Speech by The Hon Larry Anthony MP

National Health and Wellbeing Seminar

Location: Telstra Stadium, Olympic Park, Sydney


Ladies and gentlemen

Thank you Ian (Grainger, CEO of Fitness Australia) for your kind introduction.

Good morning everyone.

I want to join the previous speakers in welcoming you to this National Health and Wellbeing seminar.

It is a pleasure to be here on behalf of Senator Rod Kemp, the Australian Government Minister for the Arts and Sport. He asked me to say how sorry he is that couldn’t be with you today.

He also said that he will continue working hard in his capacity as the national sports minister to encourage all Australians to take up healthy and active lifestyles.

As the first-ever Minister at the national level responsible for children’s issues, I have to say I’m another passionate believer in promoting health and wellbeing, particular when it comes to the early years of a child’s life.

The Olympics and our sporting image

But before I go on to talk about this, I can’t let the moment go by without mentioning this venue, and what it symbolises for almost every Australian.

This great stadium was built for the ultimate in physical activity. And you would have to remember all the excitement at the Sydney 2000 Olympics and the record amount of gold won by the Australian team.

We all enjoyed their success, many of us watching the games on TV, from the comfort of our armchairs.

Yet across the world we have a strong image as a sporting and athletic nation.

Indeed, millions of people from almost every nation are now seeing the best of our best as they witness the fantastic efforts of the Australian team competing in Athens.

So, it would be reasonable of them to think that Australia is a fit and healthy nation.

You would also think you were right if you took a look at Australia’s overall record on children’s health and wellbeing.

You would see that death rates for infants and children have fallen in the last decade and that the number of Australian children being immunised each year keeps going up.

We have a wonderful environment and great natural produce – both perfect for physically active lifestyles and healthy living.

Yet, our children are not as healthy and well as they could be.

Data on being overweight or obese

The stark reality is that the health and wellbeing of our nation is declining. This is particularly true of children. More and more are becoming overweight and increasingly inactive. And many are obese.

The most frightening statistic is that about 25-30 per cent – or 1.5 million of our young people under the age of 18 are overweight or obese.

Experts project that if we keep up current trends, by 2020, 80 per cent of all Australian adults and one-third of all Australian children will be overweight or obese.

Australia is not alone in this.

About 1.7 billion people around the world are overweight or obese. And among the world’s children, one in 10 is overweight.

In the United States and Canada, the number of overweight people has doubled in the past decade and a half.

More than 20 per cent of children are overweight in the United Kingdom, Switzerland and Croatia.

And more than 30 per cent of children are overweight in Spain, Italy and Greece.

Health effects

So what does this mean for children?

For overweight and obese kids, it means a poor start early in their lives.

All the evidence says that the early years are the best time to build a foundation for a person’s health and quality of life later on.

But being obese or overweight weakens those foundations. To give you some examples …

  • Studies show that obesity in childhood is associated with increased adult cardiovascular morbidity.
  • Being overweight in childhood can increase heart disease risk factors, such as high blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
  • And the prevalence of associated type 2 diabetes is also on the rise in children and adolescents.

Economic and other negative consequences

Apart from the health impacts, there are serious economic consequences, as well.

Obesity puts huge demands on our health budget.

In 1998, the direct cost of treating major obesity-related illnesses in Australia was over $460 million or around 2 per cent of national health care spending.

The latest estimates suggest that the true costs of obesity could actually be anywhere from just under $700 million to just over $1.2 billion a year.

Since 1998, of course, the situation has worsened and no doubt the financial costs are going up too.

On top of the health and economic consequences, there are less tangible negatives that go with being overweight.

Overweight and obese children, for instance, lack the energy and vibrancy that goes with simply being young. They are learning how to be unhealthy, rather than healthy.

Too many them have a bad self-image, and they feel sad, unattractive and unworthy.

Looking at the evidence

So what do we do about obesity?

It’s not rocket-science. Not surprisingly, physical activity and healthy eating will prevent obesity.

And the importance of both these is among the main issues you are focusing on at today’s seminar.

But putting these two crucial things into practice is not as easy as it sounds.

These days, families are time poor and turn to foods of convenience, which are frequently high in fat and sugar.

The aerobic fitness of our children has taken a sharp downturn.

More than 40 per cent of children play no sport or participate in any physical activity.

Fewer parents are sharing the fun of playing and exercising with their children – like having game of cricket in the street, or riding bikes in the park.

The statistics show that children who watch over 10 hours of TV a week are more likely to be overweight. Yet, amazingly, some Australian kids are spending a full working week – that is, 35 hours – in front of a TV or computer.

As a father of three young children, these trends towards sedentary lifestyles really worry me.

