Thursday, 10 February 2011
Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010
Debate resumed from 28 October 2010, on motion by Senator Nash:
That this bill be now read a second time.
I think we have to clearly understand what the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010 is about. It is simply an attempt by the coalition to sabotage this government’s fiscal program to bring the budget back into surplus. We know that.
Opposition senators interjecting—
You laugh, but let me just say to you that last year, as a result of negotiations agreed with the coalition, a bill was passed here that accommodated the issues. If I get an opportunity I will quote what Senator Mason said in this chamber about this being the result of an agreement. Then we had an election. Did the coalition actually say to the Australian people, ‘In addition to what we agreed last year, we are going to add another $300 billion to the budget and do what this bill says it is going to do today’? No, they did not. You did not fund it. It was not in your funding. You had a $10.6 billion black hole. You did not fund it in your program. You misrepresented everything to the Australian people through your election campaign and now you come in here and because you did not win the election you say, ‘That does not matter; we will simply appropriate from this chamber $300 billion to initiate an agenda,’ which you would not even have done yourself.
Let me be very clear. If you were in government now, you would not be putting this bill up because you have not funded it. You do not know where you are getting the money from and it cuts across all the ridiculous savings that Mr Abbott has been trying to find and his attempts to justify why he is not going to support the flood levy this week. He did not say to people, ‘We are trying to find some cuts here and we are trying to find some cuts there.’ He did not say to the Australian people, ‘But on Thursday we are going to debate a bill in this chamber which actually adds another $300 billion.’ This is fiscal irresponsibility and it is simply an attempt to sabotage the fiscal program of this government and sabotage us from returning the budget back to surplus. That is what it is about. It is about you using your numbers in here to do what should not happen. I think that is the reason why the Constitution does not allow bills that appropriate—
If that is what you have heard, then you have heard incorrectly. If that is what I said, then I apologise. I was saying $300 million and I think I have referred to that figure on a number of occasions. The $300 million which you seek to appropriate in this chamber through a private senator’s bill is something which you would not have done if you were in government because you did not have the money. You had no plan to find the money to spend. This is not the only bill that you are doing this with. The Australian public will see through this. This is simply an attempt to try to sabotage the government’s fiscal responsibility.
This issue has been around for a long time. It is about reforms that we needed as a result of improving the equity of assistance to students across Australia. There has been an enormous take-up rate and improvements have been made resulting from the Bradley review. Consequently, the bill that was passed last year was a result of an agreement between the parties. Let me just quote what Senator Mason said at the time:
The bill currently before the Senate represents a result of negotiations undertaken between the government and the coalition. It embodies what I believe is the best deal achievable by all the parties under the circumstances.
That is what Senator Mason said—‘the best deal achievable by all the parties under the circumstances’. That is what he said at the time. Then the opposition voted for the bill and it went through. Yet, after the election, they did not say to the Australian people as part of their election platform that they would find $300 million. It was not costed. You did not cost it.
Oh! Now you have to ask the Nationals whether that is right! What absolute nonsense. They come into this place and they say: ‘We’re going to push through a bill which appropriates $300 million in this chamber’—which is unconstitutional—‘but we’ve got no idea where we are going to get the savings from.’ We did not hear Mr Abbott this week say, ‘Oh, by the way, we’ll find another $300 million to pay for the bill we are going to push through the Senate on Thursday, that is going to add $300 million to the bottom line’. We did not hear him say that; he was silent about that. He is scrambling around trying to find a dollar here, trying to find a dollar there, with no idea about funding this. He simply says, ‘I might have the numbers in the Senate; let’s just appropriate from this chamber $300 billion—
That’s right, Senator Cameron. So $300 million, appropriated from this chamber, and not a clue how to fund it. It is inappropriate that a private senator’s bill should do this. It is inappropriate that the Senate chamber should do this. There is a government in place that has a program. It is a responsible program and they are dealing with an incredibly tight budget, incredibly difficult circumstances. We are the ones, the government are the ones, who have to make the budget balance. We are the ones who are bringing the budget back to surplus three years earlier than originally planned. We have an economic plan to do that, and it does not include this whim of a bill, a private senator’s bill, simply being introduced in this place, hoping to get the support of the chamber, which will appropriate $300 million—with no plan of where the savings should come from; simply leaving the government holding that baby. That is what they want to do. And this chamber should reject it on that basis alone.
The reason this bill is here is unnecessary too. We have gone through a comprehensive reform program on this issue of income support for tertiary education. We have negotiated that with the opposition. Last year a bill came before this place which the opposition agreed with. And, as I quoted earlier, Senator Mason agreed that this was the best deal achievable under the circumstances—and he acknowledged that it was the result of negotiations. That is what they did. Now, after the election, they come back and say, ‘Oh, but we want another $300 million; we don’t care where you find it—it doesn’t really matter if it affects the bottom line, doesn’t matter if it throws the government’s program out; we simply want it because we think it’s a good idea and it would be nice to have.’ It is that sort of irresponsibility that we do not need in these economic times. It is that sort of economic irresponsibility that is another reason why you will find yourselves in opposition for a long, long time. You cannot come into this place and say, ‘We want to introduce and pass through this chamber a bill that is going to add $300 million to the bottom line, but we have no idea where we are going to get the money from.’ There have been no negotiations about that, but it just does not matter. And there will be more and more of those bills, mark my words. We will see more bills like this that seek to appropriate money from this chamber, through the mechanism of private senators’ bills, that are simply designed to sabotage the government’s fiscal and economic program. That is what they are doing. Everyone listening should watch: after this bill I bet you we see more bills doing exactly the same thing.
I am just told it is already happening today: more such bills are coming our way. If that is not evidence that this is simply an irresponsible attack on the government’s economic strategy, sabotaging this government’s economic strategy, I do not know what could be. It is absolutely irresponsible. You are not the government. We have a government. We have a government that is responsible for putting forward a whole package of measures, a whole package of bills, a whole package of reforms—and we have to fund them. You cannot simply sit over that side of the chamber and say, ‘It doesn’t matter; we’ll just appropriate the money—it’ll be the government’s problem; the government will have to worry about it.’ That is absolute irresponsibility. You have shirked any responsibility you have, and this is simply an attack on this government’s economic strategy. You should be ashamed of yourself and you should withdraw it. I simply hope that the chamber does not fall for this underhanded attack on the government’s credibility.
I rise today to participate in what is a first: priority time for private senators’ bills. It is something the Greens fought very hard for, something we have been talking about for a long time. Thankfully, because of the enormous support that we got throughout the election, we were able to actually implement this in our agreement in the forming of the government. I think it is wonderful that all sides of politics are now able to participate in putting issues on the agenda that affect their constituencies, things that the government of the day try to ignore and do not want to deal with. Of course, I would have liked to have been talking about a Greens bill today, but here we go: after years and years of the coalition saying they would not give precedence to private senators’ time, we are now dealing with their bill first.
The bill in question is Senator Nash’s bill, which attempts to fix up the dodgy deal that was done between the coalition and the government over the issue of youth allowance in the first place. We know that when the government brought in their whole package of youth allowance reforms there were some very positive things in that package. There were also some things that were quite devastating, particularly for rural young Australians. That was because it made it more difficult for young people from the country, who have to move out of home in order to go to university, to get the support that they need. It made them jump through further hoops and over higher hurdles. I understand that, in the midst of a prolonged standoff in this chamber in particular, between the government and the opposition, the Greens and the Independents, trying to get a better result for country students, the deal that was done unfortunately did not fix the problems in relation to those disadvantages facing young people in country Australia.
