Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Australia: Schools told 'don't ban Christmas'

Good to hear. I hope other States follow suit. (An Australian State Premier is broadly akin to a U.S. State Governor)

Every Victorian school and kindergarten has been officially told: don't ban Christmas celebrations. Premier Steve Bracks [a Lebanese] yesterday gave his official encouragement for nativity scenes, carols and other Christian traditions. Jingle Bells can ring in classrooms around the state again after several schools banned nativity scenes and carol singing last year for fear of offending non-Christian children. Mr Bracks told the Herald Sun the Government would send a message to every primary and secondary school reminding them not to ban Christmas. "All schools and kindergartens should be able to have nativity plays and Christian celebrations," Mr Bracks said. "Those who don't wish to participate don't have to, and those who wish to celebrate in their own way can do so. "But even those from other faiths, of course, accept Christian celebrations and the Government is keen to ensure there are no bans on any of these sorts of activities." Mr Bracks said he wanted to encourage tolerance of all faiths.

His intervention comes after several schools last year refused to stage Christmas celebrations. Some kindergartens and childcare centres also banned nativity scenes in favour of end-of-year parties with no mention of Christmas.

Mr Bracks said census figures showed Victoria was essentially a Christian society and Christmas traditions should be celebrated. The latest census figures show Australia-wide there are about 10.9 million Christians, 357,000 Buddhists, 280,000 Muslims and 84,000 people of Jewish faith.

Mr Bracks said he would today ask Premier and Cabinet department secretary Terry Moran to write to the Education Department to pass on his message to Victorian schools.

Religious leaders yesterday welcomed the move. Among them was the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne's Vicar General, Monsignor Les Tomlinson, who said bans on nativity scenes and Christian themes were political correctness gone crazy. In a world living with the constant threat of terrorism, Monsignor Tomlinson said tolerance and respect were needed more than ever. "The Christian message is so important. The message of compassion for the suffering of others, of tolerance, of respect, of pursuing peace through justice - they only enhance human society," he said.

Rabbinical Council of Victoria Rabbi Meir Shlomo Kluwgant strongly supported the Premier's move. "I believe it is vital that we teach our children to respect each other's right to have, practise, freely express and celebrate our own different religions and particularly when it comes to expression of religious beliefs and celebrations that promote goodwill amongst all people," Rabbi Kluwgant said.

The Islamic Council of Victoria could not be contacted yesterday, but Muslim leaders have criticised the promotion of a secular Christmas instead of religious celebrations as political correctness gone mad.

While Mr Bracks wants to see more Christmas cheer in schools, many councils across the city are abandoning traditional yuletide celebrations. Port Phillip Council is happy to play the role of Scrooge. It will spend just $3000 for a cherry picker to decorate a tree with fairy lights outside St Kilda Town Hall. Bayside City Council will dress up two pine trees at Dendy Park for its annual Carols in the Park. But chief executive officer Catherine Dale said the council had not bought any Christmas decorations to display in its municipality. Other councils are restricting decorations to shopping strips in an attempt to boost trading over the festive season. But in Maribyrnong, the council has decided to display new star decorations in its shopping precincts at a cost of $60,000. Chief executive officer Kerry Thompson said the star design was chosen because it was "simple, affordable and can be used in a number of design options and is recognised as a festive image".

The spirit of Christmas is alive in regional centres with Bass Coast Shire Council backing celebrations in all main townships. It will spend about $20,000 on banners and lights and will provide additional decorations to Cowes and Wonthaggi to provide "maximum impact and unify townships". In the historic towns of Stawell and St Arnaud, the Northern Grampians Shire Council will launch new, bright Christmas banners and decorations with a distinct Australian flair, designed by a local graphic artist.



The bizarre excesses of certain food labelling exercises have been subject to ridicule for some time. A friend of mine recently bought some goats' cheese that carried the warning 'Contains goats' milk' - a case in point. But if the UK government's Food Standards Agency (FSA) gets its way, the fad for daft food labels has only just begun.

