So now the real work begins

A person drops their green ballot paper into a ballot box.

PHAA CEO, Adj Prof Terry Slevin

I suspect a lot of us will have had a pretty good weekend.  The truth is, by any objective analysis a change of government will be good for public health in Australia.

Our own scorecard based on the responses of the three major political parties shows four green dots for Labor and five for the Greens.  The Coalition scored two orange dots.

A scorecard listing seven policy areas and how we ranked the Coalition's, Labor's and Greens' responses.

Clearly the electorate has voted for public health. But I think it fair to agree with the analysis that as a country we have voted for action on climate change, integrity in government, greater recognition of women, and genuine progress for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Leading in to the election, PHAA set out a full agenda of public health action for the new parliament and government, highlighting seven themes.

We highlighted the need to dramatically grow the workforce of public health professionals in Australia, and establish a new national Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

We supported the target that 5% of health spending should be directed to disease prevention investments, as opposed to treatment once our health declines – a target that was set in the outgoing government’s National Preventive Health Strategy. And we called for specific measures to protect all people in Australia – especially kids – against marketing of unhealthy products.

With the wider social determinants of health in mind, we joined millions of people in stressing the urgent need to act on climate change by reducing emissions. And we highlighted the need to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health through the directions set by the Uluru Statement.

Our seventh theme was the need to improve systems of integrity covering public policy making itself – by addressing corporate money and influence in politics, controlling the scourge of corporate lobbying by unhealthy industries, and by establishing a national integrity commission with teeth to oversee such issues.

It will be an incredibly busy period for the new Labor government. It looks likely to have a narrow majority in the House of Representatives. But on policy issues the progressive crossbench of four Greens and a dozen independents will support them (and maybe actually keep them moving along faster) on key issues that influence the public health and climate.

PHAA secured written commitments on public health from the incoming Labor Government, and the Greens, who may play a vital and positive role, by potentially pushing the government to go further on many issues. We also mapped out online to what the major parties all committed.

The largest and most consequential policy area will be addressing climate change, where the new government is expected to bring an end to two decades of ‘climate policy wars’ in Australia. Action to significantly reduce emissions should no longer be blocked. Our children and grandchildren may one day thank this term of parliament for breaking through and making change. We all hope it’s not too late.

And it’s also clear that parliament will act on the Uluru Statement. They must also invest more in preventive health for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In recent years, all national and state governments have invested more in health care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, especially in remote communities. This bipartisan trend must continue and accelerate.

Pleasingly, both Labor and the Greens also embraced the former government’s National Preventive Health Strategy (NPHS), making it a rare bipartisan strategic document – a great outcome. The NPHS includes the commitment to reach the investment target of ‘5% for prevention’ by no later than 2030, and sets many other strategic directions which have the support of the public health community.

The new government, the Greens, and other crossbench players in parliament all have strong positions on integrity in public decision-making, so we can expect good results in that arena too.

But perhaps the most significant practical change will be the promised creation of a new Centre for Disease Control and Prevention for Australia. The new government committed in writing that it would:

“Improve pandemic preparedness and response by establishing an Australian CDC. The CDC will:

  • Ensure ongoing pandemic preparedness;
  • Lead the federal response to future infectious disease outbreaks; and
  • Work to prevent non-communicable (chronic) as well as communicable (infectious) diseases.”

The Greens also support this direction. They committed that they would:

Establish a National Centre for Disease Control with $246 million of funding to lead a unified, apolitical health approach across the entire country and ensure we can deal with the threat of new emerging diseases.”

The Greens’ response to PHAA’s survey further states that they will:

Establish a National Center for Disease Control with $246 million of funding. The CDC would be responsible for overseeing infectious disease policy and coordinating rapid responses to outbreaks like Covid-19. It would also be established as a fully independent body at arm’s length from the government, ensuring our future responses to pandemics are based on science – not politics.”

This will be one of the first solid policy changes which will land on the desk of the incoming Health Minister.  We will look to make practical suggestions as to how this can be progressed quickly.

PHAA gathered the key players to a forum a few months ago to discuss the design of the CDC, attracting an audience of around 400 expert Australians.

Design principles for an Australian CDC from PHAA Events on Vimeo.

The new government can act fast on this. It has the support of parliament, the expert public health community, and no doubt a significant number of people in Australia after the experience of needing sound public health science and leadership to get us through the pandemic.

So, as the excitement and optimism of the weekend settles, the real challenge becomes clear. The task before us is to ensure that the positive energy, hopes, and expectations are translated into reality and tangible benefits for all people living in Australia.

It important to understand that that there are many years of pent-up expectation, demand, and need for policy reform in a range of sectors. Every new Minister will have a very long and impatient queue outside their door.

It is also important to understand that the new government will focus on the promises it has already made. Taking the view that a new reformist government will commit to an additional range of new policies or financial investments is perhaps overly optimistic at this point.

And the machinery of government still grinds on, often slower than many of us would like.

So now the hard work begins. Our challenge is to translate fine words and good intentions into sustained and effective action to advance the health of all people living in Australia by improved commitment to, and investment in, public health.

This is perhaps a historically important opportunity to do so, so if not now, then when?

Image: Australian Electoral Commission.

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