So at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I keep on delivering a simple message to parents is –

Get your kids off the Playstation and into the playground.

Taking responsibility and leading the way

Aas a nation, we simply cannot afford to leave the consequences of obesity unchecked.

In my view, it is society as a whole – including governments, business, communities, families, the media, health professionals, child care providers, teachers, parents, and so on – who have a joint responsibility in turning the situation around.

We all have a role to play when it comes to guiding our children, and teaching them healthy habits and how to lead an active life.

The Building a Healthy, Active Australia initiative

For its part, the Australian Government continues to show leadership and take national responsibility – most recently with a major announcement by the Prime Minister in June this year.

Called the Building a Healthy, Active Australia initiative, and with
$116 million to spend, it will deliver real and practical help to children and families at risk of being overweight or obese.

Four elements are designed to tackle two of the most important factors that contribute to the problem – that is, lack of exercise and poor diet.

Let me give you a brief rundown on these four elements.

The first is called Active After-School Communities, with $90 million to get primary school kids more physically active after school. Using coordinators, it will also involve local communities, sports clubs and out of school hours care staff in getting primary school kids into exercise.

The second element is called Active School Curriculum. This ties school funding to each primary and junior secondary school, including at least two hours of physical activity for students each week. Some people are complaining about this, but they are wrong. I’m quite prepared to say that I strongly believe we owe it to our children, and that we have to go back to the days when school meant both learning and exercise.

For the third element, called the Healthy School Communities program, we are asking non-government organisations like Parents and Citizens associations, school auxiliaries and canteen groups to link up with others in the community and apply for grants of up to $1,500 to pay for projects that promote healthy eating.

And the fourth element of the new package is an $11 million program called Healthy Eating and Regular Physical Activity – Information for Australian Families. Through the media, this will offer practical information to families about the benefits to children of healthy eating and regular exercise.

I should say that the whole package of activities has an added bonus. It’s also about having fun – an essential ingredient, I think, when you want to get kids involved, energetic, and enthusiastic.

How to find out more

It’s easy to find out more about the package and the activities that go with it. You can visit the web site at www.healthyactive.gov.au.
Or you can contact the relevant Australian Government departments or agencies. The details on these are in your conference packs.

National Agenda for Early Childhood

Before I finish, I want to mention another, very important childhood initiative that I’ve been working on for some time – Australia’s first National Agenda for Early Childhood.

While a child’s health and wellbeing depends to a large degree on healthy eating and regular exercise, in themselves they do not guarantee a bright future for every Australian child.

And giving our young children aged 0-5 years the best possible start in life, covering a whole range of family, parenting and childhood issues, is what the National Agenda is all about.

While the political parties have their differences, I’m pleased to say that the idea of getting a national, agreed plan of action for children has bipartisan support from both sides of the political fence.

What I want to achieve is a whole-of-government approach – both nationally and at the state level – for what I call a future investment in early childhood.

After extensive Australia-wide consultations on the agenda, I’m now at the stage of trying to persuade the state governments to come on board.

And this month I released a draft framework for the agenda, which outlines possible federal and state and territory government responsibilities and activities.

The framework includes four areas of potential action:

  • early learning and care
  • supporting families and parents
  • creating child-friendly communities.
  • and, importantly, healthy young families

Underpinning the framework is strong support for an early intervention and prevention approach, to try and prevent problems happening in the first place, or to resolving them before they get out of hand.

  • So in the area of healthy young families for instance, we need to target parents right at the start – at the ante- and post-natal stages. It involves giving them information and advice about issues like:
  • nutrition,
  • exercise,
  • immunisation,
  • the dangers of exposure to tobacco smoke, and
  • getting parents thinking about the benefits of healthy and active lifestyles for themselves and for their child.

We need to get better links between all the different types of family services – including health services, children’s services and family relationship support services – so that parents can get access to all the support available.

Call to action

I’m an optimist.

I believe we are on the way to achieving much better results for parents and children alike.

But to really make a difference, all those players I mentioned earlier need to work together in genuine and productive partnerships.

We need to have a nation that appreciates healthy living and that encourages physical activity.

We need to nurture our children by bringing them up to eat well and be active.

We also need to help overweight and obese people, and we must do this in a caring and supportive way.

Your contribution and participation in this is vital.

And this seminar is definitely a step in the right direction.

Thank you to all the sponsors and congratulations to Martin Shepard and his team from Smart Connections for organising today’s event.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Louis Pasteur. I think he had it right when he said:

When I approach a child, he inspires in me two sentiments – tenderness for what he is, and respect for what he may become.

It is this tenderness, and respect for what they may become, that influences my approach, and the approach of the Prime Minister and the Government, to fostering the health and wellbeing of Australian children.

Thank you.