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Monday, 16 June 2008
Page: 4813

Mr GEORGANAS (12:30 PM) —I rise to speak on the Dental Benefits Bill 2008 and the Dental Benefits (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008, but before I do I would like to make some comments on the contribution of the member for North Sydney. We too could sit here and not tackle the big problems and not tackle health. We too could sit here, wipe our hands of issues, blame the states and play the blame game, as we saw for 11 long years. During those 11 long years we saw that one of the first acts of the Howard government when they came to power in 1996 was to axe the existing Commonwealth dental scheme. At the time, the Keating government was putting $100 million per year into the states and into the Commonwealth dental scheme. The very first act of the Liberal conservative government of 1996 under the leadership of John Howard was to axe that scheme that ensured that Australians were getting the dental care that they deserved. Even today, we see, from the bowels and the depths of opposition, the opposition continuing to play the same game that they played in government. They continue to wipe their hands and they continue to blame the states at every opportunity instead of looking towards the future of Australia and tackling the problems that we have, like health. For 11 years we have seen this area disregarded.

We know that these bills are the first step in delivering on our election promise—our commitment to improve the important area of dental health. This first step is the establishment of the Teen Dental Plan and the Commonwealth Dental Health Program, which will improve dental health by providing additional funding to the states and territories to reduce public dental waiting lists. We are just not sitting and blaming the states for the increasing list of 650,000 people around our nation who are waiting for some form of dental care. For example, in my electorate there are over 25,000 people aged 65 and over. The majority of them are on a Commonwealth pension. Many of these people need dental care and have been on waiting lists for two, three or four years. In the last four years since I was the elected member for Hindmarsh, I have regularly seen constituents in my office and heard horror stories of their not being able to eat their food because their dentures did not fit and of waiting for years to get their first appointment.

We also have in the electorate of Hindmarsh over 7,000 teens, some of whom will be able to benefit from this teen dental health plan. From 1 July 2008, the government will provide up to $150 per eligible teenager towards an annual preventive check-up. That is $150 more than the opposition’s policy or the former government’s policy for those teenagers. Under their policy, those people received nothing unless they had a chronic illness or disease. That $150 annual preventive check-up is for teenagers aged between 12 and 17 years in families receiving family tax benefit part A and teenagers in the same age group receiving youth allowance or Abstudy. The government’s dental program is specifically tailored to assist families who are struggling with the cost of taking their children for dental check-ups. We understand that these new dental programs have to assist those in the most financial need. Those dental check-ups at those early stages will prevent the costs from ballooning out. For the last 11 years there have been no check-ups for those people who cannot afford it; therefore, gum disease and dental diseases have become more severe and more costly to treat.

These new measures will cost $490.7 million over five years. There is an extra $290 million over three years for the reintroduction of a Commonwealth dental health program—a total of $780 million to ensure that Australia’s dental needs are met and that the waiting list of 650,000 people is reduced. The former Howard government cut over $1 billion in dental care from the state and territory governments. As I said earlier, $100 million was lost to dental health per year—year after year after year—for 11 years. That money was there under the Commonwealth dental scheme and was the real money that was taken out of dental care which caused those lists to balloon out to 700,000, or 750,000 in some cases, over the last 11 years. We all know what the former government’s attitude to dental health was. All of us who are now on this side of the House made speeches when we were on the other side. We continually asked questions about this very important issue. We are all too familiar with the wanton disregard it exhibited towards the Australian population’s capacity to maintain dental health and thereby maintain their ability to eat properly and ensure that their health was in check. We all remember too well the Howard government’s callous and almost spiteful rejection of any suggestion that the former government should make a real contribution to dental health in Australia, as it was obliged to do under section 51 of the Australian Constitution. If you read that section of the Constitution, it is quite clear that dental health is the responsibility of the Commonwealth. The former government was very spiteful and callous in this particular area over those 11 years. As I said, questions were asked in those days only to have the government members at the time wipe their hands and say, ‘Nothing to do with us—it’s a state issue; speak to your state mates.’ They were the answers we were consistently getting until some stage in 2007 when the Howard government finally woke up and realised that there was a problem in this area. It put together a policy which did not even get close to the reality of this area. The policy was that you had to have a chronic illness before you would even be looked at. There were 650,000 Australians waiting on the dental care list, the majority of them pensioners who did not have illnesses; they were just pensioners who wanted dentures or needed some form of dental care.

