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Wednesday, 15 June 2005
Page: 156

Mrs ELLIOT (10:40 AM) —I rise today to speak on the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 2005-2006 and related bills and the effects they will have upon the families in the Richmond electorate. The Howard government has failed the families of Richmond over the years on a whole range of different issues. This neglect continues across the board, particularly in the very key areas of health, aged care and training. Many of the welfare reforms are also unfair, creating a two-tiered system and attacking often the most vulnerable in our society—those who desperately need the assistance. The government’s tax package is very unfair, for the majority of families of Richmond will only get $6 a week while rich Sydney families reap the rewards. In regional areas like Richmond, people are really doing it tough and the government has been failing to provide the services that these people desperately need. This is the situation across the board in regional areas across Australia, but in my electorate particularly people are doing it tough. The government has failed on so many occasions to address those issues and the desperate needs of people.

One of the major groups affected is elderly people, particularly in relation to their health. Within Richmond 20 per cent of people are aged over 65, one of the highest percentages in electorates throughout the country. Many people move to our area and retire there, so the needs of the elderly are absolutely foremost. The government has really missed an opportunity in this budget to assist many of the struggling pensioners. In fact, many of them will be worse off, for this budget launched the government’s attack on free prescription medicines which indeed puts the health of the elderly at risk. This is a major issue within the community, and many elderly people have approached me with their concerns about accessing prescription medicines. Thanks to the Prime Minister, pensioners will now have to wait until they use 54 scripts per year before they are entitled to free medicine. This will be going up to 60 by 2009. For elderly people who are sick and have to access pensions, this is a huge impost upon them and it is going to cause great crisis and havoc in their lives when they already have so many other health concerns.

The budget also breaks the Minister for Health and Ageing’s rock solid, ironclad promise on the Medicare safety net. This, of course, impacts on elderly people so much more because of their increased health needs. In 2004, 2.5 million people benefited from the Medicare safety net. Only 1.5 million people across the nation will reach the new thresholds of $500 for concession card holders and low-income earners and $1,000 for those not on concession cards. When this Medicare safety net promise was broken people across Richmond were outraged, particularly the elderly who desperately need to access the safety net. But whilst the health minister is breaking promises on Medicare he is doing nothing to solve the bulk-billing crisis—and it is a crisis within Richmond. Our bulk-billing rate is at 69.5 per cent, while the state average for New South Wales is 78.1 per cent—and if we look at the Prime Minister’s North Sydney electorate of Bennelong it is 78.4 per cent.

This is a major issue within the community. People constantly tell me about the difficulties of finding and accessing GPs who bulk-bill. They often have to drive long distances, and even if they find a GP there are often long waiting times to get in. People often have to make choices about whether to access health care that they desperately need. I know a lot of families who say that they have to weigh up choices about whether to buy groceries or to go to the doctor. Of course, if they have a young family and one child gets sick then all two, all three or all four of the kids get sick. The cost of having to go to the doctor is often just too much for these families. Instead they wait, and often the kids end up becoming a lot sicker. This is something I hear time and time again. It is just not good enough in these areas where we do have, as I have said, a lot of elderly people as well as a lot of young families.

As I said, the bulk-billing rate being at 69.5 per cent really adds to the financial pressure of families within Richmond. We have 10,000 families in Richmond who earn less than $500 a week. This is one of the lowest income earning areas in the country, and this health issue is causing ongoing strain for so many people. The lack of bulk-billing doctors and the broken promise on the Medicare safety net have hit the families of Richmond very hard, as well as the elderly and those on pensions. We have 13,000 seniors locally who are on fixed pensions. Not being able to access a doctor, apart from obviously affecting their health, affects their emotional wellbeing and causes them a great deal of distress.

When we stop for a moment to look at the seniors and the elderly in our community—and with 20 per cent of the Richmond population aged over 65 these are people whom I speak to on a daily basis—we should realise that, after the lives they have lived, they deserve not only our respect but also the right to proper services. They are people who have worked and contributed to society, and keep contributing in the very valuable community work that they do. But they face so many problems. Many of them move to areas like Richmond, often away from their families. They often suffer a degree of depression and isolation because it is difficult for them sometimes to access community contacts if their families are living in faraway places. If one spouse becomes ill, they are in the situation where they have difficulty in accessing health care. So it was greatly disappointing that there were no measures to improve the provision of bulk-billing, particularly in an area like Richmond.

Another major area of concern is dental health. I am extremely disappointed that there is nothing in the budget for dental health. I am disappointed for a number of reasons. Under section 51 the Constitution it is in fact a Commonwealth responsibility, but the government scrapped the $100 million a year Commonwealth dental scheme in 1997. Just over a month ago, I started a petition calling on the federal government to restore federal funding to dental care because it is a major issue within the community that people approach me about constantly.

