I rise to speak in opposition to Mr Kavanagh’s private member’s bill. In my opening remarks I wish to make a couple of statements. One is the fact that 77 per cent of Victorians now live in areas that have fluoride. It has been interesting to talk to people over the last couple of weeks. When asked about what matters I would be speaking on in Parliament this week I mentioned the fluoride debate, and those who do not live in certain parts of western Victoria or east of western Victoria found that even the notion that the upper house was debating fluoride was quite interesting, to say the least. The response has been essentially that surely Parliament is not dealing with that issue because that was debated in the community in the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s. I had to assure them that the debate is going on in some parts of Victoria that do not have fluoridated water, particularly in parts of western Victoria which has had a robust discussion of late and certainly over the last four months in the regional newspapers. We have seen a flurry of letters to the editor and various articles in the papers.
I have a few of those that I have gathered in the last few weeks before me. Many of the letters are attributed to familiar names, and those names seem to appear on a regular basis.
I advise the chamber and particularly Mr Kavanagh that I have taken a serious interest in this issue and all of its associated development, not just through articles in the newspaper but in a variety of other activities, including people coming to see me and talking through the issue. I also had the opportunity to take some time to look at the history of fluoride and how the major parties have dealt with it over time. I found it interesting that there had been a bipartisan approach to fluoride when the Liberal government was in power. I found a number of comments in Hansard from the various health ministers who supported in a very upfront fashion the introduction and the continuation of fluoride.
One of them was the Honourable Robert Knowles who, as the then Minister for Health, said:
- … it is unfortunate that any decision about fluoridated water always generates a great deal of hysteria and misinformation through scare campaigns … The truth is that on every occasion an inquiry has been held into the issue the health outcomes perspective has always been the same — that is, that fluoride is safe and effective in reducing dental decay.
I raise that at the forefront of my contribution. That has also been reinforced by David Davis’s contribution this evening, which has taken us through the history of support from the Liberal Party in respect of fluoride.
There are a number of key benefits that I wish to mention.
One that is a key and central issue to the Brumby government is the commitment that it has given to extend water fluoridation in rural and regional Victoria. Obviously that is to help protect teeth against decay, and it is for everyone in the community regardless of age, gender, income or indeed education level. It is about a government that wants to make sure there is no disparity in health outcomes for rural Victorians, and I think all of us would support that commitment.
The government also committed $4.7 million in the 2007-08 budget to improve oral health outcomes for Victorians living in rural and regional areas and for disadvantaged seniors. We are not just talking about objectives or principles; we have actually put money on the table in this current budget, which delivers what is required to bring that objective to the forefront. We have already heard that water fluoridation helps to protect teeth against decay in the most effective way and allows everybody to access the benefits of fluoride. Underlining that the World Health Organisation has stipulated that in fact it is the most cost-effective way of ensuring that people’s teeth are protected.
I also want to raise a couple of salient facts in respect to children. The benefits of fluoridation are illustrated by the fact that six-year-old children living in fluoridated areas in Victoria have up to 36 per cent less tooth decay than those living in non-fluoridated areas. That needs to be underlined. I do not think any mother or father would want to watch their child at a dentist having injections and having to submit to anaesthetic, certainly when it is unnecessary.
In Victoria in 2004-05 almost 5000 children under 10 years, including 250 two-year-olds, had a general anaesthetic in hospital for the treatment of dental decay. In the 25-year period following the introduction of water fluoridation it has been estimated that there have been resulting benefits to the Victorian community of around $1 billion through avoided dental costs and savings in work and leisure time.
I also want to touch on the generations that did not have fluoride, and they are the generations of my parents and my grandparents. Essentially when they got to the age of around 45 years they had to make a decision about tooth extraction and dentures. My generation — certainly in the first 10 or 15 years of life — did not have fluoridation in our water and a lot of people ended up at the dentist. Unfortunately even with a vigorous oral hygiene code exercised at home morning and night a number of children have a mouth full of metal fillings.
Of course we have also had to pay the price for that because over time, with the pressure of chewing and eating, those metal fillings have now to a certain degree cracked the original teeth, and there has been infection which leads to the need for root canal work. Again you are left with the option of tooth extraction — or indeed, if you have money and you can afford dental treatment — root canal treatment and crowns which cost approximately $2000 or $2500 in each instance. People like myself and friends and relations in my generation who did not have the benefit of fluoridation in our early years are still paying the financial and physical costs, and indeed the cost of the time that it takes to have those repairs done.
It is also important to mention the support that there is in relation to fluoridation. There are a number of levels of support at a local, national and international level, and I think it is worth mentioning the organisations for the record.
They include the World Health Organisation, the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Australian dental and medical associations, Dental Health Services Victoria, the Australian Dental Therapists Association, the University of Melbourne’s School of Dental Science, the Royal Children’s Hospital’s Department of Dentistry, VicHealth, the Australian Centre for Human Health Risk Assessment, the Public Health Association of Australia, Cancer Council Victoria, Osteoporosis Australia and Arthritis Australia.
A full report of the National Health and Medical Research Council went online last week. It noted that the fluoridation of drinking water remains the most effective and socially equitable means of achieving community-wide exposure to the carriers of prevention of effects of fluoride. The World Health Organisation has reiterated its support for the extension of water fluoridation in Australia, stating that at the recommended levels it is both effective and safe for people and the environment.
I also draw people’s attention to local support. In the Geelong-Colac area we have Barwon Health, Barwon Water, Bethany Community Support, Colac Area Health, Committee for Geelong, the faculty of health, medicine, nursing and behavioural sciences at Deakin University, the Geelong and district subdivision of the Australian Medical Association, the GP Association of Geelong, Glastonbury Child and Family Services, Otway Division of General Practice and the south-west maternal and child health nurses regional group. In Warrnambool and Hamilton we have South West Healthcare.
