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Tuesday, 17 June 2008
Page: 5072


Mr SIMPKINS (7:02 PM) —I rise to speak on the federal government’s Dental Benefits Bill 2008 and Dental Benefits (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008. Before moving into this bill, I need to state what the government says this bill will do. The explanatory memorandum says:

From 1 July 2008, the Government will provide up to $150 per eligible teenager towards an annual preventative check for teenagers aged 12-17 years in families receiving Family Tax Benefit Part A ... and teenagers in the same age group receiving Youth Allowance or Abstudy.

Let us not beat around the bush here: $150 vouchers to tell young people and their parents that they need more work done—that is all it is. I heard earlier today that a classic check-up will be well in excess of $150. At least this initiative will offset that cost. To use one of the Prime Minister’s favourite script lines, I find it amazing that when the government talks about these vouchers it can do so as if this is something new. I draw upon a webpage titled ‘Dental health’ from the WA Department of Health site. There is actually a section about the school dental service which says:

Free basic dental care is provided to all school children from pre-primary to year 11 ...

I find it amazing that the Rudd government is providing $150 vouchers to school students who are already entitled to the state provided basic dental care. When I saw that line on the website, I thought, ‘Okay, parents can then use the voucher to offset the cost of a filling or other work identified through the state government provided basic dental care.’ But no, the explanatory memorandum clearly covers that:

... the Government will provide up to $150 per eligible teenager towards an annual preventative check for teenagers aged 12-17 years in families receiving Family Tax Benefit Part A ...

It does not look like there is much flexibility there. A person just listening to the headlines or the announcements could very easily believe that dental care was being provided by the government to teenagers, and people in the suburbs of Cowan, and across Australia, would say that getting a filling is a basic part of dental care—a filling is an integral element of going to the dentist. That is what Australians tell me. So, when this bill is put up as some kind of comprehensive dental strategy, some grand initiative, I question it, and the people of Australia will question the hype and the spin that will not match the reality. This bill—this illusion—will bitterly disappoint Australian families, who were provided with great expectation only to have their hopes dashed.

In Cowan, although clearly a majority of voters supported me and my side of politics in the election, I remember very clearly a conversation I had with a young man in Ashby during the campaign. This young man told me that he was a student and that he had severe dental problems. I recall he was 21 or 22 years of age and at university. He told me that he was going to vote for Labor because they had promised a national health plan. He said to me that he did not have health insurance and could not afford to get his teeth fixed. He was confident in the future and supported the Labor Party because they were going to bring in ‘free dental care’ for everyone. That was one vote that the Labor Party took from me in Cowan, but I recommend to the government that it not rely on him next time. Expectations were built up so very high, but the harsh reality is that he is too old for his check-up, and even the check-up would not have fixed the severe problems he had.

The harsh reality is that this bill comes at the cost of the demise of the coalition’s dental program, under which chronic and complex dental problems attracted Medicare support over two years up to the value of $4,250. That program, between 1 November 2007 and 30 April this year, provided 311,943 services to Australians suffering from chronic and acute dental problems. The government want that all gone and would prefer to point to the savings derived from the pain and misery of Australians with those sorts of severe problems. Again, this is a terrible illusion of action, where the government attempt to persuade parents that they will achieve something new while marginalising those with acute and chronic problems. Yes, there are more teenagers in Australia than there are sufferers of acute and chronic problems, so I suppose the Rudd government did their sums and identified that more votes would be available by the perception of action with teenagers than actual action for those with major dental problems. I say it again: there is a harsh reality coming for parents of teenagers if they believe the smoke and mirrors show of the government, and there is a harsher reality for the government which, after creating the strong perceptions of action on housing, transport and food costs, have also failed in this bill to bridge the gap between perception and reality.

Perhaps it is best to go back to some basic economic theory to address the great problems with rising dental costs to the consumer in Australia. The reality is that of supply and demand. For instance, in this country, only around 10 per cent of dentists work in the state systems, and this is a key point. Where, then, are the initiatives to increase the supply of dentists and staff in the state systems? I cannot find anything in this bill. All we have is the Rudd government saying that they would negotiate with the states and territories to ensure patients with chronic conditions have access to treatment. It is fine to have an intention but, without any supporting funding in the budget or forward estimates, this statement by the government is nothing more than a glib one-liner, a smokescreen that seeks to deflect close scrutiny of this facade of a bill which is nothing more than a hollow impression of action, which is sadly consistent with the modus operandi of a government addicted to spin.

I mentioned before that the government of Western Australia already has a standing commitment to school dental services. These are provided through school dental clinics and mobile dental vans. A few weeks ago I received an email from the Parents and Citizens Association of a primary school in Woodvale within my electorate of Cowan. I will not name the person who sent it to me as I have learnt that there are some occasions on which principals and sometimes even members of P&Cs get counselled by representatives of the state government after contacting them, but I will read the email. It says:

On behalf of the P&C association—

it did name the school but I have taken that out—

I would like to voice our concern about the possible closure of our ... school dental clinic at Craigie Heights Primary School.

That supports the school in question here. It goes on:

It has come to our attention that the clinics are understaffed and lacking in modern equipment. With the clinics being understaffed there is a waiting list of up to 6 months at Craigie and some other clinics are 41 months.

We feel that if these clinics are forced to close then families will feel the financial burden of attending a private dental clinic with some children not receiving any dental care at all. It will also mean a loss of jobs.

