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Wednesday, 25 November 2009
Page: 12898

Mr PYNE (6:09 PM) —To outline for the Deputy Prime Minister: we on the opposition side intend—as we have already done in granting leave—to continue the second reading debate. We intend to move a second reading amendment and we intend to then have a debate in the committee stage as well. We are facilitating this debate by allowing it to go through to a vote tonight so that you will be able to move it through into the Senate and try your luck in the Senate with getting it through. The Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009 [No. 2] is still fatally flawed, in the view of us on this side of the House.

The Senate last night voted down the Labor Party’s youth allowance legislation, which would have retrospectively impacted upon thousands of Australian students currently in their gap year and crushed the higher education dreams of thousands of rural and regional students into the future. The youth allowance bill contained a number of worthwhile measures that the coalition would have been happy to support. However, we will not allow the government to increase funding to one group of students only by ripping away the higher education dreams of country students. The Labor government has also placed in jeopardy the scholarships of thousands by abolishing the old Commonwealth scholarships system in a previous bill and replacing them with those in this bill, despite warnings from the coalition and Family First at the time that to abolish the scholarships without concurrently legislating their replacements was pure folly. They refused to heed the warnings of the coalition that abolishing Commonwealth scholarships without an acceptable alternative in place meant that there would be no scholarships next year. This is entirely the government’s fault, as they alone control the legislative program.

The coalition has told the government that, if they wish to introduce a separate bill to reintroduce the scholarships for 2010, we will give that bill priority this week so that students will be able to receive scholarships next year. The coalition would also be happy to pass the government’s bill so long as they amended it to deal with the threshold issues that we have raised. We have made it clear that the coalition will hold firm on our two primary concerns with this bill. Firstly, the coalition cannot support legislation that cuts out the gap year pathway to independent youth allowance for students who must leave home to attend university unless a realistic alternative provision is put in place—which it has not been. Secondly, the coalition cannot on principle support legislation that is retrospective in its effect. We note that the government have moved towards addressing this issue with their new amendments. They have come a long way towards addressing many of the coalition’s concerns with respect to retrospectivity, but we still cannot support the legislation while they are seeking to change the goalposts for any students who made a good-faith decision to take a year off in order to earn independent youth allowance based on the advice of Centrelink officials, their school careers advisers or others.

Let me take the House through a history of this bill and the sorry situation the government finds itself in. I speak to the House tonight more in sadness than in anger, because the opposition warned the government on many occasions following the May budget about the real concerns that we had about the changes to youth allowance. Can I say that we do believe that there needs to be reform of the youth allowance. We endorse many of the Bradley review’s recommendations, and we were moving to reform youth allowance in government. There is no doubt that reform should be brought to youth allowance, but in bringing reform to youth allowance we on this side of the House cannot support measures that we cannot support in principle—like retrospectivity—or that damage the pathways to university of young people from rural and regional Australia.

We on this side of the House know—and I am sure some of my colleagues will point this out—that once a rural youth who would otherwise have gone to university gives up that dream the prospects of them going back to university at some stage in the future are virtually nil. The disadvantage that rural and regional students face in accessing university will be compounded by the government’s changes because of the reforms they are bringing about, which as we have pointed out will essentially mean that young people in rural areas will have to find 30 hours of work a week over an 18-month period to be able to qualify for the new independent rate.

I am not surprised that the government side of the House does not understand that rural students will not be able to find 30 hours a week paid work in country areas for an 18-month period. It does not surprise me that they do not know that, because they are not the party that represents a large part of rural and regional Australia. That is represented by the Liberal Party, the National Party and the Independent members. So it comes as no surprise to me that they have missed the boat on this particular reform. There are members on the Labor side of the House, people like the member for Braddon, the member for Capricornia, the member for Dawson and others, who should know better about supporting a change that will so impact on rural and regional students, who will not be able to get work for 30 hours a week to be able to access the independent rate.

