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Wednesday, 16 February 2000
Page: 11877

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (Deputy Leader of the Australian Democrats) (2:52 PM) —My question is addressed to the minister representing the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs. In light of the Prime Minister's recent rural listening tour, is the minister concerned that according to 1998 DETYA figures rural Australians participate in higher education at two-thirds the participation rate of urban Australians? Does the minister recall the government's election promise to increase Austudy access to regional and rural Australians by discounting farm assets from the current 50 per cent to the 75 per cent under the assets test under Austudy? What, if any, action has the government undertaken to implement this 1996 election pledge? Will the minister inform the Senate just how many times the coalition—the Liberal Party and the National Party—have in fact voted against that very election pledge?

Senator ELLISON (Special Minister of State) —Senator Stott Despoja knows only too well what the government have done for education in this country. In fact, we have increased expenditure in schools vastly compared with what the Labor government did when it was in power. In relation to education in regional Australia, the Howard government have placed a high priority on what we have done there. In fact, we recognise that students in remote and regional areas do have special needs. Under the Country Areas Program the government provide $18.7 million in annual funding to state education authorities to enhance the educational outcomes of students in rural and isolated areas. This addresses those inequities in the tertiary sector between the kids in the bush and the kids in the city.

As well as that, we provide additional assistance to rural and isolated families and students as part of the youth allowance through Abstudy—in 1999-2000 that is some $132 million—as well as assistance for isolated children under the Isolated Children Scheme, and that involves some $33 million. Senator Stott Despoja should remember that these are initiatives of the Howard government—no other government. We have addressed the needs of those students in isolated Australia. We have increased the funding so that they can share in the same opportunities as other children who live in the cities.

There is also the aspect of IT. IT provides us with a great opportunity for providing a level playing field in relation to education in Australia. The government are currently developing 11 action plans for a strategic framework for an information economy. We are working with the EdNA Reference Committee, which is made up of representatives from around the country and the states, and we are developing a system which will bring those students in regional areas into the education framework using IT. Of course, this is the way of the future. It is something the Howard government recognise and something which the opposition should too. Senator Stott Despoja does not want to hear this, because this is all good news which has been brought about by this government.

Senator Stott Despoja —Madam President, I raise a point of order. I have given the minister a few minutes to elaborate on his answer. I do not believe he has actually mentioned the words `assets test' in relation to Austudy or the common youth allowance in his answer. Could he please direct his answer to the question.

The PRESIDENT —The minister may be coming to that, but I would remind the minister of the question that was asked.

Senator ELLISON —Madam President, what about the rent allowance that we provide via the youth allowance for those students? That is another initiative for those students who want to go to university. That was something this government brought about. It is all very well for Senator Stott Despoja to just pick on one item and say, `This is a problem.' But you have got to look at the overall picture, which is a good one for education in this country. In fact, the outcome we are experiencing not only in the tertiary sector but also in training is a record number of young people in education. We have 286,000 people in training, most of them young people. That is also good news for young Australians in regional Australia.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —Madam President, I ask a supplementary question. Firstly, will the minister specifically address what this government intends to do in relation to farming assets and the assets test for Austudy? Will the government keep its 1996 election promise?

Senator ELLISON (Special Minister of State) —Senator Stott Despoja knows full well that we have kept our promises and more in relation to education, with record levels of funding and record numbers of undergraduate students in this country. We have provided increased initiatives for those students living in regional Australia to participate not only in the tertiary sector but in the vocational education and training sector as well.