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Thursday, 20 September 2007
Page: 176

Senator MASON (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Health and Ageing) (4:37 PM) —I agree with Senator McLucas and Senator Alison that dental health is a big issue in this country. There has certainly been much debate both in parliament and throughout the public in recent times. It is an important issue but clearly it is an issue primarily for the states. I sometimes wonder, with all the money that we give the states through GST payments—

Senator McLucas interjecting—

Senator MASON —Senator McLucas asked the question. Let us take, as an example, my home state of Queensland. Queensland receives billions of dollars more than it would have received under the old taxation arrangements yet it cannot provide sufficient primary dental care for Queenslanders. Why is that? They receive more taxation revenue from the Commonwealth than they have ever received in the history of the federation and more than they would have received if the Labor Party had stopped the GST going through, which is what they tried to do. But, because the GST went through, the great state of Queensland receives more money in revenue than they would have ever received under the old arrangements.

All of us know that, yet they cannot provide adequate services for Queenslanders, and the Labor Party stands up here and says that it is all the Commonwealth’s fault. Well, it is not. I would like to talk about some of the problems that we have with dental health care, but I would like to say, by way of parenthesis—and I suspect I may even get bipartisan support on this—one of the big issues in Queensland over the last 10 years is fluoride. Fluoride has been a local government issue but also it has been raised in state parliament. I suspect that it is not an issue that is just about partisan politics. We have not even got fluoride in Brisbane city.

Senator McLucas —What did you do about it?

Senator MASON —Senator McLucas, if you heard me, I said that this was not a partisan issue, but Mr Beattie has not done anything about it. He certainly has not enforced it. We should have done more and, quite frankly, that initiative alone would not only save a lot of money but also, far more importantly, would save a lot of pain, discomfort and agony for Queenslanders. It is a very minor thing that would cost very little, and yet we have not done it. It is not a partisan point but it is something we should have done, and I suspect even Senator Allison would agree with that. It is something we should do and we have not done.

Senator McLucas outlined the Labor Party’s proposal, which was recently enunciated by Mr Rudd, and spoke about waiting lists and how the Labor Party will assist in cutting down those waiting lists. Conceptually, that policy is quite incoherent. Let me say, by way of warning, that it is fiscal quicksand. The difference with the coalition policy is that our policy is conceptually coherent. We think that if someone’s dental health impacts upon their general health, which is ultimately the responsibility of Medicare, then the Commonwealth should provide for it. Nibbling away at the edges of waiting lists will not solve the problem. It will not make the states take responsibility and certainly will not solve the more general issue of chronic disease coming from bad oral care. That is the major problem.

I do not know what the Labor Party is on about here. Indeed, their proposal on dental care is not even as generous as the coalition proposal. It is quite an unusual proposal: not only is it less generous but also it nibbles away at the edges of a huge problem rather than engaging in a conceptually coherent policy, such as the coalition’s. The coalition’s policy is that, where oral health impacts upon general health, the Commonwealth will take responsibility.

Through the Health Insurance Amendment (Medicare Dental Services) Bill 2007, the Commonwealth government will provide substantial support to people with chronic conditions such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and complex care needs so that they can access dental treatment under Medicare. This will help to improve the oral health of those Australians with long-term serious illness. Passing this legislation will enable eligible Australians to access up to $4,250 in Medicare dental benefits over two consecutive calendar years. If this bill is passed, the new arrangements will commence from 1 November this year. Patients will be able to receive Medicare benefits for a comprehensive range of dental treatment, from diagnosis, preventative services and fillings to more complex treatments such as major restorative work. Older people requiring dentures will particularly benefit from these new arrangements.

The Senate Standing Committee on Community Affairs has recently considered this bill and concluded that it is a ‘fundamentally important step in improving access to dental services and care for many Australians’. The committee recommended that this bill be passed. This Medicare initiative is a substantial investment in private dental treatment by the Commonwealth government of about $385 million over four years. It complements, but does not replace, state and territory governments’ responsibilities to provide public dental services.

I was listening carefully to what Senator Allison said before and I want to remind her that the new Medicare items complement other initiatives announced in the 2007-08 budget that are designed to increase access to dental treatment and support the dental workforce. These include investments in a new school of dentistry and oral health at Charles Sturt University, more rural clinical placements and dental scholarships for Indigenous students. The government has looked very closely at that. The new Medicare items complement other Commonwealth initiatives announced in this year’s budget. Together, these initiatives will strengthen dental care in Australia, and I commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.