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Wednesday, 19 September 2012
Page: 11200


Mr GEORGANAS (Hindmarsh) (11:45): It gives me great pleasure to speak on the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2012 that will service our community, especially the most vulnerable. I am always happy to take advice from anyone, including those opposite, but, let us not forget, in 1996 the very first act of the Howard Liberal coalition government was to cut the Commonwealth dental scheme. We all remember that; every single one of us remembers that. That was the first act of the Howard government—to cut the Commonwealth dental scheme, which saw the list of people waiting for dental procedures and dental care skyrocket to 750,000 people with over two years on the waiting list. So now we hear them come into this House, preach to us on dental care and tell us what it means to them.

In opposition, I asked many questions about dental care and I always got the same response back, whether it was from the Minister for Health of the coalition at the time or whether it was from the Prime Minister. The answer was like this: 'It has got nothing to do with the federal government; it has got nothing to do with us. Go to your mates in the state Labor government; it is a state responsibility.' That is all we heard from the other side. In 2007, as the doom and gloom was overshadowing them, they decided that they should try and do something about this particular issue. What did they do? They came up with this cobble-wash scheme that was meant to cost $80 million per year. It is now costing us $80 million per month and giving dental care to millionaires and not giving the care that is required to low-income earners, to the unemployed, to pensioners and to a whole range of other people. So I am very pleased and very proud to be in this House today promoting this bill and speaking in support of this bill.

We were elected in 2007 and again in 2010 on a platform of recreating a federal dental scheme. We have a mandate that is as clear as can be and we have the electoral authority to deliver reform on the provisions of dental services in this land. If you look at the Hansard from when we were in opposition and from when we were in government, and at the promises that were made, it was about delivering a dental scheme that was equitable for all in this nation, not just for millionaires. However, we have been obstructed every step of the way by those who know only one word and that is the word 'no'. We hear it continually from those opposite on so many issues. And with mind-boggling predictability we are going to hear it again on this particular bill.

The fear campaign from which Labor took office five years ago continues and we see it again today. The Abbott scare campaign is trying to convince people that Labor is going to deprive people of a dental service. Well, the only people that have deprived the Australian public of a dental service were the opposition coalition when they were in government in 1996. They came in and axed the Commonwealth dental scheme, requiring people to wait up to two or three years to have their teeth fixed.

Labor has proposed and has been pursuing something very different to those opposite to increase the availability of dental services. As I said, the poorly designed coalition scheme that we sought for years to replace subsidised treatment of the millionaires while depriving age pensioners, welfare recipients, Australian battlers around the nation and low-income earners. It subsidised elective cosmetic work while people with the most need could not get assistance. As I said earlier, Tony Abbott said it would cost $90 million per year but it is costing a billion dollars a year or $80 million per month and people still cannot get treatment they require. It was a scheme that was poorly designed and that led to waste and dissatisfaction, with over 1,000 complaints lodged from those who were able to access the scheme but were not satisfied.

There has been free money from the government to dental practices, and taxpayer funds were gouged by billions of dollars each and every year. Treatments have been of low value and poorly performed or have remained inaccessible to those who need them most. Something has to change. The system needs to improve but improvement is anathema to the opposition, who prefer a culture of fear, as we have seen continually in this House.

This opposition scare campaign has cried out with false alarm, as we heard from the previous speakers—false alarm that Labor plan to deprive people of available dental services. As I said, the only people who deprived the Australian public from dental care were the former Liberal government, which cut the Commonwealth dental scheme as a first act as a government. And that is the cynical mockery of their fear campaign. They say Australians should be scared that Labor will direct dental services away from millionaires to those who most need them, those who find it most difficult to afford them. It has been just one of a continual string of cynical Orwellian ironies where the coalition says positive change is negative change, where an increase in services means a decrease in availability and where the Abbott coalition strive to convince the people to fear the very changes that will most benefit them.

Today, as I said, I am very pleased and proud to speak in favour of this legislation, which will deliver Labor's expanded dental benefits scheme—this government's version of a Commonwealth dental scheme—which will allocate vastly increased services to children and funding for expanded state services for adults in need.

