THE debate about fluoride in drinking water is a “gutless” attempt by the State Government to avoid scrutiny over its health system failures, according to former Labor lord mayor Jim Soorley.

Mr Soorley, a vehement and long-standing critic of adding fluoride to water, accused Premier Peter Beattie of creating a distraction from the problems of Queensland’s hospitals.

Mr Soorley said Mr Beattie would be happy that voters were concentrating on the fluoride issue, rather than hospitals.

“The State Government has totally failed Queenslanders on the health issue,” he told ABC Radio.

“What have we got? We’ve got a great political distraction.”

The Government’s attempts to encourage councils with more than 5000 residents to introduce fluoride into their water polarised callers to talkback radio and provoked a backlash from local government.

Fluoridation of drinking water was recommended by health review chief Peter Forster, after a 2002 review estimated the benefit to the state budget at more than $1 billion over 30 years.

Mr Soorley accused Mr Beattie of “a fairly typical gutless response” to the Forster recommendations, by forcing local councils to implement the system and pass the costs to ratepayers.

The Local Government Association of Queensland accused the state of grossly underestimating the cost of implementing the system.

LGAQ chief executive Greg Hallam said the Government’s 2002 report had estimated the cost of providing fluoride for populations greater than 5000 at $56.5 million.

The $6 million offered to councils by the State Government was a “sick joke”.

Health Minister Stephen Robertson said the $6 million was only intended to cover the set-up costs of fluoride plants in water treatment facilities.

Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg said the Nationals backed fluoridation but the Government’s offer was inadequate.