This is a school with primary school students who are not covered under the government’s plan. The state of Western Australia says that they provide these services. Unfortunately, they are failing and the closure of the clinic at Craigie Heights Primary School in the electorate of Moore, which serves schools in Cowan, is evidence of this fact. It is therefore important to question the Rudd federal government’s mantra of ‘ending the blame game’, because in the end who is responsible? The service must be delivered. The states have failed and this bill has not addressed this problem, which is having a great impact on Cowan and Australian families.

For those who might say, ‘Well, the suburb of Woodvale is a pretty well-off area; perhaps they don’t need clinics as much as other places,’ I would say that Woodvale is no beachside suburb of Perth; there are no million dollar houses in Woodvale. Woodvale families have to buy petrol, they have to buy groceries and they have to pay housing costs, as do the majority of Australians. Some may say, ‘Just as well that Craigie being closed is a one-off case,’ or, ‘Just as well the clinic down the road in a lower socioeconomic suburb, such as Girrawheen, isn’t closing.’ I am afraid that it certainly is. The clinic at Girrawheen Primary School is closing on 20 June. Those who know Cowan know that Girrawheen as a suburb—the majority of the people there—strongly supports the Labor Party. I do not really know why. The area is beset by law and order problems, and Labor has closed a school and is going to close another school at the end of the year. Now the state Labor government cannot even maintain the dental clinic that serves not only Girrawheen Primary School but also Blackmore Primary, Rawlinson Primary, Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Primary and the Emmanuel Christian School. Why is the clinic closing? Because there is not enough staff to maintain it. In fact, there is not enough staff to maintain the other clinic at Craigie. That is because of an ongoing pay dispute.

Again, I find it amazing that the Labor Party—the party that professes to be for the people and for the workers—cannot do their job in this respect. It is their responsibility to provide these services to the children of Cowan and they are not fulfilling that responsibility. Girrawheen is a long way from Canberra but the failure of Labor to do their job in Girrawheen has a human result. Yesterday my office was called by Karon Anderson, a resident of Girrawheen. Karon informed my staff that she called the dental clinic at Girrawheen Primary School for appointments for her son Leslie and her daughter Joslyn, who are teenagers. I understand that Leslie had earlier this year been informed that he had fillings that needed attention, and his mother called the clinic for an appointment to get the work done. I also understand that Joslyn had a similar but less urgent need to see a dentist. When Karon Anderson called the clinic, the staff said that they were closing at the end of this week—as they are—so they were only doing emergencies. It is important to make the point here that if young Leslie Anderson needs a new filling, as I understand he does, the bill we currently have before the House will not be helping him. A $150 voucher will not get him a new filling or a repair for a filling, and the explanatory memorandum to this bill says exactly that.

It may serve federal Labor’s interests, when a clear and present failure of a state government is exposed, to regress to the standard call of: ‘End the blame game.’ But when is someone actually going to be responsible? When is the buck going to stop? The rules by which this government operates are that anyone can be blamed by this government provided that a Labor politician somewhere is not at fault or called to be responsible for their policy failures.

Again, it amazes me that backbenchers opposite can stand up and talk about this bill in glowing terms, as they do. The bill provides $150 for a check-up. That is it. The sum of those great expectations of the Australian people is $150, and it cannot be used for a single filling. That has come at a cost to the program that offered, as I said at the start, up to $4,250 to achieve serious work; not just a part payment for a check-up which will tell teenagers that they might have more work to be done but a payment for some serious work for chronic disease and dental illness.

Each time young people like Leslie Anderson or that young man in Ashby whom I mentioned earlier take a breath, they probably feel that air running down into a dental nerve. They looked to the state government and then to the former federal opposition, now the government, to fulfil their promises and they expected to see that done. The free state dental clinics and the federal dental plan that they thought would provide them with free dental care have not helped them and will not help them. The people of Australia heard the message that Labor wanted them to hear at state and federal levels. The message was that dental care would be fixed by Labor. The passing of this bill will not help the school dental clinics servicing Cowan and will not help the people I have mentioned today. There is not a filling in sight; just the smoke of this planned perception and very real deception.

I will now draw upon some independent commentary regarding the states and territories and their responsibilities. The Australian Dental Association said:

For far too long, the States and Territories of Australia have failed to meet their obligations to ensure proper delivery of dental care to poor and disadvantaged Australians.

They went on to say, with regard to the federal government:

Instead it has provided the State/Territory Health Services with additional funding … to prop up schemes that have not delivered to date. It’s a Band-Aid solution at best.

I have made my position clear on this matter. The government left the very clear impression that this policy embodies a comprehensive national dental plan. There are people out there on the streets right now who think that specific remedial dental treatment is part of this policy and this bill. The only comprehensive dental treatment that was on offer was in the coalition’s plan. If you needed a significant amount of work done as a chronic sufferer from dental problems, there was only one option, and that was the policy provided by the former government and not this government. I call upon the current government to preserve the former coalition government’s highly effective initiative, which remains the only effective response to serious chronic dental problems, as opposed to the government’s so-called Commonwealth dental health plan. I will conclude, as a non-expert in dental matters, with a quote again from those who do know about the subject, the Australian Dental Association, which describes the government’s plan in this way:

The CDHP—

that is, the Commonwealth dental health plan—

delivers too little for too few people and will not be effective.