancy.

Disturbingly, the World Health Organisation warns that foetal alcohol syndrome is now the most common cause of congenital developmental delay. Babies affected are prone to heart defects, joint and limb abnormalities and commonly experience delayed development, learning and behavioural problems and mental health problems.


Again the prognosis is significantly brighter with the early detection and intervention that a genuinely universal screening program can provide.

Childhood Obesity

As an urgent priority in our first term Labor will tackle the increasing incidence of overweight and obese children through a national campaign harnessing the resources of government, health professionals, teachers and parents.

Let me tell you as someone who spent the summer holidays on my own personal “boot camp”, spurning fats and ploughing up and down the pool in my daughter’s wake, my heart’s well and truly in this. But I should add here my wife totally rejects my interpretation of her tender loving care as “boot camp”.

I also know that if you want to make these lifestyle changes permanent you need all the help and encouragement you can get. And that’s what our kids need. For their sake and to reduce spiralling medical costs.

Across the board, treating obesity related problems is now costing us a staggering $1.3 billion annually. We simply have to halt this trend where 17 per cent of children and adolescents are overweight and six per cent are obese. Where in the last 10 years the number of obese children has tripled

and the number of overweight children has doubled.

If we don’t reverse this trend, if we don’t do something now, more than half of all our young people will be obese in 20 year’s time. And consequently, many more children will suffer the early onset of medical conditions that are usually confined to adults.

Hypertension, high blood cholesterol levels, type two diabetes and sleep apnoea, which can all be directly linked to excessive weight gain, are already becoming more prevalent among children and it will get worse.

Labor will get the message out to kids - selling the advantages of good nutrition, regular exercise and healthy lifestyles and we’ll help them stick to it.

To drive a national response, Labor will establish a National Nutrition Centre to undertake regular nutrition surveys.

We will respond to the Australian Communications and Media Authority audit on the impact of junk food advertising on children’s health.

And we will demand that the whole of the Federal Government and all other Australian Governments - State and Local - work together so that decisions in areas as diverse as school curricula, insurance for community groups and access to local sports facilities all support the national campaign to beat obesity.


Adolescent mental health

In our first term in office Labor will implement effective, youth-specific programs to deal with adolescent mental illness.

Adolescence, as the experts euphemistically agree, is a time of great challenges.

As a parent, I know the challenge can sometimes seem relentless and thankless. It requires great patience, tolerance and fortitude. Parents know that adolescence is a high risk zone.

Most serious mental illnesses first manifest themselves in adolescence. Mental health problems are responsible for 65 to 70 per cent of the overall burden of disease in adolescents and young people.

It’s estimated that 12 per cent of 13 to 17 year olds have experienced suicidal thoughts and four per cent go on to attempt suicide. Twenty per cent of adolescents report anxiety and depression and 12 per cent report anti-social behaviour.

It’s also a time when kids experimenting with tobacco, alcohol and drugs can be locked into long-term addiction; when risk-taking can end in accidents and violence.

And all too often, mental health problems and substance abuse combine to produce a potent mix.

And far too often young people, overwhelmed and in desperate need, can’t get the treatment and services they need.

Then there’s the Catch 22 - kids refused mental health services because they have drug problem, then told by drug treatment centres that they need to get psychiatric help before they can be treated for their addiction.

There must be an end to this “wrong door” approach to the treatment of those who are so vulnerable and at such acute risk. It’s clear a youth specific response at the national level is long overdue.

We need to ensure that GPs are well trained to recognise the early signs of mental health problems. We need more adolescent health centres like the one run by the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, and more programs like that run by Orygen in western Melbourne with a single point of access to

treatment services and help with safe housing and job training.

In government, I will establish a Prime Minister’s Council on Mental Health with input from carers and patients to develop the most effective early interventions and to establish positive support services for young people suffering mental illnesses.


Labor’s goal for Aussie adolescents is a system that doesn’t let them down; that guarantees access to appropriate services and ensures that no young person seeking help is turned away.


