August 12, 2021

I am pleased to make a contribution on the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2021. This bill implements a budget measure from last year, the 'guaranteeing Medicare' changes to the Child Dental Benefits Schedule. This bill amends the Dental Benefits Act 2008 to remove the lower eligibility restrictions of two years to allow eligible children from zero years of age to access the Child Dental Benefits Schedule. This is a sensible reform and Labor supports it. I note that it's estimated that each year an extra 300,000 children aged between zero and two will become eligible for the program from 1 January 2022, and that 15 per cent of children in this newly eligible age group with teeth issues will access the scheme. Obviously any dental issues in a child need to be addressed, and the sooner they are dealt with the better.

In speaking on this bill, I want to draw to the attention of the House the Child Dental Benefits Schedule, introduced by the Gillard Labor government in August 2012, which was part of Labor's dental health reform package. The package comprised the $1.3 billion national partnership agreement for public dental services, a $225 million flexible grants program, and $2.7 billion for the CDBS—which replaced the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme and the Medicare Teen Dental Plan. Although these reforms may not have been headline-grabbing at the time, they did constitute a serious and progressive public health policy reform, which has always been the hallmark of Labor governments. Since the Gillard government implemented this reform, it's provided over $2.3 billion in benefits and delivered more that 38 million services to over three million Australians.

Almost invariably when I meet with constituents, health is the issue that is always raised as being of fundamental importance to people. In our great Australian social democracy, access to health care based on need, and not ability to pay for the treatment, is something we are rightly proud of and cherish. I do regularly receive feedback from constituents about dental health and the difficulty in getting treatment for particular conditions, so this bill is a welcome addition to the care provided under CDBS. Labor is supporting the government's bill because it does build on a great Labor health reform and is an extension of Labor's legacy in health policy.

In speaking on the bill on health policy, I want to draw to the attention of the House the overwhelming response I've received to my Medicare petition regarding the government's recent attacks. Government members should be very concerned about the feedback I have received. These are some of the things my constituents have told me. I can't repeat some comments about the Prime Minister, as it certainly would be ruled as unparliamentary, but in their comments my constituents clearly identify how much they care about Medicare: 'Stripping essential medical services to ordinary Australians should not be allowed; otherwise, we will end up like America, where people can't afford medical treatment. Medicare is vitally important to all Australians. It gives a sense of safety to those who cannot afford private health insurance.' I have another one: 'Australia's universal healthcare system is revered by many people around the world who cannot afford life-saving and life-altering health care. The Liberals' attempt to transform this system into a money-making machine is deplorable.' I have another one: 'This government doesn't care about any of us, especially those who are struggling and can't afford doctors' fees.' There is another one: 'Our health is our wealth.' Here is another one: 'Medicare is sacrosanct. Hands off.' Finally, Simone from Redhead makes a point that I've often made in this place: 'If people can't afford to go to their doctor, their health will get worse and it will end up putting a strain on our already overworked hospital system.'

They are just some of the comments from my constituents about their passionate support for Medicare and their commitment to a fair and equitable health policy in this country, which this bill builds on. This bill is an important addition to the dental health reforms that Labor put in place, because they're important health reforms. It is health policy that benefits all Australians. I want to emphasise that this bill, the Dental Benefits Amendment Bill 2021, is welcome reform and is supported by Labor, but the Liberals' and Nationals' ongoing attacks on Medicare are not. And let's not forget that we're in the middle of a global health pandemic and that the government is rushing through changes to Medicare that the AMA has warned will drive up the cost of some surgeries.

Many of our colleagues cannot be here because they are in lockdown at home and, since I came to Canberra last week, the whole of Shortland is now in lockdown. In fact, I heard just 35 minutes ago that the New South Wales Premier has extended the Hunter lockdown by another week. Quite frankly, while I'm no medical expert, I would be very surprised if we exit lockdown anytime soon, given the number of cases. But let there be no mistake where the fault for this lockdown lies. It lies with the Prime Minister and his government.

Australia is an international joke because of our vaccine rollout. But it's no joke for the teacher or the cleaner or the truck driver or the aged-care nurse, all of whom are on the front line, all of whom are essential workers who constantly contact my office because they cannot get an appointment to be vaccinated. In fact, the biggest number of COVID cases in my community is an outbreak of COVID at an aged-care home, the Hawkins Masonic Village at Edgeworth. I heard just today that it has been established that those cases—I think there are 12 residents and at least three staff—were caused because an unvaccinated aged-care worker was there and infected the other people. Every single aged-care worker was supposed to have been vaccinated by Easter. They were at priority 1a in the rollout by this government. Mr Morrison has failed my residents with the rollout. The fact that at least half of all aged-care workers are not vaccinated, are still having to go to work and, if they catch COVID, are then very likely to pass it to our vulnerable residents of aged-care homes lies at the feet of this government and of Mr Morrison in particular. That's the context of this bill, which is all about health.

What rubs salt into the wound of the current lockdown is the fact that my constituents see the Prime Minister and Premier of New South Wales on their televisions every night repeating ad nauseam that the way out of lockdown is through vaccination. My constituents have had their appointments cancelled because the New South Wales government stole our Pfizer vaccines and redirected them to Sydney. My constituents and I are absolutely furious about this. Why were they redirected? It is because the Prime Minister failed to get enough Pfizer into Sydney, and he still continues to fail to get Pfizer into Sydney. The New South Wales government's actions are a disgrace. They should be condemned. They should not be stealing Pfizer vaccine from the Hunter and the Central Coast while we have outbreaks, but they were forced to do this because the Prime Minister failed to provide sufficient vaccine to Sydney.

