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Monday, 16 June 2008
Page: 4885

Mrs GASH (6:01 PM) —I rise to speak on the Dental Benefits Bill 2008 and cognate bill. It is no secret that I have been very outspoken about dental care and that the Labor Party went to great lengths to try and embarrass me because of my passion and outspokenness on this very emotive issue for so many in Gilmore. Ever since being elected in 1996 to represent the electorate of Gilmore, constituents with issues to do with accessing public dental services have featured prominently in my work—and little wonder: Gilmore has a higher than national average population of aged persons, has a low socioeconomic demographic and is in a regional-rural area. It has been shown that the significance of those statistics under a Labor government is that the people of Gilmore get the short straw when it comes to government services. The public dental service is no different, and I use the word ‘service’ loosely, because only one word can aptly describe the product that the NSW government delivers: abysmal.

Without a doubt, when it comes to teeth, pets are better looked after than our pensioners. Waiting for four years for a fundamental dental service is the norm. One woman I know—in fact, more than one—had been waiting over seven years. Finally she was accepted under the coalition plan, and what happened? Half of her work had been done when this Labor government axed our program overnight. That is right; she could not have her dental work completed. How cruel and mean can you get?

Aside from the pain of bad teeth, there are other, accompanying medical problems. Ever since I was elected, the then Carr Labor government and now the Iemma Labor government have ignored the problem. Not only have they ignored it but, as the howls of protest rose, they started to blame the federal government. ‘It was all their fault,’ they said. ‘They cut the Commonwealth dental services.’ What the spin plainly failed to do was explain that the Commonwealth had met its obligations under the funding agreement and it was actually the Labor government that was failing to meet its recurring cost obligations. But let us give credit where credit is due. The Carr government and its successor were the experts of spin, not so much by what they said but through what they omitted. It is almost comical to see that constant negative spin, that propaganda, that we had so become used to suddenly dry up as soon as their Labor colleagues took power in the federal arena. Suddenly, it is not the federal government’s fault—but it is still the coalition’s fault.

Even the Minister for Health and Ageing, in her second reading speech, could not resist the temptation to put the boot in, saying that the ‘dire state’ of the state government’s public dental service ‘should be laid at the feet of the Howard government’. What a load of bollocks. She believes her own propaganda. The dire crisis that she speaks of was brought about by the failure of successive state Labor governments to invest in vital services. In fact, it was the Howard government that stepped in to help them out. Now the list of those waiting for dental care is chronically long, excessive by even Western world standards, but they cannot even find enough dental practitioners to serve in the public dental system. It is pathetic. Yet, despite the obvious, the states continued to carp that it was all the federal government’s fault—at least up until 24 November last year, when they suddenly fell silent. The neglect that the New South Wales government have engaged in since 1995 is a travesty and they should hang their heads in shame. So for the minister to suggest that the previous Commonwealth Dental Health Program is the villain is specious in the extreme.

Further into her speech, the minister said 50,000 people end up in hospital each year as a direct result of unattended dental problems. If that is the case and you know that, and you state that as a fact, then why on earth did you dismantle the coalition government’s Medicare dental scheme which, even in its relatively short life, proved so immensely popular? Why on earth did you introduce such an inferior scheme as this bill represents? You acknowledge publicly the state of affairs amongst the poorest and neediest is alarming. They are our pensioners, and they are part of the 50,000 waiting—not the younger generation. And, to correct the member for Shortland, they are the very people you said could not access the program; how wrong you are. Yet you have done nothing to help them. They are worse off under your scheme than they were seven months ago. Sixteen thousand Australians accessed the treatment they required under our scheme in just three months, yet you have chopped the funding that brought much needed relief and that at that stage allocated $4,260 to be paid by Medicare to each and every person over two years. Instead you have given the matter back to the states, who created this mess in the first place.

As commendable as it may be to provide preventive dental treatment for our young people, that is not the priority, even by your own admission. The Australian Dental Association and the Association for the Promotion of Oral Health have both indicated their disappointment with the government’s plans. Both organisations are concerned about the lack of follow-up money for the treatment of teen dental problems and about the potential for longer waiting lists as a result of both teens requiring treatment and the cancellation of the coalition program.

But it is the poor who are the neediest. They are our pensioners and older citizens, of whom the electorate of Gilmore has such a disproportionately high number. Even during the election campaign Mr Rudd promised a Teen Dental Plan with funding of $510 million over three years yet failed once again to recognise our older population of pensioners and self-funded retirees. In the budget, this program was cut to $490 million over five years, and it still failed to include funding for follow-up treatment. All it does is provide a $150 voucher to a dentist, if you are lucky enough to find a dentist. The Medicare dental plan announced by the Howard government in 2007 was a $384.6 million plan providing care for people with chronic and complex conditions. The $200 million offered by Mr Rudd will not meet the demand for services.

As it is, in New South Wales alone there are over 160,000 people waiting for dental services and they have been waiting a long, long time. The NSW government recognises this, because apparently NSW Health has recently taken to writing to all those on the waiting list to ask them if they would opt out of the queue. It is shocking but true. I have seen the letter and I think this approach is deplorable. It is the NSW government rolling over and giving up. If the NSW government has taken the desperate measure of ‘inviting’ people off the waiting lists—and these lists are chronic and growing—what is Mr Rudd’s paltry alternative going to achieve? I will tell you: a small blip, a tiny and momentary reversal, just in time for his much threatened early election around the end of next year. Mr Rudd is simply putting in place measures to make sure potential embarrassments are swept under the carpet. It has nothing to do with the noble ideals he is espousing; it is all about timely housekeeping.

Politics is very much like show business—it is all in the timing, and this bill is transparently political. It has got little to do with the welfare of the poor and needy and much to do with securing a second term. So, when I read the minister’s second reading speech and the effusive back patting in the summary, and when I look at how much seniors did not get out of the budget, I cannot help but think—to paraphrase the Leader of the Opposition—it is ‘Mr Iemma comes to Canberra’.

Given the fact that Labor has chopped the coalition program and introduced a second-rate model, I really have no option but to support this bill, as pathetic as it is. The elderly in Gilmore have been suffering long enough under the failed NSW Labor regime, and even the small gesture contained in this bill has to be accepted. But I do so reluctantly and I hope that the paltry $290 million is used where it matters and is not diluted by being used to fund self-promoting advertising, which is the favoured hallmark of the Iemma and Rudd Labor governments.

This comes down to common sense. The coalition government delivered a program to bring relief to those with chronic dental care needs. The program has been unceremoniously axed by the Rudd Labor government. In its place they have put a grab bag of programs that leave many of those who would have received treatment under the coalition plan out in the cold—with dental work half completed in some instances. The people of Australia and Gilmore deserve better.