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Wednesday, 12 March 2008
Page: 1527

Mr HOCKEY (3:52 PM) —Dental disease is a grave problem for many poorer Australians. Thirty per cent of Australians avoid dental care due to cost and 20 per cent avoid treatment specifically recommended because of cost: 25.5 per cent of Australians have untreated dental decay; one in six Australian adults are limited in what food they can eat because of their teeth; and 50,000 Australians are hospitalised each year with preventable dental disease.

Dental disease is most prevalent in poor and disadvantaged people who, I might say, stood to benefit the most from our Medicare dental rebate scheme, the scheme that the Labor Party has now abolished in the dark of night with a press release—only on a departmental website rather than on the minister’s website itself. Statistics show that people with higher incomes are more likely to see dentists for preventative services such as scale and clean, while poorer people need more treatments.

For diabetics, people with heart disease and particularly those with HIV-AIDS, dental disease makes the illnesses worse. Cancer treatments can affect the teeth and gums. People with tooth abscesses and cracked teeth are often in chronic pain and may not be able to see a doctor. And, of course, tooth pain can stop people from eating properly and cause malnutrition. Some medications also affect teeth. Being elderly and having problems with arthritis in your hands or having dementia can affect your ability to clean your teeth properly, making dental problems worse.

It is true that in 1996 the then coalition government refused to continue with a lapsing federal government program which was assisting the states in helping to address the backlog of people waiting for dental treatment at hospitals. The strong view taken by the previous government was, given that it was the financial and policy responsibility of the states to provide dental services, those states had an obligation to fulfil their obligations to individuals, particularly those most in need.

When we had the capacity in the budget to provide additional services, the government of the time responded. That is why a scheme was introduced by the Howard government, which commenced in November of last year, where individuals could receive treatments of up to $2,125 per year or $4,250 over two years. There were no restrictions on what the dentist could do; it was just work up to that value. It was an identifiable Medicare item number—a Medicare rebate that was available for those people most disadvantaged by severe dental problems. For the first time Medicare accommodated the needs of those individuals. Those individuals went to see their doctor, their doctor put in place a proper program to assist with the management of the dental problem, they were then referred to a dental specialist or a dental prosthesist—of the choice of the patient—and that treatment was provided, up to a value of $4,250.

The so-called caring, compassionate Rudd government abolished that Medicare rebate for dental services. They did not do it on the day that they had their smokescreen about teen health, whereby, if the government provides a $150 voucher, the teenager has to find another $150 to match the money. They did not explain that, in fact, this so-called ‘teen voucher’ actually does not deliver any dental services other than a check-up. So if the dentist finds there is a problem, well, it is over to the teenager to fix it.

Their total commitment thus far to the dental health of the most vulnerable Australians is a $150 copayment voucher for teenagers to get their teeth checked. In contrast, it was the Howard government that put in place a Medicare rebate of $4,250 so that those people most vulnerable could get their teeth fixed—not a check-up or a consultion. There was no committee set up. There was no 2020 summit. It was a real outcome that relieved the pain of the individuals, the severe chronic pain of the individuals, when state Labor governments had let them down—state Labor governments with queues that wait for years to be provided with dental treatment.

The state Labor governments let them down. The federal government came in to pick up the pieces with the Medicare rebate. And what is the first thing that the Rudd government does for those people who are the most vulnerable? It cut the Medicare rebate and put in place a system that provides no dental treatment. I say to the minister, through the Speaker: there are real people behind this. One of them is Mr Chris Planer. I quote from the Sydney Morning Herald of 12 March:

Chris Planer, who lost his nose to cancer, has experienced the health system’s lack of logic.

He has undergone life-saving surgery at no financial cost.

                …            …            …

Three years ago, Mr Planer, 28, was diagnosed with ... carcinoma in the floor of his nose and roof of his mouth.

The result was a 16-hour operation ... Then, in the same marathon procedure, plastic surgeons reconstructed his face ...

Mr Planer also required chemotherapy and radiotherapy - which triggered the need for further plastic surgery. The radiotherapy had burnt a hole in the top of his new nose.

The article continues:

... the fierce anti-cancer treatment has damaged his dental nerves. This, along with the impact of a plate in the roof of his mouth, means he needs monthly visits to the dentist.

The treatment he received has made his teeth more vulnerable to decay and more likely to need expensive root canal treatment.

That routine can run into hundreds of dollars a month ...

Mr Planer and his wife have just had a young baby, William, and they are wondering why the $4,250 plan and treatment that has been provided by the federal government has left them with no options at all. This government has abolished that plan. What does the minister for health say to Chris Planer—a real person who has had cancer treatment, who has severe dental issues and who now has nowhere to go as a result of the abolition of the Medicare rebate by the Rudd government? This is fiscal conservatism?