The Prime Minister said in the House last week that those doses would be sent back, but I'm still receiving multiple reports of people who, having had their appointments cancelled, have not had them rescheduled. One constituent emailed me about his daughter's experiences. He wrote: 'My daughter was booked in at Belmont for the vaccination and was advised that her vaccination had been cancelled and given to high school students in Sydney at a private school. She was told she would receive another appointment. Her original appointment was the day after the vaccine was sent to Sydney. She made contact with the booking service and was told bad luck. The government's decision to give the vaccine to the wealthier Liberal Party seats is a disgrace and un-Australian, and something that should be exposed and not forgotten.' This is just a taste of what I'm seeing in my community in relation to health policy and, in particular, Liberal governments' stealing of vaccines from my region, a region that now has a very significant COVID outbreak. This region had known cases of COVID in the community in the northern Central Coast. It was serviced by a Belmont vaccine hub when the Liberal governments stole our vaccine. That is important context for this bill.

In speaking on the dental benefits bill, it's relevant to provide feedback from an actual dentist. Gwen, from Belmont, has a dental practice and contacted my office yesterday. Her business is suffering incredibly because of the lockdown, as she can only perform emergency procedures and she is not eligible for any state government business assistance. Gwen is also absolutely clear about who is responsible for the lockdown that is so damaging her livelihood—the Prime Minister and the Premier of New South Wales. This is the feedback I am receiving from my constituents daily about lockdown, and that's the context for the debate we're having right now.

One aspect of health policy that is relevant to this bill is the attack on bulk-billing in my community. This bill goes to the affordability of dental care, and obviously that's very important, but the affordability of general health care is also very relevant to this debate. Families in my electorate have been slugged by the increased cost of going to a GP because this government has, ridiculously, reclassified my region as a major metropolitan region akin to Double Bay in Sydney. That means that it has cut the payments that doctors on the Central Coast and in the Hunter receive for bulk-billing, and that has had a direct impact on many surgeries. One surgery told me that they've gone from bulk-billing 80 per cent of their patients to bulk-billing 20 per cent. That is having an enormous impact, and I have families who are literally choosing between putting dinner on the table and going to the doctor. That is unacceptable in Australia. It is unacceptable in Australia in the year 2021 that people are being forced to make that choice.

That is just one of the many examples of this government's attack on health policy and health care in this country. Another is the separate, but related, reclassification of the Hunter and the Central Coast in relation to doctor shortages. We are now treated in the same way as the eastern suburbs of Sydney, that, somehow, we've got a surplus of doctors. That means that GP surgeries in my electorate and nearby don't get incentives—doctors don't get the points they get from serving in places like Dubbo or Tamworth—which means my GP surgeries are finding it incredibly hard to attract GPs. They are literally struggling to staff their GP surgeries. I had the head of the Lake Munmorah surgery contact me about this recently. He is having enormous difficulty finding doctors. So if you get to a doctor under this government, you are paying more than you've ever had to before, and that's if you can find a doctor, because under this government it's incredibly hard to get on the list for an appointment to see a new GP.

This dental health benefits bill really should be seen in the broader context, which is the multiple attacks by this government on health care: the GP shortage, through their reclassification; bulk-billing, through their reduction in the bulk-billing incentive; and the attack on the Medicare Benefits Schedule that the AMA and the Grattan Institute have said will increase out-of-pocket costs for people having surgery.

These are all attacks on the health of my constituents, which is made worse by the current COVID crisis. In the COVID crisis, the government has failed Australians and failed my community. I am so furious with the incompetence of the Morrison government. This government has failed with the national quarantine system, which allowed 27 outbreaks, including the one that started the eastern suburbs cluster. The New South Wales Premier, pandering to the wealthy eastern suburbs, was too weak to lock it down when she had the opportunity. She was egged on by the Prime Minister, who, nine days into the Bondi cluster, congratulated her on not locking down. That COVID outbreak then spread to Western Sydney, the Central Coast and the upper Hunter because there wasn't sufficient vaccine available throughout New South Wales and Australia. Then the New South Wales Premier stole the Central Coast's and the Hunter's Pfizer vaccines because she couldn't get sufficient COVID doses to Western Sydney. So this attack on the health of all my constituents in lockdown is just the latest example of this government's contempt for health policy in this country.

Before I commend this bill to the House, I just want to say that this will likely be my last opportunity to speak in the chamber for some time, as my home region will probably still be in lockdown in the next sitting fortnight. I will be travelling home tomorrow to start the joys of homeschooling and to be part of the lockdown with my community. We will continue to do our welfare calls for my constituents. We've managed to contact over 1,500 households in the last two weeks to check on them. I want to say to my constituents: thank you for following rules; thank you for doing the right thing; thank you for bearing with the incompetence of the Morrison government that's caused you to be in lockdown right now. If my office can assist in any way, whether it's income assistance payments, which this government has resisted, or access to food banks and charities or referrals to mental health services, please contact my office. We are still operating remotely during this difficult period.

I just want to let my constituents to know that I stand with you. This is a really troubling and hard period, but we will get through it. But we are in this present situation because of the appalling incompetence and arrogance of the Prime Minister and the Liberal and National parties. They have failed the people of Australia, who are now suffering the health and economic consequences because of the ineptitude and mendacious behaviour of this government.