House debates

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Questions without Notice

Pensions and Benefits

2:30 pm

Photo of Jodie CampbellJodie Campbell (Bass, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

My question is to the Minister for Education, the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations and the Minister for Social Inclusion. Will the Deputy Prime Minister update the House on the latest developments relating to student income support?

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

I thank the member for Bass for her question. I am in a position to inform the House that we are now on course to have the student income support legislation pass the parliament this week. This is good news for Australian students and for Australian families. This means that we can pay 150,000 start-up scholarships to students who are waiting for them and we can pay increased youth allowance—or youth allowance for the first time—to 100,000 students. This is good news indeed.

I would like to acknowledge those people who have played a role in making sure that this beneficial legislation passes the parliament. As members of this House would recall, these changes were first heralded by the government in the May budget and, of course, there was an issue raised after the May budget on the question of transition from the old system to the new system. The issue about the question of transition was raised with me by a number of Labor members and I thank them for raising it with me. It was also raised with me by the Independents in the House of Representatives who represent rural electorates and it was raised with me in good faith by a number of members of the coalition.

Then we worked here in the House of Representatives and in the Senate to address this issue of transition. Most particularly, we worked with the Australian Greens and Senator Nick Xenophon, and I thank the Australian Greens and Senator Xenophon for the mature and straightforward approach that they brought to dealing with this matter. In the legislation, what we ultimately agreed with the Greens and Senator Xenophon, the Independents here and members of the government was that there would be no retrospectivity—that is, any student who had made their arrangements before the legislation came into effect on 1 July and who had qualified for independence under the old criteria would qualify under those criteria. If anybody is in any doubt about that, I refer them to the amendments that were circulated in the Senate on 23 February when all transition matters were resolved.

Where were the opposition while all this was going on? The opposition were out campaigning for a change which would have cost more than a billion dollars. They were campaigning for a change that would have meant that any student who chose to move would get full youth allowance. That means a student from a home of multimillionaires who chose to move from Melbourne to Sydney to study would have got full youth allowance. We said to the opposition very clearly that this was not fiscally responsible. They had not spent this extra billion dollars on student income support when they were in government and it offended against the principle of equity—that is, lower income Australians should not have to pay for full youth allowance for multimillionaires who choose to move from Melbourne to Sydney.

It was not until last Tuesday, after months of hounding the opposition for an amendment that would pass the test of being fiscally responsible and equitable, that the opposition, for the first time ever, settled down to talk about something meaningful. I am glad that, following those two discussions with the shadow minister, we did agree on something meaningful. The billion-dollar amendment was gone. This inequitable costly proposition about anybody who moved was gone. What the opposition agreed on with us is that for 1,900 students who live in very remote Australia, remote Australia or outer regional Australia under the Australian Standard Geographical Classification, if they come from families with incomes of less than $150,000, they would continue to be able to qualify under the old independence criteria. This is an amendment costing less than $100 million compared with the more than billion-dollar claim that the opposition started with.

Today we are putting the legislation with this amendment in place. We agreed this with the opposition and it went through their joint party room, but obviously there are those in the opposition who are now greatly embarrassed that, after months of campaigning in their communities, they are making no difference whatsoever from the agreement that we had struck with the Greens and Senator Xenophon. I am talking about, for example, the member for Murray in the area of Shepparton, where there is no change arising from the opposition’s amendments. There is Goulburn and the member for Hume, where there is no change arising from the opposition’s amendments. There is Gympie in the electorate of Wide Bay, represented by the National Party, for example, and Cowra in the electorate of the member for Calare; there is not one single change in those communities as a result of the amendments moved by the opposition. There is not one thing that they could not have had as a result of the agreement that we entered into with the Greens and Senator Nick Xenophon.

So, in order to cover this political embarrassment despite having entered an agreement with us yesterday, what the opposition does today is move an amendment in the Senate to cover these places. And at the very time it is being moved the shadow minister says to me and the Liberal Party in the Senate says to Senator Carr, ‘If this happens to pass, we will not insist on it’—that is, ‘It was all politics; all theatre’. Delay all these many months, costing students? This amendment? All politics; all theatre. This could just be a dispute between politicians who are all about argy-bargy in the eyes of the community—except for this. There are students in Shepparton and there are students in places around the country like Gympie who have had opposition members say to them that they believe that they should get full youth allowance if they need to move.

As an opposition, they might say they cannot achieve that from opposition, and that would be an honourable position. What is not honourable is to go and raise those expectations and then, in terms of your own political party’s promises, not promise to do that if you are elected as a government but promise to have a review. After all these months of campaigning, what the member for Murray, the member for Hume, the member for Wide Bay and the member for Calare have actually secured for their communities is a review if the opposition is elected. This is a cautionary and salutary tale for the Australian people about the nature of the opposition led by the current Leader of the Opposition, because what this salutary tale is telling you is that the Leader of the Opposition, if he sees a little bit of political advantage, will go and stand shoulder to shoulder with you, will expectation-raise, will campaign with you and then, when the politics shift and it suits him, will walk right away from you. He has walked away from a billion dollars in student income support. He has walked away from every promise given to every student in places like Shepparton and places like Gympie. This is the most disgraceful act—this from a man who says that he is full of straight talk. It is not straight talk to go around promising a billion dollars and then not deliver it.