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Monday, 16 June 2008
Page: 4910

Mr PERRETT (7:57 PM) —If you go up to level 1 of Parliament House, you will find a couple of acts up there that precede the Federation of Australia. They are dated July 1900. There are two original copies of them on display up there. Schoolkids look at them. It might be interesting for some of the people opposite to go and have a look at them, because it is a copy of our Constitution as an act passed by the British parliament.

Mr Haase interjecting

Mr PERRETT —There are two copies up there at the moment, actually, if you go and have a look.

Mr Haase —Person, not people. There is only one here.

Mr PERRETT —Sorry, I should have said ‘person’. The opposition should go and have a look at these acts, because the copies of the Constitution do not have any blood on them. There are no great tear stains on them, because obviously Australia was born out of an act of the British parliament, not the revolutions of some of the other places around the world—even democratic countries around the world.

The Constitution is obviously a difficult document to amend. I have my copy of the Constitution here. Section 51 says:

The Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to:

…            …            …

(xxiiiA.) The provision of maternity allowances, widows' pensions, child endowment, unemployment, pharmaceutical, sickness and hospital benefits, medical and dental services ...

Section xxiiiA was obviously an amendment. It came in after a referendum on 28 September 1946. Actually three referendum questions were put. Two of them were rejected. The one that got up was this one that amended the Constitution, which is not an easy thing to do—only eight out of 44 referenda have actually passed. It is a very difficult document to change, but this question did get up, even though the two alongside were rejected. Just for the benefit of the member for Kalgoorlie I will point out that 62.26 per cent of Western Australians actually voted for that amendment. That was the highest percentage in all of Australia. I know that Western Australians have a strange history when it comes to voting on referenda, but on this occasion 62.26 per cent of Western Australians said, ‘We want that amendment. We’re in favour of that amendment for the Commonwealth to look after dental services.’

It is my understanding that there was actually a joint ticket sponsorship of that amendment to the Constitution by Ben Chifley and Bob Menzies. The proposal that was put to the Australian people has been sitting there since 28 September 1946. The Constitution is very difficult to change. Unfortunately, one of the Howard government’s first acts when it came to power was to rip the funding out of public dental services. I am sure Bob Menzies would turn in his grave at such an act. It was one of the first things that the Howard government did.

In 1996 the coalition axed $100 million of dental funding to the states. In my home state of Queensland—which, Mr Deputy Speaker Scott, is something you hold close to your heart—our share was $20 million a year, which would relieve a lot of people’s misery. In today’s dollars the funding shortfall is more than double that. Mr Deputy Speaker, as you know, I grew up in a town in the bush, St George. The dentist where I grew up in St George was Steve Logan, who was a great dentist. He did a lot of great things for the community—I could certainly tell you a few tales about him because I am good friends with his sons—but now in St George they cannot recruit a dentist. Why is that so? Not surprisingly, when a federal government rips $100 million out of public dental services, there are fewer dentists and fewer dental services. It is not hard to see the results of removing $100 million from a public scheme. This was the trigger that set off the decay of the public dental system throughout Australia, and unfortunately Australians have since then had to reap the benefits of that horrendous decision.

On top of that, the coalition government failed to train enough dentists through our universities. The previous speaker, the member for Charlton, mentioned the new dental school in Cairns and the speaker before that mentioned the dental school in Orange, but obviously these measures are too little, too late in terms of addressing the problem. Those dentists will not be opening mouths to provide relief for years to come—until 2014, 2015 or 2016—and that does not help the people who are suffering from a toothache now.

In Queensland we have just 0.58 dentists for every 1,000 people, and I know other states are in a similar situation. In fact, I can relate to that. After eating a bit of Cadbury fruit and nut chocolate on Sunday I lost a filling, so I had to call my dentist this morning. I am in an inner-city electorate, which is well serviced in terms of dentists, but I cannot see a dentist before the end of July, and that is for someone who is on a decent wage and has private health cover. So obviously there are a lot of other places around Queensland, and I am sure it is the same in Western Australia, where the dental queues are growing longer and longer. It has got to the point in some areas around the country where public dental patients have no realistic expectation of receiving non-emergency dental treatment, and this has occurred within a decade.

The reality is that some people simply cannot afford private dental treatment. Their only option is to wait for their condition to get so bad that they need emergency treatment. I have seen those queues. The electorate of Moreton has a couple of facilities—including QEII hospital. If you go there in the morning, you will see the queue of people lined up in the order in which they arrived at the door of QEII hospital. It is staggering to see the pain that people are in, and people let them move further up the row in the hope that they do not have to go home untreated at the end of the day. This is a shameful legacy for the opposition to have to their name.

It is simply not sustainable to have dental queues increasing out of control. It is also unthinkable that some people are forced to suffer pain because they cannot get access to a public dentist. That is why the Rudd government made a commitment to restore funding for public dental services. The Dental Benefits Bill 2008 and the Dental Benefits (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008 offer a two-pronged approach to improving dental services around the country. They include $490 million for the Teen Dental Plan and $290 million for the Commonwealth Dental Health Program. In all, it is a massive investment in improving the oral health of all Australians, providing $780 million over five years.

The Teen Dental Plan is about ensuring our young people enter adulthood with healthy teeth. Certainly, having been a schoolteacher in a former life, I know how sensitive young people are about their teeth and how it can affect for life if they have problems with their teeth, both socially and obviously health wise, which earlier speakers have addressed. The Teen Dental Plan provides $150 a year towards an annual preventive dental check-up for eligible teenagers aged 12 to 17 years, so that they start a relationship with their dentists. The dental benefit will be available to families receiving family tax benefit part A. In other words, this measure is about helping those who need it most.

I have certainly had dealings with Mike Foley, former President of the  ADAQ, the dental authority. He has talked about the horrible situation in the mouths he has had to look into, and you realise how dental care is a social justice issue, certainly in Queensland, a non-fluoridated state. This is about to change and I commend the health minister and the Premier on that initiative. The Teen Dental Plan will include an oral examination and, where required, X-rays, scale and clean, and other preventive services. This is a program that will benefit more than one million teenagers every year. This bill will also set up an appropriate framework for payment of dental benefits under a new dental benefits schedule. It is similar to the MBS, but it is means-tested and specifically targeted to teenagers. As part of the framework, Centrelink and Medicare will be able to exchange information so that vouchers can be distributed to eligible families and teenagers.

This bill also establishes the Commonwealth Dental Health Program to restore funding to the states and territories to reduce public dental waiting lists. I am thankful that it will avert a lot of misery. Through this program, state and territory governments will be able to provide up to one million additional dental consultations and treatments to help clear public dental waiting lists around the country. As I stated earlier, the $100 million ripped out in 1996 is a significant amount of money. Combined with the attacks on universities, obviously no-one opposite should be surprised that there are fewer dentists, which means longer waiting lists. So let us make Ben Chifley proud and let us make Bob Menzies proud. I commend the bill to the House.