As a result of this package, which was announced by the Minister for Health in late August, 3.4 million Australian children will be eligible for funded dental care through the expansion of the government's current child focused dental scheme. Currently, children aged 12 to 18 can access dental care. With this bill, almost 3½ million children aged two and over will be able to access the care they need. That will be a good start in dental hygiene, and will set the path for fewer problems in the future, costing governments less money. Funding will be provided to the states to provide around 1.4 million additional dental services for adults on low incomes such as age pensioners, concession card holders and people with special needs.

Let us look at those numbers: 1.4 million. When we look back in the Howard years, there were 750,000 people on the waiting list who had to wait over two years. Providing 1.4 million services will ensure that that waiting list comes right down. And if those opposite were to form a government next election—shock, horror!—I bet you one of the first things they would do is cut the current scheme, leaving people high and dry, and we would see those figures escalate, maybe well over 750,000 and up to the million mark.

Further, outer metropolitan, rural and remote areas will receive additional capital and workforce to provide the services where they are needed. This package relies on federal funding complementing state funding. So, as with many things negotiated between tiers of government in this Federation, state governments will have the choice—and I suspect New South Wales and Queensland will take it—to sabotage the dental services of their own residents, as we have seen with the cuts in those states over the previous few weeks. I fear this will be the case with this particular scheme in Queensland and New South Wales, where services are being absolutely stripped on an almost-daily basis. And, as we heard, that is the entree of the real thing if the coalition ever forms government.

But I can assure you that, at least in South Australia, the federal government will cover, through this program, a much greater number of children of families of limited means. This will make already budgeted funds and an additional 1.4 million dental services or appointments solely available for adults who need the most assistance. This creates a package of services for those adults in need of dental care while providing preventative work for children to prevent dental problems becoming a major long-term issue.

I welcome this package of reforms, as all of us on this side do. We welcome these reforms because, for far too long, dental care has been separate from health care—yet one cannot exist without the other. Without good teeth or dentures, without oral health, we cannot have good dietary habits and good nutrition; and without good nutrition, other health problems are as good as certain. This is an area of policy very close to our hearts on this side. We campaigned on it when we were in opposition, we campaigned on it in 2007 when we were elected and it was a promise in the 2010 election. So we are delivering on what we told the Australian public. I personally campaigned on this issue as a candidate and an opposition MP, year after year, and received full support from my constituency toward the Commonwealth ensuring the provision of a decent level of dental services and dental care for those who need them most in our community. As I said earlier, this issue was raised by me and many others, many times in opposition, and the answer always came back the same—that it had nothing to do with the then Howard government. That was the response we got: it was a state issue.

When conducting surveys in my electorate, dental care was the one issue which received the greatest support from senior residents, specifically residents on the age pension, a pension that was worth much less then than it is today, thanks to Labor's reforms. But, even with a substantial increase in the age pension, the cost of dental care is more than many can afford, especially those with the greatest dental problems and those who require the greatest and most costly dental work. Labor have done what we have been able to get through the parliament since forming government in 2007. We have injected very substantial funds, through the budget process, in helping the states reduce the waiting lists for the state based services while trying to redirect federal funding being wasted, year after year, billions of dollars after billions of dollars, on the Leader of the Opposition's flawed chronic dental system.

With this bill we have the start of a new package of dental reforms which will deliver the services with willing state governments to meet the needs of both young and old and those in most need. It is a duty of this place to provide the assistance where it is most needed, to provide services that are most critical and to help Australians improve and maintain their health and their lives, with that objective—a healthy Australian population in clear sight.

This bill will start operation on 1 January 2014. For many decades the history of the dental health of children in this country was that it was improving. But since the mid-1990s we have seen a reversal of that. Since the late 1990s the prevalence of children with dental problems, and the mean number of teeth affected by dental diseases in children, has increased. A recent Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report showed that 45 per cent of 12-year-olds had decay in their permanent teeth and almost 25 per cent of 12-year-olds had untreated decay. If a decline in oral health of children becomes established, children will require increased services in the future. So it is very important that we see the investment in our children's teeth as an investment in the future, as an investment in good oral hygiene—and we know that poor childhood oral health leads to poor adult oral health and has wide- ranging impacts on general health and wellbeing, including increasing the demand on our health and hospital system.

This bill is a very important one and I am proud to support it. It is a bill I have campaigned on for many years and I hope those opposite will consider agreeing to it, because at the heart of it are pensioners, people on low incomes and children. It is extremely important that this bill is supported for the benefit of dental care.

Debate adjourned.