There’s a danger 2016 will be remembered as the year Australian politics hit the wall. As the days shortened, the gloss came off our new prime minister, who despite public goodwill has struggled to substantially alter policy direction or the tone of political discourse. The result was disillusionment, which only the Opposition’s most diehard supporters would claim it has filled with anything resembling a compelling counter-narrative.
In Australian politics, hollow sound bites and posturing against a backdrop of flags and nodding acolytes are replacing genuine ideas. The fact that we’ve chewed through four PMs in three years (five, if you count Peta Credlin) reflects a system in trouble.
As we see it, the people are crying out for a shake-up of the way politics is conducted: less quibbling, wedging and one-upping by self-interested ideologues, and instead more creative thinking about how to solve the problems affecting the quality of our lives.
After listening to some of Australia’s sharpest minds, we’ve put together the MH Manifesto, which seeks to make the most important areas of your life better.
Read it, and if you like it go to [insert website] and vote for it. If enough of you think it’s a platform that will make your lives better, we’ll put look to forward an MH candidate for the Senate and see if we can’t stir up Canberra a little. Should our man be elected, we’ll have an advocate for you on the inside. And our guy won’t ask for any expenses. He’ll pay his own way, thank you.
Live to 100
The MH adviser on preventive health, Dr Andrew Rochford, Channel 7’s national health editor.
We’re headed for a full-scale health catastrophe if we don’t make dramatic changes to the environment we live and work in.
“Right now, our health system is focused on sickness. We desperately need to shift this focus to prevention and wellness. Diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease – these are going to be the big problems in our health system in the next 50 years. Despite this, we’re all likely to live longer. So what we need to do is make sure we’re healthier in our later years. And to do that, we need to ensure the access to prevention and wellness is just as important as access to acute facilities, like emergency departments and operating theatres.
“We need to start planning ahead, because we’ve been short-sighted to date. To have reached the point where 65 per cent of our population’s overweight? That’s a slow creep that’s all about changes in environment and access to certain types of food. Thing is, slow creeps happen when you’re short-sighted. We need to plan for what’s going to solve this problem not in five years but in 30.
“We need a shift towards personalisation of health care; we need a system that can be managed by individuals. Most importantly, there has to be that shift towards empowering people to look after their own health. We’ve created an obesogenic environment on two fronts: first, high-energy food is easily accessible; second, we don’t need to expel much energy to live our lives. We need to change this environment. We have to make it harder for people to access the wrong kinds of food and easier to access the right kinds of food.”
THE MH MANIFESTO
1. Establish an independent body that can remove spurious health claims (Gluten Free! 99% Fat-Free!) from packaged foods laden with sugar and preservatives.
2. Close all drive-thrus. People should have to physically walk through the doors of a restaurant to order food.
3. Don’t allow soft drinks to be displayed on supermarket shelves. Keep them behind the counter so they have to be specifically requested, like cigarettes.
The Silent Killer
The MH adviser on suicide prevention, Patrick McGorry, executive director of Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health.
Australia’s suicide rate will continue to climb unless there’s a concerted effort to boost the scope and level of expertise in treatment programs.
“Suicide kills 50 people a week in this country. It disproportionately affects men and so do some of the more serious forms of mental illness, like schizophrenia and psychosis. This is a male issue.
“I think the pathways for young and middle-aged men are much less clear than in the past. Working class, not particularly intellectual young men are not well suited to the casual, flexible, technological or service industries of today’s workplace. So they’re confined to unemployment, which is a huge risk factor for mental health and suicide. There’s also a lot more marriage breakdown these days. Men lose contact with their kids and develop drug and alcohol problems. Those men are at high risk.
“The first thing we need to do is increase awareness of the problem. Just like with the road toll – awareness was the first step. After that we need to make sure that there is very proactive care for men in the danger zone. We need sophisticated community mental health services, not just online stuff or developing an app.
