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Monday, 28 February 2011
Page: 1793


Ms OWENS (8:10 PM) —I thank the member for Shortland and the member for Bennelong for their contributions. The issue of health is one that is very dear to me. When I talk about health I am not just talking about the focus we have had for many years and which in many ways is a focus on illness and helping people get better when they are ill. I remember when we were in opposition. The Labor Party talked a lot about the need for us to move some of the focus back towards prevention. There have been times in the past when governments have paid quite a bit of attention to that: the Whitlam government established the National Hospitals and Health Services Commission in 1973, the Fraser government initiated the Davidson inquiry into health promotion in 1979 and the Hawke government created the Better Health Commission in 1985. Yet following that there was quite a lack of action and lack of discussion on the very important issue of keeping people healthy.

While I am very happy with what the government that I am a part of does, I still think we have a long way to go to move through a discussion on preventive health to talking about staying healthy. There is quite a difference between the two. Nevertheless, the steps that have been taken since the Labor government came to power in 2007 are very important. The government negotiated a new National Partnership Agreement on Preventive Health with the state and territory governments, and as part of that agreement the Commonwealth government committed to providing $872 million in funding over six years for a range of preventive health activities, including the establishment of a national prevention strategy—again, very good policy that has been moving along quite well. The government also commissioned three major inquiries into the health system: the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission, the Preventative Health Taskforce and, through the Department of Health and Ageing, the external reference group on primary health care. All three of those reported back to government quite early in our first term.

Unsurprisingly, the taskforce outlined quite a comprehensive plan, including the establishment of an Australian national preventive health agency whose job it would be to drive the agenda on preventive health. Three of the main areas to be tackled initially are tobacco, obesity and alcohol abuse—and, in some cases, the relationship between the three. The agency will assist in driving that prevention agenda, including by providing evidence based advice to health ministers, supporting the development of evidence and data on the state of preventive health in Australia and putting in place national guidelines and standards to guide preventive health activities.

I was surprised, when I first came to parliament in 2004, by the lack of debate on preventive health. I remember a number of debates in the House where the government made it clear that it did not consider it the job of a federal government to involve itself in preventive health. I am very pleased to see that we as a government have started doing that, and I know that over time this will contribute greatly to the work that needs to be done in facing one of the greatest public health challenges confronting Australia: obesity. We have already heard the figures, with over 60 per cent of adults and one in four children being overweight or obese. In the vast majority of cases it is completely preventable. There are some people, of course, who have other health conditions or are on medication that makes things very difficult, but in the vast majority of cases these are completely preventable conditions caused largely by bad habits or a lack of good habits over a long period of time.

I, as a person who cares greatly about my health and who has spent many years learning to manage it, am continually surprised by the lack of information out in the community about how to be healthy. So while we are focusing very much on preventive health and that is a very good step, we really do at some point need to move the debate considerably further and concentrate much more on the issue of being healthy in the first place. It is great to improve our hospitals, and we are working very hard at that, but ultimately it is a better option if people do not go there in the first place. I thank the member for Shortland for raising this. It is a very important issue as we face the future of Australia.