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Wednesday, 19 September 2012
Page: 11279


Mr NEUMANN (Blair) (17:13): I rise to speak in support of the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2012. I saw a couple of headlines, one entitled, 'Dental care is failing the needy', from the Sydney Morning Herald of 19 March 2007; and 'Country aching over dental crisis', from the Sydney Morning Herald of 26 January 2007. On this side of the House we are very proud of the long history and record of Labor governments contributing to the oral health needs of our country. Those opposite have no plan. You will hear one speaker after another criticising us and standing up on that side of the chamber for millionaires, again and again and again.

The particulars of this legislation are that it amends the Dental Benefits Act 2008. It sets in place a legislative framework for the Child Dental Benefits Schedule to commence operation in January 2014 and it extends the age range of people eligible to receive the dental services to include children of at least two years of age but under 18 years of age. Currently the legislation provides for children aged 12 to 18 years, under the Medicare Teen Dental Plan.

The bill before the chamber results in an easy operation for mums and dads across Australia. The Medicare Teen Dental Plan is effectively being replaced by a better and more comprehensive arrangement called the Child Dental Benefits Schedule, which will provide far more children with the kind of access to the good dental care they need. This legislation forms part of the package of the $4.1 billion reform announced in August 2012.

I found a reference a while ago to something that former finance minister Lindsay Tanner said. It was in reference to arguments that took place after the budget in 2008, where the coalition steadfastly opposed our reforms with respect to oral health care in this country. Those opposite are very keen to spend the money, but they oppose the taxes this government has imposed to provide good health care, good road infrastructure, good assistance in education, assistance with superannuation increases, and flood recovery and the like. They are very happy to take the credit, to spend the money, but to oppose, irresponsibly, the bills necessary for the funding of those outcomes.

Their irresponsible attitude in relation to legislation we brought in in 2008 resulted in $284 million being wasted by those opposite in relation to this, because they blocked it in the Senate. One of the first acts of the previous coalition government, in 1996, was to cut $100 million in funding and leave Australia with an ever-burgeoning public dental health crisis, to the point where about 650,000 Australians were on the dental waiting lists. I saw that and experienced it when I was the chair of the Esk Health Reference Committee, as part of the West Moreton Health Community Council. At that stage, Esk, which is located in the Brisbane Valley, was in the electorate of the member for Dickson, who happens to be the shadow minister for health. It is interesting that year after year not a word was said by him in relation to those issues in his own electorate as the waiting lists became worse and worse in his area. We did not see a press release. We did not see a statement. I saw no correspondence, no overtures to the health council and no offers of funding to assist oral health care in his own electorate.

In 1994 the then Keating Labor government introduced state funding for dental services, targeting those on low incomes, who are the most in need. And, as I said, one of the first acts of the Howard government was to take that away, just as they ripped $1 billion out of the childcare sector not long after they were elected, in 1996. Earlier on I read from headlines in the Sydney Morning Herald dating back to March and January 2007, and they just say it all about the legacy of those opposite. I will read them again: 'Dental care is failing the needy'; and, 'Country aching over dental crisis'. That is the legacy of nearly 12 years of coalition government in this country.

In 2008 we introduced a means tested plan funding annual check-ups for teenagers. It took a Labor government to do that. One-third of Australians at that time could not afford dental care, with people on waiting lists for up to five years. One of the things I am most proud of with this government is the fact that we have doubled health funding in this country—it is in partnership with the states, but we are the ones putting up the money, to 2019-20. This is in stark contrast to those opposite, who adopt the attitude of slash and burn. We will see that if they ever sit on this side of the chamber. We know that because the now Leader of the Opposition was the health minister in the Howard coalition government when they de-funded public health and hospital systems in this country by $1 billion. What an impact that had on public health.

Perhaps we are now not expecting him to copy Campbell Newman in Queensland. Perhaps Campbell Newman was copying him, when he was health minister. In places like Townsville we have seen 45 front-line nurses go. In my electorate, too, front-line services have been slashed as jobs have gone. This has real consequences for many areas around the country.

