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Thursday, 7 June 1984
Page: 2748

Senator TOWNLEY(1.10) —I wish to use this opportunity to draw three matters to the attention of the Government. The first matter relates to the labelling of food, and I preface what I am going to say about that by saying that it now appears that the governments of Australia and the manufacturers of alcoholic beverages seem to have recognised their responsibility to a large extent by putting on the label the amount of alcohol that is in beer or wine. Alcohol is a very dangerous drug, and the alcohol content is something of which people who buy alcohol should have knowledge, and I am glad to see that it is happening. I think it should be extended to cover all alcoholic drinks-all wines , whisky, hard liquor, as well as beer. The amount does not have to be given to three decimal places, but the label should give the person buying the beverage a simple indication of the amount of alcohol it contains. I hope the labelling will be extended to cover all those things.

With regard to food labelling, although it is something that has not worried me to a great extent because I think I have had enough experience of nutrition to know the kind of foods to choose, a lot of people perhaps do not have the interest to read as much as they should about the food they buy. I believe that food manufacturers should be made to recognise their responsibility for labelling any processed foods in a manner that allows people to tell from the label just what has happened to the particular food they are buying. For instance, I think the calorie, or kilojoule, content should be noted on the label in a fairly simply understood way. If items such as salt and sugar in particular are added to foods, then that should be noted on the label and the percentage content included. There has been a start to labelling certain things so that one can get an idea of what is in food. Salt is an important ingredient and is known to cause hypertension, and of course sugar involves a lot of calories and therefore leads to overweight, which is also a very big problem in this country of Australia.

People these days are attempting to take much more interest in what goes into their food, and I believe they have very much a right to know. Perhaps we should say whether a food is high, low or medium in fibre, because fibre is important in the diet. It is important that we get sufficient by way of bread and cereals and things of that kind. Breakfast cereals in particular, I believe, should be classified as high, medium or low fibre. There should be some kind of scale that gives people an indication of whether or not the food they are buying is in fact the way the name indicates it should be. They are three of the things that I think should be noted.

In the United States of America a lot of foods are labelled, I believe, in a much better way than they are in this country. In America, as well as the product name and the address of the manufacturer, they have to show the weight. Most also include a list of ingredients in order of amount used, so that the ingredient present in the largest amount is listed first. That is starting to happen in Australia, but I think it could go further, particularly with foods that are supposed to be especially nutritious. Manufacturers should give us a percentage, or even a calorie content, perhaps the amount of protein that is in the food and, if there is a vitamin claim for them, maybe that should be listed as well.

Australia has gone some of the way down the track towards achieving this aim, and I am raising it once again to try to hurry along the labelling of these things. I believe it requires agreement between Federal and State governments, and over the last 10 years or so I have been trying to get something done. Something is moving, but I would like to see it hurried up. I can see no reason why we do not adopt almost entirely the American system. Consumer groups in America seem to have more influence than do consumer groups in Australia, and I imagine they have thought very deeply about what should go on a label for the benefit of the consumer.

Another matter I have raised before is the matter of traffic lights. Again using America as an example, when a driver pulls up at a red light there he is able to turn through the red light provided he is turning into the direction the traffic is flowing. Of course, nobody would suggest that a driver should be able to go through a red light across the traffic that is coming through. I received a reply from Senator Messner to a question I asked about this, which said:

The advocacy of left-turn-on-red in Australia began after a similar rule was introduced in the United States as a fuel-conservation measure . . .

Those of us who do a lot of driving and have to buy a lot of petrol I am sure would appreciate being able to save petrol, and this procedure does indeed save the amount of petrol used when a car is stationary at a red light. It enables traffic to find different routes that get rid of some traffic snarls, and it has one other advantage that I do not think I mentioned on the other occasion I raised this matter. While the driver waits for the green light, the pedestrians too are waiting for the green light. They cross, and so for the first half of the time the green light is available in quite a lot of places there are pedestrians crossing who preclude the driver from turning left. If a driver is able to turn through a red light, the pedestrians are not there; they have moved across in front of him. Of course, the driver always has to come to a stop before he does any of this. Because the pedestrians are not there it is doubly easy to turn and it saves petrol. This system is being used in a large number of areas in the United States.

Senator Peter Baume —And in Sydney.

Senator TOWNLEY —In Sydney it was brought in after I suggested it, I think. All sorts of excuses are made in this country for not doing it. One excuse in the reply from Senator Messner said that in the United States most lights are on a fixed time basis whereas in Australia they are activated by cars driving across a detector strip in the road. The reply continues:

In off-peak times a driver may receive a green signal almost as soon as he reaches the stop line . . .

But by that time he has stopped; he has wasted the fuel. Admittedly if he went through the red light he would have to stop, but that excuse is not a good one. There is absolutely no reason why this could not be made Australia-wide virtually overnight, without any effort, without any cost whatsoever. The fact that the traffic lights are to a large extent as described in the answer to my question would make no difference whatsoever. Senator Baume has mentioned the situation in New South Wales, where there are some streets where this can be done. Senator Baume will correct me if I am wrong, but I believe they have a sign saying: 'Left turn after stop is allowed through a red light'.

Senator Peter Baume —That is quite correct.

Senator TOWNLEY —They do not need that sign in America, in the States where this practice is followed, because it is common practice. I have driven there and forgotten to do it and the cars behind very rapidly reminded me to keep moving. Also, we do not have to have these left turn slipways at a red light. They are very expensive to put in, and in fact I think they make the situation more dangerous than coming straight up to a red light, where one is able to turn easily and watch what is coming from the right, and then turn through the light when it is completely safe.