The Howard government pretended to be the best mates of senior Australians, but we all know that was not the case. They denied them even the recognition that their dental health was an issue that they as a federal government should have been concerned with. Instead, we saw the blame game and again for every question that was asked, every time the issue was raised, the message was clear: ‘Don’t look at us. We have nothing to do with this. This is a state issue.’ This was instead of tackling the issues as a federal government that has been put there by the Australian people should have been doing. Of all the evidence that exists of the former government’s disregard for senior Australians, their belligerent refusal—in this place and in the media—to acknowledge their responsibility in the field of dental health surely must be at the top of the list.

The area of dental health typifies the previous government’s approach to federalism. Their approach was simple and that was to blame the states. Whatever the federal government may have as their priorities, whatever health outcomes they may desire, they were always too ready to simply brush any dust from their hands and walk away without so much as a second glance. This is one area that the previous government got very seriously wrong where their natural inclination to curl up into a little ball and pretend no-one could see them was noticeably harmful to their public perception.

I have to say that the good people of Hindmarsh certainly made this point to me over three years. I have probably said this in this place before but, of all of the surveys and invitations for people to comment that I extended throughout my electorate over the years, there has probably been no one issue that demonstrated an intensity of feeling, a uniformity of opinion, and a very real substantial and immediate need than the issue of dental care, especially among the older residents of Hindmarsh, of which there are many.

I would like to draw your attention to the story of a constituent of mine who was interviewed by a weekly newspaper earlier last year. In the article dated 10 June 2007 titled ‘Forced to be a DIY dentist’, we read of the story of a retired toolmaker, a gentleman who worked all his life, paid all his taxes, supported his family and now, in retirement on a pension, looks to living his life with his wife in peace and dignity. We read of his shrinking gums and his misfitting dentures and how he had to wait over two years to get the dentures professionally adjusted. We read of his ongoing battle day after day to do that which each of us here takes for granted—that is, to eat. As the dentures did not properly fit, they kept on slipping within his mouth, causing ulcers. So, as the story unfolds, we read of this gentleman’s desperation building to the point that he felt he was forced to take matters into his own hands. He took his dentures and set to work on them himself with files and abrasive paper in the hope that he would be able to manipulate the plastic to the point that they actually fit well enough for them to be useful and enable him to chew food. This was a pensioner in my electorate. He was not covered by any policy that the former government had because he did not have a chronic illness but nevertheless his health was subjected to horrors because of this.

Some may say that this story, even as I have been giving an account of it here, is pulling at heartstrings and not a serious matter of public policy. I disagree. Older Australians, especially those who we all represent within our electorates and certainly the ones that I represent in Adelaide’s western suburbs, do not take their own dental care lightly. They do not laugh off their rotting teeth and focus on what people opposite may consider serious issues. They do not take kindly to being taken for granted, dismissed and having their concerns trivialised. They do not react favourably to those who simply will not listen to their concerns, understand their needs and develop appropriate policy in response.

We have been speaking here about the Rudd Labor government’s commitment to dental care made in the lead-up to the 2007 general election and the fulfilment of that commitment. We have been speaking about the $780 million investment over five years into the dental health of a nation, which will include people like the pensioner who I just spoke about. We have been speaking about the 650,000 people who have been on waiting lists around the country for an inordinate length of time. Of these 650,000, by far the majority are our older Australians—those who, in many cases, may have worked all their lives, paid their taxes and fought in the war, and as governments we have an absolute responsibility to ensure that we provide them with adequate health care and part of that is a dental scheme.

With these bills, the Rudd Labor government makes good on its election commitment. It makes good on the commitment and the promises we made before the election to give 1.1 million teenagers dental check-ups each year and improve the dental health of seniors in a more effective and timely manner than Australians have seen for over a decade. This Rudd Labor government is looking after the interests of all Australians.