I’m convinced that a modern, vibrant nation like ours is more than capable of defeating the potentially crippling economic and social burden of preventable diseases and, in fact, it must do so if it is to thrive and continue to prosper.

Prevention has the potential to make huge savings to the insatiable health budget.

Currently, Australia spends 10 per cent of GDP on health - in 2003-04 that was a dollar value of more than $78 billion and up by more than $6 billion from the previous year.

Most of this is spent on treating existing conditions which have become chronic. We spend around $30 billion alone on the top seven chronic diseases - such as heart disease and nervous system diseases. Billions of dollars can be saved if we prevent those diseases from ever occurring.

Recent research shows that every dollar spent immunising against measles saves $155 in reduced health care. Over the last 30 years the fight against measles has saved $17.5 billion.

The cost benefit is enormous, but to reap it we have to get in early, when the chronically ill patients of the future are still healthy kids.

We need to act now.

That’s why I announced yesterday that a Labor Government will deliver $5 million for research into the causes of serious food allergies; part of the search for a cure for a condition that now affects 10 per cent of all children.

That’s why a Federal Labor Government will provide $12 million over four years to Beyondblue to help the national expansion of the Triple P - Positive Parenting Program to assist young children at risk of developing a mental health problem and their parents.

And that’s why Labor in government will make sure pregnant women get enough folate in their diet, as a supplement to flour, so that fewer babies are born with spina bifida.

Of course, prevention is more than dollars.

Stopping kids getting sick makes all the difference to their lives - the difference between a child being isolated by illness and one who can participate fully in school, sport and recreation.


Children with asthma and diabetes, for example, often miss out on school and all the social interaction that goes with it. Further down the track, their participation in the workforce and their capacity as parents can be compromised by chronic illness.

We’re all familiar with the old saying: prevention is better than cure. It might be old but it’s spot on.

Every year, diseases like heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, diabetes and renal disease are responsible for three quarters of all deaths in Australia and half the total disease burden. Many of these 100,000 premature deaths are

preventable. Many of these lives can be saved though targeted preventive strategies.

Clever, convincing strategies that will stop the 500 school children who smoked their first cigarette today, from lighting up another. That will save them from joining the ranks of the 70,000 teenagers who become regular

smokers every year and from becoming one of the 19,000 Australians who die every year from smoking-related diseases.

Howard Government failure

This is the challenge for government; this is the challenge which Labor takes up.

This is where the Howard Government has failed Australian children.

Because a decade of policy vacuum, empty lip service and motherhood statements hasn’t fixed children’s health.

Because axing the universal Commonwealth Dental Program 10 years ago didn’t improve children’s dental health outcomes - it left thousands of kids stranded on dental waiting lists.

Because doing nothing while obstetric and birthing services declined catastrophically, especially in country areas, didn’t improve maternal and child health - it put the health of mothers and their babies at serious risk.

Because consistent under-investment in training health professionals including GPs and specialists didn’t make sick children better - it made it harder for them to get the early diagnoses and treatment they need.

Because systematically undermining the universality of Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits System didn’t cut health costs - it meant access to health care depends not on what you need but how much you can pay.

What we’re seeing in health is symptomatic of the insidious Americanisation of Australian society.


Dog eat dog industrial relations laws, American minimum wages, American university fees and now a two-tiered, user-pays, star-spangled health system.

Of course, like all Australians I value the relationship we have with the US, but that doesn’t mean allowing those fundamentally Australian values of egalitarianism and equality to be recast in the image of America.

In my view, a health system that offers a first rate service to those who can pay and sentences the poor and vulnerable to second rate care is just un-Australian. It’s the sign of a government that has become so out of touch that it governs only for itself and not for the people who elected it.

A government with total control and out of control; a government attacking our values and our way of life.

Implementing Labor’s Goals for Aussie Kids

Today I’ve spoken about three of the goals included in Labor’s children’s health agenda - screening newborn babies, turning around the rapid increase in obesity and effective treatment for adolescents with mental health problems - all top priorities in our first term.

But that’s only the beginning.

