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Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Page: 2834

Mr RAMSEY (5:55 PM) —I have only been a member of this House for a little over two years. There are many weeks when I go home from Canberra and wonder what on earth we can achieve from opposition, but this turnaround in the last 48 hours from the minister is a great achievement from opposition and a reward for hanging tough. I recognise that we do not have all we wanted and I acknowledge the member for Gippsland’s comments about those that will not benefit from this turnaround.

The fact is the coalition has hung tough against all those who have called for us to back down in the last few months: the vice-chancellors of the major universities of Australia; the students union; the minister; and the government. We have hung firm on this, and I congratulate our shadow minister for education because on this occasion from opposition we have delivered a great improvement. The unwinding of the retrospectivity is a great improvement and it should never have been included in the first place. The ability for those who live in remote, very remote and outer regional areas to still be able to apply for youth allowance under the old arrangements is a great move forward.

The electorate of Grey is one of the luckier ones, I must say. There is only one community in my electorate that will not qualify under these new arrangements—that is the township of Eudunda of around 1,200 people. They could move five kilometres down the road and they would qualify. For the rest of my electorate it is without doubt a very good result, but I identify with the comments of those people who are living in the inner regional areas with arbitrary lines on the map who can have very little understanding of how they were drawn in the first place. I will have to go back to the people in the community of Eudunda and explain how they will get different treatment to the people of Robertstown who live just up the road.

Having said all that, it was in Woomera in April last year at the Isolated Children’s Parents Association where I launched a discussion paper on this issue. Because I come from a small rural township and have had to guide three of my children through university under the old arrangements, I understand how difficult it is for people who live in regional and rural areas. It has been a longstanding passion of mine to try and get a reasonable deal for country students. I wrote a discussion paper which I delivered to the Isolated Children’s Parents Association on 1 April in Woomera last year. The purpose of that paper was to get this subject on the discussion table. Little did I know how successful that would be because in the budget, only a matter of six weeks later, it was well and truly on the discussion table for all the wrong reasons. It was not because we were getting a better deal for country people; it was because we were going to get a worse deal.

From the outset, I have recognised in the minister’s statements the good things she was trying to do under this rearrangement: the lifting of the thresholds; the lowering of the age of automatic eligibility from 25 to 22; and the ability for students to earn a bit more money. But the kickback was that she was dragging $800 million in support from students who qualified under the independence test into a scholarship that was going to everyone. I saw that as a redistribution of support for country students to support for city students. That is one of the reasons I was determined to dig my heels in along with the rest of my colleagues in the coalition.

The central issue here is fairness for country students. We are starved of people with professional skills in regional areas, and we know that if we can get kids from regional areas to undertake education the opportunity of getting them back into our communities is far higher. So this is about more than just each individual student. It is about what kind of communities we are going to have in regional Australia going forward.

We have designated intakes for doctors who come from rural areas, but there are all kinds of other professional areas where we need that kind of support. We know the take-up rates of university study from regional and rural students are lower than those from the city, so we are already operating at a disadvantage. Every time we make the situation tougher we put ourselves in a worse position.

The outcome we have achieved for those people that live in the three regions leaves us in a better position than before; I acknowledge that. But I am concerned for those who live in the inner regional areas and who will not be able to access the old independent test—(Time expired)