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Thursday, 21 August 2003
Page: 19291

Mr ROSS CAMERON (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Family and Community Services) (12:25 PM) —I would like to raise a subject that follows fairly neatly the remarks made by the member for Burke, and that is the issue of Australian childhood obesity. I am prompted in these remarks by a visit I have just had to my office from Australia's gun fast bowler, Brett Lee. He has taken up the cudgels of healthy lifestyles for younger Australians. Brett told me that he was particularly alarmed to learn that about 25 per cent of Australian children would be in the category of what we should probably call obese. This epidemic of weight gain among Australian children seems to be driven by two principal issues: a lack of regular physical activity and chronic imbalances in their dietary intakes at school and in the home.

Brett is here with the Sanitarium company and Insight, the marketing organisation, which have set themselves the task of lifting the profile of this issue and of finding a constructive response to it in Australia. They are putting to the government today a five-point plan which involves improving the curricula in relation to healthy lifestyles, particularly for infants and in primary schools. It also includes a program of sending out high-profile ambassadors drawn from the sporting community—such as Brett, who has been undertaking this role. The plan also involves engaging young people in physical exertion and activity—and I congratulate the Sanitarium company on its children's triathlon, which began in New Zealand and is now attracting 15,000 children in what is not so much a competitive event but a participatory fun event. It is described as the largest event for children in the world, and it has now taken off in Australia as well. There is this stream of greater activity for children who tend to spend too much time in front of the word processor and video games and perhaps not enough time running around the backyard, in the playground or on the oval. The program recommends achievement awards for higher levels of participation by young people and there is a focus on the content of canteens in schools around Australia.

It seems to me to be an unarguably positive contribution to the national debate and one which this government is going to have to look at very carefully. We will obviously have concerns about whether there is cost shifting; and there may be an argument between the Commonwealth and the state education bureaucracies. No doubt the Minister for Health and Ageing and the Minister for Education, Science and Training, Dr Nelson, will have views. I understand that Brett is meeting the Prime Minister today and I hope they have some time after discussing cricket to spend on the question of healthy lifestyles.

I want to particularly applaud and congratulate my colleague Senator Guy Barnett who has championed the cause of healthy lifestyles in this parliament. I note that last week's edition of the Bulletin profiled Senator Barnett's role in persuading the McDonald's fast food organisation to rethink their own menu. Senator Barnett has organised a number of healthy lifestyle forums in Tasmania, which have been very well attended, and he was surprised to see senior representatives of McDonald's and some of the other fast food chains travelling to Tasmania to participate. At first he thought that they were looking to whitewash a problem, but all Australians would have to agree that the announced changes to the menu of McDonald's, which now includes a salad bar and other healthy alternatives, represent a very significant cultural shift by one of the largest corporations in the world. My view is that if McDonald's is prepared to come to the table and rethink its priorities, its marketing and its level of nutritional information on food packaging, that is a signal that this new campaign, spearheaded by Brett Lee, is destined for success. Certainly I hope our government can contribute to that success.