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Tuesday, 11 November 2008
Page: 10533

Ms NEAL (5:45 PM) —Students in Australia are already being helped to move further into the digital technology revolution that is happening around us. To help achieve this goal, the government’s digital education revolution allocated $1.2 billion over five years to bring computers and broadband access technology to secondary schools. This program is well underway. In my own electorate of Robertson, the computers in schools program has already seen an investment of $2.4 million for schools in my local area. This information communications and technology initiative has so far formed one of the major platforms of the Rudd Labor government’s education revolution.

The education tax refund is another of the government’s commitments, one which will transform working families’ access to quality education in Australia. By providing help for working parents with their everyday educational expenses, including the costs of purchasing computer technology, the measures contained in the Tax Laws Amendment (Education Refund) Bill 2008 will ensure that kids have access to the revolution that is at hand in Australia’s classrooms.

The costs of quality education are forever increasing. A survey by the Brotherhood of St Laurence in 2007 found that 72 per cent of respondents could not afford items that would ‘improve the education experience of their children’. Two-thirds of these respondents did not have a home computer with internet access. About 60 per cent had difficulty paying for books and almost half reported difficulty paying for educational equipment. These figures illustrate quite clearly the difficulties encountered by low-income families in particular when faced with the costs of schooling their children. The ETR plan seeks to address these pressing needs. Not only will the plan bring practical educational tools such as books and computers into the homes of millions of Australian students, it will enhance equity in access to quality education across Australia.

While the bill before us today does not cover all educational expenses, it provides a valuable level of support for more than 2.7 million students in need of educational equipment. Under the ETR plan, eligible expenses for the purposes of the education tax refund include laptops, home computers, printers, paper, education software, school textbooks and associated materials and trade tools. This includes the purchase, lease, hire or hire-purchase costs of these items. Another significant element of the package is that expenses associated with establishing and maintaining a home internet connection are also included.

The criteria for eligibility for the ETR have been made as broad as possible to include as many categories of students and families as possible. Parents and others entitled to family tax benefit part A and who have children undertaking primary or secondary school studies will be eligible for the ETR. In addition, those who would be eligible for family tax benefit part A in respect of a child but for the fact that they or the child are in receipt of other payments, such as youth allowance, disability support pension or Abstudy living allowance, are also eligible. Students who are living independently from their parents may also be eligible for the education tax refund for their own education expenses.

The ETR will apply to eligible expenses incurred from 1 July 2008 and will be claimable when income tax returns are submitted. Therefore, the ETR will be claimable from 1 July 2009 for the 2008-09 tax income year. With this in mind, I will be and have already been reminding the constituents in my electorate of Robertson to hang onto their tax receipts which they have already collected so they can claim the expenses in their next return. People who do not pay tax can still access the education expenses refund. Those people who are not required to lodge an income tax return will be able to claim ETR entitlements by lodging a separate form at the end of each year.

As I have already mentioned, the ETR plan has been designed to allow as many families as possible to gain a tax offset under the scheme. In accordance with this principle, students living independently from their parents may also be eligible to claim a refund for their education expenses. The bill has also made provision for home-schooled students to access ETR benefits, and there are in-built provisions that cater for families that have shared care arrangements for children undertaking education. Provision is also made for situations where children leave or enter schooling during a given financial year and for those students in transition from primary school to high school.

In a climate of growing pressures on working families, the Rudd Labor government’s commitment to easing the burden on these families is to be commended. Access to quality affordable education is one of the hallmarks of a civilised, equitable and productive society. By ensuring that the education expenses incurred by working families—and especially low-income families hit hard by increasing cost of living pressures—are offset by these tax refunds, the Rudd Labor government is demonstrating its commitment to strengthening and improving Australia’s education system.

The measures contained in this bill will do much to increase the participation of our young people in education and training. They will assist students to remain in education for longer and to participate more productively in the full ambit of learning activities provided in our schools. The benefits to students of having access to the full range of information and computer technologies—including home computers, internet access, quality books and all the other things I have mentioned—will, over time, bring great benefit to our society.

The benefits to a low-income family of receiving a tax refund to offset the costs of buying and maintaining a home computer with internet access are clear and demonstrable. Such home-based educational facilities are no longer luxuries for Australian families putting their kids through school. Rather, in this digital age, they are now vital tools for full participation in quality education. In accordance with commitments given to the Australian people, it is this government’s intention that every Australian family have access to these tools.

The education tax refund will increase the productivity of the nation by ensuring that our students are better skilled and fully able to take their place in the education revolution. This bill is framed with participation and productivity as its major goals, but the measures provided by this bill are also a means to promote equity in access to education, a goal that is uppermost in the policy formation of the Rudd government.

For the working families in my electorate of Robertson, the issue of education expenses and other cost-of-living stresses is very much a major concern. My office has dealt with many inquiries from concerned parents about the cost pressures of educating their children, and one of their most worrying concerns is ensuring that their kids keep abreast of the new developments in computing, the internet and information technology that are now so integral to school based education. The ETR scheme will ease the burden on these families. These measures will be particularly welcomed by low-income families. The bill also has the potential to break the intergenerational cycles of poverty that afflict so many families, by making it easier for families to maintain children in education. And it is education and training which provide the life pathways out of disadvantage and into fuller participation in society.

The Tax Laws Amendment (Education Refund) Bill 2008 is legislation that puts in place a fundamental building block of the Rudd government’s education revolution and therefore better participation. It is another commitment by this government to strengthening the nation’s education system and equipping our students for the future. The measures deserve the full support of all members, and I commend the bill to the House.