Tuesday, 16 November 2010
Suspension of Standing Orders
Pursuant to contingent notice, and at the request of the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate, I move:
That so much of the standing orders be suspended as would prevent Senator Nash moving a motion relating to the conduct of the business of the Senate, namely a motion to provide for the consideration of the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010 and message No. 38 from the House of Representatives, as circulated in the chamber.
I certainly tried to use appropriate processes so that this bill could be considered at this time during these sitting weeks. Unfortunately, the government was not of a mind to accommodate that. The reason that it is very important that we debate this bill today is the timeliness of this bill. This bill relates to the changes that the government made earlier in the year to the provisions in the independent youth allowance. We have spent all year with thousands of students across the country who are absolutely desperate because they no longer have access to a funding mechanism that would allow them to start university or further tertiary education next year. That is the reason it is so important for us to debate this bill now, and the government’s refusal to do so is really quite extraordinary. The government did not want to debate this bill, and we can only ask why not.
You will have your turn, Senator Evans, I am quite sure. So why did the government not want to debate this bill? Because doing so would show their complete failure to understand regional Australia and the needs of regional students. This government has shown absolute contempt for regional students. The coalition would not even have needed to put this bill forward if this Labor government had any idea what is important to regional students. In a moment, Senator Evans or one of those from the other side are going to jump up and make a big song and dance about how the coalition supported the government’s measures when they went through earlier in the year—about how the coalition made the deal and agreed to those measures. On that, Senator Evans is absolutely correct, and I am going to place on record exactly why that happened.
It happened because the government wanted to get rid of the independent youth allowance for every single student across the country; however, the coalition managed to have three of those zones, though the inner regional zone was not among them, kept for inner regional students. The reason we supported that and the legislation’s going through at the time, as the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations knows full well, is that there were a number of good measures—the start-up scholarships, the relocation scholarships and the changes to the amounts available through the straight-up youth allowance—in that legislation. Far from being obstructionist, we on this side of the chamber were very happy to support those measures. We were not going to stop those good measures going forward for those students who needed them.
As Senator Evans will be at pains to point out to you our reasons for supporting those measures at the time, I will tell you what they were. We supported them because the then Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations and current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, refused to split the bill. She refused to deal with the independent youth allowance measures separately from all of those other measures in the bill that did have some value for those students and that we very much wanted to support. It was purely for political reasons that she would not split that bill. So, when Senator Evans stands up and tries to say, ‘Gee, the coalition supported this before,’ it is now on record exactly why we did it—we did it because we had no choice. But we now have an opportunity to make sure that we get some fairness for regional students.
As I said, the reason we need to debate this now is that it needs to be dealt with before the end of the year—not next year, not in the middle of next year, not at the end of next year, not the year after that and not off in the never-never sometime with the minister trying to put it off until much later. We need to deal with it now. This Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations is newly appointed to the portfolio. He has an opportunity to bring a bit of sense to this debate and an opportunity to support regional students. But now the decision for the Senate is whether to debate this bill and the motion that we would debate concurrently. I ask the Senate to support the debating of both this bill and this motion for the benefit of regional students across this country, who deserve to know exactly what is the position of those in this chamber and exactly what is the position of this government.
Senator Nash makes one of the most unprincipled contributions I have heard in this chamber, and I am surprised by that because that is not her form. To be fair to her, she did at least admit that she was about to rat on a deal, so I give her that—she was honest. The National Party and the Liberal Party are ratting on a deal. It is not an old one; it was made in March this year. With great fanfare, Christopher Pyne, the opposition spokesman on education, announced that he had done a deal with the former Minister for Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, the now Prime Minister, settling this issue and ensuring opposition support for our measures.
The measures Senator Nash seeks to overturn now have not even come into force—the deal will not be consummated until 1 January. A range of measures did come into force in July, but the measures that she seeks now to overturn do not come in until 1 January. So the Liberal-National Party did a deal, and before it has even been implemented they are already seeking to rat on it. Why is that? It is because they think they might be able to get the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010 through the House of Representatives as well and thereby put themselves in a position where once again they can try to make people believe that life is easy and everything can be funded and ‘don’t you worry about that’.
The reality is that Senator Nash, Senator Joyce and every Liberal member voted for the arrangements they seek to now overturn in a public, open and clear agreement with the government. Now they say to us: ‘We’ve decided we don’t really like them because we have a few people complaining about them and therefore we’ve changed our mind. We’ll take all the good bits that have been implemented, but we are now going to deal with the bits where we think we can curry favour with a certain section of people who would otherwise not be treated as well under these arrangements.’ In passing, they do not tend to mention that it is going to cost $300 million or so. What we have is a money bill being initiated in the Senate which we think is unconstitutional. The senator comes in and says, ‘I will make sure this bill does not go to the Selection of Bills Committee and I will make sure there is no inquiry into this bill. I will make sure that the motion today applies the gag and the guillotine and that we ignore the cut-off rules.’ All the things that the Senate has supported over the years—the cut-off, the selection of bills process, the capacity of senators to seek an inquiry and opposition to the gag and guillotine—will be overturned by this motion because it suits the Nationals’ political opportunism to do that today.
Senator, you have just abandoned every process this Senate has ever adopted. You insist government bills get inquired into, you insist government bills are assessed and you insist government bills are debated properly without a gag or a guillotine, but this motion brings in all these things. When the power changes in the Senate in July, you might well regret that because you would have to say that this is a pretty silly precedent to be setting. I mention in passing—I do not have much time—that at the Standing Committee on Procedure meeting yesterday your leader and your whip agreed to better processes. They said they did not want this sort of process and they agreed to put in place processes that ensured this could not happen.
The draft report is available, Senator Parry, as I understand it. That has been your consistent position; I give you credit. This throws out the Liberal-National position in relation to procedure. This applies a gag, it applies a guillotine, it refuses to allow the Senate to have a selection of bills hearing and it refuses to allow us to have a references committee hearing. All for what? Because there is a stunt in it for the National Party—they think there are some cheap votes. Fundamentally, they have ratted on an agreement that they made. Christopher Pyne will have to front up and explain why he did a deal with the Prime Minister on behalf of the Liberal-National coalition, and already they are walking away from it by seeking to impose $300 million more expenditure.
Senator, if you were serious about the public policy issue—and there are serious public policy issues at stake—you would put your bill up to the scrutiny of a Senate committee; you would allow it to be referred to a Senate committee. I understand you have refused that because you are deliberately seeking to take the lowest possible route with this and, quite frankly, you will regret the precedents you are suggesting the Senate supports. You are throwing out years of Liberal-National party positioning in the role of the Senate and I suspect you will regret it.
The Leader of the Government in the Senate, Senator Evans, is quite right about the procedural bankruptcy of the process that Senator Nash is bringing forward. For one, it will be difficult for her to object to any process after 1 July next year that comes anywhere close to this one in queue jumping and in breaching the proper forms of the Senate. It is a proper arrangement that such a bill as this, which brings into question the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money, ought to go to a Senate inquiry. That is a great advantage of the Senate—to have an inquiry so that the public can—
You ask about the Productivity Commission, Senator Nash. Let us have that as part of the inquiry. But what you are doing is simply vaulting over a proper inquiry into the legislation, the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010, which you bring before the Senate. We all know that it is in the public interest to have such an inquiry. Beyond that, there are some dozen pieces of private members’ legislation before the Senate which have precedence. The senator’s motion has moved that this piece of legislation jump precedence over other legislation, including the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill, which is highly contentious and which many young people in this country want to see brought forward as a matter of urgency. Senator Nash would have that set aside.
There is also the Ombudsman Amendment (Education Ombudsman) Bill from Senator Hanson-Young to bring in an education ombudsman. It is going to get short shrift from Senator Nash. There is the Protecting Children from Junk Food Advertising (Broadcasting Amendment) Bill, which is aimed at looking after our youngsters but which has largely been blockaded by both the government and the opposition in getting the interests of young Australians advanced. There is Senator Siewert’s Stolen Generations Reparations Tribunal Bill for Indigenous Australians, but Senator Nash would relegate that for a bill for which she does not want proper scrutiny by the Senate. There is the Restoring Territory Rights (Voluntary Euthanasia) Bill, which I brought before this parliament and which is of high interest to the territories. That will be relegated by Senator Nash. There is the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Prohibition of Support for Whaling) Bill 2010 as the whaling fleets get ready to leave Japan again. No, that will not be getting an airing, but Senator Nash wants to jump a process.
I might add, Acting Deputy President Pratt, that you will know that we have an agreement for the government to get private members’ time instituted in the Senate after three years of blocking, obfuscation and failure to progress it by opposition members as well as by members of the current government. I put it to Senator Nash that she ought to be seeing that the National Party gets behind bringing in that agreement in this house so that we can have proper process here for the discussion of bills, including hers, in a weekly private members’ time. We need to get order into this process, not queue jumping for the purpose that Senator Nash has. It is simply a matter of proper process, something I think Senator Nash should think a little about.
What an absolutely hypocritical statement. We have the Greens complaining about queue jumping. I never thought that would come up in the Senate, but today the Greens are the biggest advocates to make sure people are not queue jumpers. What do they say is more important than the equality of people in trying to get a tertiary education? Well, they have given us three issues: whaling, the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill and euthanasia. They are basically saying: ‘We’re happy for you to get married but we’re not happy for you to go to university. We’re happy for you to have a statement on whales but we’re not happy for you to go to university. We’re happy for you to be put to sleep but we’re not happy for you to be put into a university.’ What an absolute bag of hypocrisy the Greens are today.
And then we have this whole process, this Kafkaesque preamble given by Senator Evans, as a reason why we cannot be fair and decent to regional Australians. We are absconding from our responsibility to deliver equality and to deliver their capacity to get a tertiary education. One of the greatest inhibitors to a person’s advancement is their lack of getting an education, and people in regional Australia have a right to a tertiary education. This is not something for the urbane; it is something for everybody, but now we are getting the true reflection of the urbane, the true collective of the urbane as they say to people in regional Australia, ‘Thou shalt not go to university, thou shalt not advance your life, though shalt stay where you are; you will not get the opportunities that other sections of Australia get.’
And why do we have to do this now? It is because we need this dealt with before the end of the year. We need to give a signal that we support equality and believe in the rights of people in regional areas to be educated and to attain their tertiary desires in a tertiary institution in a metropolitan institution. But this process has been inhibited by the actions of the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Greens—the complete and utter hypocrisy of the Australian Greens. I hope it does not happen but we will be testing whether other independents will be absconding. I state that we must stand up for people in regional Australia.
There is also hypocrisy about us using someone else’s time. This time is allocated to the opposition and is being used in a most effective way. This is our time and we are using it to support our people. You had the hide to be elected on the premise that you would look after regional Australia. There is nothing that you have done to look after regional Australia. You have a litany of excuses. You have made yourselves devoid of any responsibility for regional Australia. You stand there smugly and talk about precedents and this and that and then coalesce with your friends in the Greens as the urbane connection decides to cut regional Australians out of their rights to a tertiary education. You will be held accountable for this—everybody who votes against this will be held accountable for this. You know fairly well that the reality of this is that people will not get the chance to go to university. There are people who will now make the decision that they are unable to go to university—not those who have the money; those who do not have the money, those who are without, those who are at the bottom is of the pile, the people you are supposed to be looking after but have decided not to. You have deserted them so that we can talk about whaling and the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill. We know where your priorities lie, we know what is important to you and we know what is important to the Labor Party. Your priorities lie with the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill, with euthanasia and with whaling. Do not worry about tertiary education. ‘No, we won’t worry about that. We’ll just park that.’
How long do we have to wait—until next year? How do we actually deal with this? We have to deal with this before the end of the year. We have literally days in which we have to deal with this. Do you think for one moment that the whole world does not know that people such as Senator Nash, Senator Williams, Christopher Pyne and Senator Mason have been fighting for this and driving this agenda? This is no surprise—how completely disingenuous of you to say that this is some incredible surprise. This is something that has been part of the debate for a long period of time. People on this side have tried to fight for equality and fairness but you have deserted them. You have deserted them for what?
It is what we were talking about last night. You are so squeezed for time. Why don’t we go back to last night and the address-in-reply to the Governor-General’s speech—so help me; that is how low you have fallen. But we will stand up for regional people, because we are the only ones who will. (Time expired)
You did a deal, and I do not know how you have the gall to stand here today, seriously, when you did a deal—I told you at the time that you sold out regional Australia. For the Liberal Party to also agree to support this as well shows their inconsistency with their deal and their arrangement-making with the Labor Party. I was consistent all the way through on this issue. I did not sign up to the deal because I did not like it. I must admit that I am torn between supporting rural and regional students and a mob that, just a few months ago, sold them out and want to come back in here and renege on a deal with the Labor Party. This is a problem for me. But I will support regional students. That is the reason I have agreed to give this some presence if it gets through. But the issue is that you should be ashamed of yourselves. You say you stand up for people in the bush but you knew at the time that that deal—
No, you knew at the time. You agreed with the Labor Party to do a deal and sell out regional Australia. I do not know how you have the gall to come in here today and do what you are doing—I really do not. You should not have signed the deal. You should have stuck up for regional Australians right then and there rather than now. It is an absolute joke.
As I made clear in the speech that I gave on this issue a few months ago, when it comes to income support for getting our kids to university, we should be doing more, not less. I really believe that a clever nation will make it easier for its kids to get to university, but unfortunately this government took from some and gave to others. They may think that is right. I think we should have been doing more than the government are doing. Yes, there may be $300 million attached to this particular legislation, but I think it is important that, as a clever nation, we make sure that we get our kids to university and do not make it harder for them. Family First is the only party that has been consistent on this issue, and we will be supporting this motion.
I understand why there is a problem in rural and regional Australia in relation to accessing the significant supports of youth allowance and the fact that there is such an anomaly based on the agreement that was made by the government and the coalition to get the piece of legislation through earlier this year. Of course, it has left things in a total mess, and what we now have is two schemes which are both inadequate and which do not really support the students that we need to be supporting. Rather than simply patching up and pushing or ramming through a piece of legislation that is not actually going to deal with the issue, has not been to a Senate inquiry and has not been properly costed, what we need to be doing is asking the government, working with the government and proving to the government that the current scheme for testing the eligibility of people from rural and regional areas for access to youth allowance needs to be totally overhauled.
If you have to move out of home in order to go to university, you should be given that support. By virtue of moving out of home, you are independent. That should be the criterion. We should not be saying to students who have worked so hard this year through year 12 to be given their place at university: ‘Hang on a minute—you defer that, because we’re not going to give you the support, because you come from a country area. You defer for 12 to 18 months. Go and get a job and prove to us that you’re independent.’ It still leaves students and young people from rural and regional Australia as second class when it comes to accessing education, and it is absolutely not right.
This bill, however, does not deal with the problem. The idea of hijacking a Tuesday afternoon with very limited notice to anybody to ram through a bill which is not going to solve the problem does not really lead us to a place where we are going to be able to give those students the support that they need. Rather, the government should be doing their own modelling and costing for a new criterion that actually gives students the support they need. The budget is coming up. Let us see something in the budget that starts looking at this. During the negotiations on the Youth Allowance legislation at the beginning of this year—of course, this time last year we were discussing exactly the same issue in this chamber in the final two weeks of parliament—it was agreed that there would be a task force set up to look at the greatest needs and, of course, that there would be a review of the system. That review has to happen. The program has to start before we can actually review it, so let us allow that to happen. Let us get a commitment from the government that they will review the current inadequacies and inequity in how the boundaries are drawn up. Let us get from the minister an acknowledgement that the process is not perfect and a commitment that he will review.
It is silly—it is not just silly; it is ludicrous—that a family at one end of a street can access youth allowance and a family at the other end of the street cannot, that some students can access it and other students who go to the same school cannot, but we should not be making it harder for students to go to university; we should be making it easier. That means not making them jump through hoops or over hurdles and ensuring that, if students have to move out of home in order to go to university, we give them that support. That is what the government should be looking into. The government should be finding out a way to fund that and budget for that.
The idea of hijacking the Senate’s time to ram through your own bill that is not going to solve the problem is not just disingenuous in relation to how this place works; it also does not give students the support that they need. Let us not give young people in rural and regional Australia false hope that this is somehow going to solve the problem, because it ain’t. It is not going to solve the problem. I would like to see the government commit to reviewing the boundaries and see that this is not an adequate criterion that is set down and that we need to see that reviewed.
We cannot support the suspension in order to bring this bill on, because it is not the appropriate way. If the coalition honestly want their bill to stand up, they should send it to an inquiry, and we can thrash it out. We can come up with amendments and talk about that. Do not try to ram through something that is not going to fix the problem and is not going to deal with the issues in relation to the struggles that students are feeling. We know that when students are forced— (Time expired)
This is a vexed issue. In March of this year, I was part of the process that negotiated changes to the youth allowance eligibility criteria to, in effect, resolve a deadlock between the government and the opposition. Before that deadlock was resolved, there was considerable uncertainty about student start-up scholarships and relocation scholarships, and potentially it would affect many tens of thousands of students. Here we are in the last two weeks of the sitting calendar discussing this particular motion about the suspension of standing orders to decide whether, in effect, there should be not only a suspension of standing orders but a suspension of the process in terms of having a Senate inquiry into this.
I appreciate that the government’s bill went through an extensive inquiry process, and we all knew following the compromise reached between the government and the opposition that the new scheme would commence on 1 January 2011. So the issues of concern raised by Senator Nash are matters that have been previously raised. I do not for one moment question the sincerity and genuineness of Senator Nash in relation to this issue, but I think it would be fair to say that no new evidence has been presented since this matter was last debated and the compromise was reached between the opposition and the government that would warrant the suspension of the practices of the Senate. The best way of dealing with this matter is not to suspend those practices but to have it referred for an inquiry.
Having said that, I have had discussions with the minister about specific concerns put to me about potential anomalies with the classifications and boundaries caused by the instrument that has been used. In particular, I appreciate very much the conversation I had with Richard Vickery, the president of the South East Local Government Association in South Australia, earlier today about some of these potential anomalies. For instance a student on one side of the street in Mount Gambier is classified as outer regional, while their neighbour on the other side of the street is classified as inner regional. We are talking about a matter of metres and yet the classification criteria are quite different.
I have had discussions with the minister in relation to this and I can say—and I am sure if I am wrong that the minister will correct me—that the minister has agreed to examine whether the use of the Australian Standard Geographical Classification, the ASGC, is the most appropriate mechanism for determining eligibility for the independent youth allowance. I believe that the best way of resolving this in the longer term is to have that review and to have this bill get the scrutiny it deserves because it is a bill that is important. It is a bill deserving of scrutiny and there are budgetary considerations in relation to it. That is the best way forward, and such a committee ought to report back in the first week of February.
This is not an ideal situation, but given what occurred earlier this year I think that this is the fairest way forward.
That the motion (Senator Nash’s) be agreed to.