House debates

Tuesday, 10 September 2019


Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Extend Family Assistance to ABSTUDY Secondary School Boarding Students Aged 16 and Over) Bill 2019; Second Reading

1:00 pm

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to support the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Extend Family Assistance to ABSTUDY Secondary School Boarding Students Aged 16 and Over) Bill 2019. I also move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House:

(1) notes that:

(a) students from remote areas do not have access to the high school education options taken for granted in cities;

(b) while boarding school works well for some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, it is not the best option for many others—taking students away from family, community, country and language;

(c) there are many reasons for the high turnover of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at boarding school, including levels of cultural awareness and understanding; and

(d) the lack of secondary school options closer to home contributes to the gap in high school completion rates; and

(2) calls on the Government to increase investment in public and community school options that are closer to home, and will allow more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students to finish high school".

Education is critical to improving quality of life and life outcomes. We all believe that. I've heard it said many times not only in this chamber but across the whole spectrum of the education arena. I am very fortunate to have come from an education background. I started my career out, believe it or not—a very long time ago; I won't say when—in Mount Druitt as a teacher at Lethbridge Park

Photo of Ed HusicEd Husic (Chifley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Hear, hear!

Photo of Linda BurneyLinda Burney (Barton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Minister for Families and Social Services) Share this | | Hansard source

And we have the member here in the chamber. That really gave me a very clear understanding, particularly in an area back in the late seventies to early eighties like Lethbridge Park, which was extremely disadvantaged. There was no infrastructure there; it was basically a school and the beginning of a shopping centre.

Our social security system has an important role to play in providing the relevant supports necessary to ensure that all children have the opportunity to access education. Unfortunately in Australia—which is just remarkable, particularly in a First World, wealthy nation—not all children have access to an education. In particular, many children living in remote communities, mostly Aboriginal children, do not have access to secondary education, which is why I have moved this amendment, and I'll speak about that in a moment.

As I said, our social security system has an important role to play in providing the relevant supports necessary to make sure that all children have the opportunity to access education. That is why Labor is supporting this bill, although with the circulated amendments as I've indicated. There is evidence that the current rules, which withdraw family tax benefits when children at boarding school turn 16, put enormous financial pressure on some families. Many of the families that we're talking about are very much without the resources and the funds to be able to bear the withdrawal of family tax benefits for children over the age of 16 at secondary school.

The simple fact is that there are two tiers of children—Aboriginal children in particular, as this bill goes to the heart of—that access boarding school. There are those children in remote communities that have no secondary school to go to, and their only alternative to go to secondary school is to leave home and travel, often to capital cities or larger towns, like Darwin, Broome, Alice Springs and such places. But there is also a group of Aboriginal children that go to elite boarding schools—the King's and Scots of the world. This piece of legislation applies to both of those groups of children. I have to say that the ideal is a quality secondary education for children in their home community, if that is at all possible, because that makes sure that children stay connected to family, connected to culture and connected to country. However, the reality is that that is not always possible, hence the importance of this piece of legislation.

This withdrawing of family tax benefits when a child at boarding school turns 16 does put pressure on families. This has resulted, I am loath to say, in unfavourable unintended outcomes. Some students and families are forced into withdrawing students from school to maintain access to the family tax benefit and to make ends meet. This is an untenable situation and it must be changed, and that's what this piece of legislation goes to doing. As parents know, children do not get cheaper as they get older—I'm sure that many of us can attest to that—and there are significant costs associated with children that attend boarding school: uniforms, shoes, clothes, excursions, pocket money, haircuts, sporting equipment and the list goes on. And that's not to mention that a number of the families that we are talking about will also be on income management or on the BasicsCard, which makes things even more challenging in some ways.

These costs don't stop just because a child is at boarding school or because they turn 16. Abstudy is important, and I note that this is the 50th year of Abstudy. I myself, as a secondary student, was in receipt of Abstudy, albeit very different to what it is now. But I do remember that as a secondary school student.

A Senate inquiry into this bill indicated widespread support for the changes in this bill, which is why it is welcomed by the Labor Party. However, the Senate inquiry did raise a number of other issues that this bill will not change, but which it does have the potential, if the amendments are supported, to make some difference to. It also exposed some issues with the administration of Abstudy, including the following issues. There is the lack of secondary school options in local communities, or closer to communities. Obviously, that is a major issue for both federal and state jurisdictions. Another issue that parents raised directly about Abstudy was the complexity of the Abstudy system. There are seven Abstudy award types, or eligibility triggers, and 12 separate payments. It seems to me that that could well be simplified. I could outline those payments, but I think people probably know them already.

