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Tuesday, 9 October 2012
Page: 11546

Mr PERRETT (Moreton) (12:00): I rise to speak on the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2012, which amends the Dental Benefits Act 2008 to set up the legislative framework for the Child Dental Benefits Schedule that will commence operation in January 2014. I noted with interest the comments from the member for Maranoa, particularly about his constituents in Tara. For his benefit, I will point out that last night, I was at an event in Brisbane for the Republic of China—Taiwan—and met some constituents of mine who run a charity called the Tzu Chi Foundation. They were out in Tara on the weekend. They are a charity, but they take dental chairs out to Tara. I might send him the information, because I think that he would like to send them a letter congratulating them on the charity work that they do. I met them last night at this event and the Minister for Health, the Hon. Lawrence Springborg, was there as well. This is a charity that did great work in the flood. They gave out almost $1 million to people in my electorate. On the weekend, they were out helping the member for Maranoa's constituents in Tara. I just mention that in passing. It does show—as the member for Maranoa pointed out, with that waiting list in Queensland of 650,000 people—how important it is that we get dental care right. It is a big issue. I would acknowledge that, as stated by the member for Maranoa.

The Child Dental Benefits Schedule form part of the Gillard Labor government's $4.1 billion dental reform package, which was announced by Health Minister Plibersek on 29 August 2012. The Commonwealth's power to legislate on the provision of dental services was added to the Constitution following a referendum in 1946 which authorised the insertion of the whole amendment as it stands today. As anyone who knows the history of referendums in Australia knows, we have had only eight out of 44 actually get up, so it was significant when section 51(xxiiiA) was initially introduced by the Chifley Labor government in order to pass the Commonwealth's Pharmaceutical Benefits Act 1944.

The then Leader of the Opposition, a bloke whose last name was Menzies—perhaps some of those opposite might have heard of him; he went on to other things—actually supported the extension of the Commonwealth government's power to legislate for the provision of maternity allowances, widows' pensions, child endowment and unemployment, pharmaceutical, sickness and hospital benefits, but he was opposed to the extension of the power over medical and dental services. The Parliamentary Library gave me some information showing that the opposition claimed that the proposed amendment would give the Commonwealth constitutional power to nationalise the medical and dental professions and make them members of one government service, which they argued undermined the right to professional independence held by medical and dental practitioners and the right to personal autonomy in a doctor-patient relationship. Although Dr Evatt, the then Labor Attorney-General, was less than clear about the issue of nationalisation, it became clear during the course of the parliamentary debates that some members of the Chifley government were in favour of introducing a similar scheme to the National Health Service trust in Britain. To prevent this possibility, Mr Menzies then proposed an amendment that extended Commonwealth powers to the provision of medical and dental services but not so as to authorise any form of civil conscription. This was accepted by the Chifley Labor government and was put to the people in September 1946 and was carried both nationally and in all six states. So you have there Ben Chifley, Bob Menzies and Doc Evatt all on the same page on this issue in terms of clarifying to the Australian people how important it is that we get our dental services right and bring them into the Constitution.

If it had not been for a good Labor government like Ben Chifley's and also the Gillard Labor government of today, we would not be in the position we are in today to introduce programs like dental for kids which will help over 3.4 million children have access to better oral health care. The child benefit schedule will replace the Medicare Teen Dental Plan. The legislation means that, for over three million children, going to the dentist will be just like seeing their GP. I am sure the member for Mayo—and I take note of his position sitting at the dispatch box and congratulate him on his promotion—would be in favour of this, in terms of giving dental care to young children.

It means that 3.4 million children whose families receive family tax benefit part A, Abstudy, carer payment, disability support pension, parenting payment, special benefit, youth allowance, double orphan pension, the veteran's children education scheme or some military rehabilitation and compensation act education and training scheme will qualify for this new scheme, the dental scheme for kids. Families will be entitled to $1,000 per child every two years over the life of the package. Importantly, parents will be able to take their children to either private or public dental services to access this program. Whether it be the QEII dental clinic, which is in my electorate, or the school dental clinic at Yeronga, also in my electorate, working families in my electorate will receive more assistance when they go to the dentist.

In addition to the dental scheme for kids, the dental reform package will provide extra funding for 1.4 million additional services for adults on low incomes, including pensioners, concession cardholders and those with special needs, to have better access to dental health care in the public system. The program will also mean more services and more dentists in areas of most need, particularly outside capital cities and large regional centres. As I mentioned in the discussion with the member for Maranoa, when you have a charity from my electorate who have connections to Taiwan going out to Tara—a town I used to play football against when I was growing up in St George—to offer dental work, you know that we do need to do more work. The package comes on top of the $515 million allocated in the last budget, which included a blitz on public dental waiting lists, and, taking the member for Maranoa's figures for Queensland, a waiting list of 650,000 people. That is obviously no comfort whatsoever if you have a toothache.