We now see the need to fix this problem. While I stand shoulder to shoulder with Senator Nash in being concerned with the issues facing young people—Senator Nash and I sat on various committee inquiries talking about this—the issue really is that young people from country areas who have to move out of home need to be supported. If we are serious about investing in our rural communities then we need to get our young people to university, get them trained and get them skills so that they can go back to their country areas and be the doctors and be the nurses that their country towns need. We need to ensure that they have skills and expertise to take back to their communities. The best way of doing that, the best way of getting those skills back into those communities, is to educate their young people. But the way the current system works disadvantages those kids. However, the idea of simply going back, as this bill suggests, to the old rules—which still make young people jump through hoops and over hurdles—is not the way to go about it.
I have spoken to the government various times about this. You really need to understand that the government does not believe that this is a problem. Until they accept that there are issues here, it is going to be very difficult to deal with this problem. Unfortunately, we are in a situation where we do disadvantage young people simply because of the geographical location that they live in. This bill, however, does not deal with that. This bill still puts young people from those country areas in a position where they have to defer their university course to earn money and then prove that they deserve support. We know that only 30 per cent of those young people who defer their studies will end up going to university. That means that of all those young people who work so hard, supported by their families, to get through high school, to get the grades, to get the acceptance to university, only 30 per cent of them are going to be able to go on to university, because we have put barriers in front of them. This bill does not remove those barriers. I would like to amend this bill to remove those barriers.
I am also concerned about how we pay for this. We have heard from Senator Marshall about the issues that the government has with how the opposition propose to fund this. The explanatory memorandum to this bill, circulated by the authority of Senator Nash, outlines that funding would be appropriated from the Education Investment Fund to cover this cost. This is the exact same fund that the government themselves have decided to cut to help fund their flood relief. We saw Tony Abbott on Tuesday stand up and say, ‘Yes, we agree with all the government’s spending cuts, plus we will put in a few of our own,’ including, of course, cutting aid to schoolchildren in Indonesia. There is a hole now in Tony Abbott’s budgeting. I do not know where he suggests this funding should come from, but I do know where the Greens believe this should come from.
The Greens believe that if we are to implement a support system for country students that does everything they need, that does not require them to jump through hoops and over hurdles, that does not require them to put at risk their university career by having to defer, then the government could fund a properly supported system, based on our amendments as circulated in the chamber, to simply give them support because they are geographically disadvantaged. We would fund that through a properly applied resource rent tax. We have been saying for a long time that this is something that the government should look at. If we do not do this—if this bill passes the chamber without accepting the second reading amendment that I will move—then there is no funding for this bill. So Tony Abbott and Senator Nash might sit there and say, ‘We have our ideas on how we will fund it,’ but they have now got a black hole in their own budget.
So how will this proposal be funded if indeed we do not move to support what the Greens are proposing, which is an increase and a properly applied resource rent tax? That would cover the cost of educating our young Australians from country areas so that they can invest in their communities. It would ensure that they do not have to defer their studies and it would ensure that they are supported to get the training that their communities desperately need. We would be putting a value on education that would mean that we actually believe in it. Julia Gillard is meant to be the education Prime Minister. This is the opportunity to prove that you are totally, deadset behind investing in education.
It should not matter whether you come from the bush or whether you come from the city: you should be able to access higher education if indeed you have worked so hard to get there. You should not have to have barriers put in front of you simply because of the town in which your family has brought you up. In South Australia, my home state, we have the ludicrous situation where students from Mount Gambier cannot get the support that they need based on this deal that was cut by the coalition and the government because they are considered to be in a zone which means they do not get that extra support. Yet they are 300 or 400 kilometres away from the nearest university. What are the coalition and the government going to do to fund a system that will support those kids in Mount Gambier or those in Renmark, Port Augusta or Port Pirie?
These are the issues that the government needs to think about. Unfortunately, the bill in its current state does not deal with the issues. We need to amend that. We need to remove that discrimination against country students. My amendment does that. It simply says, ‘If you have to move out of home in order to go to university and your household income is less than $150,000 then you will get that support because we believe that your getting an education is a really important thing for Australia and for your communities.’ That is what my amendment does.
How will we fund it? We know that the budget is tight and we also know that there is a way around that. We know that we need to start investing in our educational programs. That means using things like the resource rent tax to say: ‘We are ripping all of these irreplaceable minerals out of the ground. How about we put this towards the education of our future—the training and skills needed for the future of our country.’ That is what we are talking about. I look forward to the committee stage of debate and I move the second reading amendment standing in my name:
At the end of the motion, add: but:
- the Senate is of the opinion that these reforms should be funded through a reconfigured mining resource rent tax that would generate sufficient additional revenue to cover the costs, replacing the Education Investment Fund as the source of the funds as proposed in the explanatory memorandum to the bill; and
- a message be sent to the House of Representatives informing it of this resolution and requesting its concurrence in the resolution.
I was listening to my friend Senator Marshall this morning. When he was addressing the Senate, talking about fiscal responsibility and the Labor Party in the same breath, I wondered where I was—I really did. I did not hear much about pink batts and Building the Education Revolution, but I did wonder where I was. Anyway, it is Thursday, and I will not dwell on that.
The Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010 actually seeks to enhance access to university for thousands of young Australians. Senator Nash’s private senator’s bill is another important step in reducing disadvantage. That is what this is about—reducing disadvantage suffered because of where Australians happen to live. Senators will recall the long—some might even say ‘protracted’—debate last year concerning the provision of youth allowance for university students. I will get to that in a second. The legislation that was originally proposed by the government would have made it harder—indeed, perhaps impossible—for tens of thousands of students from outside metropolitan areas to attend university by removing from them most avenues to establish independence through workforce participation in order to qualify for youth allowance. After a long legislative battle and difficult negotiations, a couple of which I did attend, the government compromised. The old rules were means tested but were retained for those young people residing in very remote and outer regional areas, as per the Australian standard geographical classification—a very bureaucratic term but an important one.
The coalition’s strong stance meant that thousands of young people who were originally excluded by Labor’s changes at least retained the opportunity to pursue higher education. I accept the compromise was not perfect, but it was the only way at that time to break the impasse and allow legislation to pass so that payments could start for large numbers of students affected by the legislation. I was lobbied up hill and down dale by vice-chancellors and others to get the money moving. We did, but the idea that somehow we broke or welshed on a deal, as Senator Marshall mentioned this morning and Senator Evans has mentioned in the past in this chamber, is wrong. You might recall that on the day that bill passed I moved an amendment which largely is reflected in Senator Nash’s private senator’s bill today. That was on the very day that the bill passed.
Our intention was always very clear. I often wonder whether this deal was supposed to last forever, that somehow the legislative function of the Australian parliament was going to be fettered forever and a day because of a deal done in Parliament House. That is absolute rubbish. The implication always was that there was a deal up until the next election.
During the 2010 election, our election manifesto said that we would relax the eligibility criteria for the independent youth allowance, which would be extended to students in the inner regional category. No-one could have missed that.
