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Thursday, 12 September 1996
Page: 3405


Senator FAULKNER (Leader of the Opposition in the Senate)(3.10 p.m.) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answers given by the Assistant Treasurer (Senator Short), to questions without notice asked by Senator Faulkner today, relating to the dental health program.

What we have had clearly exposed in this chamber over the last two days is a clear conflict between two ministers in this government—two inexperienced ministers in the government, two ministers who fumbled, bumbled and stumbled their way through on this issue, both desperately trying to protect their own ministerial interests.

The trouble is, of course, it is not possible to do that because there is a clear conflict between them. On the one hand, the Minister for Social Security, Senator Newman, proudly proclaimed—and I quote her words during question time yesterday:

In fact, the funding runs until the end of December this year, so it is for 3½ years that we are honouring that commitment to that program. I am sorry if I misled the Senate in any way. It was quite inadvertent.

Senator Newman tried to make political capital out of the point that the Commonwealth dental health program was to end in 1997. The Assistant Treasurer, Senator Short, desperately tried to wheedle his way out of the hole in which he had dug himself because the Howard government has tried to extract savings from a non-existent program.

That is the issue that has been exposed in question time today. Of course, they are embarrassed, because the Commonwealth dental health program represents nothing more than another broken promise of the Howard government. It has been exposed in here that this mob want their cake and want to eat it, too. Not only do they want to end the program, not only do they want to ensure that through the cessation of the Commonwealth dental health program any Commonwealth responsibility and support for the dental care of poor, disadvantaged and low income Australians ends, not only have they perpetrated a very cruel and mean budget measure, but they want to claim savings from a program that they say is non-existent.

You cannot have it both ways. Senator Short and Senator Newman cannot both be right. If you go to the portfolio budget statements of the Health and Family Services portfolio, on page 149 we see part 7: `the cessation of the Commonwealth dental health program'. It outlines the savings over the forward estimates period: in 1996-97, savings of $55.6 million; in 1997-98, $112.8 million; in 1998-99, $114.5 million; and in 1999-2000, $116.5 million. They are the savings that are being claimed in the Health and Family Services portfolio.

It is absolutely simple. These are phantom savings. But if they are not phantom savings, Senator Newman has misled this chamber time and time again. Both these ministers cannot be right. One of these ministers is categorically wrong. One of these ministers has misled the Senate in a very heinous way. One of these ministers is about due right now to be carpeted by the Prime Minister, Mr Howard.

It is quite possible, given the performance of both these ministers, that they are in fact both wrong. There is a lot of explaining to do on this. You cannot claim phantom savings. If Senator Newman is right about the cessation of the Commonwealth dental health program, Senator Short is wrong. If Senator Short has any credibility at all, poor old Senator Newman has misled this Senate on three occasions. This is an incompetent team. This is the most ineffective ministerial team we have seen. This is a pathetic performance from a pathetic government. (Time expired)