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Tuesday, 16 September 2008
Page: 54

Senator FIELDING (Leader of the Family First Party) (6:35 PM) —Regrettably, the government has made this debate a choice between one dental health program and another. That makes it an enormously difficult decision because both the Rudd government’s Commonwealth Dental Health Program and the previous government’s Allied Health and Dental Care Initiative have merit. One helps people with chronic disease with their dental problems, while the proposed new government scheme helps with reducing dental waiting lists. If you look at both of those you think, ‘Gee, they are both pretty important things.’ And when you look to see which one has more merit than the other, there are arguments for going both ways.

We have been in discussion with the minister and we are aware that there are winners and losers, which is unfortunate with this particular issue. Dental services in Australia have been mammothly underfunded for many years. People have been suffering while governments dither about providing enough money and resources to fully tackle this problem. There are more than 480,000 people waiting for public dental care, with waiting times averaging between one and 1½ years. There are reports that some patients have waited for 10 years to see a dentist. I will say that again—there are 480,000 people, and some of them have been waiting for 10 years to see a dentist. That is in Australia—it is not another country; it is in Australia—and that is a disgrace. And here we are today, squabbling and saying that you can have one and not the other.

We have had a lot people contact our office on this issue. There are strong merits for both schemes. The Rudd government’s proposal to put money into the dental system will see a reduction in the waiting lists. It is nowhere near enough money, but I do not think that anyone in this place would deny that the Rudd government’s system would reduce the waiting lists. It has also become clear that the previous government’s scheme, the chronic disease dental scheme, was actually serving a need for Australians who have debilitating chronic dental needs. We could say that we could let go of the chronic disease dental scheme if the new proposal by the Rudd government would help those people with chronic dental diseases. We have sought some assurances from the minister about priorities being given to people on the chronic disease lists and we have had an assurance that the needs of people with chronic dental diseases would be factored into the waiting lists.

I am swayed both ways but, at the end of the day, I think there is enough money in the system to allow both schemes to run. That is the conclusion that Family First has come to, and it has not come to it lightly, frankly. I think both systems have merit and both seem to address different issues. Ultimately I really believe that Family First would continue to seek the continuation of both. If the government wants to force us into choosing one or the other, I think that they are going to find that we will hold onto the chronic disease scheme now and see whether the government can put more money into the system. There is money there and they can put it in if they want to. It is a choice that they can turn back on themselves; it is a choice that they can make as to whether they actually do something about the waiting lists. But I think the needs in the chronic disease area are also real. I would just say that dental services in Australia have been mammothly underfunded collectively and we need to work out how we can have both. With the resources we have in Australia, I think we can have both.