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Tuesday, 9 October 2012
Page: 11560

Mr CHAMPION (Wakefield) (12:56): I rise to speak on the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2012 and it is good to be talking about dental care. It is a particularly important thing in my electorate. I have often noticed constituents who have had significant tooth decay and how that has affected their lives, their job prospects, their social prospects and just their everyday quality of life. It is obviously an important issue to both sides of this House.

One should not forget the history of this. Dental care is a state responsibility in the main and the first intervention by a federal government into this area was by the Keating government. In the last few years of the Keating government a significant package was announced to reduce state waiting lists, which were blowing out at the time as the state governments reduced funding for dental care in the community. Traditionally it was one of their responsibilities but, sadly, it is one that state governments have neglected over time.

Increasingly it has needed the intervention of federal governments, and the Keating government was the first to announce a significant investment in trying to reduce those waiting lists. That has been the traditional way of dealing with this issue. It is an unfortunate fact of life that that scheme was cancelled by the Howard government in its first year of office, along with a lot of other promises that were important to my electorate like the expansion of the main north road and a few other things in South Australia which were important at the time. What then followed was a decade of neglect when state governments across the board often did not spend enough money on public dental health care. The federal government was less than interested as well, until former Prime Minister Howard hit the twilight years of his time in office and the boom started to roll in with all the money.

Mr Briggs: Are we getting a history lesson or a debate on the bill?

Mr CHAMPION: He could not stop himself spending. I know the member for Mayo was there at that time. It must have been a glorious period announcing those sorts of schemes. What we got was the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, which when it was announced was speculated to cost $90 million a year. It now costs the Commonwealth $1 billion a year. We know those last few years in office for Mr Howard were—

Mr Briggs interjecting

Mr CHAMPION: The scheme was supposed to cost $90 million a year and it ended up costing the Commonwealth taxpayer $1 billion. That is hardly good accountancy; it is hardly good book keeping. It was a prime example of John Howard's spending abilities in his final years. There was a lot of wishful thinking of what things would cost versus what they ended up costing the budget. It started out supposedly costing the Commonwealth taxpayer $90 million and ended up costing the taxpayer $1 billion—not unlike the subsidy for private health care which, of course, had similar calls on the Commonwealth budget.

Of course, the reason why that scheme has not served the taxpayer well is that, first of all, it is not means-tested. It is an open-ended scheme, and it can provide up to $4,250 to people of any income. So presumably, if a millionaire goes to his doctor and gets a care plan, he qualifies for taxpayer-subsidised dental care. This happens at the same time as many of my constituents—who live in the poorest suburbs of Australia and often do not have a good relationship with their general practitioner, or else have a sporadic relationship with their general practitioner because of the nature of general practice these days and the nature of their socioeconomic situation—often cannot get a cent at all, or they find it very hard to access the health system to be able to get dental health care. Many of them wind up on the public waiting list after some time. So what we have here is a very long period where the Commonwealth has been involved in dental care but, perhaps because of state governments not doing their jobs and secondly because of the spending that was associated with the first mining boom, there were some schemes that perhaps were not the best use of taxpayer's money.

We know dental waiting lists are very high around the country. I am pleased to say that my state has had some success in reducing the waiting lists. In 2002, under the previous Olsen-Brown government, there were some 93,000 people on the waiting list for dental care. That has been reduced by a quarter, down to 70,287. That is still too high and obviously we want to reduce that waiting list, but we can see from that situation that, when the South Australian state government put resources in and spent more money, what happened is that those waiting lists came down. There were fewer people on them. Of course, what also happened is that the waiting times—that is, the times that people waited to get to see the dentist to get the work done—also reduced, and they reduced dramatically. In 2002, the waiting time in South Australia was some four years. Obviously, during that time people's problems got worse and worse and worse, and obviously that ended up costing the taxpayer more in the long run because there was not prevention factored into this scheme. With dental care, a little bit of money and care at the start often prevents chronic problems later on. This year the waiting time is just 16 months, so the waiting time has dramatically reduced. That shows that, when you put public money in, you can reduce dental waiting lists and dental waiting times. That system works well; it is just that the state governments have not been putting the resources in up until now. They should be ashamed about that. It really is a shocking abuse of the public interest in my opinion.