The opposition remains committed to students in regional areas and to providing them with an opportunity to attend our great universities. We think that is important. For us, the opposition, the debate is all about access and it is all about fairness. Under the act, regional students living in the inner regional zone, as defined by the Australian standard geographical classification, continue to be excluded from the possibility of receipt of youth allowance under independence criteria. This leaves thousands of young Australians disadvantaged. The coalition believes that all students from regional areas, whether these areas are classified for bureaucratic purposes as inner regional or outer regional, should be treated as one. The truth of the matter is that all these students, unlike their city counterparts, have to leave home and relocate in order to attend university.
When I went to university I had to catch a bus to get there—and I was very, very privileged to be able to do so. I am very grateful that I was able to do that. If I had been living in an inner regional area it would have been much, much more difficult. We know the nation cannot bring a university into every town. It cannot be done. But we can try to bring kids who live in those towns into university, and that is what we want to do. We are trying desperately to do that. Recently the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations heard from witnesses addressing this issue. Some students who live in the inner regional areas, currently excluded under Labor’s legislation, have to move 450 kilometres in order to study the course of their choice. One witness, a Mr Hugh Warren, was very blunt. He said:
It is simply idiotic to pretend that driving up to three hours a day in each direction to attend uni is a viable option.
But that is the function of Labor’s law as it stands, and we do not think that is right. We do not think that that disadvantage is appropriate, and we are seeking to address that.
I have applauded in this place the then Minister for Education and now Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, for her passion and for her stated commitment on education. I have done it on many occasions. Indeed, I have also applauded, as much as it hurt me, my good friend Senator Carr because I honestly believe that their heart is in the right place on these issues. I have never, ever doubted the Prime Minister’s commitment to education—never in this place, never publicly or privately. But, as senators may recall, I am very concerned about the implementation of many of the programs. Yesterday the address-in-reply debate gave me an opportunity to address some of those issues. I will not go there again, but I will say that part of the problem with the Prime Minister’s proposals with respect to education during the term of the Rudd government and now the Gillard government is that they have been undone by appalling implementation. We do not think that is good enough.
But the coalition agrees with this: Professor Bradley said that we should lift to 40 per cent the percentage of 25- to 34-year-old Australians having a bachelor’s degree by 2025. The coalition has accepted that as a goal. Professor Bradley and, indeed, Ms Gillard are right to say that there are three great areas of disadvantage in this country: kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds—we accept that; Indigenous kids; and young Australians living in rural and regional areas. They are the three great areas of disadvantage.
Fifty-five per cent—more than half—of metropolitan students go on to tertiary education, and barely a third of students from regional areas do. It is not because kids from regional areas are less intelligent; it is because they do not have access to higher education. That is what Senator Nash’s bill is trying to address. We have to do that. If we all agree that 40 per cent of young Australians should attend university and receive a bachelor’s degree, we have to do something about it. Sure, it will cost money, but it has to be addressed.
The United Negro College Fund, an American organisation which helps African Americans close the gap with the rest of young Americans in tertiary education, has a slogan: ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste.’ Indeed, it is. I know there is still great untapped potential out there for young people to reap the benefits of education, excel and help to contribute to a better, fairer and more just life in this country. Higher education benefits the individual, but it also benefits the community as a whole. I accept the Prime Minister’s commitment in this regard. I absolutely do.
We want to ensure that a young girl from Dalby has access to tertiary education. She might be our next Nobel prize winner. We want her to be able to go to university. A teenager from Orange might find a cure for cancer. We want to make sure he has access to university. A boy from Shepparton might be the next Manning Clark or, perhaps better still, Geoffrey Blainey, and we want him to be able to go to university to write that history. There are many young Australians who do not have access to tertiary education. They need it. Senator Nash’s bill addresses that.
Senator Mason’s contribution to the second reading debate on the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010 was more bluster than substance. The two key issues that anyone of substance has to deal with in this debate are the constitutional issues and the economic issues. The constitutional issues were not addressed by Senator Mason. They were completely ignored. And what was his contribution on the economic issues? ‘This will cost us money but it has to be addressed.’ There is a three-letter word that comes up after that: ‘How?’ How do you address it? Senator Mason, you just went on with all that bluster. You had 11 years in government to do something about this and you failed. You did nothing about this issue. It was because we had a weak Treasurer, Peter Costello, who could not control the spending urges of John Howard, so it was money in one side and tax cuts out the other side. In those days there was no thought about regional Australia, no thought about universities. It was cutting money out of universities. It was destroying the building funds of universities. It was destroying young people’s capacity to get training. That was the record of the Howard government. It is utter hypocrisy to come here now and argue that the Labor Party should be doing more for students in regional areas. You had 11½ years and your bad economic management meant that there was no vision, no plan for students in the country areas.
I do not agree with what the Greens are saying, but at least the Greens addressed, from their perspective, the economic issues—something that the coalition failed to do. The Greens said, ‘Yes, more money should be spent, and this is how it should be done.’ I do not agree with them. We have got an agreement with the mining industry and we are going to stick to that agreement, but at least the Greens came here and tried to address the issue of how their changes to this legislation would be funded. That is fine. I do not agree with them, but at least they came here with an economic approach—something that the coalition failed to do.
I want to deal with the constitutional issues now. Again, the Liberal Party failed to deal with them. It is important that the government’s position on the constitutionality of the bill is known to the Senate. It is well established under Australia’s constitutional arrangements that the government of the day is responsible for the management of public revenue and the budget. This means the government is responsible for initiating all financial initiatives in the parliament. Advice from the Attorney-General which was previously tabled in the Senate makes it clear:
A proposed law that would appropriate revenue or moneys cannot originate as a private member’s bill. A bill for such a law cannot, in any event, originate in the Senate.
There will be much water to flow under the bridge on this issue. My view is that what is being proposed here today is not only economically irresponsible; it is an act of constitutional vandalism. Senator Hanson-Young argued that it was good that people could bring issues to the Senate. I agree. You can bring issues, but you cannot bring an appropriation bill to the Senate. That is an issue that those who are arguing for this legislation have to deal with. Our priority as a government is the flood levy. Our priority is to deal with the budget cuts that will fund the rebuilding of Queensland, northern New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia. That is the national imperative for any politician in this place. The national imperative is to rebuild our nation after the worst natural disaster in our history. That is the priority for us, and I call on the coalition to start thinking about that priority in a serious manner and in a manner that deals with the national interest.
I want to come back to the constitutional vandalism and economic irresponsibility. I would not expect anything less from the National Party than constitutional vandalism and economic irresponsibility. After all, this is the party who gave us Black Jack McEwen and Barnaby Joyce.
No? This is a party who puts pork-barrelling before the national interest, a party who has no economic credibility, a party who builds false hope and panders to populist views and demands. That is what we are seeing at the moment. This is the party who gave us the Regional Partnerships program. I do not want to go into all the ins and outs of the Regional Partnerships program, but we know all about that. This is a party who is desperate to maintain its diminishing relevance to rural and regional Australia.
The Libs are not much better. They know this proposal is a dud, but they need the Nationals because Tony Abbott’s leadership is under pressure. That is what this is about. It is about pandering to the coalition partner, because they have major problems in terms of solidarity within the coalition. They are prepared to abandon fiscal responsibility to pander to the Nationals, and it is about nothing more than papering over the disunity that is there in the coalition. The current Leader of the Opposition must stand up to Barnaby Joyce on this issue. That is what he has to do. He has to stand up to him. But that will not happen, because the Liberals have abandoned any guise of good economic managers. The opposition leader should exercise leadership, but I think he is incapable of doing that.