We wonder what the government’s motives are when they attack carers. We wonder what their motives are when they attack pensioners. We wonder what their motives are when they attack Chris Planer and people like him who have severe dental problems. Do you know what this is? It is the Prime Minister trying to be a fiscal conservative. We are about to have the mother of all surpluses in Australian history and the Prime Minister—who has taken his eye off the ball on the micro detail of running the country so that he can head off overseas and swan around the Pacific—leaves carers and pensioners behind, with huge amounts of anxiety. They have been abandoned by his government. Now we find by going to the departmental website that a Medicare rebate service that in just two months provided 16,000 people with dental care that they never had previously has been abolished.

We know that the government is pretending to be something that they are not. They are heartless. They do not care about the individuals out there. They preach compassion, but they are trying to parade as fiscal conservatives. Fiscal conservatism comes not because you are heartless but because you make long-term decisions in the best interests of the nation. It is about standing up for the principles that beat in the heart of every Australian. They are principles such as compassion for those most vulnerable and support for those people who cannot support themselves—people who are the victims of injustice. It is not about picking on those people; it is about supporting them. It is about rewarding individual effort and about providing incentives for people to earn a buck when they want to earn a buck. It is about growing the pie rather than fighting over the share of the pie.

The new member for Dobell on the Labor Party side of the parliament belled the cat today. Mr Thomson is quoted in today’s paper as saying:

There are children in our suburbs who are living in pain because their parents cannot afford their dentist bills ... There are elderly people who do not go out because they are embarrassed about their chronic teeth problems.

These issues should have been addressed by the state Labor government. It failed to address them. The Howard government introduced a $4,250 rebate to help these people specifically, and one of the first things that ‘Old Chopper’ Roxon does is chop out the Medicare rebate for those who are the most vulnerable.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms AE Burke)—The member for North Sydney will refer to ministers appropriately.

Mr HOCKEY —As the member for Dobell said, he is going to fight for ‘dental under Medicare’. Amen, I say to the member for Dobell. But he should have said that one, two or three weeks ago or before the election. He should have said, ‘I’m going to fight to keep dental under Medicare.’ He does not need to fight us about it. He does not need to fight Medicare about it. He does not even need to fight those who are vulnerable in his community about it. He needs to fight the minister and the Prime Minister—the same two people who have taken away real treatment—not consultation—that addresses dental problems for those who are the most vulnerable.

It is no wonder that Dr John Matthews, President of the Australian Dental Association, said that the Labor Party’s approach is ‘patchy’ and ‘piecemeal’. It takes a lot of courage for representatives of non-government organisations to speak out only three months from a change of government. It takes a lot of courage for individuals to do that. Dr John Matthews said that the approach of the new government is patchy and piecemeal—and I am sure that behind the scenes he is a little more effusive in his criticism.

It is the practice of this government to run a smokescreen. It is interesting, isn’t it, that they say one thing and do another? They say, for example, in the glossy press release with a happy smiling Prime Minister and a happy smiling minister for health at the top that they are providing $360 million over three years to the Teen Dental Plan. Then, in what can only be described as a dour press release that sits on the departmental website, they kill off the Medicare rebate.

Of course the Labor Party continue to be damned by their own words. The best illustration of this is private health insurance. Hypocrisy be thy name, Minister. We remember that, only a year ago, the Minister for Health and Ageing—the minister at the table—said that an increase in private health insurance premiums that was higher than inflation was not good news. A year ago the minister said that a 4½ per cent increase was an issue that justified holding the government to account. She said that a 4½ per cent increase was outrageous and that it was going to have an impact on ‘working families’. However, the first decision she makes in relation to private health insurance is to approve a five per cent increase, which is higher than inflation and higher than health inflation.

This is hypocrisy of the Rudd government. This illustrates what they do: they say one thing and they play cute games—be it on carers, on pensioners, on those people most vulnerable—or on Chris Planer. They are playing with the hearts and souls of those who are most vulnerable, and they are doing it because they want to pretend to be fiscal conservatives. Minister, I say to you: if you want to be a fiscal conservative, protect those who are most vulnerable and stop wasting government money on initiatives such as the Tree of Knowledge, which is a dead tree that the Labor Party is spending $2 million on, or a dinosaur museum, which the Labor Party is spending $1 million on. Do not leave those who are most vulnerable alone. Put in place a dental scheme that helps those people with the most severe dental problems. (Time expired)