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Wednesday, 13 June 2007
Page: 90


Mr ABBOTT (Minister for Health and Ageing) (3:31 PM) —Listening to the shadow minister’s speech, I was reminded of the not very successful 1990 Liberal Party election campaign: ‘There are questions that have to be answered.’ We know what good it did Andrew Peacock, regrettably. This kind of rigmarole from the shadow minister will I think be equally successful for the current opposition.

I was thinking today during question time: why is it that we have now gone almost through the parliamentary week and we have not had any questions on the big issues—nothing on broadband, nothing on water, nothing on Iraq? There was some pretence of asking questions about AWAs but based on plainly false premises, on plainly false claims that the government was trying to do something that it had utterly no intention of doing and for which Labor had no evidence of any intention of doing. I asked myself: why don’t they ask questions about the big issues? We now know that they do not ask questions about the big issues because they have nothing to say on them.

The shadow minister is a decent human being. I know she has been put into a very difficult position by her colleagues this afternoon because this MPI was never meant to go ahead. It was plainly a mask for the censure motion on the alleged improper reception at Kirribilli House that the opposition was building up to. Presumably, the Leader of the Opposition realised that he had no grounds for a censure, that he was making a goose of himself, that the ‘Saint Kevin’ persona which he has tried so carefully to construct over the last six months was in serious danger of being destroyed by this trawl through the rubbish bins of Kirribilli House. Presumably for those reasons that censure motion was dropped and instead we had another empty performance from the shadow minister for health.

To her credit, the shadow minister for health conceded that Australia has a basically good health system. I tell you what: it is better than good; it is among the best in the world and certainly it is better than any in the world. Of course it is not perfect. If the shadow minister were prepared to identify any specific areas of maladministration, specific areas of positive improvement, I would be delighted to take her seriously and do what I could to implement any suggestions she had. What she in fact says is that one person or two or three people did not get into an aged-care institution as quickly as they would have liked. I know how frustrating it is for those people and I very much regret that we cannot abolish scarcity, that we cannot abolish old age or tooth decay, that we cannot abolish the fact that no government has unlimited funds, not even a government which has run the economy as successfully as this government. It got to the ridiculous point in the shadow minister’s presentation that she was on the verge of blaming the government for being unable to cure the common cold.

Let me say what this government has done. In 1996, there were some 145,000 operational aged-care places in this country. Today—I am quoting from memory—there are 208,000 operational aged-care places in this country. Yes, there has been a large expansion in community aged-care packages and that is not inferior care; that is care that we are giving to people in increasing quantities because that is what they say they want. People say to us that they would like to stay in their own home for as long as possible and that is precisely what community aged-care places are designed to achieve. There has been a greater than 50 per cent increase in the quantum of aged-care places under this government. I accept that there will still be some people who cannot get immediately what they want in precisely the right area, but does the shadow minister seriously suggest that there will instantly be a bed available for everyone everywhere? Is that what she is really saying? Has she discussed this with the operators of these aged-care institutions? Has she heard them say how uneconomic it would be for them to permanently maintain half-a-dozen spare beds in their aged-care facilities just in case some of those elderly people currently in acute wards in public hospitals were assessed by an ACAT team that very afternoon as being eligible for an aged-care place?

The proposition implicit in the shadow minister’s presentation is as silly as it would be for me to stand up and say that there should be no waiting lists whatsoever for elective surgery. I happen to think that elective surgery waiting lists for some procedures in some states are far too long, but I would never have the temerity, the foolhardiness, the unreality, to suggest that we are ever going to be able to provide this kind of service without some form of waiting list. I ask people to compare the time taken to get into an appropriate aged-care facility or to obtain an appropriate aged-care package under this coalition federal government with the time taken to get your knee replaced or your hip replaced for free as a public hospital patient in those institutions which are the responsibility of the Labor states and territories. I do not in any way seek to minimise the frustration of people who spend a little longer than they would like in a public hospital waiting for an aged-care place, but it is fatuous of the shadow minister to say that this government does not care or has done nothing. We have done a great deal.