We heard much the other day about the ‘night of the long prawns’. What did we have on Tuesday? We had the afternoon of the long stare. What should have happened is that Barnaby Joyce should have been given the long stare by Tony Abbott when he went in and demanded to be the finance spokesman for the coalition. The long stare would have worked better then, don’t you think? It would have left them with some economic credibility, because they have none now. The long stare should have come out, the nodding head should have been there and Barnaby should have been left in absolutely no doubt that the Liberal Party will not be led by the nose by the Nationals.
I apologise. Senator Joyce should not have led the Leader of the Opposition by the nose. That should not have happened, because it was an act of economic vandalism, putting Senator Joyce in the finance portfolio. It was an act of economic vandalism to concede to the demand from the National Party. This is what we have here. This is typical of what is happening. The long stare should have been out there. The problem for the Leader of the Opposition is that he has lost control. We now have a battle between the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow foreign minister, Julie Bishop. We now have a brawl between the shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey, and the shadow finance minister, Robb. We have the Western Australians trying to throw their muscle around and muscle over the Victorians. We know that is what is happening. We know that you are in absolute disarray. We know you are a rabble, and that is what this bill is about—trying to move away from the rabble that you are. (Time expired)
Today we are again talking about the level of income support we provide to help our kids get to university. Family First believes a clever country would be making it easier for our kids to get to university, not harder. But after the changes that were made at the beginning of last year by the Labor government, together with the support of the Nationals, thousands of Australian kids in regional and country Australia are now finding it harder to get to university. Family First is the only party that has consistently stood up for regional students on this issue. Family First has been on the record as saying that any student who needs to relocate more than 100 kilometres in order to study should be eligible for youth allowance under the old criteria. This includes rural and regional students. It is a system which is simple, it is easy and it works.
Unfortunately, the National Party sold out rural and regional kids by doing a deal with the Labor government which has resulted in regional students having to basically defer their uni studies, which in effect puts them two years behind their city counterparts. The National Party knew country kids would be treated like second-class citizens at the time but still sold out the bush and put country kids two years behind their city counterparts. And today we have the Nationals claiming they are helping the bush, but in fact all they are doing is trying to fix the mess they created. School leavers from regional areas are now having to delay their study plans by two years in order to go to university. Many of them may well decide not to bother going to university because of having to wait so long.
Students in places such as Ballarat, Bendigo, Sale, Shepparton, Traralgon, Wangaratta, Warrnambool and Wodonga have been left out in the cold—and that is just Victoria. Across Australia you also have places such as Albury, Wagga Wagga, Orange, Dubbo, Tamworth and Mackay. These students are now being forced to work 30 hours per week for 18 months, or 15 hours per week for two years, in order to qualify for study assistance. What are students from places such as Rockhampton or Bundaberg supposed to do to find that work? How are they supposed to find work for 30 hours per week when their home towns have just been ravaged by floods? Are we supposed to just give up on these students and say, ‘Too bad—I guess you guys have to miss out on university education as well’? It is absurd. This bill, the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010, fixes a problem that should never have been created in the first place and I hope the bill passes the Senate so we can make it easier for these students, our kids, to go to university to keep our reputation as a clever nation.
It is with much pleasure that I rise to speak in support of the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010. Education is the keystone. It is central for any Western civilisation to provide opportunities for all Australians to have an opportunity to learn, to have an opportunity to go on to tertiary education, to provide a hand up, not a handout, so that our future, our children, can develop their own capacity to make their own way in the world. This legislation will ensure that every child, every student, has an even playing field and will have a chance to make something of themselves. We are not here talking about economic considerations, as we have just heard from Senator Cameron. What we are talking about here is providing access for all students so that they may have a chance to get on in life.
What the government has done has ensured that not everyone has an equal playing field and it directly discriminates against those in inner regional areas. This legislation is all about providing equitable access to support the important principles of choice so that tens of thousands of students will have the opportunity to choose to go on to tertiary education and not be hamstrung by things that this government is imposing upon their families. This government is seeking to pull the rug out from many aspiring kids and families and it should really seriously consider the implications of what it is planning.
Finding full-time employment in regional areas and small communities is often very difficult. Frankly, the current legislation does not take into account the realities of life in regional Australia. So many students living in inner regional areas in Victoria are currently missing out on the independent youth allowance because of the changes the Gillard Labor government has made to the eligibility criteria. Yet the government has continued to ignore these students’ concerns and the concerns of their families. Seasonal employment sectors in agriculture, in tourism, in fruit-picking in regional areas cannot provide work throughout an entire year and many of the students want to apply for independent youth allowance and are currently unable to do so. As well as this, regional students face significantly increased costs associated with relocating for study, which many regional students have no choice in. Many of them to pursue the studies of their interest have to move from their home and their family to pursue their area of interest, to pursue their aspirations. This is just another layer of bureaucracy, another layer of direct block, if you like, that is making it very difficult. It is blocking them and making it more difficult for them to make that choice.
Affording tertiary education is a real issue for all students but in particular for regional students and their families. The recent Senate inquiry found that only 33 per cent of regional students go on to tertiary education compared with 55 per cent of metropolitan students. It begs the question why. Why is it that so few regional students are able to pursue possible dreams to go on to tertiary education? This inequity has been fostered by the inaction of this government and it must now end. Under the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Act 2010, regional students living in the inner regional Australia zone on the Australian standard geographical classification map continue to be excluded from accessing independent youth allowance if they do not qualify for Labor’s new criteria. The coalition sought to move further amendments to include students living in the inner regional zone, because we listened to our constituents and we know what it is that is concerning them. We know this is a critical issue and we tried to address it.
Senator Nash, to her great credit, has tried to do that, but these amendments were defeated by Labor and the Greens. The exclusion of the inner regional zone has resulted in unfair eligibility criteria for regional students. All regional students who have to relocate to attend tertiary education should be treated equally.
I have to say it is really difficult to understand why the Gillard Labor government would deny vital assistance to regional students yet waste billions of dollars on pink batts and overpriced school halls. We saw in the first stimulus package cheques for $900 being posted to everyone, yet they are scrimping in the areas that matter. It is even more difficult to fathom how the Gillard government could publicly preach the virtues of being ‘equitable in education’, the importance of education in Australia, and offering everyone a ‘fair go’ in a spirit of so-called mateship. Yet, as we all know, actions speak louder than words.
We must never forget that the Prime Minister was responsible for these changes as the education minister. It is the Prime Minister who should now show leadership and fix this inequity that is hurting so many regional students. In early 2010 the Labor government, with Julia Gillard as education minister, altered the eligibility criteria for independent youth allowance, requiring students from areas identified as inner regional to work more hours for longer before being considered as independent. Clearly, the Prime Minister was not one of those aspiring kids when she was looking at her opportunities to go to university, and neither were her family, since she does not understand how difficult it is for students aspiring to go to university to take themselves out of the study stream into the workforce on a permanent basis and then get back into the mode for studying.
I would suggest that, by demanding that people work full time for 18 months, they are making it just that much harder for the kids to get back into the study stream. For those parents who have had to help, guide, encourage and nurture their children into getting back into university and into their course, I suggest that they would be most concerned with the Prime Minister’s views on this matter.
This new policy divides regions and electorates, with arbitrary lines on maps determining student eligibility for independent status. Two towns in the same area on different sides of the line will have different educational outcomes. Students may come from the same class in the same school but be discriminated against based on which side of the line their homes sit. This discrimination is unacceptable.
