House debates

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009

Consideration in Detail

Bill—by leave—taken as a whole.

6:07 pm

Photo of Christopher PyneChristopher Pyne (Sturt, Liberal Party, Shadow Minister for Education, Apprenticeships and Training) Share this | | Hansard source

by leave—I move opposition amendments (1) to (4):

(1)    Schedule 1, item 2, page 5 (lines 13-14), omit ‘30 June 2010’, substitute ‘31 December 2010’.

(2)    Schedule 1, item 2, page 5 (lines 18-20), omit paragraph (e).

(3)    Schedule 1, item 2, page 5, (line 23), omit ‘1 July 2010’ substitute ‘1 January 2011’.

(4)    Schedule 2, item 4, page 20 (line 17), omit ‘$1,127’ substitute ‘$500’.

These opposition amendments are important. We will be insisting on these amendments. They cover two areas, but the primary amendment is to remove the retrospective element from the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009. The government’s changes to the Youth Allowance have moved, during the game, the goalposts for students in their gap year at the moment. We do not believe in principle that that is something that the opposition can support.

The Minister for Education did admit the error some months ago and tried to address it for a very small number of students. That was her fig leaf to cover her embarrassment. The change that the minister spoke of in her speech just now to the House will impact in a positive way on about 4,500 to 5,000 students. It still leaves 25,000 or more students facing a change in the rules in the middle of the game or, as I said, the goalposts moved in the middle of the game. We cannot support that.

Gap year students, who had at the end of year 12 this year and last year spoke to career counsellors, Centrelink staff and other people about their future and made plans in good faith, who were accepted into university and who deferred university for 18 months in order to be able to qualify for the youth allowance, did so relying on the legislation as it was then drafted so that they could ensure they accessed youth allowance. To change the rules midway through the game on those students is utterly unacceptable. The opposition will stand up for those 25,000 or more students who have been so viscerally affected. The minister says that, in doing so, we are standing up for a flawed Youth Allowance scheme.

The opposition support reform of the Youth Allowance. We support many aspects of the Bradley review. We believe that the Youth Allowance does need to be reformed for the good of all students into the future. That is why we support many aspects of the government’s changes to the Youth Allowance. For that reason I find it amazing that the government would not be prepared to ensure that students who are currently in their gap year would not be so negatively impacted upon by retrospective legislation that has changed their entire future.

I will not keep the House at length tonight. I spoke in the second reading debate and I outlined some examples and many of the concerns that the opposition have about this government’s legislation. Suffice it to say that there are many people who have been negatively impacted upon by retrospective legislation. The government says that we are going to assist more students so that those students must suffer. A better way to manage reform of the Youth Allowance would be to do so from 1 January 2011 so that students in their gap year are not retrospectively impacted upon.

The second opposition amendment will ensure that we do not punch a hole in the side of the government’s budget, because it will cost several hundred million dollars to ensure that the retrospectivity is removed. I believe we will get support for this in the Senate—obviously, in this place we will not. To ensure that the changes that we propose are revenue neutral, we are proposing that scholarships be reduced from 1 January to $1,000—the current government figure is $2,254. That will raise enough money to ensure that our amendments are revenue neutral. (Extension of time granted)

I will not be much longer. I appreciate the courtesy of allowing me to continue my remarks. The second amendment will ensure that the opposition’s changes are revenue neutral and will leave a sum of money available—probably about $120 million—for the establishment of a rural and regional scholarships program. Now that the Senate committee has reported in the Senate on this bill, the detail of that program will be clearer in the days and weeks ahead.

The only other thing I would add is that the government needs to very seriously consider how it wants to handle this legislation in the Senate. I warned the minister in June and again last sitting week that, if she insists that the Commonwealth scholarships remain part of this bill rather than being decoupled from it, as I proposed in June, we will potentially be voting this legislation down with the support of probably the Greens, Senator Xenophon or Senator Fielding. As a consequence, it will be on the government’s head that the students affected by the scholarships change will not be able to get any scholarship at all from 1 January 2010. I have laid that on the table for many months.

If the minister insists and believes that she can hold a gun to the head of the opposition, I am warning her that it will be her problem. It will not be the opposition’s problem. We are not in government. I have at least worked that out. Therefore, we will not have responsibility for the government’s pigheadedness and foolishness in linking to this retrospective Youth Allowance change with a scholarships program. That will be a matter for the government to handle.

I hope she will see reason rather than the rather embarrassing display of mindless partisanship that she showed in her speech during the second reading debate just then, where she inferred that the good ideas come from only one side of the House. I think she may be guilty of starting to believe her own rhetoric and the praise from the peanut gallery, because that display was straight out of the Australian Union of Student’s handbook rather than the Obama handbook, which says that good ideas can come from all parts of the political spectrum. But we know that she is essentially an old Cold War warrior from the Left, and old habits die hard. With that, I recommend my amendments to the House.

6:15 pm

Photo of Julia GillardJulia Gillard (Lalor, Australian Labor Party, Deputy Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

It is not my intention to delay the House and I understand that it would suit the convenience of the House to have any divisions before 6.30 pm. For the reasons I gave in my summing up, obviously the government will not be supporting these amendments. There was a transition issue and that transition issue was for people who had commenced to make arrangements about GAP years, for example, before the announcement of the government’s changes on budget night. That transition issue has already been dealt with by the government in this bill. The government does not support a permanent rip-off of scholarship money out of the hands of students, and that is what this amendment is all about.

To take the House back to basics, I remind members that, if it had not been for the election of the Rudd government, we would not have had the Bradley review. If it had not been for the election of the Rudd government, we would have seen a continuation of the student financing system that was seeing country kids and poorer kids go out backwards, while some kids living at home in families with incomes of more than $300,000 benefited. Everybody is now saying, apparently—according to the shadow minister—that everybody understands that that is the wrong system. It strikes me as passing strange that the Liberal Party—now conceding that that was the wrong system—year after year in government did not do anything about it. It fell to this government to have the Bradley review, it fell to this government to introduce this bill in the name of equity, it fell to this government to finance higher education and put it on a growth path, and it fell to this government to put money into the system so that universities have an incentive to enrol kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are the reforms that we are seeking support for, and, when the bill moves from this place to the Senate, they are the reforms that we will stand by.

If there are students next year who do not get their scholarship money because of a belligerent display by the opposition, who did not have the wit in government to make a difference for kids going to university, then the opposition will be judged by it. The Australian people passed a verdict about the Liberal Party in 2007 and they passed a verdict about the Liberal Party in part on its track record of failures in education. It falls to the Liberal Party at forthcoming elections to try and seek to regain the confidence of the Australian people on those questions, but I would say to the Liberal Party and to the coalition generally: it is no way to try seeking that confidence by blocking much needed equity based reforms like this one; it is no point trying to seek that confidence by punching a $700 million hole, a permanent hole that rips scholarship money out of the hands of students; and that is the course that the coalition is on.

Question put:

That the motion (Mr Pyne’s) be agreed to.

Photo of Judi MoylanJudi Moylan (Pearce, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the bill be agreed to.

Question put.

Bill agreed to.