“Psychiatrists ought to be practising in GP clinics rather than in their own private rooms. They should be working much more closely at the primary care level. We also need mobile mental health professionals who have the capacity to do outreach and stick with people who might not be not turning up for appointments.
“There’s a move to downgrade expertise in face-to face care, training lay people to manage acute and complex situations. It’s nonsense. It takes skill and training to handle these things effectively.
“The current policy directions are going to lead to increased suicide rates if they’re not rethought. It’s really an attack on men’s mental health.”
THE MH MANIFESTO
1. Launch a public awareness campaign similar in scale to previous initiatives for road accidents and domestic violence.
2. Fund mobile mental health services that comprise psychiatrists.
3. Place mental health professionals in police and emergency response teams.
Find Your Balance
The MH adviser on work-life balance, Dr Erich Fein, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Southern Queensland and co-author of Clarifying the effect of work hours on health through work-life conflict.
Poor work-life balance threatens employees’ health and wellbeing, as well as companies’ bottom lines.
“There’s an extensive network of stakeholders involved in work-life balance. It’s not just about workers; it’s also about families, the community and organisations.
“For employees, good work-life balance is related to higher job satisfaction, higher work engagement, greater marital and parental satisfaction and better mental and physical health.
“For companies, poor work-life balance affects job performance. Job satisfaction and, more importantly, job engagement, particularly motivation and attention to detail may begin to decrease. If that goes on for a long period of time, people are likely to form intentions to leave.
“Government should motivate companies to improve work/life balance for men by offering tax concessions for ‘transition leave’ around key life events. This could shape organisations to think of work-life balance as a rewardable form of corporate social responsibility. Getting men more engaged in their families and their communities and having them look after their health is a huge financial win for companies, government and the nation as a whole.
“Technology and work integration is a double-edge sword. In today’s world we can work in our home office and save ourselves a commute, but at the same time, that temptation to get on your email, or for your organisation to develop an expectation that you check in all the time, can be extremely harmful.
“There has to be a government policy that helps shape the expectations of organisations regarding electronic communication. It’s not long work hours that lead to poor physical and mental health – some men like working 50 or more hours a week. The issue is, can you successfully integrate your work into your life? If you’re pulled by technology in non-work hours, you’re going to struggle to achieve that. What’s more, it can really hurt you.”
THE MH MANIFESTO
1. Introduce tax concessions for “transition leave” as a form of corporate social responsibility. Leave would be granted for significant events in a man’s life, such as birth or children transitioning schools, or entering the workforce.
2. Put statutory limits on the amount of time people can work outside of normal hours.
3. Ban employer electronic communication on weekends and after 8pm on weeknights.
The MH adviser on fathering, Darrell Brown, author of Raised By Our Childhood Voices: One Father’s Journey to Raise Confident, Connected, Compassionate Boys.
Many of this country’s most intractable problems would be alleviated if dads could be shown how to lift their game.
“The most important dialogue we need to have in this country right now is about fatherhood. There are a lot of boys and young men who’ve never experienced what it is to be truly fathered. As a society, we’ll continue to pay a heavy price for that.
“We’re building bigger prisons because of soaring inmate numbers. Mental illness and suicide rates are rising. Work hours are expanding. I’m not suggesting that a lot of men don’t love their children. I’m suggesting they’re under-resourced: they’re not given the time it takes to be a father, and a lot of them don’t see it as a priority or don’t understand how to be a father.
“Every child that comes into this world has one question they want answered: am I enough? They know their mum loves them, but they’re looking for validation, and it’s the father who can give them that. To the degree that a boy doesn’t get that validation, it creates what’s called a father wound. Professionals who’ve worked with thousands of men say that if you walk into any psychiatrist’s office, nine times out of 10 the root cause of the presenting problem is a father wound.
It’s scary, but if we can get more dads to see themselves as primary caregivers, connecting with their kids in those early years, then a lot of the suicide, mental illness, violence and other dysfunction that we see in society could be resolved.
“Government spends billions reacting to problems, but if it put aside $100 million and gave it to me to train up 1000 older men, who would go into schools and talk about what it is to be a father . . . well, we’d make a difference.”