Just last weekend in the suburb of Flinders Park I was holding a series of street corner meetings where I meet people in my electorate. Of all the things that people commented on, the one topic they were most pleased about was the Rudd Labor government’s actions in relation to having, for example, seniors concessions for public transport and the like recognised by states. Previously, when seniors visited a different state their concession card was not acknowledged. This is just another area where Labor have heard what seniors have been saying and have acted upon it. It is an area where we have looked at federalism and instead of wiping our hands and saying, ‘It’s got nothing to do with us,’ we have actually acted upon it and ensured we have made a better policy for Australia.

For 11 years we heard silence from the other side on this issue. Continuously in this House the then opposition would ask questions about dental care, about what the government were doing and about whether they were tackling the list of 650,000 people who were waiting—suffering with pain through bad dental hygiene. Every time it was raised, again, we had the blame game. That is all we heard. Again and again they reverted to that. Even with them in opposition today we hear that the blame game still exists. There is hardly any policy, but the blame game still exists. It seems to be one of the policies that have survived over time, and I assume we will continue to see it. For example, in a question in writing on 13 June 2006—nearly two years to the day—the then Minister for Health and Ageing, Mr Abbott, was asked:

... will the Government reinstate the Commonwealth Dental Scheme, or introduce a comparable scheme ...

His reply was that, no, the Commonwealth had no responsibility. He blamed the states and then continued by saying that plans to assume extra responsibility in this area were zilch. That was his answer: ‘No, no way’. And we heard that time and time again. They wiped their hands and walked away from it.

Today we see the opposition have the audacity to come in here and try and lecture the government on dental care. We constantly raised the issue of dental care in opposition—constantly. Day in and day out, in my three-year term, I must have made dozens of speeches on it. And constantly we heard the same answer. The answer was always: ‘No. It is not our issue. We wipe our hands. It is not our responsibility.’ Then they would go on and we would again hear more blaming of the states. As I said, even today from the bowels of opposition, we hear the same engagement in the blame game instead of working together with the states and ensuring that we work hand-in-hand and complement one another in all ways wherever we can, especially in areas where the most vulnerable are in need. And this is an area where the most vulnerable are in need. Dental care is a very important area.

The difference between the former government’s policy and our policy is that our policy, the $290 million policy, will give one million people who would not have seen a dentist under their policy the ability to see one. That is the difference. I do not know how you can have a go at that, when you have a million people who otherwise would not be seeing a dentist. There is a change of government. There is a new policy. And now those same million people will be able to see a dentist. I cannot see how that is a bad thing—those one million people would otherwise not have the ability to see their dentist. The former government’s policy was for people with chronic illnesses only. So if your grandmother, who is aged in her 90s, needed new dentures but did not have a chronic illness, she had zilch hope of seeing a dentist. She would not have been able to access the scheme. That was the former government’s policy.

Numbers are easy; we can all count. Again, I go back to the one million people who will be receiving treatment under our policy. Under the former government’s policy there was no treatment. So this policy means that there will be more consultations compared to the previous policy, under which very few people met the criteria and were able to gain access. What we on this side of the House are doing in government is ensuring a modern health system for a modern Australia. We need to ensure that we have reforms in place. The former government continuously, for 11 years, refused any form of reform to health. They were not interested in any sort of reform. And it gives me great pleasure to speak today on the many initiatives that this new government is putting in place to ensure that the most vulnerable Australians have adequate access to health care, such as the Commonwealth Dental Health Program. It is so important to Australians’ wellbeing and to their good health.

This Labor government recognises the need for greater investment in and reforms of Australia’s health system. That is why we are doing what we are with this bill, which is injecting $780 million to ensure that people’s dental needs are met and that the waiting list of 650,000 is reduced. Over the last decade, we saw the amount of Commonwealth investment in health services drop by $1 billion, if you consider the $100 million that was going into the Commonwealth dental scheme every year. I am very pleased that we have reversed the first act of the Howard government, which was to get rid of the Commonwealth dental health scheme. We have reversed that and will be introducing it and ensuring that people get the care that they need.