More than 4,000 people in Richmond have signed the petition because they feel so strongly about this issue and they want so much to have federal funding restored to dental health. Recently the Leader of the Opposition was in Richmond where he met with three locals who have been on the waiting list for dental health. He met with Norm Masters, Jill Wainwright and Allan Green. Norm Masters is a lovely fellow. He has been waiting for more than two years to have his dentures repaired. He has been living in pain. He cannot eat properly and he experiences quite severe degrees of pain at times. Often when he is speaking, the dentures that he had put in fall out. Obviously, apart from the pain, there is also embarrassment. As I say, he has been waiting for over two years to have his dentures fixed. It is an outrageous situation when people have to live in pain and with embarrassment and shame.

Jill Wainwright was another whom the Leader of the Opposition met with. Jill has a broken tooth and has basically given up on accessing the public dental scheme after two years on the waiting list. It will cost her about $800 to get her tooth fixed. Jill’s story is a very common one. People do end up just giving up because they cannot wait any longer. In fact, an 80-year-old woman told me recently that she is waiting to get dentures, and she said, ‘I think I’ll be dead before I get my dentures.’ She meant that, and it is an expression I hear from elderly people quite often.

Another person the Leader of the Opposition met with was Allan Green. It has cost Allan Green about $6,000 in dental care because he too gave up after waiting for a long time. These people have been able to afford that care but so many people cannot, and so they have given up and do not get their teeth fixed. When it comes to talking about dental care, it is not just about having your mouth in pain, being unable to eat or being distressed but also about how it affects your overall health. That your dental care does affect your overall health has been acknowledged on many occasions by the medical profession. So it is outrageous that we do not have the federal funding for the dental scheme to ensure that we can prevent a lot of illnesses, in terms of people’s overall health, that are caused by decaying teeth.

The minister for health has said in relation to Labor’s dental health scheme:

The Keating government’s program did reduce waiting times, no doubt about that.

If he has acknowledged that, why doesn’t he restore the funding? Why doesn’t he make sure that these elderly people do not have to wait in pain? This is a situation that I am sure exists across Australia. I have heard many people speak about it. It is a major issue in my electorate because of its large number of elderly people. That is the reason why, at this stage, we have had 4,000 people sign the petition, and more people are coming forward every day to sign it.

There are about only 240 public dentists to cater for more than 2.5 million health care card holders, children and the elderly. This compares with more than 3,000 private dentists to treat the rest of the population. I know the federal government will blame the states, but it is time to stop the buck-passing and fix the problem. It is a constitutional responsibility of the federal government; it is obligated to provide the funding for dental care and it is not meeting that obligation. I was very disappointed that dental care was not mentioned at all in the budget because it is a major concern for my electorate, as I am sure it is for all electorates across the country, particularly as our population ages. So I will keep calling upon the minister for health to restore that federal funding.

Another major issue in Richmond is aged care. Because of the large number of elderly people, aged care is a very pressing issue within the community. More funding is needed for aged care, and it needs to be spent in the right places. In the budget, 2,000 EACH packages were delivered Australia-wide for people suffering from dementia. This will barely touch the sides of what is needed to fill the gap, with the huge home-care waiting lists not just in the area of dementia but also in other areas.

Currently in Richmond there is a six- to seven-month waiting list for people to access home care. People have been assessed as needing home care but they have to wait six, seven and sometimes eight months to get it. So what are they doing in the meantime? They are suffering; they are not getting looked after and they are not coping. There are people like Ann from Banora Point who cannot walk, but she is not able to get home care at all. So she is struggling day by day and does not have the resources or family contacts to help her. Another woman from South Tweed, Aileen Cantoni, who is looking after her infirm mother and her disabled daughter, has difficulty accessing enough home care and respite care. She herself is not too well, yet she carries the burden of looking after both her ill mother and her disabled daughter. John, from Ocean Shores, is caring for his very infirm wife. He has just been told that he cannot get home care. He was told: ‘There is no federal funding. You cannot get it. Tough. That’s the way it is.’

The people who work in home care are fantastic. They struggle and they do a great deal, but they do not have the federal funding to be able to administer enough packages. The federal government has to provide more. I hear these stories every day. There is just not enough money for home care. Literally, hundreds and thousands of people are left out. They are suffering without the support that they need. I welcome the very limited number of home care places that were recently announced, but it is an exceptionally limited number. The number of places that have been provided in my electorate are far fewer than what is needed—the need is desperate. More nursing home places are also needed. We have many people who are basically stuck in public hospitals because they cannot get a bed in a nursing home. That, of course, places pressure on the public hospitals.