Sitting suspended 6.30 p.m. until 8.03 p.m.
Ms TIERNEY— Before the dinner break I was going through a list of local organisations that support the fluoridation of water.
I got up to South West Healthcare, and will continue: Otway Division of General Practice; Australian Dental Association, south-west group; Greater Green Triangle University Department of Rural Health; Warrnambool Shire Council — municipal public health plan; Western District Health Service; and Southern Grampians Shire Council. With respect to Ballarat, there is: Ballarat Community Health Centre; Centacare Ballarat; Ballan District Health and Care; Committee for Ballarat; Ballarat Health Services; Australian Dental Association, mid-western group; Central Highlands Primary Care Partnership and Hepburn Health Service.
In reiterating the bipartisan nature of the support for fluoride, it is also worth mentioning the historical connection that the Liberal Party has had in relation to this. I draw the chamber’s attention to statements from the member for South-West Coast in the other place, Dr Napthine, which go back as far as 1995 when he is reported as saying:
- The fluoridation of our water supply has had a significant impact on dental health. We should never forget that or weaken our resolve to ensure that fluoridation of water supplies across this state is maintained.
- The evidence is unequivocal that students and adults not only across Victoria but throughout Australia enjoy better dental health because of the fluoride in our water.
- No member of Parliament should ever become involved in any campaign to remove fluoride from our water.
The then Minister for Planning and Local Government in the Liberal government, Mr Maclellan, is reported as saying:
- Like former generations who were responsible for the erection of the Exhibition Building in all its grandeur, putting fluoride in the water, introducing seatbelt legislation and a dozen other controversial matters at the time, in the years to come when we see the glorious new museum erected on that site we will probably look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.
I say to Mr Kavanagh that I am hoping that will be the case in terms of western Victoria.
I also draw the chamber’s attention to comments made in 1995 by the then Minister for Health in the other place, Mrs Marie Tehan. She said:
- I and my department strongly support the use of fluoridation as a preventative measure against dental decay. I give my unequivocal support to the dental officer at the Wodonga District Hospital who seeks to have fluoride in the Wodonga public water supply.
- I will also take up the other suggestion of the honourable member that we look at the provisions of the Health (Fluoridation) Act 1973 which we understand enables the Secretary of the Department of Health and Community Services to request that fluoride be added to a water supply. My colleague the Minister for Natural Resources has similarly indicated that he sees value in having fluoride in the water supply and does not believe this cost would be great.
I mention that for the public record so that people are very clear that the Liberal Party does support fluoride being in our water system, although I am in a quandary as to why it is supporting the overall private members bill. I suspect that the speakers from the other side of the chamber who will follow me will take us through the Liberal Party’s support of fluoride, but it also wants a plebiscite.
It is an appropriate point to make a few general comments about plebiscites. I state up-front that I oppose a plebiscite on this occasion. I do so because we have had no less than seven major public documents in which this government has made public commitments to extend the water fluoridation program to communities that do not already have it. It was in the election documents, election commitments, A Fairer Victoria and a whole range of other documents that I am more than happy to provide members with.
The issue of fluoridation is not a new issue; it has been with us for a long time. If you unravel the populist call for a plebiscite in this area, there are a number of things that come to hand. I do not intend to go into any detail on this because my colleague Ms Jaala Pulford will go to the substantive issues associated with the proposed plebiscite. But for the record I wish to state that I do not believe that the proposed plebiscite is a genuine plebiscite; I believe it is a ploy of just playing politics. I think the parties on the other side of the chamber — —
Mr Vogels — We actually believe in democracy.
Ms TIERNEY— If you listen, Mr Vogels, you will understand that in a moment. If the parties on the other side of the chamber were really honest about the proposed plebiscite they would have structured it in a way that would have been more democratic, in that it would have allowed all people to be involved in it.
The way it is structured at the moment it essentially pre-orchestrates an outcome that delivers little chance for the introduction of fluoridation. With the plebiscite being a non-compulsory vote it will not be truly representative of community views, which will mean that only those who have strongly held views will participate in it. I really do not think that that can be called democracy at work. Even leaving the proposed plebiscite to one side, if you possibly can, there is a point in time in public administration when decisions need to be taken. Those areas where we particularly need to make decisions are public health and, similarly, public safety. As examples, there was no plebiscite, there was no referendum with the introduction of mandatory seatbelts; there was no plebiscite, there was no referendum with the introduction of bike helmets; and there was no plebiscite, there was no referendum when it came to banning smoking in public places.
So I have to say that I find it quite disappointing that the opposition party has continued to form this ongoing alliance with the minor parties on this bill. I think it is an unwise thing to do, because it is a matter of public health policy. As I said, it has been there as a bipartisan approach between the major parties for some time. Securing good health, particularly dental health, needs to be an absolute priority of any major — or minor — political party in this chamber. I believe this government needs to be given the full opportunity to go ahead and make sure that it secures water supplies and keeps on delivering on really good health outcomes, particularly for those people who live in rural and regional Victoria.
The only way I can describe the Liberal Party’s position in this debate is that it seems to want to run with the foxes and hunt with the hounds. If that is what we have been reduced to with public health policy in this state, that is really sad. We now have a situation where people want to talk about and support fluoride, but then on the other hand basically ensure that it does not happen. It reeks of all care and no responsibility. I wonder whether this neo-populism will be seen in other aspects. I certainly hope it will not in terms of public health or public safety policy. I urge members to reject this bill.