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Thursday, 17 October 1996
Page: 4473

Senator FORSHAW(7.47 p.m.) —I rise tonight to draw to the attention of the Senate more evidence regarding the failings of the coalition government to implement policies and commitments that they gave at the election in March. There are numerous examples that one could give, as has been demonstrated over recent days regarding the inability of this government and the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) to live up to the commitments they made.

One of the commitments that the now Prime Minister made was to `maintain the real value of all pension benefits and other entitlements for low income earners.' One of the most disgraceful decisions of this government contained in the budget is the proposal to axe the Commonwealth dental health program. This was a program introduced by the previous Labor government to provide equity of access to dental health care for less fortunate members of our community.

The scheme provided funds to hospitals so as to reduce the waiting list for those unable to afford dental care. Funding for the program was in the order of $350 million over the last three years of the Labor government. There is no doubt that this program was a success. Since its introduction, waiting lists for people waiting for dental treatment have reduced from some two years or more down to, in most cases, approximately one month.

I am sure all honourable senators recognise the distress that can exist for people, particularly elderly people on pensions, waiting for dental treatment. To have to wait for two years or more was indeed a matter of great concern, and the previous Labor government introduced this scheme to reduce that waiting period.

It was an outstanding success, recognised by many health care groups, hospitals, dental services and others throughout the community. What it meant was that pensioners and health care card holders had access to real, ongoing preventative dental care, not just emergency care. In the last financial year of the Labor government, 1995-96, it spent around $106 million on the program and, all told, around 500,000 people were able to be treated under this scheme.

Unfortunately—and unfortunately particularly for many people living in western Sydney—this program is to be abolished. In its first budget the coalition government cut funds available to dental clinics and consequently we are going to see a massive reduction in services.

Who will be affected? For a start, 36 per cent of those that were using the program were aged pensioners, so the elderly will be affected. Thirty per cent of people accessing the program were in receipt of other pension entitlements such as sole parents, disability pensions and so on. Of course, many of the unemployed were able to access this program.

All told, around 21,000 people in western Sydney alone received emergency or preventative health care. In areas such as Westmead, the Nepean, Mount Druitt and Katoomba many people were able to receive treatment as a result of this program. Therefore it is very distressing and disturbing for the people of western Sydney—many of whom will get an opportunity next Saturday in the Lindsay by-election to pass judgment upon this government—to see this program being wound down and eventually abolished.

Last Tuesday in the Senate the minister responsible in this chamber, Senator Newman, was waxing lyrical about how she had visited the electorate of Lindsay to assist her friend the Liberal candidate, who could not even get her own nomination correct. The minister was in the electorate to try and help, in a belated way, the candidate from the Liberal party to regain the seat. I would not mind betting that there were two places in the electorate that the minister did not get to visit and in fact avoided visiting. They would be, firstly, the Wentworth Area Health Services and, secondly, the Blue Mountains District Health Services.

The reason she would not have wanted to visit these two health service providers is that they would have given very bad news to the minister about the impact of this decision. For instance, the Wentworth area health service has indicated that the impact of this decision will be such that five people from the health service will be expected to lose their jobs before the end of this year. That is a huge cut in the provision of services available for the many people living in the area who will want to access them.

All told, it is expected that around 100 patient visits per week will be lost as a result of the impact of this cut and eventual abolition of this program from the Wentworth area health service. It has also been indicated by the health services within western Sydney that, as a result of the abolition of this program, the waiting lists will soar back up again—they will increase from around one month, which is now the approximate waiting time, to up to two years and maybe even longer. For anybody waiting for dental treatment for that length of time, particularly the elderly, it must be incredibly distressing. It is a cruel, indeed despicable, action on the part of this government to cut funding from such a worthwhile program which has delivered relief to so many hundreds of thousands of people in recent years.

This ill-conceived policy now adopted by the coalition, in breach of the commitment given by the Prime Minister (Mr Howard) to maintain benefits for pensioners and other welfare recipients, will destroy the provision of dental care for the real battlers of the Lindsay electorate. It may be okay for the millionaire shareholders on the front bench of the government to pay $200 or more an hour for dental treatment, but there are many people in Lindsay and in other parts of western Sydney who cannot afford that and who do not have the opportunity to even consider having a share portfolio. They will get their chance on Saturday to re-elect Ross Free as the member for Lindsay and to start to put an end to the sorts of policies that this government is seeking to inflict upon the residents of that electorate and upon people of western Sydney—the real battlers in this community.