In April I held an aged care summit and, without a doubt, home care was the major issue—lack of access to home care and the waiting times. So there is no doubt that in Richmond the local aged care system is in crisis, but the government has abandoned our elderly. As I said, 25 per cent of Richmond’s population is aged over 65, and that will be the percentage of over-65s in the national population in 40 years time. So we have to get it right on the ground in Richmond now. If you are looking 40 years into the future to see what the demographic change in the whole country will be, you can see it now in Richmond, where there is already a crisis because the government is not providing for the people living there. The government has missed an opportunity to fix the problems on the ground now in preparation for the future.

In relation to tax cuts, 10,000 families in Richmond earn less than $500 a week, the fourth highest number of any electorate in the country. And we have the fourth lowest median weekly family income, at just $654. But possibly the most shocking statistic is that 15.5 per cent of local children are living in poverty, which is outrageous. Most of the families in my electorate will miss out on a fair tax cut. While rich Sydney families will get $65 under the government’s proposal, most people in my electorate will get just $6. Where is the equity in that? Where is the fairness in that? The government will have an opportunity to give families in my electorate a fair go by voting for Labor’s $12 tax cut. I urge government MPs to join Labor in the fight for what is fair for their communities.

This year’s budget also saw the creation of a two-tiered welfare system. Which side of 1 July 2006 a person with a disability or a single mother goes on to benefits determines the level of government assistance they receive. The government has created a system where people suffering from exactly the same disability will have different work and income obligations, and single mothers with the same needs will receive two different payments. This is an obvious display of the type of inequality we have come to expect from this government—sending the disabled and single parents back to work without providing training or child care. There are no jobs for these people to go to.

Local youth unemployment in Richmond is at 30.2 per cent and there were no initiatives from the government to rectify the problem; it is only adding to it. The government missed an opportunity to invest in skills and training. It has ignored the Reserve Bank’s warning about skills shortages, and local young people in Richmond are paying the price. The government is importing labour instead of addressing the skills crisis. We should be training Australians first and training Australians now.

Access to higher education is a major issue within my electorate. The government should not be increasing HECS fees for students. Students at Southern Cross University in my electorate were the first to be slugged with the government’s 25 per cent increase. In a regional area it is even harder to get to university than it is in a city area. You have got the added costs of travel, accommodation and relocation, and with a huge increase in HECS fees a lot of families are telling me that university is just not an option. It is not an option at all for their children. It is not even on their radar at all. And that is something that has changed from five years ago when it was an opportunity that people could take. They looked forward to a range of different opportunities they could move towards as they went through school. But, no, people say it is not even on the radar; it is not going to happen.

There is a lack of employment and training opportunities for young people across Richmond. It is just outrageous that we are often losing people in regional areas because the government is doing nothing to provide the skills, the support services or the employment or training for these young people. These young people are our future, and in regional areas like Richmond we want to be able to keep them there. It is disappointing that the government has failed to invest in the future of the young people of Australia.

We also have a lot of young families in Richmond, so child care is a very important issue. The government is forcing single parents back to work but not providing anywhere for their children to go. We only have one after school care centre in Tweed Heads. They do a fantastic job, but they just cannot take any more children at this stage because there is not adequate funding for after school care places. We are creating a new generation of latchkey kids, because this government does not value families.

While the Treasurer attacks Labor for fighting for fairer tax cuts, he forces parents to wait up to two years for a promised 30 per cent rebate on child-care costs. We all know that costs within child-care centres have risen, but parents will not see that benefit for two years and they have got to carry that cost. The government also cannot tell families how they will be able to access the benefit. Despite all the recent advertising we have seen, there is a lot of confusion in the community about this. Will parents have to keep child-care receipts for two years? Will child-care centres have the burden of providing information? It is another case where the government does not value young families with young children.

There was no new money for the Pacific Highway. Twenty per cent of all fatalities on the Pacific Highway happen in Richmond. The highway itself stretches about 800 kilometres from Sydney to Brisbane. It has recorded an appalling 10,000 casualties, including 600 deaths, over the past decade. I believe very strongly in this issue. As a former police officer, I have attended many fatal and serious traffic accidents over the years. I believe it is imperative that the federal government give a lot more funding to roads—particularly in my area with the Pacific Highway running right through it. It needs to prioritise roads such as the Pacific Highway in this region.

The government has missed an opportunity to invest in our nation’s future. Locally, it has not provided for our seniors, our families, our children and our young people. It has failed to address the youth unemployment and skills crisis. There is no new money for our Pacific Highway. The inequities in this budget are stark. There is a $6 tax cut for low- and middle-income earners, including 10,000 families in Richmond who earn less than $500 a week. The government has also created a two-tiered welfare system. After nine years, the government is out of ideas on how to fix the problems its neglect has created. I will always be standing up for local families and fighting to make sure they get a better deal from this government because on so many fronts they have been let down.