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Tuesday, 9 October 2012
Page: 11537

Mr BRIGGS (Mayo) (11:17): I rise to speak on the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2012 and the disallowance motion moved by the shadow minister for health. It will not surprise people to learn that I will be taking a different approach to the one the member for Melbourne took in his remarks in this respect. In fairness to the member for Melbourne, what he said was true to his heart and true to his ideological view of the world. Paraphrasing, he said that the Greens and their coalition partner, the government, are happy to announce a dental scheme without allocating the funding for it and without thinking through the consequences and how much this will cost. That is a position that the Greens take very regularly. They do not have a particular view about economic responsibility. They believe that government should be there at every step of people's lives and to hell with the consequences. The Greens are not renowned for fiscal responsibility.

However, it is shameful for the Labor Party—who claim that they are trying to build a surplus, and this current government has never delivered one—to have stood alongside the Greens when this was announced. The health minister, representing the Labor Party, announced this policy without announcing how it would be funded. It is one of the policies which add to the $120 billion black hole of commitments that the government has made in the last few months, as reported by the Australian Financial Review. These are commitments that the government is announcing without thinking through the consequences and without allocating the appropriate appropriation from the budget to pay for these big new policies into the future. We know that adding dental care to Medicare would be hugely expensive. In fact, it was a former Labor finance minister, Peter Walsh, who commented some time ago that the quickest way to bankrupt the Commonwealth would be to add dental care to Medicare.

This is an issue that needs to be thought through carefully, and that is the approach the coalition has announced it will take. In January this year the Leader of the Opposition made a very good speech in respect of managing Australia's economy and managing Australia's budget in an appropriate manner. In that speech he said that we have an aspiration to ensure that the dental needs of Australians are looked after better than they are now but that we need to do it in a well-thought-through and budgeted way so that we are not just adding additional cost to the Australian budget without thinking about the impact on Australian taxpayers, because ultimately it is taxpayers' money that we are about here.

Much is said about the benefits to children who will be covered by the scheme from 2014, which we heard the member for Melbourne talking about. But little is ever thought about the consequences for those same children when they get older and have to deal with increasing debt and deficits because of commitments made by previous generations, and that should always be one of the considerations that we give in this place. All the needs of society need to be tempered by the fact that there is a limited resource in the federal budget. Already we have a government that is spending more than it earns each year and that is why we have a record debt. The government will boast that it is a low debt compared with the rest of the world, but of course you do not compare your mortgage to that of your next door neighbour; you look at the way you can address your mortgage yourself within your means. What we are seeing now increasingly is that the Australian budget is becoming more and more difficult to manage because the government continues to make inappropriate and badly-thought-through decisions in relation to expenditure. We have seen that on a range of policy issues. Most famously is the pink batts scheme—

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms AE Burke ): Order! The member for Mayo will return to the bill before the chair.

Mr BRIGGS: I am, Madam Deputy Speaker Burke. I am talking about the cost of the dental scheme. I think that is a very important point that we need to think about. Time after time we have seen examples of the government making announcements about policies, as the Minister for Health did in this respect, standing next to the Greens spokesperson on this—in coalition with the Greens—without thinking through the consequences of the bill. She made an announcement without saying where the money is coming from. We have seen this time and time again with this government: disaster after disaster. Whether it be the pink batts scheme or whether it be the overpriced school hall scheme, there have been a litany of examples of the government not having thought through the consequences.

In addition to that, what I thought was disappointing about the member for Melbourne was that he just walked away from those people who are currently receiving the support of the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme. Time after time we and the shadow minister for health have said that, if there are problems with this scheme, we will work with the government to fix those inefficiencies and problems—of course we will—but what we would not do, and what we do not support, is just hanging people out to dry who are currently getting the benefits of these schemes. We have example after example in our electorates of people who are currently getting the benefit of this scheme who are now going to be left without the assistance that they expected—and in some cases in very poor circumstances.

