A sugar tax is needed to combat the increasing rates of obesity, says Dr Mike Freelander.
In an interview with the South West Voice yesterday, the Labor Member for Macarthur said what is also needed is a “properly implemented national obesity program for children and adults.’’
Dr Freelander, who is seeking a second term in Canberra, was responding to a question asked by a reader of the Voice via its Facebook page.
Readers also asked Dr Freelander questions about the environment and climate change, services for disabled people, the Appin Road upgrade, high-speed rail, the arts and local sport facilities.
“There’s no question there’s an obesity epidemic in Australia and it’s most marked in the outer western suburbs of Sydney, and the more disadvantages areas of capital cities around Australia,’’ Dr Freelander said.
“A lot of it has to do with lifestyle factors, and we need to look at ways to educate people, and we need to find ways to make it easier to access exercise programs, doing sport, advice about diet and so on,’’ he said.
“The big issue that comes up here, and it’s political, is whether or not we should have a sugar tax, like they’ve introduced in many countries around the world.
“And my personal view – this is not the party’s view – is that we should.
“I am quite open about that and I’ve said it to a number of people, inside and outside my party, that there is no question that we need to educate people about the problems a high sugar diet can cause,’’ he said.
“We also need to put in place political means to try to reduce the amount of high calorie foods people are having.
“I think that would be a primary way of doing it and I know all my medical colleagues agree with me.’’
As a follow up question, the Voice asked Dr Freelander if he thought a Shorten Labor Govrnment would introduce a sugar tax to tackle obesity.
“I think it’s unlikely that we would introduce a sugar tax,’’ he said.
“We would have to look at other ways to reduce child obesity and obesity in the general population, because there’s no doubt it has a socio economic basis and this is reducing people’s life expectancy.
“We will be seeing the first generation with a lower life expectancy than the previous generation, and I think that’s a tragedy.’’
Responding to a question about the proposed Appin Road upgrade, Dr Freelander also outlined what would be his top five priorities if his party wins the May 18 election.
“Last election we promised $50 million for Appin Road, the government copied us and some of that money has been spent on some minor upgrades and studies on how the road should be developed.
“I also know there are talks between the [Campbelltown] council, state and federal Governments and the developers.
“In my view this is far too slow in starting major works on Appin Road.
“We have committed a further $55 million and if we are elected will begin the upgrade to make Appin Road a dual carriageway, with barriers on either side.
“Plus, we will spend $5 million to build a land bridge for fauna to get across, from the Georges River side to the Nepean River side, and go some way to protecting our koalas,’’ Dr Freelander said.
“I personally think that it’s urgent to upgrade Appin Road, and I have been pushing for that since been elected in 2016, even before I was elected, and if we get into government that will be the number one priority that I will be pushing.
“The number two priority is to get the Leppington to Badgerys Creek rail link completed before the airport opens.
“Number three would be the upgrade of paediatric services, including a children’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU), and some other paediatric upgrades which I will be talking about in the near future.
“Number four priority for me is to try and ease the cost of living pressures from the poorest in our community and that includes trying to increase Newstart and provide a better, kinder framework in Centrelink for dealing with people on low incomes.
“Number 5 is to have a better approach to mental health services, particularly for children, adolescents and young adults, and does not necessarily mean spending more money.
“What we need is better integration of services.
“That’s where the problem has been. It’s not necessarily about opening a headspace in every electorate, it’s about trying to integrate services better.
“Most people with mental health issues go to their GPs as an initial step and the GP has the option of providing some treatment, or sending them to a psychologist or a mental health facility,’’ Dr Freelander explained.
“The problem for me is not those lines of referral, the problem is people with severe mental problems tend to be referred to the hospital and the hospital has to make a decision whether they require admission or a referral to an outside agency, and then the system begins to break down.
“There’s often a lack of communication between GP, and hospital, or the hospital and the outpatient clinic, and the community mental health worker.
“I think we need to be looking how to better communicate and integrate those services – the patient should be assigned a mental health worker, who could be a mental health nurse or a community health worker or an Indigenous health worker, someone who can case-manage them.
