WHY PREVENTATIVE HEALTH HAS FALLEN OFF THE POLITICAL AGENDA
AUSTRALIAN CHRONIC DISEASE PREVENTION ALLIANCE EVENT
PARLIAMENT HOUSE CANBERRA
TUESDAY, 19 JUNE 2018
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Is Australia doing enough on chronic disease? It’s a simple question with a depressingly simple answer: no.
No, of course we’re not doing enough. Not even close. And today I want to talk about some of the reasons why.
Everyone in this room knows the extraordinary burden chronic disease places on our society.
The cost to individuals, families, communities and to our society as a whole is enormous.
One-third of the population – about 7 million people – have a chronic condition. Nearly 90 per cent of premature deaths have chronic disease as an underlying cause. The cost to the health system is many billions of dollars.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare calls chronic disease our “biggest health challenge”.
And everyone in this room knows that prevention is the key to reducing much of that burden.
So I’m not going to dwell on the facts and figures and statistics here today. You know them already.
Rather I’m going to talk about why prevention has fallen off the political agenda; and how we get it back on track. In doing so I’m going to strike a political note that some of you may find discomfiting; but I believe I have a message you need to hear.
It’s a message I’ve touched on in other similar speeches over the last couple of years but it bears repeating. Otherwise prevention will never take its place where it belongs: at the very forefront of our national conversation on health.
Now as you all know, the last Labor Government tackled chronic disease head on.
The fight over tobacco plain packaging was perhaps the most high-profile and contentious of our preventative measures – but it was certainly not all we did.
We established the National Preventative Health Taskforce, which developed a 10-year roadmap for action on obesity, tobacco and alcohol – much of which remains relevant now.
We also established the Australian National Preventive Health Agency, so that governments would receive ongoing expert advice on disease prevention.
We also invested significant funds into keeping children, adults and communities healthy through the National Partnership Agreement on Preventive Health.
At the last federal election we sought to extend this proud record with a new $300 million investment in prevention.
This included $30 million for Australia’s first National Physical Activity Strategy and a National Nutrition Framework to tackle obesity; a renewed push to reduce smoking through a new mass media campaign; and a new strategy to address harmful drinking.
It also included a plan to identify the 50 communities most at risk of chronic disease and ensure they received targeted support that is specific to their needs.
I was very proud of these policies but sadly – as you all know – we did not get the opportunity to implement them.
We haven’t given up the fight of course. Labor’s new draft national platform – our guiding policy document – has an extensive section on the importance of prevention.
But now I’d like to contrast Labor’s record on prevention to that of the current government.
The Abbott-Turnbull Government has introduced measures that have forced up the out-of-pocket costs of health care – meaning more Australians are delaying going to the doctor and seeing specialists and filling scripts.
That means people get sicker and eventually end up costing our health system even more.
But the Government has also gutted specific health promotion and disease prevention programs.
It used its first Budget to abandon the National Partnership Agreement on Preventive Health and ripped the remaining $368 million out of prevention.
It abolished the Australian National Preventive Health Agency, the best source of advice on keeping Australians healthy –for a measly saving of $1 million a year.
Since then, prevention has been conspicuously absent from this Government’s agenda. The odd small funding announcement notwithstanding, it’s clear this Government does not take prevention seriously at all.
What more evidence of that fact do you need than this: in the year 2018 one of the Coalition partners still accepts money from Big Tobacco.
Just last year the Nationals accepted $15,700 in donations from multinational tobacco companies. That’s roughly one dollar for each of the 15,000 people smoking kills in Australia each year.
So the Government I believe has an undeniably poor record on prevention.
And yet, they’ve suffered next to no political pain for it. They’ve gotten away with it. In fact, they have been widely congratulated by the sector when they put even a tiny modicum of funds in.
And that brings me to the core of my message today.
Right now, prevention is a hard sell politically. When the Budget is tight, it’s not easy for any politician to convince their colleagues that they should invest hundreds of millions of dollars in policies that that will pay only long-term dividends.
Particularly when they know they’re unlikely to pay a political price for investing that money elsewhere.
To change that dynamic, we need a new national conversation about prevention. It’s not the first time I’ve made this point; but it’s one I intend to continue making until something changes.
Events like these, which bring together policymakers and stakeholders are of course important.
But this needs to move beyond the beltway. We need groups like those gathered here today to fight to give prevention the public platform it deserves and needs.
We need a sector with a strong voice, a united front and a focus on the big prevention picture.
A sector that can help politicians explain to the voting public why prevention is so important, why it requires a significant investment of their tax dollars – and how that investment could improve and extend their lives.
Without that national conversation we will get stuck in the status quo – where we continue to pour billions of dollars into treating diseases rather than preventing them.
And we need a sector that ensures that any Government that cuts from prevention programs – of whatever political stripe – is held to account.
We know health groups can be formidable advocates.
Just look at the results achieved by doctors, pharmacists and pathologists over recent years: they have used their clout to change policy for the better.
The message has to be a compelling one: the public will rarely side with lobby groups that use their power simply to consolidate their influence or enrich their members.
The importance of chronic disease prevention is a compelling message. It’s a message that I will continue to deliver as someone who cares deeply about public health; I hope you’ll redouble your efforts to deliver that message too.