FORMER Queensland premier Peter Beattie could spin journalists, calm an angry mob, and sell just about anything.
But even Beattie wasn’t game to push through mandatory water fluoridation in Queensland, so divisive has the issue become.
Councils have long had responsibility for fluoridating water supplies, leaving Queensland with the lowest water fluoridation rate in Australia and, not surprisingly, the worst dental health.
Few have had the courage to initiate the referendum required to add fluoride to the water supply, given Queensland’s anti-fluoride lobby can so quickly turn a community against the scientifically-proven public health initiative.
In 1997, then Brisbane Lord Mayor Jim Soorley – the most rabid anti-fluoride campaigner – set up a taskforce of experts and community representatives to examine water fluoridation, leading the council to reject the concept.
Former Queensland Health boss Steve Buckland later made it his mission to convince the government to take control, and had then health minister Gordon Nuttall take a water fluoridation submission to Cabinet (before both were turfed out over the Dr Death scandal).
The leaked Cabinet submission described the Soorley administration’s decision as “a recent example of a seriously flawed process which failed to provide a mechanism in which competing claims could be impartially evaluated against clear and unambiguous criteria based on the strength and quality of the evidence”.
In 2005, Beattie finally approached the issue, giving councils more funding to fluoridate – yet still requiring them to act – and publicly supporting the initiative.
But councils did not want to incur the financial cost and were still afraid of taking on the anti-fluoridation movement, epitomised by Soorley’s response to Beattie’s announcement: “I think the people of Queensland need to realise they could well find poison put into their water for short-term political gain.”
While he didn’t realise it at the time, Beattie set a precedent for mandatory fluoridation with the government’s handling of recycled water debate; Toowoomba City Council lost a divisive referendum to put recycled water into its mains supply, and while Beattie vowed to conduct a referendum if it was to be added to the greater Brisbane supply, he later ordered recycled water start flowing without the need for a community vote.
Yet both Beattie and his successor, Anna Bligh, refused to accept that it was a precedent – even after the government moved to take control of the council water assets in south-east Queensland.
Warwick and Cook shire councils were preparing referenda on the issue for March next year, but Health Minister Stephen Robertson and the Australian Dental Association were already working in the background to convince Bligh to change government policy.
They presented opinion polls showing Queenslanders would support fluoridation, and as recently as last month the National Health and Medical Research Council endorsed the health benefits of water fluoridation.
And so it came to pass that Bligh would today announce, at a public dental clinic, the government’s change of heart.
Ironically, the government could have saved millions had it moved on water fluoridation sooner: Queensland has one of the last remaining, and undoubtedly largest, public dental systems in Australia.
Long waits for public dental services remain a serious issue in Queensland, largely because governments failed to fluoridate. Indeed, the most applause Kevin Rudd received at Labor’s campaign launch in Brisbane last month was when he pledged more money for accessible dental health services.