I turn briefly to the dental situation that the shadow minister was so concerned about. Like her, I lament the fact that 650,000 people are on public dental waiting lists but, unlike the shadow minister, I am prepared to say that the people who are primarily to blame are the people who have not operated those public services well. The shadow minister’s first policy was to restore the Keating government’s dental scheme. I ask her: is $100 million a year—that is, a below 20 per cent increase in what the states currently spend—suddenly going to fix the problems of 650,000 people on those public dental waiting lists? No, it is not. When that scheme was in place and the Leader of the Opposition was the director-general of all he surveyed in Queensland, notwithstanding that scheme and notwithstanding the genius of the Leader of the Opposition at that time as the de facto Premier of the Christian socialist state of Queensland, public dental waiting lists were still three years.

The shadow minister came up with a second policy, which was that everyone on average weekly earnings or below would get free dental care. There are 16 million people in Australia who are living in households earning less than average weekly earnings. To give those people one hour of dentistry a year at $295 an hour—the figure cited by the shadow minister—would cost, and I am no mathematician, $4.8 billion. So it is not surprising that that policy lasted one day. There was an internal memo sent out to all ALP candidates saying, ‘Labor will announce details of its dental policy in due course.’ We had an explicit repudiation by head office of the lunacy as announced by the shadow minister in an article by Jason Koutsoukis. I suppose that was all Jason’s fault. He got it wrong; you did not say it.


Ms Roxon interjecting


Mr ABBOTT —Okay. It is all Jason’s fault. The shadow minister cannot make a mistake; it is all Jason’s fault. Why did her colleagues repudiate the shadow minister rather than just say the Sunday Age had got it wrong? It is interesting that, since that time, the shadow minister has been put on a very tight rein. Instead of putting out press releases almost daily we have had just two press releases in the fortnight or so since this monumental gaffe. Both of them were joint press releases with some other, more senior, shadow minister who presumably was there to keep the current shadow minister for health—


Ms Roxon —Haven’t you got anything to say for another five minutes?


Mr ABBOTT —Please, Mr Deputy Speaker; I heard her in respectful silence.


The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. IR Causley)—I have to agree with the minister for health. The member for Gellibrand must control herself.


Mr ABBOTT —Perhaps it was misguided respect. Nevertheless, I gave her that courtesy. She probably did not deserve it, but I think she should at least listen to the response.

Turning to our policy on dental health, I accept the shadow minister’s critique of the allied health professional initiative as it applies to dentistry as it has been working. It is precisely because it has not been working that the government very substantially changed it in the recent budget. The problem with it was not difficulties with referral; it was that it just did not cover the kind of treatment that people with chronic disease typically need. Instead of getting just three consultations, under the new policy people will get one consultation funded by Medicare and then up to $2,000 a year of Medicare funded treatment. This is a dramatic change designed to ensure that this policy works. It was designed in close consultation with the dental profession. In fact, what we put in place as a result of this budget was more than the Australian Dental Association had asked for.

Another issue that the shadow minister raised was that we are not doing enough for chronic disease. Let me point out for the record that Medicare does cope with this—not perfectly but far better than ever before—through things like the health check items, of which there were 285,000 in the last financial year; the GP care plans, of which there were 650,000 in the last financial year; the team care plans, of which there were 250,000 in the last financial year; and the allied health professional consultations, which, except in respect of dentistry, have been working well, and of which there were 500,000 in the last financial year. Most recently there was the new diabetes prevention program announced in the budget for checks, followed by diabetes management consultations, followed by a lifestyle improvement program subsidised by the government under Medicare.

Maybe we could do more. Please, if we are so derelict in our duty, tell us precisely what that might be. Instead of telling us how we should better do the things that are the responsibility of others, what about telling us what the opposition will do with the programs that the government currently runs. One of the great innovations of this government, one of the very welcome innovations, is the extended Medicare safety net. It is all very well for the opposition to pose questions to me, but what about their policy on this vital program for the health and wellbeing of so many people? We have had some suggestions that the government was digging dirt. I have to say that David Epstein is the king of dirt. Walt Secord almost destroyed the life of a migrant family in Western Sydney by inventing a story. Why has the Leader of the Opposition got this scum on his staff? (Time expired)