Kelly Kennington, Hannah Pierce, and Elizabeth Connor
The WA election is now days away. Some people, including the WA Opposition Leader, have already accepted the current Government will easily win on Saturday. But we shouldn’t count the votes before they’ve been cast – and we shouldn’t head to the polls without understanding where the major parties sit on public health policies and how they’ll prioritise health over the next four years.
There’s no denying that public health has been thrust in to the spotlight thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. But as those working in the field know, public health has a much broader role than just infectious disease. This is why in the lead up to the 2021 WA State Election, the PHAA WA Election Platform didn’t focus on COVID-19; instead, PHAA WA wanted to ensure that our political parties are thinking beyond the pandemic, and are planning for a healthy WA now and into the future. We asked our parties to commit to:
- Increase investment in public health prevention and promotion for a sustainable future health system
i. Increase investment in health prevention to at least five percent of the total health budget by July 2029
ii. Increase investment in mental health prevention to five percent of the total Mental Health Commission budget by 2025
iii. Maintain Healthway’s activities, funded at no less than the current level with indexation.
- Introduce a minimum unit price for alcohol
- Immediately ban advertising of unhealthy food and drink on State-owned assets
- Raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to 14
- Keep the current restrictions on electronic gaming machines in WA
- Act on climate change, with a target of net zero emissions by 2050
Our election platform was launched in December and sent to all current MPs and the four major parties, asking them to respond with their position. Today, we are pleased to release our summary outlining ‘How well our future leaders #ThinkPublicHealth’.
Where are the Liberals?
Overall, PHAA WA was pleased to receive official responses from three of the major parties; however, we were disappointed with the lack of response from the WA Liberals. They may have conceded the election outcome, but we have some concerns that their lack of response may be indicative of their limited understanding of (or interest in) public health more broadly. Regardless of the election outcome, the WA public health workforce will need to work hard during this term to build capacity within the WA Liberal Party to ensure that its members are aware of the importance of public health policy and health issues facing their electorates.
Increase investment in prevention
We were delighted to see a commitment in writing from WA Labor and the Greens to increase investment in prevention to at least 5% of the total health budget by 2029, and to continue to fund Healthway at the current levels, with indexation. While 5% prevention spend was a recommendation in the Sustainable Health Review Final Report and the current Government has previously committed to it, it was reassuring to hear this specific recommendation remains high on the agenda and will be progressed by a WA Labor Government. Our next priority will be to work with the incoming government to ensure the definition for prevention is evidence-based, to ensure this 5% allocation is appropriated in the right direction. Commitment to increasing mental health prevention to 5% of the mental health budget was made by both the Greens and WA Liberals. While WA Labor and The Nationals acknowledged the need to move toward this target, they did not specifically commit to this in writing – although Minister Cook did make a verbal commitment to this target at a public health pre-election forum last week.
Is this the end of unhealthy advertising on state-owned assets?
Another highlight was the support by the Greens for the immediate ban of unhealthy advertising on government-owned assets and the strongest commitment on record yet by WA Labor, which has promised to establish a cross-agency group to look at the implementation of this policy. Minister Cook went further when questioned on the specifics at the pre-election forum last week, by calling the group a “taskforce”. He noted that the taskforce will be convened by the Minister for Health, will be comprised of agencies such as the Department of Transport and Healthway, and would be an implementation group, signalling that this policy recommended in the Sustainable Health Review is now well on the way to being endorsed. Public health advocates will now need to hold the Government to account and ensure that the policy is evidence-based, uses the COAG guide to define unhealthy food, and that legal advice is obtained to look at contracts that may have been locked out by advertisers who suspected that such a decision was looming. No doubt some groups will be lobbying for exemptions for some assets, and this will need to be monitored.
PHAA WA also welcomed WA Labor’s commitment to develop a Walking Strategy, with the aim of helping to address a range of risk factors for ill health including unhealthy weight. The Heart Foundation in particular has been advocating for this strategy for some time, and has welcomed the announcement.
The Greens (WA) are also committed to a range of other strategies which would help to reduce obesity and support healthier communities, including the development of walkable, 20 minute neighbourhoods as well as greater investment in expanding and upgrading our pedestrian and cycle paths and more public green spaces.
Action on alcohol
The introduction of a minimum unit price for alcohol again has full support from the Greens, but no commitment from the other parties despite also appearing in a number of election platforms, including AMA WA and Cancer Council WA. This policy was a key recommendation in the Sustainable Health Review Final Report, so will no doubt be a focus for public health groups post-election.
Further support needed to keep 10 year olds out of prison
Raising the age of criminal responsibility to a minimum of 14 years was a no-brainer for the Greens, but we still lack a commitment from the other parties. There’s no doubt that this is a public health issue. Preventing children from entering the criminal justice system by increasing the age of criminal responsibility to 14 will help reduce health inequity between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Western Australians, prevent childhood trauma, and reduce the risk of long-term justice system involvement. The #RaiseTheAge campaign, of which PHAA is a supporting member, is doing an excellent job at highlighting the importance of reform, but more work will be needed to motivate the incoming WA Government to move on this issue.
Keeping WA free of pokies
It’s been a long-standing tradition for PHAA WA to ask all parties to commit to keeping the current restrictions on electronic gambling machines in WA. For the first time in as long as the PHAA WA Branch can remember, the Liberals did not respond. Western Australians are proud of the fact we have no poker machines outside the casino. To have the Liberals stay silent on this issue is incredibly disappointing. But with Greens and Labor committing to it, we should be able to keep electronic gambling machines out of WA for the next term of government.
Will we finally see action on climate change?
The Greens ranked strongly in action on climate change, not only endorsing all recommendations, but going further by committing to phase out coal and gas to meet targets of 100% renewable energy by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2035. In a highly publicised policy announcement, the Liberals WA New Energy Jobs Plan would see WA with a net zero carbon emissions electricity system by 2030 and winding down the coal industry in WA. While not going as far as the Greens or Liberals, Labor made note of the WA Climate Policy and the Climate Health WA Inquiry Final Report, which together provide a blueprint for WA to adapt to climate change and better protect the health of the community.
WA’s blueprint for a healthier future
It was fantastic to hear Minister Cook say that the implementation of the Sustainable Health Review Final Report has bipartisan support and that there is strong consensus within government for the implementation of all recommendations. The Minister referred to it as a ‘blueprint’ for public health. It is now vital that the public health community hold the incoming Government to account and support the implementation of the Sustainable Health Review Final Report recommendations, in addition to the broader public health goals outlined above.
We encourage you to share the PHAA WA State Election Summary on social media using the hashtag #ThinkPublicHealth. To our fellow Western Australians, happy voting on Saturday – we look forward to working with you to progress evidence-based public health policy in 2021 and beyond.
Kelly Kennington, Hannah Pierce, and Elizabeth Connor are members of the Public Health Association Australia Western Australia Branch.
Image credit: Tourism Western Australia