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Tuesday, 25 February 2014
Page: 790

Mr WATTS (Gellibrand) (15:56): I rise today on an issue close to the heart of my predecessor in Gellibrand, and to voice my concern that such an important issue has been so abused by the current government.

The advocacy of preventative health measures was a cornerstone of the previous Labor government's health policy. In fact, my predecessor in the seat of Gellibrand, Nicola Roxon, was an internationally recognised champion of preventative health measures. As health minister, she championed the National Preventative Health Taskforce in 2008, a source of information and evidence about the best way to address the preventable obesity and alcohol and tobacco related illnesses that affect our community.

This was followed in 2009 by the National Preventative Health Strategy, which articulated a government plan for tackling these and other preventable illnesses head on. These actions were taken because we all know that reaching out to people before they are ill is far more effective than addressing illness when it is too late. This can be seen throughout Australia, but particularly in my electorate, where preventable diseases cause untold damage to the lives of constituents in Gellibrand.

In Gellibrand over five per cent of the population currently suffers from diabetes, with just as many people again suffering from undiagnosed or pre-diabetes. These preventable chronic diseases have an enormous impact on the lives of sufferers and their families. These diseases increase the cost of our healthcare system, reduce the productivity of our workers and lower the workforce participation rate in our community.

There are simple steps that government can take to manage the impact of preventable chronic disease by making consumers more aware of the risks and giving them control over their own health. The Health Star Rating System was one way of giving Australian people that control. It was a key part of a food-labelling initiative aimed at ensuring that people knew the health impacts of what they were eating. And yet, all it took was one phone call from the office of a National Party senator to have the program pulled by the department.

Senator Nash claimed that this decision was a unanimous decision by the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation, in order to conduct an 'extensive cost-benefit analysis'. But there was no unanimous decision by the legislative governance forum. Senator Nash's office made this call itself, and it is hard to believe that this was not done in the presence of her then chief of staff, Mr Furnival, a 50 per cent shareholder in one of the biggest lobbying firms for food and drink interests on the hill. Relying on the advice of the owner of a lobbying business with clients in the food and beverage industry when considering whether to publish a healthy food website is a textbook example of conflict of interest. But, apparently, the Abbott government feels that this clear breach of the ministerial code of conduct is all right.

This government is more extreme and more out of touch than the Howard government ever was. It took John Howard 15 months before he binned his ministerial code of conduct, but the Abbott government has got there in just six months. The Prime Minister's failure to act against Senator Nash represents a betrayal of his commitment to the Australian public that:

We will be a no surprises, no excuses government, …

Unfortunately, this slogan has not made the transition from opposition to government.

The coalition promised that they would have a plan for governing if elected to office. Indeed, they made it the title of their election manifesto. And yet, we see in their administration of government no plan whatsoever. All we have seen is a government that lurches from administrative catastrophe to administrative catastrophe. Therein lies the rub.

The Prime Minister could have acknowledged this failure. The Prime Minister could have asked Senator Nash to resign. He could have led a grown-up government that he promised and not simply passed the buck. But we see in this instance that the children are in charge of the candy store. The PM stubbornly—in fact, childishly—refused to acknowledge that the existence of this conflict of interest was a problem. Indeed, he asserted yesterday that this behaviour was within the guidelines of the ministerial code of conduct. If the ministerial code of conduct has not been breached in a case like this, then it is not worth the paper it is written on. If the ministerial code of conduct does not discipline this sort of behaviour, we have a problem not just with the minister but with the entire government.

This breach is symptomatic of a government that does not think of the interests of the Australian people. It is symptomatic of a government that is out of touch and out of control. The government must stop playing games with preventative health. The government must recognise a conflict of interests when they see one and ask Senator Nash to resign. It is time for the former Leader of the Opposition to become a Prime Minister, show some leadership and start governing. The time for three-word slogans and one-sentence rhetoric has passed. It is time to start governing. It is time to start doing some of the work of government. The empty rhetoric has gone on for too long. It is time we saw some accountability.