Canegrowers Queensland's chairman Paul Schembri at his property.
Canegrowers Queensland's chairman Paul Schembri at his property. Lee Constable

Canegrowers chair riles up as sugar tax hits headlines again

IT'S been more than half a decade since Canegrowers Queensland's chairman Paul Schembri was first embroiled in the heated debate to introduce a sugar tax.

And it seems that divisive debate isn't slowing down any time soon, much to the disappointment of the Mackay canegrower of more than four decades.

The Committee of Presidents of Medical Colleges has again called for a tax on sugar to combat growing waistlines across the country.

It includes the Royal Australian College of GPs, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons.

But Mr Schembri believes an incremental tax on sugar would not change consumer behaviour enough to make a difference.

He's also unhappy with medical professionals citing a sugar tax as something of a 'holy grail' in addressing chronic health conditions.

"I just get a bit angry. I've got wonderful people in a wonderful industry here in Mackay and we need to do everything we can do protect those people," he said.

"A lot of people will get caught up in the perception of this.

"Often I hear people say 'let's engage the precautionary principle' and on the basis of that 'let's just tax it anyway'.

"I say that's a dangerous thing to do to a $2 billion industry, with 5000 cane farmers on the end of it and 50-70,000 jobs (across Australia)."

Mr Schembri is adamant the sugar industry in the Mackay region, and particularly primary producers, will suffer financially if a tax is put in place.

"I think people think this is an innocuous tax, it will do no harm ... the consumer will pay for it," he said.

"I absolutely guarantee the primary producers will also pay for it. And at the end of all this, vibrant communities like Mackay, Cairns, the Burdekin, Bundaberg, Isis - rich canegrowing areas - will pay for it."

Mr Schembri said Canegrowers Queensland and Mackay statistics, backed by Australian Bureau of Statistics data, shows domestic sugar consumption has remained stable in recent years, despite a population increase.

Professor Nicholas Talley, chair of the committee of presidents, has a different take on the situation.

He's confident a tax on sugar will help reduce obesity, especially in children.

"Australia has an obesity crisis with 75% of the total population overweight or obese. These people are at higher risk of cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other life-threatening illnesses," he said.

"One way to reduce the rate of obesity is to reduce the calories in our diets. We know sugary drinks can lead to obesity.

"We support the WHO recommendation to limit sugar to a maximum of 40-50 grams per day."

Mr Schembri said recent talks between Canegrowers Queensland and the Federal Government - and namely Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce - left him confident a tax was not on the government's agenda.

Earlier this year, the University of Queensland released research suggesting a sugar tax could raise $400 million in Australia and save about 1600 lives over 25 years.

The 20% tax rate would mean a $2 can of softdrink would increase to $2.40.