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Wednesday, 18 June 2008
Page: 2668

Senator BOB BROWN (Leader of the Australian Greens) (12:05 PM) —We too will be supporting the Dental Benefits Bill 2008 and the Dental Benefits (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2008 for the obvious benefits they bring to Australian dental health care, which is very badly in need of a complete refurbishment. The Greens policy—and we went to the election on this—is for a national ‘denticare’ plan, paralleling Medicare and funded from the $2 billion to $3 billion which governments inject into the private health system at the moment. This would give all Australians access to a good dental healthcare system. While it would require a very careful strategy because of the enormity of this program, it is the required direction to go in for a nation which believes that everybody should have proper dental health care.

The spokesman for the opposition, Senator Colbeck, has just quoted the figure of 50,000 to 60,000 people a year who end up in hospital because they do not get basic dental health care. It is an astonishing figure for one of the wealthiest countries on the face of the planet. It is very difficult to understand how it can be that we have a country where there are 600,000 to 700,000 people on waiting lists. The majority of them are poor people, including people from the ranks of the one million-plus pensioners in this country who simply cannot afford to go to private dental health care, where, if you need a root canal treatment, in 2008 you will need more than $1,000 in your pocket, and that is beyond pensioners. When pensioners do get into the public health system, they do get to the front of the queue if they are faced with an infected tooth. They do not have the option of such therapy. The alternative is the extraction of the tooth—and that is the alternative they are left with. We should not have a dental health care system that denies citizens their right to the same dental health options that another citizen would have for major treatment like that. But that is the situation that pertains in Australia.

I well remember that in 1996 one of the first acts of the Howard government was to abolish assistance to pensioners to get dental health care. It was a terrible thing to do. It has left many people, who should not have suffered, with a great deal of suffering, and not a few of those will be amongst the 60,000 people a year who are now, according to the opposition itself, ending up in hospitals because they did not get proper health care.

The Greens believe there is a lot further to go in providing across-the-board basic dental health care to all Australians. We will be pursuing not just the concept but also the reality of a ‘denticare’ system in Australia. Of course, the measure we have before us today covers a much needed area, which is dental care for teenagers to ensure that all Australian teenagers have access to check-ups and to treatment following the check-ups. But of course it should be extended to all Australians. This is what we all should be doing. All of us in this place know that dental care prevents much more serious illnesses that ultimately end up with very expensive fix-ups in the public health care system.

We will be supporting this legislation, but we want the government to go a lot further with the dental health care system in this country. It has the opportunity to do that and we would ask the government—and I ask the minister—to look at the prospect for the introduction of a ‘denticare’ system in this country. It was Labor that introduced Medicare and it is Labor that should now be looking at extending that to the dental health care system. There is only an artificial barrier between the two things. They are both part of the essential delivery of health care—and basic health care at that—to 23 million Australians. Surely that is a goal we should be achieving. I should also mention that the Greens will be supporting the amendment moved by Senator Colbeck.