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Commentary on 2014 Federal Budget

The Foundation's vision of 'Healthy People on a Healthy Planet' does not refer to two separate outcomes, two separate agendas. The two are inextricably linked. The health of both people and planet are at risk from the Abbott Government's ideology-driven budget.

Tony McMichael
Professor Emeritus (Population Health)
Australian National University

The health of human communities and populations depends ultimately on the vitality of the natural environment, the life-supporting processes of Nature: food yields, nutrient cycles, water flows, biodiversity, ecological constraints on infectious agents, physical buffering and so on. In turn, and now to an extraordinary degree, the planet's health depends on the health and related behaviours of people. A population's profile of health both influences and reflects the balancing of birth rates. It reflects patterns of (increasingly intensified) food production and consumption, of exposure to environmentally damaging wastes, and the psychological benefits of wilderness and green space. Further, the health of society renders the environment hostage to prevailing values, social relations, and the outcomes (if not the explicit goals) of late-stage globalised market capitalism.

But back to the budget and its health consequences for people and planet

The conservative right has embraced Maggie Thatcher's 1980s phrase 'the Nanny State' enthusiastically, and predictably the Abbott Government is abolishing the Australian National Preventive Health Agency, established just three years ago under Labor. After all, governments must not tell people what they could or should do to remain healthy; instead, individuals must have an unfettered freedom of 'choice' and take responsibility for their own behaviour. Viewed thus, health inequalities are largely individuals' own fault.

The conventional tunnel-visioned response of governments is to rely on (increasingly expensive) eleventh-hour treatment for those with advanced, often serious, illnesses. On its own, that reactive approach to 'health' reveals a profound lack of understanding, within a wider ecological frame, of the upstream social-environmental wellsprings of population health. It reflects an ignorance of, or disdain for, the health gains and economic savings achievable by proactive cross-sectoral creation of a health-supporting human habitat.

Meanwhile, the budget also affirms this Government's retrograde approach to stabilising the world's climate, a task in which Abbott and colleagues have little more than cosmetic belief. Renewable energy development funding is to be slashed; the carbon tax is to be replaced by an underfunded 'direct subsidy' scheme to pay polluters; relevant public service sections will go; and Joe Hockey finds wind turbines offensive. The national renewable energy target may be wound back by recommendation of the hand-picked 'Warburton' review.

Tony Abbott says that he wants to be 'the Infrastructure Prime Minister'. Well, there is infrastructure and there is infrastructure. Physically constructed infrastructure is at one with the economic growth agenda, the manifest primary goal of this Government; and so the undergrowth of social drag on the economy must be curtailed. Now, that type of infrastructure may support cars, coal-exports and corporations, but it is built and operated at great additional cost to the natural, life-supporting, infrastructure – the type that counts in the longer term, but also the type that is now being seriously depleted and disrupted.

The damaging of coastlines and reefs, shrinking of marine reserves, continuing disruption of the world's climate, forfeiting of fertile farmland for one-off fossil fuel extraction, and so on are all current and future threats to the health both of the biosphere and of human populations. The budget foreshadows an episode in Australia's life that may well be remembered more for natural infrastructure damage than for growth-driven physical infrastructure expansion. The Frank Fenner perspective, the need for a cultural shift to biosensitive understanding and behaviour, for living healthily within Nature's limits, is becoming more serious and urgent.