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Tuesday, 17 June 2008
Page: 5083

Mr RIPOLL (7:52 PM) —It is a great privilege to speak in support of this bill, the Dental Benefits Bill 2008, and the cognate Dental Benefits (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008. I note, before I begin, that it is always interesting to hear from the now opposition because it is always the case that we as the government should be doing more but, when the coalition were themselves in government, they did nothing at all, particularly on this issue. They come in here and complain and bleat on, but for the 12 years they were in government not once did they take up the measures that we are moving here tonight. Not once did they reason that more could be done. It is easy for them to come in here and criticise us for not doing enough and say that this does not go far enough, but the reality is that they did not even begin the process—and that is disappointing. It is disappointing for all those people that missed out on all of the possible dental services that they needed over the past 12 years.

What we are finally seeing here with these bills is Australians getting a decent dental healthcare program, something that the Rudd government have made a top priority, something that was part of our election promises and something that we will be delivering through this legislation. The reintroduction of the Commonwealth Dental Health Program and the new Teen Dental Plan are just the start of a continued commitment to Australian health, including Australian dental health.

Previously, dental health was a major issue in my seat of Oxley in Queensland, where many ordinary people suffered because they could not afford proper dental care, let alone check-ups to get the sort of assessment they needed to then go and get further care. A petition about this in my electorate was signed by 1,400 people, making very plain to me, and to the parliament, their strong support for these types of programs. It was a very serious issue then and it is a very serious issue today. I am very proud to have the Minister for Health and Ageing here in the chamber. I am very proud to support this and that we are actually getting on with the job of helping ordinary people get better access to dental health, something that was neglected at the federal level for many years.

Let me just take a little bit of time—and I am conscious of time tonight, as so much of it was wasted today by the opposition—to indulge the House with the recent history of dental health in this country. For 12 long years we saw the previous government continue to neglect and, in fact, refuse to act on Australia’s escalating dental crisis. It was the previous government, the Howard government, that now sits opposite, that cut Labor’s Commonwealth Dental Health Program in 1996, ripping $100 million from the public dental sector across the country. They then continued to ignore the growing impact of their neglect, which led to a whole range of problems—problems like 650,000 Australians on public dental waiting lists across the country; 50,000 Australians hospitalised each year for preventable dental conditions, putting additional pressures on our already strained hospitals; and dental conditions constituting a quarter of hospitalisations of children. These are significant numbers and significant issues and significant people—people who deserved better but were treated very poorly by the previous government, those now sitting in opposition.

There are more problems. Up to one in 10 visits to GPs is caused by dental problems, again placing more strain on GPs, dental clinics, hospitals and the health system in general in this country. More than one in five Australians go without recommended dental treatment because of the cost; it is just too expensive for some people. I heard the comments of the previous speaker, who said this did not go far enough, that in fact this is just for a check-up. It is actually a lot more than that, but you need to at least make that first, conscious decision to provide that access, to get that cost out of the road so that people can make proper decisions and be advised what they need to do next. I think that is the very first and the most important step. One in six Australians avoids certain foods because of dental problems. The aged, the frail and the young endure a lesser quality of life because of this, and I think it is our responsibility to do everything we can—and we are, through these bills.

These facts are indeed an indictment of the previous government. What is frightening is that, all along, they knew what was happening but they did nothing. Today they can support these bills and help ordinary people or they can just bleat and carry on, although for 12 years they did nothing. These are good bills and should be passed.

The list goes on. Tooth decay ranks as Australia’s most prevalent health problem: 25½ per cent of the Australian adult population have untreated dental decay. During the last 12 months, one in six Australians aged over 15 have avoided certain foods because of problems with their teeth. Between 1996 and 1999, five-year-olds experienced a 21.7 per cent increase in deciduous tooth decay—that is, teeth falling out. Hospitalisation rates for children under five for dental conditions increased by 91 per cent between 1994-95 and 2004-05. There was a 42 per cent increase in children being treated in hospitals for dental cavities between 2000 and 2005. These are terrible figures, terrible statistics and a terrible shame. They are a terrible indictment of the previous government. According to the OECD, the dental health of Australian adults ranks second worst in the OECD, with a rapid deterioration in dental health observed in the teenage years in particular.

The previous minister for health, Tony Abbott, and those opposite repeatedly refused to accept any responsibility for Australia’s dental health crisis and continued to play the blame game, leaving it to the states to pick up the pieces. They took no responsibility, they blamed everyone else and, in the end—even worse—they just did nothing. That is the truth of the matter: they just did nothing. They left it to others.

By contrast, this is yet another election promise that Labor are delivering on. We have a massive agenda of reform and work in front of us to ensure Australians have a better quality of life. The dental blame game is now over and funding of $780 million will be allocated over five years to these two new and very important dental programs. The Rudd government’s Teen Dental Plan will assist one million Australian teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 with dental costs. This is very good news. There are a whole range of other measures, and, as I am conscious of the time, I will respect the proceedings of this House and try to do everything I can—while there are many more good things that I can say about this program, I think it is self-evident in what we are trying to achieve and what will be achieved by it. I give it my wholehearted support. This bill ensures that there will be an overwhelming recommendation of support for people’s dental health care, and I seek the support of the opposition to guarantee that over one million young people can now have affordable dental care and that others can access this program as well. I commend the bill to the House.