Is Rudd?s margin too fat to worry about promoting exercise?
Dr John Orchard, sports physician and Sports Medicine Australia board member, writes:
The Sunday Age ran with a front page story this week outlining that participation in University sport had dropped sharply since the introduction of the VSU legislation. The story was based on a report recently released by Australian University Sport.
The legislation was passed by the Howard government when Brendan Nelson was Education Minister. It has made Australia the only country in the Western world to outlaw universities levying students for facilities and services, including for sporting facilities and clubs. At a time when 47% of Australians are so inactive that they are at excessive risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, radical legislation that has directly led to a substantial drop in physical activity should be seen as a disaster.
Brendan Nelson on drafting the legislation chose an example on The 7.30 Report to argue in its favour of "why should a nursing student at university be forced to pay money towards sporting clubs she doesn?t use?" It depends on whether doctors, like Nelson, and nurses should see their role as simply tending for the sick or promoting health. Doctors, like politicians, tend to under-prescribe preventive measures like promoting exercise.
The ALP voted against the VSU legislation in parliament in 2005 (as did Barnaby Joyce) partly based on fears for the negative impact on sports participation that the legislation would have. Now that these fears have been realised, it would seem to be a no-brainer that, at the very least, the legislation should be re-written to allow universities to levy fees for "essential" university services, including sports facilities.
Unfortunately the ALP, now in government, does not seem to be in a hurry to fix up the under-funding of university sport that its predecessors created. One can cynically draw the conclusion that party research has shown the ALP that the VSU legislation was not a vote loser for the Howard government (those students who opposed it were not going vote Liberal anyway). If there are no votes to be gained by substantially reversing the VSU legislation, then why bother doing it? Or even more cynically - why would they want to criticise anything Brendan Nelson did in government and risk that the opposition might remove their lame duck leader?
While in opposition (in December 2006) the ALP also announced that they were forming a Shadow Minister for Health Promotion, appropriately linked to the sports ministry. This idea has also been recommended previously in a Medical Journal of Australia opinion piece. The press release made claims that:
Labor recognises that prevention plays a vital role in reducing the economic and social burden of preventable disease and improving the general health and wellbeing of all Australians ... In contrast (to the Howard government), a future Labor Government views sport and recreational activities which get people physically active as an essential part of achieving our goals for healthy kids and our strategies to improve the wellbeing of adults in Australia.
When the Rudd government won the election, the Health Promotion ministry mysteriously disappeared, as it appears did exercise promotion policies like reversing the VSU ban on university sports funding.
The big worry for preventive health is that Rudd is "talking the talk" (e.g. 2020 Summit) but won?t "walk the walk" because the political payoff doesn?t occur within the timeframe of an electoral cycle. Those students no longer exercising now will be someone else?s heart attack to worry about twenty years down the track.
There is plenty of scope for governments to develop policy to increase the percentage of the population who exercise. With roughly 50% of the population inactive, the status quo looks terrible from a health promotion perspective. But with a 50% lead in the polls as preferred Prime Minister, to Kevin Rudd the status quo (with no Health Promotion ministry to ask for funds in this year?s budget) looks fairly good.
Paying for sport (Crikey Tues 29/4):
Garth Wong writes: Re. "Is Rudd?s margin too fat to worry about promoting exercise?" (Yesterday, item 13). Why should a student not interested in participating in individual, group or team sports be levied a fee to allow those who want to participate and enjoy free access to a university sports club? Maybe the student prefers to participate in his/her suburban sports clubs? In the general community, if I want to play squash, or competition tennis, or suburban rugby union, rugby league or soccer competition, I have to pay a club membership and registration fee to enjoy the benefits of participation in that competition and the club facilities. What makes university students such a special case for free access to this activity? If you extend this argument to all sectors, then councils and state governments should be levying all its tax payers a fee for the establishment and running of local and state sports clubs and make participation in these sports free to all who want to take up the offer. Of course this does not happen. By definition, or university students are the brightest and most intelligent of our youth to gain entry to undergraduate or post-graduate studies. If they don?t realise they should be looking after their own health and physical fitness, why should the state nanny them from cradle to grave. I?m not sorry! Let them suffer for their own bad lifestyle choices. It?s survival of the fittest, which is how Nature and evolution has occurred over the millennium.
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Garth Wong (29/4/08) presents the standard logical argument in favour of Voluntary Student Unionism as it relates to sport, straight out of the Brendan Nelson free-market textbook. From my viewpoint, there are two counter arguments, one relating to universities (which even the conservatives can hopefully appreciate) and one to the general community (where I believe a radical approach is needed).
University students who play sport weren't getting special treatment when there were compulsory union fees - the radical situation is the VSU one. Sporting facilities in the general (non-university) community, along with public transport, roads, parks and most other infrastructures are subsidized by governments to some degree using revenue from taxpayers, including from those that use the infrastructure in question and those that don't. Sporting clubs will charge fees for participation but this generally pays for competition administration only, not for ground maintenance etc, which is paid for out of council rates and other government taxes. "Union fees" at university were just the taxes that were required to pay for university infrastructure such as sporting facilities. Now they are voluntary (by Federal government legislation) the infrastructure is gradually going into disrepair. If they made income tax, GST and council rates all voluntary a la VSU, government revenue would plummet and government spending on everything (including infrastructure) would have to follow. There would be plenty of Garth Wong types who might say, "It's survival of the fittest - I don't use unemployment benefits, why should I pay taxes towards them?" No decent government does this, because they all need reliable revenue streams. Even in the most right-wing user-pays oriented society in the world, the USA, there are compulsory fees that go towards maintaining top class university facilities, including sporting ones. The right wing Yanks understand that you need to have compulsory university fees to pay for infrastructure, but the Howard government preferred a scorched-earth policy as long as it got rid of anything with the word 'union' in it. VSU was and is extreme legislation that other countries don't have and hopefully the Rudd government will understand this soon and at least partially reverse it.
My radical argument is that we need to go way further than we currently do in subsidising sport and exercise in Australia. Inactivity is now our biggest health risk factor in Australia. It surpasses smoking not because it is quite as bad a risk factor on a per person basis, but because 47% of the population is inactive (whereas only 13% of the population regularly smoke). For governments who like revenue-raising, it is fortunate that you can discourage smoking by taxing it. Unfortunately inactivity is passive so you can't directly tax it. The best way for governments to discourage inactivity is to strongly subsidise activity (sports & exercise) so that the inactive miss out. If you paid people to exercise (rather than expect them to pay), a lot more people would do it, and the projected health of the population in the medium to long term future would be far better. We will probably need to wait though until another few million Australians get diabetes, suffer heart attacks, strokes and cancer (all conditions that exercise can prevent). When our health system can completely no longer cope, perhaps this argument won't be radical anymore. As I argued on Monday, a Health Promotion Minister, something that Rudd tossed up in opposition but has sadly discarded in government, would be a good start.
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