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Wednesday, 19 September 2012
Page: 11285

Mr LYONS (Bass) (17:41): I am proud to stand here today to support the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2012. In fact, it is one of the most important bills to be introduced in this place this year as it is going to improve the lives of many Australians by assisting them with dental care. The bill, once enacted, will commence on 1 July 2014. The bill amends the Dental Benefits Act 2008 to set up the legislative framework for a child dental benefits schedule, which forms part of the government's $4.1 billion dental reform package which Minister Plibersek—and what a fine minister for health she is—announced on 29 August 2012. The Child Dental Benefits Schedule will replace the Medicare Teen Dental Plan from 1 July 2014. This bill will mean that, for three million children, going to the dentist will be just like seeing a GP. This is a landmark achievement for this government.

Going to the dentist is something many families cannot afford. We, the Gillard Labor government, are doing something about that. Unlike those sitting opposite, we are in tune with the community. We have listened to concerns of parents around the country and we are making it more affordable to access good dental care. Some 3.4 million children whose families get family tax benefit part A, Abstudy, carer payment, disability support pension, parenting payment, special benefits, youth allowance, double orphan pension, the Veterans' Children's Education Scheme payment or the Military Rehabilitation and Compensation Act Education and Training Scheme payment will qualify for the new scheme Dental for Kids.

Families will be entitled to $1,000 per child every two years over the life of the package. I note that parents will be able to take their children to either private or public dental services to access this program, which is fantastic. This is an investment in prevention because we know that our oral health as children is the best predicator of oral health as adults. As I have said in this place many times, the only way to save money in health is to do things right and to do them early. This scheme is a great example of this. In addition to dental for kids, the dental reform package will provide extra funding for 1.4 million additional services for adults on low incomes, including pensioners and concession card holders and those with special needs, to have better access to dental health care in the public system. These measures will be very welcome in my electorate of Bass, I am sure.

Importantly, it will mean more services and more dentists in areas of most need outside capital cities and large regional centres like my electorate of Bass. The package comes on top of $515 million in the last budget, which included a blitz on public dental waiting lists. This package is badly needed. The oral health of children has been declining since the mid-1990s and we know that almost 20,000 kids under the age of 10 are hospitalised each year due to avoidable dental issues. That figure is truly shocking. By age 15, six out of 10 kids have tooth decay.

Untreated decay and fillings are similar across income ranges but, if you earn more than $60,000 a year, you have on average seven more teeth than Australia's poorest—45.1 per cent of 12-year-olds had decay in their permanent teeth. Recent studies show that children in the poorest areas of the country experience 1½ times the amount of tooth decay and cavities experienced by those in the wealthiest areas. We know that the number of family members with untreated tooth decay in low-income households is more than double the number in high-income households. Let us hope that soon these statistics are a thing of the past.

Around 400,000 languish on public dental waiting lists. Millions of people go without adequate dental care. We have listened and we are acting. This plan will kick off at the end of next year, just 15 months away. The measures announced in the 2012-13 budget are already underway, which is great. Labor believe we have a responsibility to ensure that all Australians are at least able to afford to go to a dentist and, in particular, that children should be given access to government subsidised oral health care. States and territories provide dental care for children and adults. However, eligibility for these services is not the same in every state.

Dental for kids will provide access to dental services for many who are not currently entitled to access public dental services. Dental for kids also means parents can decide whether they want to take their kids to public dental clinics or to their own local dentist. It is important to note that this $4 billion package is contingent on the states and territories continuing to fund dental care at or above their current level of spending. State and territory services will continue to operate as they do now. However, the federal government will now pay for many of these services. Public dental services will not be able to charge any copayment for services funded by the Commonwealth. This in turn will allow states and territories to direct more spending to services for low-income adults, which is an area of great need. What is important to note is that this package strikes a balance between improved services for low-income cardholders and new investment in preventive dental work. The investment in children's dental care is an investment in their dental needs as adults and will ensure that the oral health of each generation is better than the last generation's.

The government has a proven track record in finding savings in budgets to deliver on our priorities and still return the budget to surplus. We found $33 billion of savings in the last budget and over $100 billion in the budgets before that. That has allowed us to deliver on our priorities in public health, paid parental leave, aged-care reform, mental health reform and the biggest pension increase in our nation's history. We have got one of the strongest economies in the developed world, with stronger growth and lower interest rates under this government's stronger economic management. But we are also managing the economy in the interests of working Australians by keeping people in jobs and delivering important reforms like this dental reform.

The Liberals said no to Medicare, they said no to national health reforms and they said no to public hospital funding, slashing billions from basic hospital care. As John Howard's health minister, the member for Warringah, the Hon. Tony Abbott, increased out-of-pocket expenses by 50 per cent, put in place a poorly targeted dental scheme that now costs Australia's $1 billion each year and froze GP training places, leaving six in 10 Australians living in suburbs and towns without enough doctors. What I want to say to those opposite is that saying no has real consequences. It risks the health of millions of Australians by increasing medical costs and closing hospitals and community health centres.

The opposition continued to support the rorted Chronic Disease Dental Scheme instead of backing fair and sensible reform of dental policy, including almost $2 billion for low-income adults and a blitz on public dental waiting lists. The Minister for Health yesterday released a statement regarding our dental plans. She pointed out that the member for Warringah's rorted dental scheme was supposed to cost $90 million a year but ended up costing $80 million a month. He introduced the scheme in the final days of the Howard government. The scheme handed millionaires more than $4,000 each but ignored children of low-income Australians who simply had bad teeth. More than 1,000 complaints were made about the scheme, including complaints about dentures that did not fit; amalgam fillings being swapped for porcelain fillings; unnecessary cosmetic work being done; and charging for work that never happened.

Labor's new investment in dental care began with a budget allocation of $515.3 million and was followed by a commitment of $4.1 billion in August. This is in stark contrast to the Liberals' track record on dental care policy. The Liberals have said no to every major health reform. But they said yes to tobacco donations, collecting more than $1.9 million in donations from big tobacco companies since 2004 and benefiting from $16 million of anti-Labor tobacco ads and political lobbying.

Only Labor has a plan to help families with the cost of living and build a stronger economy by spreading the benefits of the mining boom. Working families are worried about the cost of living—electricity, rents, school uniforms and groceries. Even a simple family outing feels like it is beyond the reach of some. That is why Labor has put in place a package of measures to help people make ends meet. This dental package is a great example of that. We have an outstanding record of significant achievement secured in the most closely divided parliament in decades. Our economy is healthy and growing; it is the envy of the world's advanced economies. We are bringing the budget into surplus. We are working with business to drive gains in productivity. We have cut taxes, delivered pension benefits, increased super, started a massive skills program, initiated new programs for disabled Australians and developed sweeping aged-care reforms. We are bringing 21st century broadband to all households and we are tackling global warming and moving to a clean energy future.

In other words, the Gillard Labor government is getting important things done, and it will continue to do so. As a government we have made choices. We stand for supporting working Australians with a package of policies that helps them get through, giving working people a fair share of the resources boom and making the hard decisions that will build a new Australian economy and get us ready for the future.

The Liberals always put vested interests ahead of the needs of the community or ahead of working Australians—on the mining tax, on increasing superannuation for workers and on making big polluters pay for their carbon emissions. They put headlines before hard work, politics before principle.

We are repairing the 10 years of waste and neglect of our health and dental system inherited from the Howard government. This is a building block that will improve the lives of many. Improving the living standards of this generation and future generations means that we are making the right decisions now. I urge all members of the House to support this legislation.