The Blueprint I’m releasing today outlines a range of goals across five major demographics encompassing key age groups and comprising:

É Mothers and their babies; É Children to the age of five; É Children aged six to 12; É Young people from 13 to 18: and É Broad goals for all children and youth.

Mothers and babies

We will set clear goals in maternal health including:

É Access for all women to quality childbirth services;

É The provision of information about diet and nutrition;

É Services to advise pregnant women and mothers on the dangers of smoking and alcohol and substance abuse; and

É For the 14 per cent of Australian mothers who suffer post-natal depression, we’ll develop early screening and intervention measures to reduce the risk to women and their familles.

Labor’s Goals for Aussie Kids will deliver, without delay, all recommended vaccinations to all babies. There’ll be no repeat of John Howard and Tony


Abbott’s stubborn refusal to introduce universal vaccinations - flying in the face of expert advice and exposing children to needless risk.

And our other goals are to:

É Expand support services, including home visits for new mothers and babies and particularly for first time mothers and culturally isolated and vulnerable families; and

É Introduce expanded education programs so parents, doctors, teachers and carers can assess developmental progress and detect developmental problems including vision, language, autism and behavioural problems.

Children to 12 years

Labor’s goals for children of primary school age are to:

É Give all children access to affordable dental care and preventative dental services;

É Expand bulk billed primary health services and affordable specialist services for children;

É Support parents and carers of children with chronic disease or disability, who shoulder both an emotional and financial burden. This includes transport, respite care and special equipment; and

É Revitalise the languishing National Health Priority on Injury Prevention (which, incidentally hasn’t been reported on once in the last nine years) so it takes an important role in preventing childhood and adolescent accidents.

Australia has a long tradition of school-based health services and currently there are a range of programs offered by the states which are excellent examples of preventive and early intervention strategies at work.

Now while I’m not suggesting a return to universal supplies of warm milk in school playgrounds (although maybe warm milk was better for kids than cold soft drinks) I do think it’s time we renewed the emphasis on the role of visiting nurses and doctors in schools and that includes regular health assessments of all school children.

Again, early intervention and treatment during early years at school can ameliorate behavioural problems and reduce the progression to serious disease in adulthood.


Thirteen to eighteen years

As I’ve outlined, a holistic, youth-specific regime of health services is essential for the effective treatment of the disorders and illnesses peculiar to adolescence.

Treatment costs, fears about confidentiality and a judgemental approach from health care providers often stop young people getting the treatment they need.

Labor supports a holistic approach to youth physical and mental health, sexual health and tobacco, alcohol and substance abuse - a whole of lifestyle approach.

Goals across all age groups

Achieving our Goals for Aussie Kids will require determination, cooperation and coordination from the Commonwealth to the community.

To get the results we want, Labor will:

É Work through the Council of Australian Governments and the Australian Health Ministers’ conference;

É Establish a Centre for Children’s Health within the Department of Health and Ageing to implement Goals for Aussie Kids. Just as hospitals have specific paediatric services we need a government equivalent dedicated to paediatric policy;

É We’ll strengthen the national program of data collection and evaluation against key indicators for children’s health and health services; and

É Work with indigenous communities to tackle entrenched health disadvantage.


I said earlier that Labor’s Goals for Aussie Kids are unashamedly ambitious. We’ve set ourselves a high bar and, let me promise you, we’ll clear it.

The reason we set our sights so high is simple.

Our children are Australia’s tomorrow; they are the best and most important investment we can make in the future.

They are a measure of our nation’s soul. We cannot afford to let them down.

The Labor Party I lead will never let them down; just as we’ll never let the Australian people down.


I want to conclude by saying that as Australia moves towards the election next year, led by an arrogant, out of touch government engulfed by scandal and riddled with division, I offer the Australian people a clear alternative.

Of national leadership not unbridled self-interest.

Of decency and fairness not power-hungry arrogance.

Of a government that governs for all Australians not just itself.

A government that sets great national goals and achieves them.

I offer a vision of Australia as a country that stands on its own two feet, a country that protects its prosperity and builds its communities by investing in its people - especially its children.

Thank you.