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Question Time Ahead of Time

Question Time for Monday began almost entirely as predicted, with the protests by some members of the Islamic community in Sydney being the first thing mentioned in Question Time after procedural matters. Both the Acting Prime Minister, Wayne Swan and the Acting Opposition Leader, Julie Bishop rose, on indulgence to condemn, in no uncertain terms, the actions of a violent minority of demonstrators who caused mayhem in Sydney on the weekend. But the actions on the weekend did not result in any questions as predicted prior to the commencement of parliament. There were simply the statements by the two leaders and then Questions Without Notice began for the day.

Question Time on Monday, as far as the Coalition was concerned, was pretty evenly split between two issues. There was the return of the usual prominence of the anti-carbon tax campaign, which has taken somewhat of a backseat and then there was a number of questions in relation to the visa of a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an extremist group, who spoke at a conference here.

The Gillard Government through the Dorothy Dix pursued, as has become their strategy for some time now, a much broader range of policy areas in an attempt to highlight positive differences in policy and perceived shortfalls of the Opposition in these policy areas. There were questions on the economy, taxation, duplication of the Pacific Highway, disability, healthcare and school education, all now regular features in questions from Labor backbenchers.

Question Time on Tuesday looks like it will play out in a similar fashion to Monday. It now seems likely that the Coalition will return to asking questions related to the carbon tax, around power bills quite likely, as it was today. Questions on the carbon price could also centre around the dropping of the floor price as well as the decision to not seek the closure of the 5 biggest coal-fired power stations and the impacts of the policy on businesses not compensated for price impacts.

Questions about the Hizb ut-Tahrir conference matter may continue tomorrow, but if this occurs it seems likely to not be as prominent as it was today.

Another issue which may compete for top billing, but was non-existent during Question Time today during Opposition questions would be matters related to spending priorities and the budget and what services would be cut, or taxes increased to pay for the significant new policy promises from the ALP.

Even more certain is the broad range of areas that the government will ask questions of itself on during Question Time. This will likely included comparative economic performance, healthcare and school education reform and could just as likely include infrastructure. taxation, the environment and families and community services questions.

Nobody was asked to leave the chamber under Standing Order 94a, but that could all change tomorrow as our parliamentarians begin getting back into the parliamentary groove.

Dental Health Funding Filling Put In But There Could Be an Extraction

Dental care has been a much discussed and debated issue in Australian politics. The sick state of the dental health care system, including the immense and prohibitive costs received increased attention after the 2010 election when the Greens demanded that the Gillard Government provide increased funding for dental care. They wanted Denticare, a fully-funded oral healthcare scheme for all.

Today the Greens got some of what they wanted, millions of children and l0w-income earners will be covered under a new dental plan announced by Health Minister Tanya Plibersek.

The Labor Government will spend $2.7 billion on treatment for children whose families are able to apply for Family Tax Benefit Part A. A further $1.3 billion will be spent, helping 5 million people on a low income as well as those in rural areas. All up, that’s $4 billion extra going into mental health at a time when the budget is under much strain.

The $2.7 billion to be spent on treatment for children will allow for families to claim up to $1000 over a two year period for their child’s dental treatment and is available to approximately 3.4 million children. The $1.3 billion will be focused on early treatment to cut down waiting lists for public dental care. A further $200 million will target treatment in rural areas.

The $4 billion dollar package is added to the $515 million that was allocated in the last budget by the Labor Party.

Providing support for oral treatment and care is extremely important and has positive flow-on health benefits for those that are able to seek and obtain preventative treatment. The devastating effects of poor oral health can affect the overall health of people with untreated dental problems and so in itself should be cheered.

What should not be celebrated is the lack of detail over where the money will be coming from for such a large scheme, a multi-billion dollar allocation in fact. Then there’s the matter of what that does to the budget in the future for both the ALP and the Opposition.

What we do know is that the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, which now costs upwards of $80 million dollars a month will be scrapped by the Labor Government in favour of this new program. That still leaves a substantial amount of savings that the government must find to keep its promise to return the budget to surplus in 2012-13, not that it’s going to happen anyway. We’re still expecting a significant announcement in education funding which could easily go into the billions of dollars.

The Medicare-funded Teen Dental Plan will also be cut to make way for the new allocation for children.

But what else will be cut from the budget for 2014? We know that a significant amount of funds will still need to be cut to make way for this latest promise and at the same time keep the projected, yet likely fantasy surplus in place.

It’s also entirely possible, even likely that the scheme will not start before it’s cut. On current polling, the Liberal and National Party Coalition is set to take government and after comments today, it would seem that this new funding could be set to be trimmed from the federal budget by an incoming Coalition Government.

Another issue that arises, particularly with the $1000 allocation per eligible child over a two-year period is that in some cases that simply won’t be enough over two years. This will be particularly the case when receiving dental treatment from the private sector with treatment at the dentist, even from the most basic care, is a significant cost burden. There could well be a need for further funds here in the future or for people to dip into their own pockets from time to time or again not seek treatment at all and this could be harmful to health just the same.

The struggles and intricacies of minority government and  the balancing of spending priorities for both sides of politics continue with this latest promise, as will the budget woes. However, the overall health benefits are a big win, if it’s not cut by an incoming government that is.

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