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Wednesday, 11 May 1994
Page: 667

Senator BELL (5.38 p.m.) —I, too, listened carefully to the minister's responses and, like Senator Teague, I heard some attempt by the minister to present an argument. I distilled two lines of thought from the words that the minister used. One line of thought was predicated by the actual number who would be affected here, and the minister gave us an estimate of some 2,000 people. He gave us no qualifications for that estimate; he gave us no basis for that estimate—he said there were 2,000. Further, the minister expressed to the committee a fear that this would be a loophole, as Senator Teague has described it, and in some way dismissed as the thin edge of the wedge. I would like to address both those trains of thought that the minister shared with us.

  As far as the estimate goes, I suggest that as 100 applied after the scheme had been announced, written down, published and distributed in pamphlets, that is a fairly accurate indication of the number who would be affected—100 or so. Let us get this estimate right. The minister suggested that 2,000 people would be eligible. They may be eligible, but we did not hear from the minister what made them eligible. Perhaps the health care card was the primary qualification.

Senator Schacht —Because you removed the assets test.

Senator BELL —Yes. I accept that that is the other indication of eligibility. The minister seems to have forgotten that the main reason people apply for Austudy is not that they are eligible but that they are ready and able—geographically, socially or according to their family arrangements—to attend a tertiary institution and, therefore, they apply. That means the number eligible would be considerably reduced. People do not just trot off to university because they have reached the age; they do not trot off to university because their parents' assets test qualifies them or because they have a health care card; they trot off because they have a purpose in mind. They go because other family circumstances at the time are suitable.

  Another aspect which affects whether those who are eligible in the minister's estimate will eventually participate in tertiary education and receive Austudy is the fact that in 1993 there was unmet demand in the form of something like 40,000 people who wanted to go to university but who could not do so because there were no quotas available. Just because someone is eligible does not mean that he or she actually gets there and receives Austudy. In the minister's estimate of eligibility, there is no guarantee that there was no double counting.

  I would like to know whether the minister's estimate of 2,000 people are people who would be attending and whether they will not actually replace those who are already in receipt of Austudy. Honourable senators should think about it. Just because we have these eligibility criteria established by the minister does not mean to say that that is the number of people and that is the cost that will eventually be borne by the department. If there were 2,000 people who fitted that category, I would suggest they could well displace several hundred already in receipt of Austudy anyway—that is, if they could actually gain admission to a university or to a tertiary institution. Last year some tens of thousands of people wanted to go but could not go because there were no places. So that 2,000 estimate, without any qualification, is really a very rubbery figure. I suggest that the most accurate figure is the number of people who actually applied, that is, 100 or so.

  After all the publicity and all the fuss and bother about this issue, when this amendment is passed—if the government wakes up to itself and follows Senator Boswell's suggestion, that is, if it convinces the lower house or those who are less enlightened that this is the right way to go—I would suggest that the more realistic number of people who will actually pass through all the hoops and be receiving Austudy will be closer to 100 than to 2,000. It might be 400, but it certainly will not be the full 2,000.

  I turn now to deal with the idea of the loopholes. At the moment eligibility for a health care card is determined according to a set of criteria. If there were as many smart alecs as the minister suggests, we would find all those people rearranging their affairs to make themselves eligible for a health care card. We have not seen that. Nor will we see a rearrangement of assets to qualify for Austudy payments.

  Senator Teague suggested that there would be an automatic disqualification as the economy improves. If last night's budget is as successful as the government would have us believe it could be, then that automatic disqualification will take effect quite rapidly. I am not convinced that it will but, if it does, that will be the safety net the minister should take note of.

  I return to my comment that, if there were so many smart alecs who wanted to rearrange their affairs to pick up a couple of hundred of dollars at the expense of the government, we would have tens of thousands of farmers rearranging their affairs to get the measly health care card. But they have not done it.