Today we have heard all the jeremiads from those opposite about our policy. We have seen them one after another get up here and talk about the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. They never talk about the fact that a scheme that had previously been costed at $90 million to taxpayers was, and is, costing $80 million a month. They have the temerity to criticise us about waste and mismanagement when it is their policy that has caused this. Former finance minister Lindsay Tanner belled the cat back in June 2008 saying that we were going to save $248 million by getting rid of the scheme we are proposing to get rid of with this legislation. Their scheme means that if you are a millionaire you are not means tested. It means that if you are a kid with bad teeth, in a regional or rural area, you really are disadvantaged compared with someone who might live in a salubrious suburb in Sydney or Melbourne. The scheme is not means tested and not targeted at all. It is open to significant abuse, and has been abused. That is the reality of the scheme we are getting rid of today.

The legislation that we are bringing forward today is part of a package. I was also most proud of the fact that this government in the budget put forward $515.3 million as an investment in oral health for those who can least afford it, for a blitz on the waiting lists. The 400,000 people waiting for care on public dental waiting lists will receive the benefits of those measures that we introduced in the budget: new spending to boost the dental workforce and improve facilities in those regional and rural areas I am talking about—front-line services being provided to build the health service; front-line services that are required, particularly in regional and rural Queensland, and were so nastily and meanly slashed by the LNP at a state level in my home state of Queensland: more than 4,000 health workers, pathology services, dental services, breast screening, nursing, TB—the lot. Services are being downsized and people are being thrown out of jobs across the length and breadth of Queensland.

So, while we are here today, bringing forward assistance to about 3.4 million Australian children who are eligible for funding for dental care, I wonder what those people opposite from Queensland will say? I wonder what they are saying to their communities in places like Gladstone, Hervey Bay, Townsville, Mount Isa and all those areas where there is downsizing and where jobs are being outsourced? I wonder what they say to them?

I know what the CEO of the West Moreton-Oxley Medicare Local had to say about the package that is before the chamber today. Vicki Poxon said that the announcement was particularly vital for the residents of the Ipswich and Somerset regions, which hold a comparatively large number of low-income households. Ms Poxon said:

An announcement like this will go directly towards improving the all-round health and wellbeing of our residents, in particular, children and pensioners who need it the most.

Considering roughly 20 per cent of the West Moreton-Oxley region is made up of children under 14 years, this is an announcement that will be very well received by households in our area …

Of particular importance to us is ensuring our rural areas are given much-needed assistance in the more isolated locations, so we welcome this announcement as a step forward for those residents.

It’s an unfortunate reality that for many families proper dental care is simply not a financial possibility, and as a Medicare Local, this package brings us closer to our goal of seeing Australians access proper care so that they can live healthier, happier lives.

I think that is an outstanding statement and absolutely accurate. The package does strike a balance between improving services for low-income cardholders and a new investment in prevention. One thousand dollars in two years for children for check-ups and diagnoses—that is the kind of thing that is important.

We believe that preventative health care is really critical. On the other side of the chamber, they are the people who opposed the National Preventive Health Agency. On this side of the chamber we believe in preventive health, and we believe that we need to spend more to prevent ill-health. It is a good investment in the long term.

Investment in children's dental care is an investment in the future for those children. When I was a practising lawyer in the jurisdiction of family law, I saw many people in very difficult circumstances in what we used to call child custody cases. There were some terrible, terrible cases of children whose dental health had been neglected by their parents, sadly—it was abuse, neglect and, almost, family violence, what had happened in those cases. Those parents, and sometimes grandparents, brought applications in the Family Court or the Federal Magistrates Court seeking parenting orders. I recall specifically one case that I dealt with in Bundaberg in relation to this where the child's teeth had to be entirely taken out. It was awful because of that. I was acting, actually, for the grandparents. The parents were suffering and had very little access to money and very few parenting skills, but it was a horrible case, and I saw many of those types of cases in my time as a lawyer.

We need to do more to help parents to care for their children. But we also need to fund these services better. Better oral health care for children results not just in a good outcome for their physical wellbeing but also a good outcome for the general community and the economy, because children who care for their teeth are less likely to have serious health problems later on in life, are more likely to have greater confidence in themselves and higher self-esteem, and are more likely to get good educational outcomes and good jobs and to contribute to community life.

This is an investment in the future. It is a good package that will have good outcomes. And for Queensland this is a fantastic outcome. We have seen the dental waiting-list money from the budget: $67.3 million in additional funding and for public clinics now for low-income adults, $249.4 million. We are seeing great outcomes from this government in terms of the health of our country—opposed, always, by those opposite. (Time expired)