At the Port Elliot Show in my electorate on the weekend numerous people raised with me the fact that they are midway through treatment and it is going to be cut off. On the attitude of the government, a constituent of mine, Sharon from Strathalbyn, told me that the Minister for Health's office advised her that there is nothing that could be done about it. That was the response from the Minister for Health's office when she contacted the Minister for Health to say that it was a real problem for them. Sharon said that she had some serious dental work that needed to be done, and still needed to have her bottom teeth removed. On her dentist's advice she has to wait until her gums recede properly before having the dental work completed. But come the 30 November scheme cut-off, which will happen before she can have the work completed, she will miss out on having it done under the scheme even though she is midway through the treatment. Labor members of parliament come in here time after time to tell us how they stand up for people in society who need their support, but they stand by the policy that the Minister for Health and their coalition partners, the Greens, are advocating: to get rid of the scheme midstream. It is a disgrace.

There is not only one example—another is Diane from Victor Harbour, whose 20-year-old daughter has an eating disorder. She had an appointment arranged for 17 September; however, the appointment, which had planned for dental work, has been cancelled because the practice is trying to deal with the backlog of people. She will not get into the chronic support scheme.

What does the Labor Party say to these people? What is its answer? The answer according to the minister's office is that there is just nothing you can do about it. We have a policy where we see that the details have not been thought through as to how this is to be paid for in the future. It is the aspiration of doing good things without thinking through the consequences for those people you are trying to do good things for—in order words, the increased tax they will have to pay in the future and the increased debt that it will build up—and without thinking through properly how to put this policy in place. We are also seeing a litany of examples in each of our electorates—as well as, I am sure, in the electorates of Labor members—where this scheme that is being cut short mid-stream for many people receiving this treatment is causing great difficulty and great damage. We know the details of this dental scheme have not been thought through, just like so many other Labor Party messes that have been inflicted upon our country in the last five years. This adds to that mess.

The people in my electorate who have been affected by this have been shocked at the lack of regard that the health minister, her office and the government have had for the concerns that people have raised in this respect. It seems to be a further example of the way the Labor Party operates in government, in this case in coalition with the Greens. I support very strongly the move by the shadow health minister to have the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme continued and to disallow this move by the government because it will make a genuine difference for people who are mid-stream with their treatment. It is shameful that they are to be left hanging and waiting without any possible way to fix issues which, on advice, they have not been able to fix prior to the scheme closing at the end of November.

In summing up my view on this bill, improving Australia's coverage for people's dental care is an important policy to pursue, and the Leader of the Opposition made it very clear in January that this would be something we would aspire to do in a proper, well-thought-through way. Labor is doing it in this manner, without thinking through the consequences. When the minister for health stood with her coalition partner, the Greens, at the media conference announcing this, she was asked how she was to pay for it. She said, 'Don't worry, we'll tell you about that later.' That summed up exactly the Labor Party's attitude to the federal budget: 'Don't worry about it, we'll tell you later.' The $120 billion black hole: 'Don't worry about it, we'll tell you later.' These are people who purport to represent the people who have to pay for this excess, this lack of foresight, these badly thought through plans and, indeed, this lack of planning for how these schemes will work.

What we see all too often with this government is that it is about the politics of the day, about trying to ensure that the Prime Minister survives until Christmas and gets through the crisis developing within the party's leadership. This morning we saw the resignation of the caucus chairman, which no doubt adds to that pressure. That is what this bill represents: politics. It does not represent good policy. As Peter Walsh, a former Labor finance minister of much renown, said: without thinking through putting dental in Medicare you will bankrupt the Commonwealth. This is what the Labor Party is seeking to do not just through this action and this announcement but also through a series of actions and announcements. It is shameful the way the party has gone about it; hanging people out to dry mid-treatment, not thinking through the consequences for future generations and the impact on their budgets and their decisions that they will get to make with their money. The shadow minister for health's motion is worthy of support, and a better-thought-through dental scheme will be announced by the coalition leading up to the next election.