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Wednesday, 22 June 2011
Page: 7011

Mr SECKER (BarkerOpposition Whip) (11:39): Last week the government had its fifth chance to change the criteria for youth allowance so that all students had a fair chance of furthering their education. Sadly, the government decided to deny regional students that chance to attend university by voting against the coalition's private member's motion on youth allowance criteria.

Dr Stone: Shame!

Mr SECKER: It is a shame, Member for Murray. Unfortunately Labor, the Greens and the Independent MPs, with the exception of the member for Kalgoorlie, voted against this motion. This is very disappointing for the students in the electorates of those members on the other side that are missing out on receiving support to help them reach their full potential. The coalition has been continuously calling on the government to make the criteria fairer for inner regional students. The maps currently used are ridiculous and do not accurately reflect the difficulty students from some areas have in getting to university. In fact, they make it very difficult for some students to actually get to university.

To help members on the other side understand this, in South Australia we have the perfect example in Mt Gambier, which is about 450 kilometres away from Melbourne or Adelaide universities. It is a long way and, unlike their city cousins, there is no way Mt Gambier residents can go from home to university every day. But if you live in Mt Gambier you are treated just like a student in Adelaide or Melbourne. However, if you live outside the town boundaries, you are treated as you were under the old Howard government conditions. This decision makes no sense. It is based not on any educational criteria but on medical criteria relating to the availability of doctors. It has nothing whatsoever to do with education. As a result of this decision, people living in a reasonably sized city like Mt Gambier, which has 23,000 or 24,000 people, are treated differently from those living outside the town boundaries, even if that boundary lies just across the road.

What we are trying to do is point out to the government, for the fifth time, that they do not understand that people in Mt Gambier are very angry about being treated differently from those who live outside the city itself. If you understood Mt Gambier at all, you would know that outside the town boundaries is still part of the urban area which is in the district council of Grant. There are perhaps up to 20,000 other examples of this ridiculous government decision, but Mt Gambier is easier to understand as it is so clearly a long way from the nearest universities. This government has inadvertently drawn random lines on a map and changed the lives of students across Australia.

Ms Marino: And their families.

Mr SECKER: And their families; that is right, member for Forrest. It is not fair that this government can act so carelessly when students' futures are at risk. University is a crucial part of life that for many students will decide what path their careers take. The coalition has tried to give a voice to these students that are being treated so unfairly, but the government does not seem to want to listen. We have introduced motions and legislation, we have tabled petitions, we have held roundtables, we have spoken to the media over and over again, but this government is so arrogant that it cannot see the error of its ways.

So we have these two classes of students. Inner regional students are currently forced to find 30 hours of work per week over an 18-month period, and anyone who has an idea about regional communities would know that this work is very difficult to find—30 hours of work per week is a lot for regional communities to support for even a couple of students who are aspiring to head to university, let alone more. Communities such as those in my electorate do not have endless retail outlets and fast food eateries for young people to work in for 30 hours per week. Small businesses are already feeling the Labor pinch; now we want to ask them to supply jobs for 30 hours per week for an 18-month period. It just does not make sense and in most cases is not possible. I have received a huge number of letters, calls and emails from concerned students and parents over the length of this debate because there is a genuine problem that needs to be fixed. The calls are all different but the stories similar: students are very keen to attend university but cannot afford to do it without the support of Youth Allowance. As a representative of a large rural electorate where parents are faced with huge costs to fund their children's university studies hundreds of kilometres away, often to the tune of, say, $15,000 a year, I remain extremely concerned by the government's arrogant dismissal of the very sincere problems caused by the changes to the support arrangements for rural and regional students. This is an opportunity for the government to stop the inequity and get it fixed. Reasonable students are suffering at the hands of an incompetent government which is denying many students fair access to support.

