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Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Page: 373


Ms CATHERINE KING (Ballarat) (19:50): It has been a pretty bad day for the Turnbull government's latest health minister. At his first parliamentary hurdle, the health minister has had a stumble; at his first test of whether he has the capability to negotiate things through the Senate—to get this government's agenda through the parliamentary processes—this minister has fallen at his first hurdle. Today was the first test of this new minister: to see whether he could negotiate with the Senate to convince them that this government's cuts to children's dental benefits were somehow justified and defensible, and were good policy—as we were being told over and over again by the Turnbull government. And the result of the health minister's first Senate challenge? Apparently, it has been an absolute failure—a backflip. Today we learnt that that the government has had to back down—embarrassingly—on its $300 cut per child to the Child Dental Benefit Schedule, and restore it to the funding level that Labor had when we established the scheme, as it should have been. Make no mistake: the government did not do this because it was the right thing to do, or because they wanted to do it, or because they suddenly realised that they had got it wrong and that this was not good policy—to pursue cuts to what has been a very important preventative health program for child dental health across the country—and they did not come to it because they felt that this was a really good idea; they came to it because they were forced to.

Let us remember that the cuts have only been in place since 1 January this year—just over a month. So you might be asking, Mr Speaker: what has happened in the last month to convince the latest health minister of this government that they need to change their tack? What has happened to make them change their minds in such a short time? Why the sudden backflip? The answer is that Labor, with the support of the other parties, had a motion in the Senate to disallow the cuts, and the government knew they did not have the numbers. They did not have the numbers in the Senate to disallow it, so they did not have a choice. They have not done this because they think it is a good idea to restore the funding to the level it should be or that they want to support the kids dental program; they have done it because they do not have the numbers in the Senate. They were backed into a corner and they have desperately scrambled to try to fix what was going to be—and is, frankly—a highly embarrassing political problem for the latest minister for health. There is a simple reason why the government could not convince the Senate on these cuts: they were unfair and bad policy. While the government might have changed who is at the helm of health, they have not actually changed any of their lousy policies of cutting basic health support from the Australians who need it most.

Labor introduced the Child Dental Benefits Schedule scheme because of disturbing evidence that the oral health of children has been declining since the mid-1990s. The scheme was introduced as a tightly targeted program to ensure that children and families who need help accessing dental services the most are the ones who get it. It was working. In fact, a review by the government's own health department said that the scheme's only failing was the failure of the Abbott-Turnbull government to promote it and put any money into telling parents that the scheme existed.

The Liberals have been determined to axe the scheme ever since they came to government. First, they announced their plan to abolish the entire scheme. Parents, dentists and experts were outraged, and Labor was proud to stand with them in the fight to save the scheme. When the government could not pass their plan to abolish the scheme when it became clear that they would not get it through the Senate, they instead applied a cut across the board, cutting the entitlement to every child who was eligible under the program. On New Year's Day, the government cut the cap on CDBS benefits from $1,000 over two years to $700. That is a cut of up to $300 per child, or $600 for a family with two kids. Late last year, the former health minister admitted that the new cap would hurt more than one in four children who use the scheme. These are predominantly children in some of our poorest suburbs and communities across the country. Over a quarter of a million kids would have been worse off under the government's proposal. That is why today's back-down is a positive victory for children's dental health. It is a positive victory for good public policy. But make no mistake: this is an embarrassment for the new health minister. This was his first test and he has failed, unable to get the numbers in the Senate on the third day of our parliamentary sitting week and unable to get his policy through the Senate. He has stumbled at his very first hurdle.