There were also administrative delays in commencing Abstudy payments for children without immunisation or birth certificates. I think that the department needs to become much more realistic and have an alternative view about this. For many Aboriginal children from remote communities, these two things are extremely onerous. Many Aboriginal people in remote communities, and many Aboriginal people across the board, do not have birth records and they are extremely difficult to come by. The other thing is that the paperwork for immunisation records are in a similar vein. Those two issues are something that I'd really encourage the government to focus on in terms of Abstudy. There are administrative ways to deal with this, and I'm sure that it is within the department's ambit to think about alternatives or ways in which to deal with those particular issues so that students can commence Abstudy more quickly. A sensible way to do it would be to put students on Abstudy automatically and require those records at a later date or as soon as possible. But there is no reason to have the onus on the production of those records, without which, as I said, children can't start. That's something that I would encourage the government to look at very closely.

The other thing is something that I think is a communication issue, and it is about the lack of accessible communication with families in remote areas about the actual availability of Abstudy and how it works. That is a communication issue. I'm not saying it by way of criticism; I'm saying that it is something that seems, to me, to be really important in the administration of Abstudy. And one would think, particularly in those isolated communities, that it is not so difficult. It would also be applicable, I think, in many regional communities and probably city locations as well.

The other thing, for many parents, is that the Abstudy payment is made directly to the school. I'm not arguing about that, but I'm saying that many parents think that the school, in some cases, is not accountable enough to receive those funds, and it seems to me that schools should be able to meet those requirements. I'm sure that many do, but for some schools the payment is not adequate. I'm talking about a different subject—that is, the inadequacy of payments. In some schools, the payment is not adequate to cover boarding costs. That might be something that Abstudy could look at carefully, and obviously the amendments that Labor is moving go to many of the issues that I've actually outlined.

The 2019 Closing the gap report found that school attendance targets were not on track, and that is a target that is so important as school attendance can change life outcomes for young Indigenous students. The target was to close the gap in school attendance by 2018, which, of course, was last year. As a nation, we have missed this target—missed it well and truly. There have been no improvements in school attendance targets between 2014 and 2018. It seems to me that the funds that have already been spent have been very well intentioned, I'm sure, but, in terms of school attendance, these funds need to be redeployed; there needs to be a fresh eye on school attendance. I accept, and I've always argued, that there are multiple responsibilities in a child's school attendance. It is a government responsibility. It is a community responsibility. It is also a family responsibility. It seems to me there is an awful lot of work to be done in that, because if children are not at school, if they're not attending, then their life choices and chances are going to be very much curtailed. And we're not talking about people who are in the latter years of secondary school; we're talking about right across the school system. Many children are simply lost to the system, and that seems to be something that should be a priority for both state and federal governments. This gap is unacceptable; I don't think there would be anyone who would argue against that. Also, the progress is unacceptable. We all need to do much better.

The overall attendance rate for Aboriginal students is 82 per cent, compared to 93 per cent for non-Indigenous students, so there is a gap of over 10 per cent in attendance rates. The gap in school attendance is evident from when children start school. As I said earlier, during primary school the attendance gap was around eight percentage points in 2018. Attendance falls when students reach secondary school, particularly for Indigenous students, and the attendance gap widens to 14 percentage points. We all know that the outcomes in schooling are extremely wide. In part, it is due to the attendance that I'm talking about. In remote areas, school attendance by Indigenous students is lower and the attendance gap is larger. I went to a remote community a few weeks ago. I went to one of the schools, and the attendance at that school that day was 30 per cent. That is not acceptable in anyone's terms, and it is just another indication of the challenges in school participation. The 2018 attendance rate for Indigenous students ranged from 86 per cent in inner regional areas to 63 per cent in very remote areas. In remote areas, as I said, the attendance gap is larger, demonstrated by that particular figure.

This week, we read reports that the federal government has cut funding to 100 remote school jobs in the Kimberley region. This is mind-boggling. That is 100 jobs in community schools in the Kimberley, yet the government put up their hands and say, 'This is where we're focusing.' Today—a national reminder—is World Suicide Prevention Day, and the Kimberley, of course, is one of the focus areas for the government in preventing youth suicide. The Prime Minister, I think, has spoken very genuinely about his distress in relation to young Aboriginal children taking their lives. So it seems unbelievable to me that the focus for the government's suicide prevention trial is the Kimberley, and at the same time it would remove 100 Aboriginal workers from schools in the Kimberley. It just does not make any sense to me.

The funding allowed remote community residents to provide services such as specialised language teachers, ground maintenance and other support roles. We know remote schools experience many difficulties presented by geographical isolation as it is, without the added burden of federal funding cuts perpetrated by the government. The schools that we're talking about are in very remote locations, and these locations are where children don't actually have access to secondary school, so it is very difficult to understand why there would be a cut to this particular region of 100 workers in remote community schools. We know that remote schools experience many difficulties presented by geographical isolation, as I said, so it is just very difficult to understand.

Last week we had Indigenous Literacy Day, and this year is the International Year of Indigenous Languages. All Australians should have equal access to literacy resources, especially those children living in communities. First Nation Australians should have the opportunity to learn language and culture. Language and culture are integral to improving Indigenous literacy outcomes. It is also true to say that language and culture are integral to life outcomes for First Nations people, and strengthening identity and a connection to culture is an imperative to improving Indigenous quality-of-life outcomes, as I indicated. It is really disappointing the government has ended federal funding for, among other things, these specialised language services.

I call on the minister and the government to reverse these cuts to make sure that children have the opportunity to learn in their own language as well as in English, because there is clear evidence that, when children can learn their language, they do better at school. They simply feel at home, and that is the foundation of trust, of exploration and ultimately of learning.

It is also worth mentioning that these remote schools were funded through the government's Indigenous Advancement Strategy, which has come under immense scrutiny from the Auditor-General, who raised serious questions about administration of the strategy and its funding decisions, which have seen $4.8 billion spent over five years. I don't believe the Indigenous Advancement Strategy should be the funding source for specialised positions within schools. If it is to be. then there should be an ongoing view to these specialised positions, particularly, as I have said, in light of access to secondary education, in light of these very small schools being under-resourced and in light of the participation rates of First Nations children.

Labor is calling on the government to do more, because going away to boarding school is not always the right option for many children. We need to invest in more options at home and closer to home. No-one should miss out on a great education because of where they live, but unfortunately we are living in a nation where that is the case. I think many people out in the broader community would be absolutely shocked that there are children in Australia who do not have access to secondary education unless they move great distances from their home. I'm not arguing that boarding schools aren't important. Of course they are; they're absolutely fundamental—both the boarding schools that many of the children in remote communities go to and the more elite boarding schools that many Aboriginal families elect for students to go to. At least this piece of legislation corrects an anomaly, and once a child turns 16 and they're at boarding school the family tax benefit will continue.

While it suits some students and their families, as I said, boarding school does not work for others. It takes young people away from family, community, culture and language, and for many young people this is an extremely difficult transition. In many instances it exposes them to discrimination and bullying, as we heard during the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee inquiry into this bill. For many students we need more public and community schooling options that are close to home and culturally appropriate for Indigenous students from remote areas.

We also need to make sure that when students go to boarding school it is a positive experience. I have spoken to many Aboriginal students who are attending boarding schools through a number of programs that exist, and they are having positive experiences and they are extremely excited about their future. But we cannot do that at the expense of students and families that elect to remain in their communities. We need to make sure that it is a positive experience and we also need to make sure that all boarding schools attended by students from remote communities have the cultural understanding to support students. I know that there are many schools that are making enormous efforts in this regard, but in some cases, I'm afraid, it isn't always the positive experience that we would want for students.

Going away to school can be tough on any young person—I've never been to boarding school, so I can't talk from experience—and potentially even more so when you are from a remote community and English is your second or third language, which is the case with many Aboriginal children from remote communities. Abstudy has allowed thousands of students from remote communities to get a great education at boarding school and complete year 12. I know that in many cases if it had not been for Abstudy then year 12 completion would have been extremely difficult. The changes in this bill are a step in the right direction, and Labor does support them. They will enable more young Indigenous students from remote communities to reach their potential. Every young Indigenous student should be able to write their own story of success and achievement, like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students before them, no matter where they live or what school they go to.

Photo of Rob MitchellRob Mitchell (McEwen, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is the amendment seconded?

Photo of Ed HusicEd Husic (Chifley, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Yes, it is, and I reserve my right to speak.

1:24 pm

Photo of Paul FletcherPaul Fletcher (Bradfield, Liberal Party, Minister for Communications, Cyber Safety and the Arts) Share this | | Hansard source

I'm pleased to rise to sum up in this second reading debate on the Family Assistance Legislation Amendment (Extend Family Assistance to ABSTUDY Secondary School Boarding Students Aged 16 and Over) Bill 2019, which is being introduced to implement a measure announced as part of the 2019-20 budget.

In the budget, the government announced that it would extend family tax benefit to the families of Abstudy students who board away from home to attend secondary school. This will remove the existing perverse incentive for Indigenous students to drop out of school at age 16. I thank the Senate Community Affairs Legislation Committee for its report on the bill and its recommendation that the bill be passed.

Under current arrangements, once an Abstudy boarding student turns 16 he or she no longer attracts family tax benefit. This creates a perverse incentive for families to retain family tax benefit by removing their child from boarding school. This is a policy normally that is not aligned with the government's objective of supporting Indigenous students to complete year 12. Many remote communities have no local secondary school, so boarding is frequently the only option for children to go to secondary school. However, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boarding students are disproportionately dropping out of boarding education around the age of 16. Data from the Department of Human Services shows that the number of Abstudy boarding students drops by approximately 60 per cent between the ages of 15 and 17.

The Prime Minister's 2019 Closing the Gap address to parliament emphasised that access to quality education for Indigenous students in remote and very remote areas can be a lifeline to future prosperity and wellbeing. This statement echoed the views of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Indigenous Affairs in its 2017 report on Indigenous education, which stressed the importance of education but found room for improvement in the support of Indigenous boarding students.

Amendments introduced by this bill will build on the 2018-19 budget measure '50 years of Abstudy', which provided $38.1 million over five years to improve assistance for Indigenous secondary students who need to study away from home. It includes better, fairer and more flexible travel provisions and the portability of Abstudy benefits if students change schools. This bill will extend family tax benefit to eligible secondary students aged 16 years and over who receive Abstudy assistance to study away from home. These changes will commence on 1 January 2020, subject to the timing of the passage of this bill. Extending family tax benefit to Abstudy boarding students is consistent with broader family tax benefit rules. It also aligns with recommendations from the 2014 Forrest review Creating parity.

Currently, families of Indigenous boarding students aged under 16 are generally eligible for both Abstudy and family tax benefit. Abstudy for these students is paid directly to the school and boarding provider to cover tuition and boarding costs, while family tax benefit is paid to the family to help with the cost of raising children. Families rely on family tax benefit to meet the ongoing costs of their children's daily incidentals while they are away at school, as well as their living costs when they're at home during school holidays. Once the student turns 16, family assistance legislation precludes Abstudy students from receiving family tax benefit, leaving families with no assistance for the cost of everyday essentials for the child. The loss of family tax benefit when a boarding student turns 16 is a significant drop in income support for families, which contributes to financial pressure for families at a critical stage in a young person's education. Modelling using the priority investment approach shows Abstudy students who stay in boarding for their senior schooling are less likely to need income support in the future. Changes introduced by this bill will mean that, from 1 January 2020, families of Indigenous boarding students will stay in the family tax benefit system until their child reaches the end of secondary school. The families of more than 2,000 Indigenous secondary students will benefit from these changes. On average, these families would receive an additional $5,911 per year.

Through these changes, the government is delivering an additional $36.4 million in support over the next four years. This investment will contribute to increasing the proportion of Indigenous students who complete year 12, improving their work prospects and lifetime wellbeing and reversing the potential cost to the community that comes with long-term unemployment and welfare dependency.

In summary, this bill allows for the implementation of measures that will extend family tax benefit to the families of Abstudy students who need to board away from home to attend secondary school. I commend the bill to the House.

Photo of Kevin HoganKevin Hogan (Page, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the amendment be agreed to. There being more than one voice calling for a division, in accordance with standing order 133 the division is deferred until after the discussion of the matter of public importance.

Debate adjourned.