“Someone who can allow them through the system, and communicate with all the different agencies involved.
“What happens now is people may be admitted, if they’re suicidal or psychotic, to the mental health unit at the hospital, they get treated, they get better and then they get sent home.
“They may or may not get followed up, but it’s often left up to them to contact the community health worker or GP or whatever and of course they often don’t and stop taking their medication and so on.
“You speak to the police, they know this because they often take someone who is psychotic off the streets, take them to the hospital, they are treated, and things go well, and a month later they are picking up the same person.’’
Next Dr Freelander tackled a reader’s question about the arts and Labor’s plans or policies.
“I’ve had the shadow minister for the arts Tony Burke out here to look at the Campbelltown arts centre, to see what we can do to help council upgrade it, and he is certainly very enthusiastic about that,’’ he said.
“He loved the centre, by the way, thought it was fantastic.
“We do have some very good policies in terms of live music and how we can encourage that.
“We also have some views about arts funding through the Australia Council, the current government has used it as a bit of a pork barrelling exercise, sending the money where they think they can get a few votes.
“We would like a more independent approach to arts funding.
“And a more diverse approach – encouraging all the diverse communities in Australia to express their commitment to arts,’’ Dr Freelander said.
Another reader asked if Labor would support high-speed rail.
“This is Anthony Albanese’s pet project, fast rail from Brisbane to Sydney, through Campbelltown, Canberra and on to Melbourne,’’ Dr Freelander responded.
“He’s a huge supporter of fast rail.
“It’s a high cost project but he wants us to start planning it if we get into government.
“It’s been talked about before, but I think the construction costs have come down, there are better technologies available now, so Albo is committed to that.’’
Another readers’ question we put to Dr Freelander was about funding for improvements to local sport facilities, such as lighting for night time training and female change rooms.
“I’m a great believer in kids’ sport, especially team sports, my father was the president of the Western Suburbs rugby union club for 20 years,’’ Dr Freelander said.
“Anything we can do to upgrade our local sporting clubs, particularly girls sport, such as change rooms, would be great.’’
On the need to do more for people with disability, on employment, housing and other specialised services, Dr Freelander had this to say:
“I agree entirely – one of the problems of the rollout of the NDIS has been that the funding has been delayed, and so people having to wait a long time to get their NDIS plans, mainly because the government hasn’t staffed it properly.
“Labor is committed to employing more people,’’ he said.
“The other thing with the NDIS is not set up to block fund, it’s just for individual funding, and we need to relook that to see how we can reintroduce some block funding to some of these very important areas.
“I saw at Oran Park recently a couple of houses being built specifically for people with disability, but if we can get them into the workforce it makes a huge difference to their lives, it makes a better society in that we don’t chuck people away, we don’t ostracise them – it’s better for all of us and we need to work hard to do it – and we can do it,’’ Dr Freelander said.
“Just because someone’s got disability doesn’t mean they’re a lesser member of our society. I employ one of my patients in my office, someone who has cerebral palsy, she’s very smart and does a great job.’’
Answering a reader’s question about the environment, Dr Freelander said that in the last several decades in Australia we have tended to ignore environmental issues.
“Perhaps we have paid lip service – we talk about the Great Barrier Reef and water and air quality, but when you look at substantive things done about it, we haven’t done a lot,’’ he said.
“The Murray-Darling is a tragedy, and I have been out there, and Menindee, Burke and Brewarrina and all those places; we need to take it seriously, we need to turn things around.
“And that means we need to act on all those environmental issues, and of course act on climate change.
“I know people are concerned about cost of living and power prices and that sort of thing, but if we act on renewables we will do better on our cost of living than if we do nothing, if we continue to burn coal, because it’s doing very bad things, not only to our economy but our environment.
“We need to act as a matter of urgency.’’
As a follow up question we asked Dr Frelander if he agreed with some of the gloom and doom merchants who claim that we have no more than 10 years to act on climate change to save the planet.
“No, I don’t. I think we will act and be able to improve things and act in a gradual manner. First thing is the government should stop talking about it; we need action.’’