On 16 November, the FSA announced that it has just completed its research into the colour-coding of food according to its levels of fat, saturates, sugar and salt, and has concluded that a 'Multiple Traffic Light' system is the way to go (1). If this goes ahead, consumers picking out their pizzas and ready-meals in supermarkets will be confronted with a brightly-coloured label on the front of the packaging advising how their proposed dinner scores on the healthy-eating chart. So a pizza, for example, might have a green light for saturates and sugar (good), and amber light for fat (don't make a habit of it) and a red light for salt (stop right there! Are you trying to poison your children?). And you thought a trip to the supermarket was wearing enough already.

What is behind this complicated colour-coding system for everyday foods? The FSA says it is about helping consumers make the choices they want to make. 'Consumers have told us that they would like to make healthier choices but find the current information confusing', said Deirdre Hutton, chairwoman of the Food Standards Agency. 'After carrying out rigorous and comprehensive research, we now have the makings of a system that will make it quicker and easier for people to do so.' Well, fine - but it seems pretty damned complicated to me. And it is far from clear whether the 2,600 people upon whom the FSA conducted its research really think that food traffic lights would make all the difference to their diets.

The FSA consulted about four possible 'signposting' schemes, of which the Multiple Traffic Light system was one. Another was a 'simple' traffic light system, where green meant healthy, amber meant okay and red meant unhealthy. Further options were a Colour Guideline Daily Amount (CGDA), listing the amount of fat, saturates, sugar and salt per serving against the Guildeline Daily Amount of that ingredient; and a monochrome version of this CGDA.

The option 'none of the above' does not seem to have been given. And when it came to which of those four limited choices the guinea pigs actually preferred, the majority opted for the Colour Guideline Daily Amount. But the FSA, in its infinite wisdom, has rejected this choice because one third of respondents from lower socio-economic and ethnic minority groups were apparently unable to use it to identify whether a food had high, medium or low levels of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt.

Given that it is the eating habits of the poor that most bother the government, it couldn't just go with what most people wanted, if this meant failing to capture the ignorant oiks in the all-pervasive healthy eating message. And as Deirdre Hutton explained, the FSA is, in fact, less interested in making it easier for people to make their choices than in encouraging them to make the right choices. 'What we choose to eat is a personal matter, but we want to help people make informed choices for themselves about the content of their food', she said - making sure people know that it's red for STOP, and that they jump the lights at their peril. Simplistic? Very. Patronising? Oh yes.

However, the biggest problem with the forward march of the food traffic-light system is the way it seeks to package food in terms of risk, rather than nutrition. We are used to the food industry's attempts to brand its products as 'good' for you - for your heart, your energy levels, your cholesterol intake - and we tend to take these with a pinch of salt (no pun intended). But the traffic-light system seeks to categorise food according to how bad it is for you. Red means danger, and the best that can be said for the green-light products is that they are not as bad for you as the red ones. This is an unhealthy, and rather miserable, approach to the food we eat on an everyday level. In reality, food does not kill us, but keeps us alive. The FSA should remember that, before it starts plastering everything with warning labels and treating fat, salt and sugar like some kind of toxin.

And we should remember that the premise of this entire government-sponsored healthy eating crusade is founded on nothing more than prejudice. For all the authorities' simplistic prescriptions about eating five fruit and veg a day or banning chips in schools, there is no evidence supporting the contention that the precise foods we eat make a major difference to our health. It is telling that one of the FSA's proposed colour-coding schemes, the 'simple traffic lights' that coded foods as simply healthy, okay or unhealthy, was rejected as 'too basic' - whereas in fact, as any nutritionist or person with basic common sense could tell you, it's just wrong. The fact that a food is low in salt, sugar, and fat does not automatically make it 'healthy', and the consumption of foods high in fat, sugar or salt as part of a normal diet will not make you ill. (NB: 'Normal' does not mean eating a super-size burger and chips every day.) To encourage people to speculate increasingly about whether this or that particular food is good or bad for you, particularly when it comes to children, is a recipe for increasing our neurotic obsession with food.

The FSA has now launched a 12-week public consultation about exactly which foods should be signposted, and where on the packet this signposting should appear. It would be more useful if such a consultation asked people whether it is useful for a government to promote a widespread fear of food, and to cajole people into filling their shopping trolleys according to the inflexible orthodoxy of 'healthy eating'.


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