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Thursday, 28 October 2010
Page: 1007

Senator NASH (11:01 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to table an explanatory memorandum and to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows—

I present my Private Senator’s Bill Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010.

Mr President, ensuring young Australians gain the best possible education should be an absolute priority of any Government.

In particular, regional students should have fair and equitable access to educational opportunities.

Earlier this year, the Labor Government brought in changes to the eligibility criteria for Independent Youth Allowance in a measure which has resulted in the completely unfair treatment of regional students.

There are two forms of Youth Allowance - Dependent and Independent. Students are eligible for Dependent Youth Allowance if the student’s parents income is below the allowable income threshold - the student is eligible for full or part-payment.

The other option is Independent Youth Allowance. Prior to the Government changes there were three criteria that students could use to access Independent Youth Allowance.

1. Students worked part-time for at least 15 hours a week for at least two years since leaving school, or

2. Students have been out of school for at least 18 months and have earned at least 75% of the maximum rate of pay under Wage Level A of the Australian Pay and Classification Scale in an 18 month period - the ‘gap year’.

3. Students have worked an average of 30 hours per week for 18 months out of two years.

For Inner Regional Students, this has been reduced to one criteria:

1. A student must work a minimum or an average of 30 hours per week for 18 months out of 2 year.

To understand fully the impact of these changes, we must first understand the application of the zoning.

When the Government made the changes to the eligibility criteria for Independent Youth Allowance, they used the Australian Standard Geographical Classification - Remoteness Area (ASGC - RA) map, for the purposed of determining the ‘regionality’ of students.

The map is in five zones - Metropolitan, Inner Regional, Outer Regional, Remote and Very Remote.

However, this is a flawed basis to determine the ‘regionality’ of students. The issue for regional students is the distance they have to travel to attend tertiary education and the ASGC-RA map does not adequately reflect that.

The issue here is that many students in regional areas simply have no choice but to relocate to attend tertiary education - and that comes as a cost.

In December 2009 the Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Senate Committee, which I then chaired, handed down its report ‘Rural and Regional Access to Secondary and Tertiary Education Opportunities.

That inquiry found that the cost of students having to relocate to undertake tertiary education was approximately $15,000 to $20,000 per year.

The inquiry also found that around 55% of students in metropolitan areas go on to tertiary education compared to only 33% of students in the regions.  The inquiry also found that the biggest reason for the disparity in those numbers was the financial impediment for regional students, who face a significant financial burden having to relocate.

Mr President, many regional students don’t qualify for Dependent Youth Allowance. Many regional students, even if they did qualify for Dependent Youth Allowance, only qualify for a part-payment, which simply isn’t enough to alleviate the significant financial burden on regional students that has been outlined.

Before the changes, many regional students used the ‘gap year’ pathway to be able to access the financial assistance they so desperately needed to access further education.

Students across the regions worked hard for a year to be able to move away from home to attend university for further education, with the financial assistance they then gained through Independent Youth Allowance.

The Government has now taken away that opportunity for thousands of regional students. That is appalling.

The fact that the Government has applied different eligibly criterion to different zones on the ASGC-RA map is completely unfair. We now have a situation where some students living on one side of the road can access Independent Youth Allowance, and a student on the other side of the road can’t.

This is not fabrication. This is a fact. Federal Member for Gippsland, Darren Chester, talks about the town of Yarram in his electorate where this occurs.  Ask many of my Coalition colleagues whose students face the same issue.  And I congratulate the Member for Gippsland for his relentless work attempting to get fairness and equity for these students in his electorate.  As have all my National and Liberal colleagues who live and work in the regions, who understand the terrible blow the Government has dealt to regional students across the country.

Mr President, the then Education Minister was Julia Gillard.  The Prime Minister, in her capacity as Education Minister, kept talking about the ‘Education Revolution’, and how important opportunities in education are for students.

And yet, what did we see her do? Pull the rug out from under the feet of many regional students, taking away any possibility of them following their dreams to gain a tertiary education. That was unfair and that was wrong.

Why should one regional student be treated differently to another? Why shouldn’t all regional students have fair and equitable access to tertiary education? So many students, and their families, are devastated that they won’t be able to go on to university or tertiary education.

The only criteria that the Government has in place for students residing in Inner Regional areas is to work 30 hours a week, for 18 months out of a two year period.

This Government has absolutely no understanding of the needs of regional students. The Government should be making it easier for regional students to go on to tertiary education, not harder.

The Government needs to recognise that students from regional areas are much more likely to return to the regions and practice a profession.

The Government also needs to recognise that parents in the regions often have to choose between shouldering the financial burden of sending the their students away or moving back to the city where students can live at home while attending university. This of course results in much needed professionals leaving the regions, a fact which became evident during the senate inquiry.

They don’t understand that a 30 hour per week requirement is very hard to meet in the regions. Finding employment in regional areas and small communities is often very difficult.

Much of the employment available in the regions is seasonal, which doesn’t fit with the Governments requirements.

The Government simply doesn’t understand.  I had parents coming to me over the course of the inquiry that I chaired, and they said to me:

“We have three children. We simply can’t afford to send all three children to university, at a cost of around $20,000 a year. We are going to have to decide which one of our children will be able to go on to university.”

What a dreadful decision for any parent to have to make. And that is a decision that those parents have to make because of this Labor Government - because of the Gillard Labor Government.

The Prime Minister has the ability to change the legislation. The Prime Minister can amend the legislation so that all regional children are treated fairly. And yet she refuses to do so.

The reason for the Government not amending the Inner Regional zones is apparently one of expenditure. The Minister responsible, Senator Evans, and the department admitted to that during the recent Senate estimates hearing.

The Government simply doesn’t want to outlay the extra funds necessary to ensure regional students are treated fairly. That is appalling.

The Government can waste billions of dollars on pink batts, millions of dollars on shoddy school halls, and yet it cannot find the funds to ensure all regional students are treated fairly.

No wonder regional students and their families are devastated by the Government’s refusal to change the legislation to ensure fairness and equality.

Mr President, my Private Senators Bill seeks to amend the current legislation so that all regional students are treated fairly - so that all regional students are treated equitably, as they should be.

This Bill is straightforward. The object of this Act is to improve income support for regional students by extending the Youth Allowance so eligible students whose family home is in a location categorized under the Remoteness Structure as ‘Inner Regional Australia’.

The Bill requires that in paragraph 1067A (10E) (a) after ‘Remoteness Structure as’, “Inner Regional Australia” be inserted. It is as simple as that.

Mr President, I ask Senators to support the Bill.

This is quite simply an issue of fairness and equity for regional students. This Government can ensure that fairness and equity by amending the legislation, and implementing the same eligibility criteria across all regional areas.

It is the least that our regional students deserve.

I commend the Bill to the Senate.

Senator NASH —I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

Leave granted; debate adjourned.