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Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Page: 376

Senator POLLEY (Tasmania) (17:48): I, and also on behalf of Senator Di Natale, Senator Griff, Senator Lambie and Senator Hinch, move:

That item 2 of Schedule 1 of the Dental Benefits Amendment Rule 2016 (No. 2), made under the Dental Benefits Act 2008, be disallowed [F2016L01986].

There is no clearer example of the overwhelming rejection of these cuts than the fact the government have announced they will be dropping them before this place even gets to vote on the motion before us today. That is right: they knew that this place would strike out the cuts to the Child Dental Benefits Schedule which took effect on January 1 this year. Backed into a corner, they announced they would drop the cut and restore funding per child to the original level of support. Make no mistake, the government did not do this because it was the right thing to do or because they wanted to; they did this because they were forced to. Though they had indicated they will drop the cuts, we are yet to see this legislative change. So not only are we proceeding with this motion, we are asking the government to vote for it as a sign of good faith. If they are serious about dropping this cut which will leave 250,000 children worse off then they should vote for this motion today.

As I said, there has been cross-party support for this motion to disallow the government's cuts to the Child Dental Benefits Schedule, and I thank my fellow senators for their cooperation. We united against the government's attempt to cut the Child Dental Benefits Schedule for a simple reason: they have always been unfair cuts that, at the government's own estimates, left one in four children who used the scheme worse off. The Prime Minister has done nothing but attack successful and established dental programs for both children and adults. Malcolm Turnbull originally planned to abolish the scheme completely, only backflipping after Labor fought to have the cut removed from their omnibus legislation last year. Their latest cuts were yet another attack on the successful program.

To understand why protecting this program has been so vital, it is important to look at why it was established in the first place. Firstly, it is important to recognise that dental care is not just about teeth. Poor dental health is linked to chronic disease. If teeth are not properly cared for, it often leads to much greater health problems. People often think that in children oral health is not as important because baby teeth will be replaced. This could not be more false. The primary teeth play a particularly important role in in a child's development, aiding in speech development and nutrition. In addition, untreated dental pain can impact on a child's ability to pay attention and learn.

That is why the former Labor government took steps to advance our universal system of health care to dental care with the announcement of a dental reform package, the centrepiece of which was the Child Dental Benefits Schedule. Labor introduced this scheme because of disturbing evidence that the oral health of children has been declining since the mid-1990s. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in 2009, the proportion of children who had experienced decay in their baby teeth ranged from 42 per cent for five-year-olds to 61 per cent for nine-year-olds. The proportion of children with permanent teeth affected by decay ranged from five per cent for six-year-olds to 58 per cent for 14-year-olds. Almost 20,000 kids under the age of 10 are hospitalised each year due to avoidable dental issues. By age 15, six out of 10 kids have tooth decay.

This scheme sought to tackle that by providing a capped benefit of $1,000 per child over a two-calendar-year period, targeted at low-income and middle-income families by tying eligibility to those receiving family tax benefit part A or an equivalent Australian government payment. This program was a crucial investment in the long-term health of children because we know that dental health in children is the best predictor for dental health as adults, but also a predictor of overall health. It is a tightly targeted program to ensure that the kids and families who most need help accessing dental services are the ones who get it.

But the Liberals have been determined to axe the scheme ever since they came to government. First, they refused to promote the scheme, leaving many parents unaware of the important dental services that their children could access. In fact, a review by this government's own health department said that the scheme's only failing was the Abbott-Turnbull government's refusal to promote it. In a review of the program, the health department said:

In particular, the Panel noted the success of the CDBS in targeting the oral health of young Australians at an age where preventative measures can be most effective.

The health department made several recommendations to improve awareness of the scheme, which this government has never implemented.

Then, in April last year, the government announced its plan to abolish the Child Dental Benefits Scheme. Parents, dentists and experts were outraged, and Labor was proud to stand with them in the fight for the scheme. When they could not pass through the Senate their plan to abolish the scheme, the government instead applied a cut across the board, cutting the entitlement of every child who was eligible under the program. On New Year's Day, the government cut the cap on CDBS benefits from $1,000 over two years to $700. That is a cut of up to $300 a child, or $600 for a family with two kids. Late last year, the former health minister admitted that the new cap would hurt more than one in four of the children who use the scheme. That is over a quarter of a million kids who would have been worse off.

To understand how nonsensical the decision to cut the scheme was, the government need only have spoken to any dentist. The opposition visited countless dental practices, who reiterated how important the scheme was. In practice after practice dentists said they were seeing kids from families who never before had come to see a dentist, and, as a result of this government's attacks on the Child Dental Benefits Scheme, they feared that these kids would either never see a dentist, or would have to wait years if they were thrown back onto the endless waiting lists of the community dental schemes. Attempting to scrap a proven program to help children access affordable dental care was always in the running for one of the Prime Minister's cruellest cuts. It might have taken over a year, but Labor is pleased that the scheme has been protected and the government has finally dropped their cuts altogether.

Unfortunately though, this announcement does nothing to restore the massive $300 million-a-year cut to adult public dental services that will see 337,000 Australians lose access to dental services. When the government announced in December their latest cut to children's dental services, they also announced a paltry sum of money for adult dental services, after leaving the states and territories in limbo until the 11th hour. As a result of this government's cuts to adult public dental, disadvantaged and vulnerable Australians will lose access to life-changing dental services as a result of long waiting lists, and they will grow across the country.

The funding allocated to the states and territories for public adult services is an insult when the Liberal government have ripped hundreds of millions of dollars out of adult public dental services since 2013. In government, Labor budgeted $391 million a year for the national partnership agreement on adult dental services. The Abbott/Turnbull governments have cut this time and time again. Also, the announcement last year of a further cut means the Liberals are ripping $300 million out of public dental services every year. As a result, every year around 337,000 Australians will miss out on critical public dental services. The states themselves said what an insult the funding that was allocated was. The Queensland health minister said that it was a 75 per cent cut to federal dental funding for Queensland on what was promised in the Member for Warringah's first slash and burn budget, in 2014-15. So there are still serious unresolved questions about the future of adult public dental services funding, and the impact on waiting lists, that this government needs to address.

Looking at today's confirmation, it is both a victory for children's dental health and an embarrassing backflip for this government. Let us remember that it has been only about a month since these cuts took effect on January 1. They kicked off the new year by slashing the amount of dental assistance eligible children could receive under the scheme by $300 a child. They pursued these cuts despite admitting that one in four children who use the scheme would be negatively impacted, leaving a quarter of a million children worse off. What a lousy New Year's present indeed.

You might be asking what has happened to make the government change its mind in such a short amount of time. Why the sudden backflip?

The answer is in this place. They knew that today we would vote and throw out their cuts. So, backed into a corner, they scrambled to claim back some credibility. If those on the other side have seriously had a change of heart about this cut, they should vote for this motion and throw out their own decision. Labor has never given up fighting for this program against Malcolm Turnbull's cuts, and we are pleased to have been able to protect it.