The coalition wants to encourage students to complete year 12 and support them when they move away from home to higher education. If the government agrees to the motion and implements the changes, inner regional students will be able to access the monetary based criteria and will only have to take a 12-month gap rather than that very difficult 18 months.
In speaking in support of this amendment I would like to quote Labor’s Senator Marshall, Chair of the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee:
I guess everyone would like to support this bill. In fact, we have had very little opposition to it. The only opposition to it probably comes from those who have to find the money to pay for it and fund it. That is always a dilemma.
To Senator Marshall and the Prime Minister I say, ‘Go back to the drawing board and look at the spending frenzy that you have been pursuing since you have been in government. This deliberation would not be on the table if money had not been flushed down the toilet on programs that have been clearly inefficient and have delivered no value for money.’
One thing that Senator Kroger was correct about is that we should look at the broader context in relation to the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010 because, indeed, it is the second, if not the third, response to the government’s Bradley review measures. What this debate has failed to take into account are the other advantageous measures for all low-SES students that those measures have incorporated.
Let us have a little bit of a look at history, Senator Nash, which you have failed to do but indeed Senator Kroger did. In March last year, after lengthy negotiations with the coalition, the parliament legislated to make income support system arrangements more equitable and more generous for students from low-income families, in line with the recommendations of the Bradley review. This included those from rural and regional communities. You may not be 100 per cent happy with those measures, Senator Nash, but that was the deal and the deal was intended to last longer than just a few months.
At this stage I should highlight some of the points that have already partly been made in this debate, because Senator Cameron is quite right. The measures before the Senate today—which, unfortunately, are historically the first private senators’ bill measures under the new Senate arrangements, as referred to by Senator Hanson-Young—do involve either constitutional vandalism or fiscal recklessness, if not both, on behalf of the coalition. Senator Cameron referred in part to the difficulties that the coalition is having at the moment. Indeed, one does ponder what Mr Robb makes of these arrangements because, if you look at the Bills Digest and the discussion on the constitutionality issues, you cannot have it both ways. This measure either is fiscally irresponsible and reckless or is sheer constitutional vandalism. If you look, for instance, at the reference to Odgers, which a Senate clerk referred to, and the claim that the bill does not appropriate money because it does not have a formal clause to that effect, how on earth can the coalition claim to be fiscally responsible when relying on such a device? You cannot.
The issue of whether this is an appropriation bill is contested between the houses and that debate will go on for some time yet. I note that the very comprehensive letter from the Attorney-General has been made available to the Senate to refer to. I agree that there are some very serious concerns.
Senator Nash says that we are digging a hole. Well, in her very short-term view, if she thinks responsible government is about using devices such as this and trying to skirt the Constitution on what are appropriation bills she is highlighting my very point about the problems that the coalition faces today. This is completely fiscally irresponsible. Indeed, Senator Mason knew that last time we debated this—hence his sheepish response to the debate in the Senate on the last occasion, and indeed today. Today Senator Mason is not able to assure the Senate that these measures were properly costed in the coalition’s policy at the last election, because he cannot. These measures were part of that more than $10 billion black hole that the coalition took to the last election.
So I go back to reinforce the points that Senator Cameron made that the constitutionality issues here are very serious. They are serious not only in this bill but also in other bills that may move forward in debates such as this. I reinforce particularly to the Greens on that issue that, if we are to move forward with these new arrangements for private senators’ bills, the arrangements around how we deal with appropriation matters are very serious policy considerations that need to be looked at very carefully.
I want to spend more time on the fiscal recklessness issue. This bill is only one example of the coalition’s approach here. The change to youth allowance that we are debating here today has a cost of $317 million over four years. The Nationals will say, ‘But there’s not a clause in the bill appropriating money; therefore, it is not an appropriation bill.’ Well, again, you cannot have it both ways: either this is fiscally irresponsible or it is constitutional vandalism.
The spending proposal also wipes out half of Mr Abbott’s $600 million cut to the water buybacks. What further measures will he cut to make up for this shortfall? Will we see further cuts to foreign aid? Is that what the coalition is going to come up with next? This is just the tip of the iceberg. Another opposition bill introduced today, the Defence Force Retirement and Death Benefits Amendment (Fair Indexation) Bill 2010, would have a fiscal cost of $1.7 billion—yes, billion, not million—over four years and an underlying cash cost of $175 million over four years. It would increase Commonwealth unfunded liabilities by $6.2 billion—yes, Barnaby, not million—
I apologise; I should have said Senator Joyce. This would increase the Commonwealth’s unfunded liabilities by $6.2 billion. That is why I highlight that these constitutionality issues around appropriation bills are very serious indeed, not only with respect to this one involving $317 million over four years but also with respect to the next one up for debate in private senators’ time involving $1.7 billion over four years. If we continue along this path and deal with money and appropriation matters in this fashion, it can only highlight the fiscal recklessness of this opposition and, indeed, Mr Abbott’s incapacity to manage his coalition.
It is only week 1 of the parliament and already the opposition have introduced bills that would cost the budget almost $500 million and increase unfunded liabilities by $6.2 billion, with not one additional savings option in sight. On top of this, the opposition have also demonstrated their fiscal recklessness by twice blocking $5 billion in savings measures put forward by this government. This includes means-testing the private health insurance rebate, which will cost the budget some $2.1 billion over the next four years, and the closure of the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, an out-of-design scheme that has had significant cost blowouts and will cost the budget $3.1 billion over the next four years. Yet they think they can ride on Mr Fahey’s credibility as a responsible fiscal manager. I hate to say this to Senator Brandis but logic does not say that because Mr Fahey has some common sense every other Liberal Party member does, which seemed to be the argument they were presenting in question time yesterday. This spending is an additional $5 billion over the next four years as a result of the opposition’s recklessness. They are also in the process of trying to block a further $2 billion in savings to the budget over four years by voting against reforms to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
The opposition have demonstrated time and time again that they are not committed to bringing the budget back to surplus. After spending weeks saying that it would be easy to find savings, what we have is a series of deferrals, double counts and backflips and still no serious strategy about flood reconstruction. They have double counted around $700 million in savings. They say they will use it to fund the rebuild, but they have already earmarked those savings to fund other spending priorities; you cannot spend it twice. They have claimed over $100 million in savings from the BER which has already been allocated to projects that are committed or underway. The fact is that 99.9 per cent of BER projects have been completed or commenced. Which ones are you to discontinue? They have reversed their position on foreign aid, taking savings from a measure that they supported in government. They have had to roll Warren Truss and the Nationals, who said that they will not support our infrastructure saves. Is this part of the rationale behind the recklessness that we are dealing with in the Senate today? The opposition, the coalition, is indeed a shambles. (Time expired)
Really, there are four people most competent to speak on this issue and they are Senator Nash, Senator Xenophon, Senator Marshall and I. We sat through the hearings and heard the personal stories of those who will be affected in the event that Senator Nash’s bill is not passed. I want to make this a personal contribution matter and I want to point to the severe discrimination that would occur if we do not address this anomaly. There should be only one criterion that determines whether students should get this support under youth allowance and that is, having regard to means-testing and other activities, do they have to relocate from their home to the place of higher education? If the answer is yes, then we must support this bill. If the answer is no, then we have the capacity to not do so. In fact, this has been endorsed by none other than Senator Evans himself because, during the course of our hearing on 17 December last year in this place, he introduced the Rural Hardship Grants Scheme for rural students attending university, and its first and major criterion simply was: does the student have to relocate? I applaud him for that, and I implore him to carry that through into this bill.
