SENATOR BIRMINGHAM: (South Australia) (6:12 PM) -It is a pleasure to rise to make a few brief comments on the Australian National Preventive Health Agency Bill 2010. Everybody believes in having a healthier society, promoting health outcomes and encouraging healthier lifestyles amongst all Australians. These are motherhood statements. These are things that I think we all share a common desire to achieve. This government is very good at pitching itself in a position to make motherhood statements that support the types of things about which everybody nods their head and says, ‘Yes, we agree with that.’ Faster broadband for everybody is a great idea. Everybody likes faster broadband; never mind the $43 billion cost or the details that come with it. An economic stimulus package to save us from recession is a great idea; this side of the chamber supported part of that. Never mind the fact that it plunged the country into debt. It delivered a whole lot of programs that, in and of themselves, sound like a nice idea, such as more money for schools-what a great idea. We all support new infrastructure for schools; it is a shame that we gave them buildings that they did not necessarily want and could have used that funding for far more practical education outcomes. Here we are now with the motherhood statement of preventative health and healthier outcomes for everybody, to be achieved by setting up this new agency.
This dates back, as Senator Boyce so ably outlined, to 2007, to some Rudd government promises and the government’s desire to be seen to be doing something about preventative health, to be seen to be tackling issues that on occasion grab the tabloid newspaper headlines-obesity, alcohol abuse and smoking rates. These are the things that they see as sexy. Indeed, you can track back and find that announcements such as these around the Preventative Health Taskforce and so on and other measures that this government has pursued all happen to be conveniently timed for when there is some kind of tabloid newspaper binge on preventative health subjects like the three I just mentioned.
The government commissioned a report from the National Preventative Health Taskforce. The report was handed down in the term of the Rudd government. Quite a sweeping series of recommendations came out of that task force report. If you tally up all of their ideas and recommendations, the National Preventative Health Taskforce came up with, I think, 26 potential pieces of new legislation; 18 potential new policies, programs or frameworks; seven potential new or extended bureaucracies of some sort; and 71 other different and diverse recommendations for some form of government action. That is an awful lot of government action.
Of course, the government-because they are not so good on action themselves-have decided to pick up one key recommendation of the task force, and that is to establish the National Preventive Health Agency, and so we have this legislation before us. My fear as we embark on establishing this agency is that they are going to look at the report of the task force and its recommendations for potentially 26 new pieces of legislation, 18 new programs or frameworks, seven new bureaucracies and 70-odd other recommendations and they are going to see that as their remit-they are going to see that as the types of things they should be doing. That means that they are going to be intruding into lives and all manner of things that, by and large, should be the decisions for sensible, responsible, free-thinking adults.
Senator Boyce quite cogently made some of those arguments about the importance of instilling responsibility and choice in people when it comes to these matters. However, the government is going to impose on us this new agency, with a broad and far-reaching array of objects and powers and hundreds of millions of dollars to spend, most of which is to be spent on non-defined social marketing campaigns. It will be spending this taxpayer money in an attempt to change behaviour. More particularly, it will be providing and making recommendations directly through to government on anything that it sees fit to relate to this preventative health agenda. It is those recommendations and what government does with them that will provide the real threat to the freedom of individuals to make reasonable, fair choices in the future.
I go back to the 316 pages of the Preventative Health Taskforce report-316 pages largely of nanny-statism, of people sitting down and saying: ‘We know what’s best for you. We know better than you how you should lead your life. We of course know what is best for your children; we know better than you how you should raise your children.’ There are a lot of truths in that; there are a lot of people who make mistakes. But there are limits on the capacity of government to reach in and ensure that children are raised the way that we may all think is ideal. There are limits on the capacity of government to reach in and ensure that you lead the type of healthy lifestyle that some may think is ideal. And those limits are there for good reason-because, frankly, we should be able to lead the type of lifestyle that we think is appropriate. Yes, occasionally, we need a bit of encouragement-even a bit of a nudge, though I do not want that word to be misused-to ensure we know what is right to do and particularly to ensure that we understand what the sensible choices that we should be making are. Hopefully, if this agency does the right thing, it will enhance people’s capacity to make sensible choices but it will not deprive them of the capacity to make those choices in the first place.
I know that my colleagues in the other place and Senator Fierravanti-Wells here will propose a range of amendments, or have already proposed some amendments-many of which are, hopefully, to instil a little bit more direction, a little bit more restraint and a little bit more balance into this preventive health agency. Hopefully they are not just to ensure that we have a group of people who can engage in ‘group think’ sitting around the table but to ensure that there is some external input-some industry input, some input from people who might have opinions that differ. I would urge the government to accept this concept of adding some industry input into the membership of the agency and into the advisory council in particular. There needs to be greater transparency, ensuring that we have published the type of information and recommendations that the authority is making. The public, who will fund this agency, and the parliament have the right to know what this agency is recommending to ministers, to know what types of things it is proposing. If it is a litany of the types of things proposed in the Preventative Health Taskforce report, there will be a concern that it is overreaching in its remit and is driving us down the path of a state-knows-best type of approach. This really is a case of trying to get the balance right between ‘state knows best’ and individual choice and responsibility.
The coalition are supporting the passage of this legislation because we recognise that there is more work to be done in the area of educating people and ensuring a greater understanding by all Australians of what we should engage in to live a healthy lifestyle. But the challenge for this agency will be to ensure that it is constructive in the spirit and the way in which it goes about that-that it is an agency that promotes understanding, knowledge and responsibility, not an agency that deprives people of choice. That means that it needs to spend its time ensuring that the information provided through health networks, GPs, schools, parenting options, childcare centres and all of the types of avenues that exist to better inform families, parents and individuals of the impacts of the choices they make is capitalised upon and pursued aggressively.
I hope it does not mean that this agency will spend most of its time talking about advertising bans, recommending higher taxes, wanting to put warning labels of ever-greater size on different products, wanting to traffic-light different food options and wanting all manner of trade restrictions. These are the things that stand in the way of business. These are the things that stand in the way of individual choice. These are the things that, frankly, are a step too far for government in many instances in its role in promoting healthy and responsible choices. It should not go to the extent of telling people how to live their lives.
I noticed a quote from Tim Wilson, a very good young writer and commentator who works for the Institute of Public Affairs. It was a solemn warning published in February this year:
Once established, this nanny-state bureaucracy will outlive governments and exist solely to recommend how government should regulate businesses and people’s lives to achieve paternalism.
I hope Mr Wilson is wrong and that that is not the case. He makes the valid point that, once established, this agency will quite likely outlive this government and will serve under future governments, so I hope that those ultimately appointed to the agency, the current government and, importantly, future governments prove me wrong in my concerns and, in particular, prove Mr Wilson wrong in his concerns, that it does not grow into a massive nanny-state structure, that it is not a bloated bureaucracy and that it does not make unreasonable recommendations to government; that it understands what I think is a reasonable remit, and that is to focus very specifically on promoting responsible choices and encouraging more Australians to make those responsible choices into the future.