Now, I have had a lot to do with QEII hospital. In particular, I have been to the waiting area of the dental hospital a lot. I particularly remember the lead-up to the election of 2004, which was held eight years ago today. One of the members opposite was elected on that day, eight years ago; I congratulate the member for Cunningham on that anniversary. That election was not as good for me; there was no second prize in 2004. But I spent a lot of time at the QEII hospital, because it was obviously a big issue in that election. We were trying to bring in more dental services. I remember the former member for Werriwa talking about dental care at the time, because it is important that we get it right. I remember that election well in terms of looking at providing the appropriate support. I remember the Medicare safety scheme put forward by the Minister for Health at the time, the member for Warringah. He gave a rock-solid, ironclad guarantee on Four Corners that that was going to be the policy. So on 9 October that was the policy but, by March the next year—only four or five months later—they rolled over.

Now, in that Westminster tradition, did he resign and say, 'I gave my guarantee.' It was like a blood oath without blood. It meant absolutely nothing; he rolled absolutely rolled over. His word, whether written, signed or whatever, was shown to be worth absolutely nothing.

Mr Briggs interjecting

Mr PERRETT: So you are saying it is exactly the same as that, member for Mayo? He is saying it is exactly the same as that.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Dr Leigh ): Order! The member will direct his comments through the chair.

Mr PERRETT: I am sorry, Deputy Speaker. So oral health has been declining since the mid-1990s, as the former health minister—now Leader of the Opposition—would know, with almost 20,000 kids under the age of 10 hospitalised every year due to avoidable dental issues. With two boys under 10, I know how difficult it can be to get children to brush their teeth twice a day, let alone getting them to brush their teeth for longer than 20 seconds. Oral health is not only important to your appearance and your sense of wellbeing but also to your overall health. Studies have found that cavities and gum disease can contribute to many other serious conditions, even leading to things such as diabetes and respiratory diseases. Untreated cavities can also be painful and lead to serious infections and other health complications.

Now, I have been in this parliament for only five years, but for much of that time I slipped into a habit that I had never had in my life of occasionally, during question time when it got a little dull, having a lolly. My dentist pointed out to me the other day that it is a classic case of someone taking up sweets later in life. I have had to stop that. I now have had to pay attention to everything that goes on in question time without any treats.

There have also been studies that have found correlations between poor oral health and heart disease and even between poor oral health and women delivering pre-term babies. Poor oral health certainly affects your appearance, your self esteem and your quality of life. There is nothing worse as a male, in terms of the things that affect you, than having bad teeth or a toothache. It can also be linked to sleeping problems as well as behavioural and developmental problems in children. By age 15 three out of five kids in Australia have tooth decay—60 per cent of them. Untreated, decay and fillings are similar across income ranges, but if you earn more than $60,000 a year you have, on average, seven more teeth than Australia's poorest people, those earning under $20,000.

Sadly, in Queensland, I am embarrassed to say that this has traditionally been worse because for many years in Queensland there was a culture that did not have people put fluoride in the water. Thankfully, the Beattie and Bligh governments changed this, and started to put fluoride into the water. I remember hearing a story from someone I know in the RAF who talked about her job as a forensic pathologist. She said they were able to identify the Bali victims from Queensland by their teeth. That is a horrible statistic, but it is just a reality because, unless they were from Townsville, no-one in Queensland had fluoride in their water and so their teeth were not the same as the rest of Australia's people. I saw a retrograde step by the Liberal National Party government, which took the onus off communities to have fluoride in the water, and that is a sad backwards step.

Mr Tudge interjecting

Mr PERRETT: With respect, I suggest that talking about fluoride is an important correlation in terms of dental health. Good oral health is about much more than having those pearly whites; it is about preventing other major health issues and diseases over the course of your life. That is why the government is getting in early through the introduction of the Dental for Kids program. Good habits and intervention early head off a world of troubles and costs later in life. The Dental for Kids program is an investment in prevention because we know that our oral health as children is the best predictor of our oral health as adults.

It was Queensland Labor that introduced fluoride into our water supplies, as it is the Gillard Labor government that recognised that prevention is far better and far cheaper than cure. We all know this of health but it is equally true for cost-effectiveness, as preventative oral health means fewer trips to the dentist, less waiting time and lower costs for families. In stark contrast we have the Liberal National Party Premier of Queensland, Mr Newman, saying that he would consider allowing some Queensland communities to opt out of having fluoride added to their regional water supplies but would not reverse fluoride in those communities that already have it. This is short-term populism of the worst kind, and very short-sighted.

As usual, the Liberal National Party is having an each-way bet on the outcome and is not focused on the long-term oral health prevention strategy for our children. This is, of course, while Premier Newman cuts over 4,100 staff from Queensland Health and cuts important central agencies like BreastScreen Queensland. Undoubtedly, some of the 4,100 are those who provide oral health services to Queenslanders. In fact, I read a few weeks ago that some Public Service dentists were sacked. Hopefully, I misheard this, because Public Service dentists are our real health heroes. They forgo significant money for that special place in heaven that comes with looking after public patients. Anyone in the dental services knows that public health dentists could make two, three, four or five times as much if they were in private practice; instead, they like the challenge of looking after the poorest in our community. Hopefully, we will not have to rely on charities like the Tzu Chi Foundation in my electorate to provide dental services in the bush.

This side of the House is committed to the best environment for our children's future, whether it is in education, health or the environment itself. That is why I am a strong advocate for the Dental for Kids program in my electorate and why I proudly commend the bill to the House.