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Tuesday, 16 September 2008
Page: 49

Senator COLBECK (5:58 PM) —Senator Conroy’s presentation here this afternoon demonstrates what happens when someone comes into the chamber not knowing anything about what they are talking about. In fact, it was one of the most embarrassing performances I have seen here for quite some time, because Senator Conroy does not even understand his government’s own election promises. The figures that he provided to the chamber before—and he might like to get up and clear up his misrepresentation of those election promises to the Senate later on—are not the figures that are in their election policies. In fact, I have spent quite a deal of time interrogating the Labor Party’s election policies through the estimates process, and his numbers are just plain wrong.

The government talked about $290 million for the Commonwealth Dental Health Program over three years, not over four years as Senator Conroy has just told the Senate, and, according to the government’s election promises, the Teen Dental Plan was for $510 million over three years. So the figure that he quotes is what has actually been appropriated by the government since the election, not what they promised the Australian people they would spend before the election.

When the election promises went through the Charter of Budget Honesty—and I notice Senator Conroy has now left the chamber—via the Department of Finance and Deregulation, the teen dental program was costed down from $510 million to $326 million. It was then re-announced at $340 million and has been finally costed in the budget at $360 million over three years, the fourth figure we have had since the initial election promise was made. If you go back to how much the Labor Party promised the Australian people they would spend on dental programs at the election, it was $800 million over three years. Their commitments are actually $150 million short of what they promised they would spend. If you go back and do the numbers, that expenditure is $150 million short of what they promised the Australian people at the election.

For them to come in here now and tell us that we are stopping them from implementing a program because of the funding is an absolute absurdity, because they are the ones who have not kept their promise to the Australian people to spend $800 million. Minister Roxon’s spokesperson said before the election when questioned on the costing of the election promises that the government would spend $800 million. That needs to be clear to start with. The commitment was to spend $800 million and, at this point in time, over the term of the parliament they are $150 million short. That immediately kills off any suggestion that any action of the opposition is irresponsible financially, because Senator Conroy has come in here with a set of speaking notes that do not represent the true facts with respect to the government’s election policies.

His comments about the program over the last four years are also deceptive, misleading and dishonest. The enhanced dental scheme that the government is seeking to disallow as part of the removal of this Medicare item only came into effect in November 2007. For Senator Conroy to come in here and quote figures over four years is completely and utterly dishonest. By going back four years, he renders his quotes completely irrelevant because they bear absolutely no resemblance to what has happened since the program was enhanced post the budget last year and taking effect in November 2007. So Senator Conroy can come in here and quote figures from four years ago all he likes, but they bear absolutely no relevance whatsoever to this debate. The figures should be targeted at what has happened within this scheme over the last eight or nine months—since November last year is the time frame of relevance for this scheme. All of Senator Conroy’s figures, all of his assertions and all of his pointed suggestions to senators from different states around this chamber this evening are completely and utterly irrelevant because they relate to a time frame that is not associated with the enhanced dental program that we are talking about here today.

Since this scheme went through its process of disallowance earlier in the year, the reaction that I have had from all over Australia to the importance of this scheme has been quite extraordinary. I had a phone call from an elderly citizen in the electorate of Robertson who actually got into the dentist’s chair only to be told that the dentist would not treat him because of threats from Minister Roxon about the use of the program. This chamber legitimately disallowed the Medicare item that would remove this initiative. This chamber legitimately went through that process and yet Minister Roxon has actively discouraged doctors and dentists from taking up this program—even though doctors and dentists from all over Australia understand the value and importance of this program. The reaction has been extraordinary.