THE MH MANIFESTO
1. Fund a nationwide rollout of antenatal workshops that target new dads, providing practical instruction as well as information on the centrality of the father’s role.
2. Extend paternity leave from 18 weeks to 12 months. Currently, just one in 50 Australian men take it, according to research from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
3. Provide a network of publicly funded support groups for recently separated or divorced men, who are at heightened risk of depression and losing touch with their kids.
The MH adviser on nutrition, Damon Gameau, director and star of That Sugar Film and author of That Sugar Book.
Measures should be imposed to ensure people realise how much sugar they’re actually consuming.
“We’ve grown up eating huge amounts of sugar without even realising it. But now we’ve got this crisis in our health system where we’re spending $9 billion on type 2 diabetes and one in four children are overweight or obese. You look around and you start to think there’s something wrong here.
“I certainly don’t think sugar is solely to blame, but I do think we need to be aware of how much we’re actually eating. I would start with education before progressing to a sugar tax. We’ve developed a teaspoon labelling system. It tells people very clearly on the front of the packet how much sugar is in that product, instead of reading the back of the label and dividing the amount of grams by four. Nobody gets that system. If people know they should limit themselves to around six teaspoons of added sugar a day, they’re more likely to strive for that. Why not make it really simple?
“My fear is that if you just go and tax sugar, where is that money going? It just disappears into government coffers. There needs to be transparency about where the money’s going, which should be towards initiatives that help tackle the problem, such as subsidising fruit and vegetables in schools.
“The UK’s recent sugar tax doesn’t include fruit juice. The science will tell you there’s not much difference between a fruit juice concentrate and a soft drink. They’re doing the same thing in your body. But interestingly, after the UK tax was announced, shares in soft drink companies plummeted. It sends a message and it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”
THE MH MANIFESTO
1. Label the sugar content of processed foods in teaspoons.
2. Impose a sugar tax with full transparency regarding where revenue raised is directed.
3. Ban energy and sports drinks for kids under 15.
The MH adviser on housing affordability, David Koch, Channel 7 financial commentator and Sunrise co-host.
If young Australians are seriously committed to owning property, with a little government tinkering, there should be no more throwing up of hands.
“No one’s saying home ownership is easy, and the statistics prove that it isn’t.
The rate of home purchase in Australia among 25- to 44-year-olds has fallen by 15 per cent in the past 20 years.
“In 2005, the average buyer could afford 70-75 per cent of Sydney homes. By 2015, they were hard-pressed to afford 25-30 per cent of them.
“To buy a first home, no matter what age you are, is always hard. It was hard for my wife and me. She was a nurse, I was a cadet journalist. Our first property was a two-bedroom apartment, then we graduated to a townhouse, and then we went to a house. But we lived frugally.
“Whenever anyone says to me, ‘I can’t afford to buy’ or, ‘It’s out of reach of young Australians’, I have two questions: what sort of lounge suite have you got and where did you go on your last holiday? Invariably the answers are “leather” and “overseas”.
You do have to sacrifice to get into the property market. But today we have a generation with an expectation they should be able to maintain their current lifestyle <I>and<I> buy a house, and I can tell you that’s not going to happen.
“So to get on the merry-go-round you may have to look further afield than you want to. Remember, you have the option of renting wherever it is you want to live but can’t afford to buy, while snapping up an investment property in one of the outlying suburbs where you don’t want to live but where you’ll get a good return.
“I predict home prices will be steady for a while. It’s going to be more of a buyers’ market and it’s up to you to take advantage of that. Choose well, screw a good deal, lock in really cheap financing and you’re set.”
THE MH MANIFESTO
1. Incentivise first homebuyers by reducing or eliminating the primary transaction cost – stamp duty – associated with getting into the market.
2. Make conveyancing fees on first homes tax deductible.
3. Lean on the banks to offer special investment accounts for would-be first homebuyers where the return is minimally taxed.
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