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Monday, 21 March 2011
Page: 2496

Dr STONE (7:53 PM) —I rise to speak on the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Election Commitments and Other Measures) Bill 2011, and I also refer to the opposition’s amendment tabled at the time our opposition spokesman was speaking. Before the election the government made three significant commitments, as they call them. In a move most unlike this government, they are now actually following through on those commitments and they are seeking to have these announcements converted into legislative changes with this bill. They are the three significant commitments. There are other changes embedded in the bill as well.

The first commitment was in relation to expanding the work bonus, which was introduced as a part of pension reforms in late 2009. The work bonus allows age pensioners to continue to work part time without losing quite so much of their earnings. It is incredibly important for the wellbeing of people on a pension to be able to work for as long as they can, but sometimes it is a token of love, given a lot of that extra income they earn is clawed back. So I commend this change. In fact, what it will mean is that from 1 July 2011 the work bonus, as it is called, will see the first $250 of employment income earned in a fortnight excluded from the income test, regardless of the total amount earned by the person in that fortnight. This will be on a dollar-for-dollar basis up to $250, rather than the 50c in the dollar reduction up to $500 under the current rules. This is a better system for rewarding pensioners for the work they choose to do. Given our skills shortage in this country and the significant number of Australians who are over the retirement age these days, it is an important thing that we do in that amendment.

The second significant issue was to change the current situation where, when a child turns 16, the family tax benefit part A drops from $214 per fortnight to just $53 per fortnight. Rent assistance also stops when a child turns 16, and families may lose eligibility for family tax benefit part B, the large family supplement and multiple birth allowance. Clearly the expense of raising a child does not substantially diminish the day the child turns 16, especially if they are still a dependent child in that family household, so this is a sensible change. What it will do is increase assistance for families with teenagers aged between 16 and 19 who are in full-time secondary study or a vocational education equivalent. We will see the maximum rate of family tax benefit part A increasing by around $160 per fortnight for teenagers aged 16 to 19 who are in secondary school or a vocational equivalent or who are exempt from this requirement. This will align with the 13- to 15-year-old rate and ensure that government assistance for families does not fall when an older teenager in full-time study turns 16. Again, it is a sensible change.

In addition to the increase in family tax benefit part A, families will also be eligible for rent assistance. As I said, rent assistance currently cuts out when a child turns 16. We are not against those amendments at all, but I have to say that this statement in the explanatory memorandum is rather extraordinary:

This initiative supports the Gillard Labor government’s objective to improve year 12 or vocational equivalent completion rates and meet our target of achieving a 90 per cent year 12 attainment rate by 2015.

What we wonder is why this government has not then continued its thinking and said, ‘We want to see rural students be able to step through that year 12 attainment into tertiary education, which may have to take place in a city somewhere distant from home.’ Of course, while we support this notion of the child continuing to be given substantial support beyond the age of 16, we as the opposition are most concerned that the independent youth allowance—and it is 12 months today since its change—is cutting out the chances of rural students, especially those designated or zoned as inner regional. It is cutting them out from being able to successfully complete the gap year requirements that are listed in the criteria, and I will come back to that point.

The third significant change in this set of amendments is to do with the baby bonus. From 1 July 2011, parents of new babies who receive this bonus on or after that date will receive more of their payment upfront. Many in this House will recall that when we, the coalition government, introduced this baby bonus, all of the payment was paid upfront unless the parent had a significant problem with money management, and that was negotiated with Centrelink. This government chose to have the baby bonus paid in 13 fortnightly instalments. It now understands that you do need a little more money upfront in the first payment, so $500 of the baby bonus will be in the first payment and that will be more than the amount paid over the other 12 instalments. Again, this is a sensible change. I cannot see why it was not foreseen. Blind Freddy could have seen that it was important to make sure that you have more, in that first instalment at least, for those early expenses for families—buying new baby equipment such as car seats, bassinettes and clothing, and paying for hospital expenses and so on. Finally the penny has dropped and that change has been made, I am very pleased to say.

In this bill there are also some measures to do with making sure that those who suffer from disability related to their mothers taking Thalidomide all those years ago will be better supported in the future.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Mr KJ Thomson)—Order! It being 8 pm, the debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 34. The resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting and the member for Murray will have leave to continue speaking when the debate is resumed.