I received correspondence from a Dr Passmore in Sydney. Senator Conroy talked about this being a scheme for the rich. I am not sure whether or not Senator Conroy is suggesting that Medicare should be means tested—I will leave that for him and the government to respond to. But I thought that the universal access obligation associated with Medicare was one of the things that we were all proud of—that anybody could get access to Medicare. Senator Conroy says that this is a program for the rich. Dr Passmore has two practices in Sydney, one in the more affluent suburbs and one in the western suburbs. He practices 1½ days a week at Granville and has another practice in the Labor electorate of Reid. If this is something that only rich people can access, the real experience of the doctors on the ground is what should be considered. In the time that the scheme has been operating, Dr Passmore has not referred one patient from his practice in Turramurra in the electorate of Bradfield, and yet in the western suburbs he has referred 150 patients—all from those lower socioeconomic areas.

Can I say to you, Mr Acting Deputy President, that we should look at the impact of this scheme. I have pictures here of the sorts of things that are being treated. These pictures are a terrible demonstration of the need for this program. And yet the government, while quite dishonestly going back over four years to quote its statistics, believes that there is no place or need for this particular scheme. What the government would prefer to do is to refer people to the state system, back into those huge queues where there is no capacity. Last time I spoke to the department about this at estimates, and even in some documentation I have seen since, the government was still negotiating this initiative with the states. It had no idea how this was going to work. The department could shed no light on how the scheme was going to work and how it would integrate into the existing schemes that operate within the states. It had no idea. The government talks about the opposition stopping the initiative from being brought forward. I have not seen any legislation. I have not heard of any draft legislation. There is nothing on the Notice Paper for the House of Representatives.

All the government is doing is trying to throw up a smokescreen for a failure that it has had in a thought bubble that it put up before the election. The reaction around the country from doctors and from the oral health association has been quite extraordinary in relation to this particular program. I do not think any of us realised what was going on. The allegation from the government is that all the effort was being put into New South Wales and none into any of the other states. But the government has made absolutely no effort at all to let people know this program is there—in fact, quite the opposite; the minister has written threatening letters to dentists suggesting that they not participate in this process because the program is going to end and so there is no benefit in a referral. Yet when you look at what this program can provide to a patient versus what the government’s program can provide to a patient the comparison is quite stark.

The Commonwealth Dental Health Program is estimated at $14.63 per person for those eligible, whereas the program the government want to remove provides $2,165 of dental support per annum over two years. So you just cannot compare the programs. It is quite clear that this program has real relevance. Even in the previous debate we had as part of the disallowance motion, government senators said there needed to be a broad suite of measures as part of this program to look after dental services in the country. We said at the time that this was part of that broad suite. We do not have any problem with the government bringing in their Commonwealth Dental Health Program. We think that is quite legitimate. We think it was quite dishonest of them to say before the election that they were going to spend $800 million and then after the election underspend that by $150 million—and then come in here and blame us for being ‘financially irresponsible’. They are the ones who cannot meet their election campaign commitments. They do not seem to have any remorse in respect of that. As far as they are concerned, as long as the program is being met they are doing the job. But the clear commitment in their election policies was for $800 million. That was confirmed in a statement from the now minister’s office prior to the election.

So I think the government have got a bit of a nerve coming back in here trying to reverse this process. I really do. They talk about the will of the parliament. They talk about evidence based policy. Well, the evidence is that this program has doubled in numbers of participants almost every month since it started. The government talk about a failed system, a system that is hard to access. But they quite dishonestly talk about four years that are not relevant to the current debate. So not only are all of their arguments basically completely without foundation as far as what we are talking about here this afternoon goes but also it is quite dishonest to come in here and say that this program has failed. It is obviously a successful program. It is obviously greatly needed. If you look at the pictures that have been provided to me of people who need assistance under this program, you see that it is quite clear that this program should remain in place. The government have $150 million up their sleeve to spend to maintain their dental promises over three years—not the $780 million over four or five years that they talk about, which is their budget allocation. They ought to keep their election promises. They ought to work with the parliament to see this scheme stay in place. The opposition retains its position with respect to the enhanced Medicare dental scheme because it believes that it has a real role to play in the dental care of Australians. We will not be supporting the motion.