The Australian standard geographic classification upon which these decisions have been taken, delineating metropolitan, inner and outer regional, remote and very remote areas are totally irrelevant to this discussion. They were developed to decide whether rural doctors should or should not receive some financial support in agreeing to reside in inner, outer regional or remote areas. They should not apply them as they have done. There is no logical application to it; it is ridiculous. During the hearing of the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee I simply asked myself this: if a student wanted to travel from Hobart or Darwin to study veterinary science—as was the case in my own profession—they would have to travel to a city campus and, in fact, they would be denied this youth allowance, as indeed would I have been in the 1960s.
But let us have a look at the impact on the students themselves. During the hearing we heard cases presented to us of older siblings who would qualify for the one gap year but whose younger siblings would not. We heard of one lass from Port Macquarie, now in her third year, and of her sister going through a gap year, approved for an agricultural commerce course, not knowing whether in fact she was able to go on. Her younger sister had just been accepted, I think, into medicine and would possibly not be able to undertake that course, and her younger brother would probably go down that same path. We heard of the same thing occurring in Mount Gambier. Under the one gap year, a lass had peeled potatoes for 12 months and her sister was facing the prospect of peeling potatoes for two years before being eligible for youth allowance. What has happened to this country, when its best and brightest have to peel potatoes for a period—in this case, for two years—before they can go to university? I ask the question: why is it that we in this country are expending so much money, and rightly so, to keep students through until the end of their secondary schooling and then turning around, throwing them out and rejecting them for the opportunity of tertiary study?
I applaud any government that wants to ensure that people from lower socioeconomic areas have the opportunity to go on to higher study. Thus has it always been and thus should it always be. But the reality, as was put to me by the then chairman of the Group of Eight universities, is that, over time, history has shown that it is not only students from the low socioeconomic areas who have been denied opportunities at university but students from rural and regional areas of Australia. They are the ones who in fact have been the most disadvantaged and this legislation, unless it is changed, will simply perpetuate that situation.
Let us have a look for a moment at the wastage of students. We already know that there is a loss of students after their tertiary entrance in year 12—those who do a gap year—and there is a loss of those who do not then go on to tertiary studies. I think, from memory, it is about eight to 10 per cent. But that figure jumps to a third. For those who have a two-year gap period, it jumps to about 33 per cent wastage of those students who then do not go on to higher studies. We in this country cannot afford that. Why invest so heavily in youngsters, through to the end of year 12, and then allow a 33 per cent wastage of students through them not going on to higher studies and universities? There is no logic to that situation.
We are talking about the inner regional areas currently being denied about 5,000 students. I am not sure of the number who actually attend university or higher education for the first time each year. It is probably about 200,000. So we are looking at about 5,000 students potentially being impacted. As a person coming from rural and regional Australia, the concern I have is the impact on rural communities. We know that it is far more likely that a student from a rural or regional area, having obtained a university degree or higher qualification, will come back and stay in rural and regional Australia. I asked the young lady from Port Macquarie that question: ‘Would you, your sisters and your brother, upon graduation, stay in Sydney?’ She said, ‘No way, Senator. We would go back to the bush.’ Those are the very people whom we need.
We in this country are right down at the bottom of the OECD graph of those participating in agriculture and agribusiness who have any degree of qualification or higher education. That is unacceptable when we look at the challenge confronting this country and our region in terms of food security, supplying food, fibre and water for this sector of the world into the future. We have an unfilled demand of about 50,000 people in the agricultural and agribusiness sectors at a graduate degree level and this legislation will simply perpetuate and exacerbate that situation.
From a purely economic point of view, it has been put to the committee that a graduate earns, over their lifetime, in excess of $1 million more than a sibling, or other, who has not obtained a higher university qualification. If you take that $1 million and apply taxation to it over time, there on its own is the economic validation for getting our students into higher education, getting them qualified and getting them out there earning as graduates. It pays for itself over time. Far from discouraging students, we should be encouraging them even more.
How can we be the clever country when in fact, as I mentioned earlier, we demand that a young person peels potatoes for a—heaven forbid!—two-year period before they go on to university? Over the Christmas period I tried to explain this to a colleague from Singapore, and he simply looked at me as if I were mad. He said, ‘No, you are too intelligent a people; you are too smart a country to allow anyone to waste that time.’ I said, ‘No, that’s actually what students have to do under these circumstances.’
Be under no illusions: it is not 18 months. We all know that in most courses you cannot start in the second semester, so it is effectively a two-year period. This has to be addressed; it is unacceptable. I will not spend the time, because others have, on the question of the average of 30 hours that a student must work in a rural community. Finding work for 30 hours a week—in fact, at one stage it was a minimum of 30 hours, and I do take some credit for being able to point that out in the past; it has now moved from a minimum to an average—in many rural communities is not possible. It is of course obvious that this 18-month period, this 30-hours-a-week requirement, is not directed at school-leaving students at all; it is directed at those coming out of the workforce. For those coming out of the workforce it is a laudable idea, but it is nevertheless not appropriate for school leavers.
I conclude with the reference I made earlier to the words of the minister, Minister Evans, when on the day of the hearing he announced that the rural hardship grant scheme’s criterion was the need to relocate. The need to relocate is the overwhelming and only criterion that should determine eligibility. (Time expired)
At the end of last year the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010 was brought before the Senate by the opposition. Let us cast our minds back to the events of last year. It is important to remember that an agreement between the government and the opposition was made in March last year about changes to the youth allowance scheme, and yet, for reasons best known to them, the coalition waited until November to introduce this private senator’s bill. I cannot help thinking that this delay has led to a lot of frustration and the subsequent animosity we have seen surrounding this issue. But, having said all of that, I do agree that there are serious anomalies in the new scheme and they need to be urgently addressed.
I have long maintained that all private senators’ bills should be referred to a committee inquiry for full and thorough scrutiny before any vote takes place, and that is why I could not vote on this bill until now. This is a prime example of why committee inquiries are so important, because the inquiry allowed us to hear firsthand the experiences of regional students and the difficulties they face when it comes to accessing and affording tertiary education. It highlighted the anomalies and the inequity of the current scheme and the inappropriate use of the Australian standard geographical classification remoteness areas map, which is actually based on access to health networks.
Australia is a nation that strongly supports the notion of equality, and access to affordable education is a key tenet of that. I think we all agree on that. Access to higher education should not be about where somebody lives, and a person should not have to choose what they learn based on where they live. It is clear that relocating for tertiary studies comes at a significant personal and financial cost to families. Youth allowance goes some way to assist these students and is a key factor in whether or not an individual can afford to go to university. I would like to read from a submission to the committee inquiry from Mr Morris Dickins. He said:
My eldest daughter, finishing high school in 2008, qualified for youth allowance under the old system. She had a gap year and worked very hard to earn the $19,532 that was required. A job that required her to work shifts in the horticultural industry and one that required an 80 kilometer round trip from her home.
I will say parenthetically that Senator Back made reference to this young woman, who worked in a potato factory. Mr Dickins went on to say:
Even with her youth allowance payments we are still required to help fund her accommodation with regular fortnightly payments.
My second daughter has just finished her year 12 exams and is awaiting her results. Her dream is to study to become a Chiropractor in 2012 after having a gap year in order to get some money behind her before heading off to University in Melbourne, Sydney or Perth as these are the only places offering this course. This surely will be a clear demonstration of her independence.
