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BUDGET time is a good time to reflect on influence over governments. It should be the time that governments make decisions to spend money in the most effective ways to improve the lives of all of its citizens. If only!
Governments do not operate in isolation and decisions are influenced by a myriad of factors. Evidence is just one small part.
With great insight Justice Ronald Sackville as a royal commissioner looking into non-medical use of drugs in SA in 1979 stated: “The most persuasive misunderstanding that affects a commission such as ours is the belief that crucial policy questions can be resolved by carefully weighing up the scientific, medical and statistical evidence”.
Unfortunately, the influence of industry has become disproportionate, inappropriate, pervasive and is regularly contrary to community interest.
Look at the banks and wonder why it is that the discrepancy between the ultra-rich and the poorest in our society has been growing at an exponential rate over the last 50 years. But the problem goes well beyond the banks.
Many readers will have seen my own comments on the ABC “4 Corners” program “Tipping the Scales” recently regarding the influence of parts of industry determined to resist a levy on sugary soft drinks. The evidence is overwhelming and price signals work. Forty-eight per cent of our preschoolers need a filling in their teeth, obesity is out of control. Such a levy should be a lay down misere.
Type 2 diabetes is recognised as a key outcome of over consumption of sugar. We are following in America’s footsteps as identified in “4 Corners”: “Back in 1965 Type 2 diabetes was a disease of ageing… Fatty liver disease was unheard of, except in alcoholics, prior to 1980. This is a disease that hadn’t even been recognised ’til 1980. You want to talk about epidemics? That is the biggest epidemic of all”.
What happens? Parts of the industry are determined to be disingenuous, to distract and to disseminate. They point out that physical exercise is important. Of course it is. However, the fundamental truth is that sugary soft drinks have a dramatic impact. The evidence is clear. Too bad! The Australian government will not interfere with this industry. The only way they will change their attitude is when they come under enough pressure.
Beverages Council representative Geoff Parker argues the reason political parties have resisted calls for a levy on sugary soft drinks is they “continue to look to the evidence base and continue to reject this type of tax as some sort of silver bullet or white knight that a sugar levy reduces consumption. Obesity and poor nutrition are complex problems not solved by this or any other silver bullet”. However, like road-accident trauma or tobacco successes in public health we need to take each step. This is just one – but it is an important start.
Governments have the power to exercise good stewardship and to intervene in favour of the community interest. Instead, they have chosen to stay their hand.
An excellent insight into their reluctance was provided by Prof Mike Daube in a very brief scan of the Australian Parliament’s Lobbyist Register.
The number of lobbyists in 2017 representing unhealthy commodities included:
- Tobacco – 20 direct lobbying clients and 14 indirect.
- Alcohol – 43 direct and 23 indirect.
- Junk food – 33 direct and 13 indirect.
- Gambling – 31 direct and 16 indirect.
While there may be some overlap in the indirect lobbyists representing multiple interests of unhealthy commodities – it is clear that our democracy is under significant siege from industries that want to dominate our lives with their unhealthy products and the messaging that sells them.
The Budget is a time when governments really demonstrate their credentials and their genuine interest in the public good. The final Budget before an election is an important test for a government. Voters can and should make it part of their consideration on how to cast a vote.
Michael Moore is a former member of the ACT Legislative Assembly and an independent minister for health in the Carnell government. He is the CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia.