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Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Page: 11979


Mr CIOBO (Moncrieff) (16:43): On this more formal occasion I take the opportunity to congratulate you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on your elevation to the role of Deputy Speaker. I rise to speak about the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2012. I must say that it takes a certain amount of audacity for Labor members to come into this chamber and try to claim that events some 17 or 18 years ago are the reason why they are undertaking this activity now. That is what we heard from the member for Ballarat. That is complete rubbish, frankly. They are talking about the closure of the Commonwealth Dental Scheme some 17 or 18 years. That was closed in a fiscal environment in which the former coalition government inherited $96 billion of debt. That mountain of debt, incidentally, is substantially less than the $145 billion of net debt that we are currently facing as a nation, with a further $120 billion of additional unfunded net debt that the Labor government has promised between now and 2020. That will push Australia's net debt levels to conceivably up around $260 billion. That is the reason why we find these kinds of arguments from Labor members to be farcical.

The other frankly insulting aspect of the way in which Labor members are debating here is that they are coming into this chamber and making out, with earnestness and sincerity, that this is about who cares for children's teeth more. You would think from listening to the contribution by Labor members that they have some kind of monopoly on children's dental health; you would think that it is choice for the Australian public between a kind, caring and cuddly—albeit debt laden—Labor government or the mean, nasty coalition that does not care about children's teeth. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality is that if you look at the policies of both the coalition and the government there are some marked points of difference that need to be recognised. The first is that we reject the criticism from the member for Ballarat, among others on the Labor Party, that we abolished the Commonwealth Dental Scheme and then introduced the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme and that it has expanded to be much more than it was ever going to be. They make some vague reference back to the initial projections of the CDDS being $90 million per annum. There is a reason for that: it is because we expanded the program. We saw that there was a need in the community and we expanded the program. That is the reason why the CDDS was so successful. There have been 20 million interactions or visits—whatever the correct phrasing is—by members of the Australian public to have their chronic dental diseases fixed. So when I hear Labor members in this environment therefore claim, 'This scheme is simply unsustainable, and that is why we're going to introduce our new scheme, which will offer more services to more people,' I am a little incredulous.

There is an issue that the member for Ballarat never touched upon. I suspect that no Labor members will touch upon this issue. The issue is the timing of this bill and the entire framework. Australians are a pretty savvy lot. They recognise a con when they see one. When it comes to dental health, they recognise that this is nothing other than a big Labor con. Labor like to stand up and make out that they are holier than thou and that they have moral superiority over members of the coalition when it comes to children's dental health. But let us look at the facts.

This government is axing our scheme—the coalition's scheme—on 30 November this year. Their scheme—the scheme implemented through the bill that we are debating today; a bill that does not even apply a framework when it comes to the rebate and the fees for services, and all those types of important technical details—is being rushed through the parliament even though it does not commence until 1 January 2014. So what is going to happen between 30 November 2012 and 1 January 2014? The reality is that absolutely nothing is going to happen. What is more, when it comes to services for adults, it is not 1 January 2014, it is July 2014. That is nearly two years away. And the Labor Party have the gall to make out that they are the ones most concerned about the needs of children and adults when it comes to dental health. I call them on it and the Australian public will call them on it because it is rubbish.

If they were genuine in their expressions of concern about the dental health needs of children and adults, they would not have 13 months between the end of one program and the commencement of another program. They would not say to children that are getting treatment under the former, coalition scheme, 'Tough luck: you get nothing for the next 12 months.' Is that compassion? Is that good public policy? Is that in the best interests of children's health? No.

It is happening for one reason alone: pure political posturing. This Labor government want to be able to put it in their election brochures, want to get their members issuing media releases, wanted to have the opportunity to make a big announcement and say, 'Look at us! Look at how wonderful we are! We've got this you-beaut $4 billion unfunded medical dental scheme! We're really concerned about the needs of the community! Aren't we great? This is the Labor government that delivers again.' Sure, the reality is that they are delivering a $4 billion unfunded scheme that will not start for at least 13 months and, with respect to adults, for closer to two years, but do not worry about that detail—that's just detail! It is about: 'Look over here, we've got a $4 billion scheme!'

The reality is that Australians are not mugs. They recognise that this is just the latest example of a government that simply cannot be trusted. This is just the latest example of a Prime Minister with no judgement. And this is just the latest example of a Labor Party that are so obsessed with political posturing that they fail to recognise that Australians recognise them for being exactly what they are: nothing but a bunch of cons. So, I say to the member opposite: if you are really concerned about dental health—and I notice she has popped her head up—please explain the reason you have a gap of 13 months, please explain the reason adults will have a gap of closer to two years and please explain where the $4 billion is going to come from.

On every single one of these measures, let me tell you what you hear if you put your ear to the wind: you hear the sound of crickets chirping. That is what you will hear, because this is the latest example of a Labor Party completely devoid of anything meaningful when it comes to a contribution to public health. This is the latest federal iteration of policy failure that we have seen at a state level for so many years. I reflect on the fact that in my first several terms in office we saw the Labor Party in government at a state level in the great state of Queensland. At a state level, it was not uncommon for me to get phone calls—and not so much emails but letters, certainly, in those days—from people saying, 'I have been waiting for treatment for my teeth for in excess of two years'—or three years. That is how completely shambolic and broken down the Queensland system was when it came to dental health.

The good news—and there was a brief moment of good news, when the light shone through the dark clouds—was the coalition's CDDS. That stopped that problem, because people were able to access treatment and have their oral problems fixed as a consequence of the expansion of and the role that the CDDS played. But now we are unfortunately going to revert to the bad old days where we have at a federal level the same failed approach, the same unfunded policies and the same political purpose and posturing that this government has basically adapted and adopted from various state Labor governments. That is the reason I challenge any of the Labor members opposite—and I notice in particular a friend of sorts from the opposite side—and say to them: talk about and justify why you will have a 13-month gap where no child will have access to services under the Commonwealth program. Talk about and justify why—

Government members interjecting

Mr CIOBO: You will have the opportunity; sit down, relax.

Dr Leigh: Mr Deputy Speaker, I seek to intervene.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. BC Scott ): Is the member for Moncrieff willing to give way?

Mr CIOBO: No. I am certainly not frightened. I am not interested in some kind of rhetorical political question from the member opposite. He will have his opportunity in about four minutes and 48 seconds to make his contribution, and I think he should do so then.

Let me throw back to the issue I was talking about. Let them justify and explain why they are going to have a 13-month gap when children will not have any access to Commonwealth-funded dental services. Let them also explain why there is a two-year gap for adults, and let them also explain where the $4 billion is going to come from. I know that the member opposite is quite adept when it comes to financial matters and when it comes to the economy, so he might want to explain to the benefit of all of us—and I will be glued to my TV in my office as I hear the response—how this government are going to deal with the massive debt liability that they have left the Australian people and, what is more, that they are continuing to make worse.

As I said, the current $145 billion in net debt is on its way to $265 billion of net debt—this being a $4 billion example of an unfunded commitment. The reason is, as I said and as all Australians know, this government is just about political posturing. It is just so he can have a brochure that goes out during the campaign that says, 'Look how much we care about dental health,' but does not actually talk about the fact that those kids who will not have access to dental services, those kids who might be undergoing treatment now which is about to stop, incidentally are the same children who will be paying off your debt for the next 20 years. Perhaps if we had lower tax rates and if their families were not burdened with interest repayments in excess of $10 billion per annum to pay for the largess that your government has had over the last five years then the families would have a couple of hundred dollars extra a year to pay to go to the dentist. Ever consider that as a policy approach?

The reality is that there are alternatives. This bill is so bereft of detail when it comes to fee-for-services and rebates that it just underscores the complete haste this government has adopted in trying to introduce this bill into the parliament. It is all about pushing it through the parliament even though it does not have the fine detail in there. They have got the announcement and they have got the legislation to back up the announcement even though they do not have the funds and even though the program does not start for at least 13 months.

On every measure this is a step backwards. This is the reason why the coalition remain steadfastly opposed to it. As we indicated through our shadow health spokesman on a number of occasions, we would be very prepared to work with the Labor Party to amend the CDDS so that it had a more focused scope of operations. But no, the Labor Party rejected that point-blank. No doubt we will hear from Labor members about how the coalition is obstructionist, how the coalition is so negative and how the coalition does not want to make a difference. Although, in this instance, once again we see the rank hypocrisy of that because we laid out an opportunity to amend the current scheme. We put before the Labor government an opportunity to change the current scheme to make sure it was better targeted, to make sure we had costs under control to keep it sustainable, but instead Labor said, 'No, we will stop it on 30 November,' and they will start their new program in a year-plus time.

This bill ought to be rejected because it is bad policy. More than that, it is a betrayal of the trust of the Australian people.