Because of the type of hospital Mount Gambier has, through the Australian Standard geographical Classification (ASGC) we are classed as an inner rural city. This means to qualify for youth allowance my daughter will be required to work 30—
a week for 18 months in a 2 year period.
Mr Dickins went on to say:
It will be extremely difficult for my wife and I to assist both our first daughter plus fully supporting our second daughter to be away at university. The cost of having a student from the country at university is somewhere between $15,000 to $20,000 per year. It is unreasonable to expect a student to work 30 hours a week while studying full time. So we will be required to support her to the amount $55,000 to $70,000 until she turns 22 where she will qualify for Independent Living allowance.
To think that if we lived on the other side of the road, as many of my daughter’s friends do, we would still be 450kms away from Adelaide or Melbourne, our daughters would still have to leave home to study, my youngest daughter would not be discriminated against because of the status of our hospital in our community and she would get youth allowance like her friends will.
I spoke with Mr Dickins’s eldest daughter, Sarah. Sarah Dickins is intelligent, articulate and bright, and it concerns me greatly that young people like her may not be able to further their education because they are deemed to live in an inner regional area rather than an outer regional area as a result of the inappropriate use of the map I referred to.
Education is fundamental, and we need to invest in it. Many believe that education is a human right, and I think that speaks to how seriously we need to take this issue. We need to ensure that all those who want to study are able to study, and the financial pressure on regional families whose children want to relocate for university studies is significant. It might be easy for some to say, ‘Well, you don’t need to go to that university; go to one closer,’ but that is the same as saying: ‘I know you want to be a chiropractor, but, hey, there’s a local course for teaching. Change your career aspirations.’ Why should a student who lives in a regional area be at a disadvantage to study the course they want to study and have the career they want to have?
I need to stress that Mount Gambier is not the only example. Other major regional cities fall into this inner regional category, even though they are still 500 kilometres away from the nearest city. I believe that all regional students should be classified as one group, not categorised in four separate groups as is currently the case under the application of the ASGCRA map.
Another key point that was raised in the inquiry was the importance of investing in regional youth, who more than likely will return to the regional centre and bring with them their skills. This government has repeatedly spoken about the importance of investing in our regions, and education must be a key part of that. I agree with what the government has said about that. I supported the government’s bill in March 2010 which made changes to the youth allowance criteria to ensure that only those who legitimately needed financial assistance to study received that support and that the scheme was not able to be rorted, and I commend the then minister, now Prime Minister, for those reforms in terms of the issue of legitimate need. They were important changes. However, I believe the application of the ASGCRA map to determine who is eligible for youth allowance based on locale is inappropriate.
In the absence of any alternative approach I will support this private senator’s bill. The government knows I have acted in good faith; I wrote to the government about this on 21 December, after the evidence was given. Of course I would have preferred to postpone the debate and vote on this bill until the minister, Senator Evans, was able to be in the chamber, but I understand that Senator Nash has given an undertaking to her constituents, as have I, to have the bill voted on this week. I have had useful discussions with Senator Evans’ office in relation to this and I hope that the passage of this bill may trigger further discussions in good faith between all interested parties to see if there is another way forward. But in the absence of any other alternative, given the undertakings I have made to my constituents—to Sarah Dickins, to her family and to many others like her—I have no choice but to support this bill. I see no other way forward.
To my colleagues, to my friends in the Greens: I cannot support the second reading amendment. There is an imperative here to deal with a fundamental injustice. Some fundamental anomalies have arisen. I am not blaming the government for that at all. They are anomalies that none of us foresaw at the time, and that needs to be said in good faith about this. But I do not think it would be fair to the students who need support to have conditions to the support of this bill. I understand where Senator Hanson-Young is coming from on this—
Senator Hanson-Young is asking whether I am offering them false hope. Not at all, Senator Hanson-Young. I am saying there is a principle here that this is an anomaly that needs to be dealt with. The fundamental principle here is that we need to deal with the anomaly. I believe that the process of this bill will be a very valuable and useful one in furthering discussions on further arrangements between the mover of the bill and other interested parties such as Senator Hanson-Young. I think that that is the best way forward at this stage. We need to deal with the anomalies because we all want some access and equity in educational outcomes. That is why I look forward to the review that the government has been undertaking in relation to this and I look forward to further discussions. But I feel that the right thing to do right now is to support this bill.
I seek leave to incorporate the government’s position in relation to the Greens’ second reading amendment and the government’s position in relation to the minerals resource rent tax.
The document read as follows—
- The Government does not support the second reading amendment.
- This amendment by the Greens confirms that this Bill would have a financial impact. It recognises that the Bill is in fact a money bill. The Government's view remains that this Bill is unconstitutional.
- On the substance of the Greens proposal, the Government does not support any increase in the Minerals Resources Rent Tax.
- The MRRT package announced in July last year will provide a fairer return for Australia's resources and let us cut tax for small business, boost superannuation, simplify personal tax and invest in infrastructure.
- The Government will implement the MRRT within the framework announced in July last year.
- We have an agreement with the mining industry, and we are going to stick to that agreement.
- It is important that we get a fairer return for Australia's resources, but it is also important that it is workable for the industry.
- For those reasons, the Government will not be supporting the Bill, and we will not be supporting this second reading amendment.
That is very germane to this debate. I ask that it be circulated immediately.
Are you agreeable to that, Senator Collins?
All right. That will be circulated.
Firstly, can I thank all of those who have made a contribution to my bill this morning. It certainly has been a very lively debate. I would like to thank the member for Sturt and the shadow minister for education, apprenticeships and training, Christopher Pyne, the member for Gippsland, Darren Chester, the member for Forrest, Nola Marino, as well as all my other colleagues for the support that they have given me with this bill because, while this is a private senator’s bill, it is certainly a bill that is very strongly on behalf of all of my coalition colleagues. I would also like to thank Kent Spangenberg, who many years ago, in my very early days as a senator, raised with me the issue of inequity for regional students. I also thank Senator Xenophon and Senator Fielding especially for their contributions today.
One of the saddest things I have ever seen was Senator Marshall stand up today and discuss a bill that affects regional students. His first comment was that the coalition was ‘trying to sabotage the government’s fiscal program to bring the budget back to surplus’. How sad an opening that was from the senator on the other side, because this is not about fiscal responsibility of the government and bringing budgets back to surplus; this is about students in rural and regional Australia who are so devastatingly affected by a current policy of the government. The very fact that Senator Marshall started with that particular comment shows that, as Senator Hanson-Young said, this government has no understanding of the impact of the current independent youth allowance policy on our regional students, and it is indicative of the fact that they have stuck their heads in the sand and completely refused to even address the fact that the issue exists. They simply say, ‘It’s all fine’ and ‘It’s all part of a deal we did with the coalition.’ What a load of rubbish! It is political posturing, and they should have been strong enough to say, ‘There are some unintended consequences here and we are going to fix them.’
Those with the greatest strength can identify when there is a problem. Those who have even greater strength can identify when there is a problem and then move to fix it. Interestingly, as usual the government over there on the other side have not done their homework; they have not done their research. They have come in here and blathered on with a whole lot of rubbish and they have not actually checked their facts—which, colleagues, is not surprising because that is running fairly true to form for the government. They do not check their facts, they do not do their research and they certainly have not given the Australian people anything like a substantive policy since they came to government, particularly in the area of education.
Senator Marshall and others—Senator Collins and Senator Cameron—said that we did not budget for it. Unfortunately, they did not do their homework: yes, we did budget for it. Not only did we budget for it; we submitted the costings to Treasury and Treasury had no comment whatsoever to make, indicating that they had no problem at all with the costings. So perhaps the government might have liked to have checked that little fact before they came in here ranting and raving that we had not done our costings, which we absolutely had.
Senator Marshall is the ultimate, today, in hypocrisy. Colleagues, let me read you a little quote from the inquiry. Today Senator Marshall said, ‘It’s all about sabotaging the government’s fiscal program.’ What most people do not realise Senator Marshall said during the inquiry with regard to my bill to make fair for regional students the access to independent youth allowance was this: ‘I guess everyone would like to support this bill. In fact we have had very little opposition to it.’ Gosh! That is a bit of a contrast. I think somebody might have dropped a different Senator Marshall in on the other side today, because what he said today was precisely not what his comment was during the inquiry process.
Talk about just using words for the sake of making a political point. In all of this the government has completely forgotten that it is regional students and their future that we are talking about. It is the very fact that the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has been talking about an education revolution and how important education is that makes the government’s position on this so incredibly sad, because she knows that there is a problem here. The Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Chris Evans, knows that there is a problem here. I do acknowledge that he is not here today and, of course, we would much prefer that he was here to be part of this debate. But he is very well aware of all these issues and he knows that there is an issue.
For this government to stand up and say that they will not find the money to allow around 5,000 students who live in the inner regional area to be subject to fair and equitable criteria for independent youth allowance is simply not acceptable. Cost is no excuse to not treat regional students fairly. Regional students are not cash cows. They are not the place this government should be taking funding from because they want to be seen to be fiscally responsible. As my very good colleague Senator Mason said earlier, and he was quite right, we are sitting in a sort of parallel universe here when the opening from the government on the other side was about the importance of fiscal responsibility. It would be laughable if it were not so serious. If time permits, I will run through a few of those areas to show just how hypocritical that was from Senator Marshall.
The other issue that the senators on the other side, from the government, have thrown up today is the constitutional issue. Isn’t this interesting? Again, they have not bothered to check their facts. They have not bothered to do a little bit of research on this issue. Interestingly, this issue has been rolling around for a while. Minister Chris Evans, as everybody would be aware, wrote to the President of the Senate way back in November. Thinking deeply, on advice from the Attorney General that it was not constitutional, the minister says to the President, ‘On that basis I would be grateful for your assistance in drawing this matter to the attention of senators so that steps may be taken to ensure that the bill does not proceed.’ How inappropriate was that. The President of the Senate did respond—who, may I point out, is Labor senator Senator John Hogg—saying to the minister, ‘It is quite inappropriate for you to ask me to take steps to ensure that a bill does not proceed on any basis, let alone on the basis that the House of Representatives has a different view of its constitutionality.’ What is it about this piece of policy, what is it about this bill, that the government is so determined never to even debate it? They did not want to debate it back then, and what is particularly interesting is that, in that same letter from the President, he says, ‘The bill introduced by Senator Nash is quite in accordance with the Senate’s view of section 53 of the Constitution.’ So perhaps senators on the other side, before you came in here ranting and raving about the constitutionality, should have checked with ‘your’ President of the Senate as to his view of the appropriate way forward in the Senate chamber.
But it gets better, colleagues. This morning, landing on my desk is a letter—dated only yesterday, might I say—from the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Senator the Hon. Penny Wong—she has been in the news a little bit of late—again advising me that the bill was unconstitutional, that we now have this private member’s business coming before the Senate and alerting us to the fact that the bills are unconstitutional and that, as she was aware, no offsetting savings have been put forward by me. She is yet another Labor senator. Maybe if they had done their homework they would have realised that we had done exactly that. Her President agrees it is constitutional. But what is really interesting is the fact that the government, those on the other side, have known since November that these private senator’s bills were going to be dealt with today, yet Senator Wong, in a mad scramble, chooses to write to me—oh gosh!—yesterday. They are in an absolute mess. All the government needs to do is to admit that there have been some unintended consequences and that they will fix the problem because, at the end of the day, this is about regional students who are being treated unfairly.
The government has divided regional Australia into four zones through the use of the Australian standard geographical classification remoteness area map.
Thank you Senator Mason, it is a mouthful. The four zones do not even relate to the distance from universities for regional students. They have no bearing whatsoever, and the minister even admitted that during the Senate estimates process. So we have the government dividing regional Australia up into four zones. Very simply, this is the crux of the whole matter: students in three of those zones—outer regional, remote and very remote—can access independent youth allowance using a single gap year and earning a lump sum of money; students in the other zone, the inner regional, have to work for 18 months in a two-year period—so they are not going to get any assistance for two years—and they have to work an average of 30 hours a week. That is unfair and that is what needs to be fixed. It is a simple step for the government to insert one line in the legislation to ensure that all of those students are being treated equally. I understand the Greens position on this. Indeed, Senator Hanson-Young has put forward an amendment. I have said very clearly from the beginning of this debate on the criteria for independent youth allowance that this bill simply addresses the current anomaly. It simply addresses the unfairness in the current legislation.
Addressing the broader problems, and bigger inequities, for regional students in accessing education, students who in so many instances simply have no choice but to relocate to attend university, is a separate issue. And that does have to be fixed. I concur with Senator Hanson-Young’s remarks that we do need to look at this relocation issue. Indeed, I have been saying this for a lot longer than she has—and I have been saying it because the Isolated Children’s Parents Association were the ones that originally came to me with the idea of a tertiary access allowance. So this is not a new idea from the Greens. This is an idea that has been coming from regional students and their families for quite some time. But it is a separate issue. I would hope that, in the absence of the Greens being successful with their amendment today, they would see their way clear to support this bill so that regional students can at least be on the path to being treated fairly—because, if they do not, one can only assume that all of the words that the Greens are using about regional students, everything they have said here today in the chamber, is a political game and not acting in the best interests of regional students. If their amendment does not get up, they have the opportunity right here this morning to show their support for regional students by supporting my bill, and I very much hope that they do that.
This issue has been going for a long time now—well over a year. Quite frankly, it should not be so hard for regional students. The argument that the government mounts that the changes that have been made to the youth allowance arrangements have covered for the changes in the independent youth allowance arrangements is simply wrong. It is just incorrect. We agreed that there were some benefits in the legislation last March. There is no doubt about that. That is why we agreed to pass the bill. And no matter how much the government postures and jumps up and down about a deal, we only entered into that deal because the minister responsible at the time, Julia Gillard, refused to split the bill so we could deal with the issues separately. We told her we supported those parts of the legislation that were going to improve things for regional students, but we did not support those parts of the policy regarding the independent youth allowance that were going to be detrimental to regional students. We were very clear about that. We had no choice but to pass that legislation, to get those good parts of the legislation through, but from that very moment in time we have been fighting the government to make this legislation fair.
It is a very simple choice for the government. Even after they vote against my bill—which I am sure they will—they can choose to fix the legislation. It is a simple fix. The funding can come from the Education Investment Fund in the short term. They know that. They could have this whole matter fixed and resolved in a matter of weeks. At the end of the day this is not about us in the chamber. This is not about our political arguments. This is not about political posturing. This is about the future for regional students. And this government has a responsibility to make that future fair for all of them.
That the amendment (Senator Hanson-Young’s) be agreed to.
That this bill be now read a second time.
Bill read a second time.