That said, the South Australian government has been allocating resources and doing a better job than most other states, and we have seen it put some resources into my local area. The GP Plus clinic in the Elizabeth city centre has dental beds, and I have met many of my constituents who have been fortunate enough to receive care there. They are, as I said before, some of the poorest people. That, I guess, is the difference between Labor priorities and the priorities of the coalition. The coalition do not mind if people on very high incomes get $4,250 of taxpayers' money to fix their teeth. They do not mind if cosmetic work is being done. That is not to denounce cosmetic work as unimportant. It is important, but it is not as important as fixing people with really desperate problems who are really without the means to fix them. It is very important that we put resources in where they can yield the greatest benefit for the taxpayer. Most importantly, it is important that we reduce those public waiting lists, which are the product of state government neglect.

This bill is focused on children and, as I said before, a little bit of money at the start of a person's life can set the patterns of care. Being taken to the dentist as a child is not an enjoyable thing to do. I still have vivid memories of being taken in primary school to the government dental service. I did not enjoy it that much but it set in place a bit of a standard. I would not say I have the best teeth in the world but I had some experience with the dentist. That is why focusing this bill on children, making sure that parents are able to take children to the dentist, and making sure they can get up to $1,000 per child, public or private, in order to set those patterns of a lifetime, is a particularly important thing. It speaks to Labor's priorities for preventative health.

The reason the Howard government scheme blew out by such a degree—it was meant to cost $90 million and ended up costing taxpayers $1 billion a year—is that it was preceded by a decade of neglect in this area by the Howard government. That government reaped the whirlwind and did not take into account preventative health. We hear people decrying politicians all the time for not looking at the long term, but the health system is all long term. Preventative health—that is, setting people's lifestyle habits early, encouraging them to see a dentist, encouraging them to be mindful of diabetes and other chronic diseases—is all about setting good lifestyle patterns early on by, for example, making sure kids go to the dentist and making sure people's diets and lifestyles are not going to cause problems down the track.

The Labor government has done its very best to make sure that preventative health is the way we want to go. We know that in the long term that is the only way to reduce the burden on the health budget and to safely protect the taxpayers' interests. If we go around simply putting bandaids on everything, we will end up with the Howard government experience of a chronic disease scheme blowing out by vast amounts of money. Of course, this was not the only Howard government scheme to blow out; it went on a bit of a spending spree in the last few years of office, placing a great deal of pressure and leaving a lot of time bombs on the federal Commonwealth budget, and these were revealed when the global financial crisis wrecked revenues across the world.

Dental care is particularly important. It is important, firstly, for us to have a blitz on public dental waiting lists, working with the states to make sure that their systems work. State governments have a responsibility to make sure they work. It is not good enough for state governments to simply withdraw from this field. More and more over the last decade or so we have seen state governments neglecting their responsibilities while the Commonwealth government, of whatever persuasion, becomes responsible for it by dint of public pressure and because we are the people who collect the taxes. That is not the way the Federation is supposed to work. State governments are supposed to take responsibility for their responsibilities. The alternative will be that we eventually end up with universal coverage of dental care. That is a possibility, but it will require state governments to play their role by either handing over the power and resources to do that or pulling their weight.

The second thing we need to do is to, like I said, focus on preventative health. This bill is focused on children and on making sure that it sets habits of a lifetime, not just for parents in making sure that they do not leave dental care until the last moment, but that they have the resources, the help, the assistance and the nudge. The Commonwealth resources will put the idea into a parent's head that they should be going to the dentist regularly. They will probably spend more than $1,000 but, of course, every dollar spent in the first years of life from ages two to 18 will help set the patterns of a lifetime because generally people do not want bad teeth. It is only when it sneaks up on them that they end up with great difficulties.

On that note I commend the bill to the House. I urge the House to adopt it.