Crispin Hull / Killing Us Sweetly.

Last week was Sugar Awareness Week. A lot of sugar; not much awareness. Australia is lagging hopelessly behind on dealing with the obesity-diabetes epidemic, most of which can be put down to too much sugar in the diet, particularly through sugar-sweetened carbonated beverages and breakfast cereals.

The amount of sugar in these on the supermarket shelves is, literally, sickening. Some of the drinks have eight teaspoons of sugar in a small can. Some of the cereals are 20 per cent sugar.

If the people buying it knew that, they would think twice. No-one puts eight teaspoons of sugar in a cup of tea or coffee.

But they do not know the level of sugar because food-labelling regulation is dominated by industry and the labels themselves are designed by brilliant typographers who use their skill to make the labels unreadable and illegible and arithmeticians who make it well-nigh impossible to interpret them. Percentages and energy per volume are tossed around like incomparable apples and oranges.

Moreover, the very people who become addicted to the sugary drinks are people with lower socio-economic backgrounds with low literacy and numeracy.

The only food labelling requirement used frequently by consumers is the use-by date. You could junk all of the rest and it would make no difference.

Our sugar-related morbidity and death rate is appalling – 11 per cent of deaths directly through diabetes and more through heart disease and cancer. Diabetes takes five per cent of health costs – about $8 billion a year put down to excessive sugar consumption.

But Australia could deal with this. Not through labelling that no-one reads or can read, but through price.

Australia should follow the lead of 54 countries, starting with Mexico in 2014, which have imposed a levy on sugar in drinks.

The effect has been dramatic. In Mexico and South Africa, the levy caused prices to go up about 10 per cent; consumption to go down a third; and sugar consumption through the drinks down by half (because people avoided higher taxed higher-sugar drinks).

In Mexico 40 per cent of child obesity will be eliminated in 10 years. Every dollar raised in the levy results in $4 in health-care costs. That would be as high or higher in Australia.

Britain has a graduated tax. As a result, the percentage of drinks on supermarket shelves with more than 5 grams per 100ml fell from half to just 15 percent.

A swift federal health levy on sugar in drinks is going to be much more effective and save a lot more federal health dollars than the demonstrably ineffective food-labelling system which is the product of 10 governments (including New Zealand).

Now to a few words about this week’s Jobs and Skills summit.

First, if we have virtually full employment, why are we having a “Jobs” summit at all. We have enough jobs. But we also have an underemployment rate of about 8 per cent. These are people who already have the skills for the work they are doing but want more hours of work. However, employers are not interested, preferring cheaper more exploitable imported labour. If employers were told there is to be no cheap immigrant labour, they would give the under-employed more hours.

Second, do not be blinded by benign numbers. When they talk about migrant intakes between 160,000 to 200,000, they are talking only about the SKILLED migrant intake. You have to add another 200,000 family-reunion and humanitarian migrants to that. So, when business proposes a 200,000 “skilled” intake the total is 400,000 people in one year – building the infrastructure of a city the size of Canberra in one year, and the next and the next.

Third, boiled down, this is a “profits” summit. Businesses want to bring in cheap labour to profit from the margins that that cheap labour gives them and not pay the broad public costs of that imported labour such as educating them and their children; providing them with medical care; and providing the skilfully engineered infrastructure to prevent congestion in transport, health, education and other services.

The answer is to tell these businesses so reliant on cheap labour, that it is not a question of too few labourers, but too many businesses. Most suburban shopping centres are awash with cafes. They could serve the total clientele with half the number of cafes, all of which would be so much more efficient they could pay decent wages.

If a business has to rely on exploitative labour, it should go out of business or develop a better business model, just like – to take an extreme example ­– the cotton growers in the American South in the mid-19 th century.

During the Covid labour “shortages”, smart businesses (fruit-picking among them) got smart when needs must. They automated and put in other systems to harvest the fruit.

Assistant Treasurer ACT MP Andrew Leigh has rightly pointed out how Australian productivity has fallen over the past two decades because not enough dud businesses were put out of business and too many big businesses got bigger, crushing competition.

Fourth, when business argues they should be allowed to “sponsor” a migrant to a “skilled” job, they say that they should be able to do so for someone who is to be paid just $53,000 a year. Well, the median (mid-point) income in Australian is $82,000 and the average is $92,000. So, every “skilled” migrant they propose to bring in will lower the average or median income in Australia. That is, make us worse off.

Fifth, the average wealth of Australians is about $400,000. Nearly all of these “skilled” migrants that business proposes to bring in will have nothing like that. So, every “skilled” migrant coming in will lower the average Australian’s wealth.

Australia must be smarter than allowing this Jobs and Skills Summit to become a Trojan Horse for going back to the pre-Covid business-and-immigration model which is enriching the few at the economic and environmental cost of the many.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 30 August 2022.

Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor  |  ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia


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