It is a matter that is being proceeded with but, again, too slowly. If State Transport Ministers and the Federal Minister for Transport Mr Peter Morris were to sit down and think about it for only a few minutes they would see that it could be done immediately and, as I see it, with absolutely no additional danger . I think there is more likely to be additional danger from people getting infuriated with red lights, waiting at them and eventually driving through them, being annoyed at sitting wasting time. There is more likely to be an accident as a result of their annoyance than from any reaction to the method I have suggested. If it can be done in places such as New York and California it can be extended immediately to Australia.

The other matter I wish to raise relates to a letter I noted in the Australian of about a week ago. I have not found a suitable time to ask for its incorporation in Hansard. It is an excellent letter, written by Russell Schneider, who we all remember at one stage worked for Senator Withers. That should not be held against him because this letter is virtually a mechanical letter. It explains the cost of welfare and the number of recipients of welfare at different times and the way the costs have gone up. The only thing it seems to omit is the number of Veterans' Affairs pensioners, who I believe numbered 363,000 or thereabouts in December last year. To save the time of the Senate, I ask leave for that letter to be incorporated in Hansard.

Senator Grimes —I hope you are also going to incorporate the letter written in reply to it.

Senator TOWNLEY —I have not seen that letter, but if there is such a letter-I do not have it at hand-I would be quite happy to incorporate it.

Senator Grimes —I have no objection. I just want to point out that there are two sides to that story.

Senator TOWNLEY —I will undertake, at the first opportunity, to find the letter Senator Grimes mentions and seek leave to incorporate it in Hansard.

Senator Grimes —We will sort it out when we come to it.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Collard) —Is leave granted for the document to be incorporated in Hansard? There being no objection, leave is granted.

The document read as follows-


SIR-As one who, when a contributor to your editorial columns, played a major part in coining the cliche ''soaring welfare bill.'' I would like to destroy some of the mythology surrounding the debate about the assets test on pensioners .

The unfortunate thing about this debate is that simplistic editorials such as that which you published on May 22 mislead people into thinking that the welfare devils are aged pensioners.

This prospect of the ''grey hordes'' ripping off the taxpayer is no doubt the major cause for ill-informed politicians and commentators promoting the idea that the wealthy old must somehow be punished.

In fact aged pensioners represent only 31 per cent of our total welfare bill. If that figure is not enough to prove the fallacy of the argument that the elderly are placing too much pressure on the public, the accompanying tables should help to illustrate where the real blow-out in welfare payments has taken place.

The figures show that the number of aged pensioners rose by only 7 per cent over the past five years. The number of supporting parent beneficiaries rose by 146 per cent and unemployment beneficiaries by 109 per cent. Interestingly, that other symbol used by those ostensibly concerned with cost control-family allowances-rose only marginally.

In cost terms the figures are even more dramatic. While the total welfare bill over five years rose by 106 per cent, the cost of aged pensions rose by only 64 per cent. The cost of providing benefits to single parents rose by 295 per cent and the cost of unemployment benefits went up by 258 per cent.

Welfare Recipients at:

Estimated Per cent

June 30, 1979 June 30, 1984 increase

Age Pensioners 1 323 000 1 417 000 7

Invalid 276 000 285 000 3.2

Widow 161 000 165 000 2.4

Supporting parents 62 500 153 900 146

Unemployment benefits 325 000 680 000 109

Sickness benefits 46 000 65 000 41

Family allowances 4 231 000 4 340 000 2.5

Cost of Welfare

Estimated Per cent

1978-79 1983-84 increase

$m $m

Age Pensioners 3 229 5 325 64

Invalid 690 1 215 76

Widows 499 845 69

Supporting Parents 226 893 295

Unemployment benefits 910 3 261 258

Sickness 150 342 128

Family allowances 997 1 514 52

General administration 220 556 152

Total welfare bill 8 143 16 843 106

There is also a certain irony in the fact that while the welfare bill rose by 106 per cent the cost of administering it rose by 152 per cent, a figure which should be preoccupying the mind of anyone concerned with public administration.

While it is true that the ageing population will ultimately become a greater proportion of the community, these figures should make it clear that they are not yet responsible for the massive increase in the welfare bill and if governments wish to reduce that they should be looking at the largesse they dispense in other areas.

In my last column for The Australian, I said, ''any attempt to change the welfare system must be handled delicately . . . in a coherent, well defined, well explained manner.'' That statement is as true today as it was then.

I would repeat my other comment of that time: if a government is to pursue the problem rationally, it just has to accept that anyone aged more than 45 has gone too far down the track to be expected to face major changes to the system.

Those under 45 (and to establish I am not arguing from self-interest, I am still in the younger age group) should be informed of the arrangements they should make for their retirement.

To attempt to impose an assets test or other restriction, no matter how economically sound, on people who have retired or are reaching retirement age today is, in fact, a retrospective tax. It is made even worse by the fact that over the past several decades politicians from both sides have encouraged these people to believe, rightly or wrongly, that they had an entitlement to a pension in their old age.

It is a tragedy that neither side of politics has yet thrown up anyone capable of taking this sort of longer-term view.


Senator TOWNLEY —I thank the Senate. I undertake to do what was mentioned a moment ago.

Debate (on motion by Senator Grimes) adjourned.

Sitting suspended from 1.24 to 2 p.m.