If the government were committed to youth allowance reform, it would fix the inner regional discrepancy straightaway. It is not a hard call. There is a very simple way to fix it but this government would rather wait until at least January next year before doing something, if that does in fact even happen. During debate on this matter recently, members on the other side suggested that we are ignoring the government's announcement made a few weeks ago about the increased numbers going to university. Can I say the coalition does not have a problem with that. We support that, but there is still the problem of the criteria for the so-called inner regional students being based not on educational criteria but on medical criteria. We are trying to address the problem which has been caused by this government.

The government claimed that the number of inner regional students receiving youth allowance increased by 4,250 students or 20 per cent in 12 months. The problem is that the government did not disclose that there are students receiving only a part rate of allowance. The truth is in the detail once again. During Senate estimates, it was revealed that some students could be getting as little as a few dollars a week of dependent youth allowance, compared to the full rate of $388. I would challenge anyone to be able to afford to attend university on a few dollars a week or fortnight. These students have packed up and moved to the city to attend university because obviously they cannot attend on a daily basis—450 kilometres and not too many of them own a private jet, and I do not think we would be giving them youth allowance if they could afford to fly to university. It is an obvious problem. They cannot go to university on a daily basis so they have to move from home and that costs money.

During questioning departmental official Marsha Milliken said it would be a varied mix of students, some receiving the maximum rate and some receiving a part rate. To claim that 4,250 extra students are getting youth allowance—which we would welcome—denies the fact that many of them are on only a very small portion of that allowance. Even more concerning are the government's plans. Senator Evans was recording as saying:

… we are committed to removing those distinctions between the various rural and regional areas, but we’ve also made it clear that there is not an endless bucket of money and I think people need to be aware that does not mean that everyone will move to the outer regional areas.

Basically, this is the government admitting that students will miss out under its watch, even after all this time has elapsed since the government was first made aware of the inner regional discrepancy—some 18 months ago I believe; it might even be closer to two years ago—and they still have not fixed the problem, even after all the pressure from angry students and parents and even after the coalition have reminded the government time after time and week after week that this is just not good enough. This issue is not going to go away.

Members on the other side should realise that promises of reviews and announcements such as those made by Senator Evans in May are nothing more than an attempt to mask the real problems and will not stop the students, the parents and the coalition from calling for this criteria to be changed. This government thinks it is good at trying to sweep things under the carpet but the coalition will not let this one fade. The future of students in our rural electorates is far too important to just let this issue fade. We must not let the government push the matter aside for another six months or a year. Families in rural electorates have to plan for the future. Students have to plan for the future, but they have no prospect of going to university if this problem is not fixed.

Members and senators from the coalition have done a great job of keeping up the pressure on this issue. The member for Sturt, the member for Forrest—and I am sure she will give a great contribution on this topic as she always does—and Senator Nash have been fantastic advocates for this cause. But it is now time for the government members to stand up and show the sort of support for students that this side of the House has displayed. I know that the member for Braddon said there are problems in his electorate, but apparently he is prepared to wait for this review. I like the member for Braddon. He is a good man. We came to this parliament together and we have done a lot of committee work together. Unlike him, I am not prepared to wait. We have to fix this problem. We have to give the opportunity to rural students to plan for their futures and help their families to plan for their futures. This issue is too important to be swept under the carpet.

We implore the government to recognise the folly of their mistake on this issue. It has been a huge issue and it continues to be a huge issue in my electorate and electorates like mine all around Australia. They have been stymied by a stupid ruling, a stupid line on a map, that is not based on educational criteria or on the ability to go to university. It is based simply on the availability of doctors in a town, not on the ability of students to go to university. As I pointed out, if you live on one side of the street in Mount Gambier, you will be under the new guidelines and be in a regional area. If you live over the road in the township in the District Council of Grant, you are under the old rules, which are much fairer and more consistent with what happens in all communities.

I implore the government to quickly change their mind on this and fix the problem. We all know there is a problem. It should not take a six-month review to fix the problem. For the last 18 months, we have been showing them where the problems are and the government have failed to listen. It is about time that this government listened to the people being affected by this silly ruling and by the silly lines on a map. They are affecting the future of our young people.