But in taking you through the history of this bill, I should point out that the opposition has in May, in June, in October and again in November said time and time again that the Commonwealth scholarships, having been abolished in the budget measures bill from 1 January 2010, face the prospect of being abolished entirely without a replacement because of this minister’s historic mismanagement of the reform of youth allowance. There has been no policy ever taken through this parliament that has been so mismanaged by a minister of the Crown than the current reform of youth allowance.

One of the reasons I believe is because the minister is a part-time education minister. She is also the Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, and she is also the Minister for Social Inclusion. Unfortunately, in so many parts of her portfolio, we see again and again that she makes a botch-up of the implementation of policy. We saw it on trade training centres and on computers in schools with the $800 million blow-out rising to $1.2 billion. We have seen it most particularly and most recently with the school’s stimulus debacle, which has the twin elements of a $1.7 billion blow-out with unwanted, in many cases, and unneeded infrastructure being foisted on schools throughout the country and the massive inflation and skimming that has occurred in that program. There were so many other priorities in education which should have been funded, but that goes to her general management of the education portfolio.

In terms of youth allowance, the government ploughed on with this bill, maintaining that the Commonwealth scholarships for 2010 must be in it in the vain and futile belief that that would cause the opposition to buckle, that we would respond to political blackmail, that if they held a gun to the head of the opposition that we would fold. But the minister has miscalculated very badly, and I would implore her to recognise that her pride is much less important than the lives of students and their capacity to go to university next year. The minister must recognise that separating this bill from the Commonwealth scholarships for 2010 is the only way forward.

The opposition has said—and I said it again today and I have said it over and over again—that if the government separates the Commonwealth scholarships for 2010 from this bill we will pass and will give priority in both this place and the Senate to a bill that re-institutes the Commonwealth scholarships in 2010 so that students will not go without. Then we will deal with the youth allowance reforms, which should have always been in a separate bill. If the minister agrees to do that today then the coalition will support it and students will not be worse off.

But she has chosen not to, and the reasons for that are really a matter for her. She has of course had absolutely no consultation with me and no consultation with my office. At 2.56 pm today a staffer from her office rang my office and arrogantly asserted that we would be forced to vote for this bill. That is a matter for them and how they wish to manage their affairs in the Deputy Prime Minister’s office. But what most ministers would have done and what has been the tradition in this House, is that when there is an impasse of this nature they would contact the shadow minister and they would speak to the shadow minister about what the coalition would be prepared to do. The shadow minister would respond, hopefully in good faith and fairly.

So we realise the pickle you have got yourself into. We realise that by linking these two measures together you have mismanaged it. We would try as much as we could to help the minister out of the pickle for the good of the students. But this minister has not picked up the phone, has not contacted me. She has engaged in the usual megaphone diplomacy in the mistaken belief that the opposition would fold and that we would pass this bill through. In the Senate last night we did not do so, with the support of Senator Fielding. Through a number of measures she has been able to convince the Greens and Senator Xenophon to support this legislation, but not Senator Fielding and certainly not the opposition.

If the government comes to the opposition and says that they will separate these bills between now and the time they get to the Senate, the opposition will give that due consideration. There is no point in this House today moving the same amendments that we moved at the previous time this bill was debated, because we know that the minister has already indicated that she will give it absolutely no consideration. It might surprise some people to find out in this place that the opposition does not have the numbers and we would not get our amendments carried. Therefore in this place there will be no point.

In the Senate, on the other hand, we will, because we have the capacity to bring about reform to this bill and to change it. We will consider moving our amendments and seeing them supported by, hopefully, the government. The most important of those is putting rural and regional students back in the position where they will be able to access the independent rate of youth allowance without having to fulfil a criterion which, in almost every case and in almost every town across Australia they will not be able to fulfil, which is a 30-hour work test for 18 months. So I flag that the opposition will vote against this bill in the House of Representatives. If it remains unamended in the Senate, we will vote against it in the Senate. I move tonight a second reading amendment upon which we will also vote, which reads:

That all words after “That” be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

“the House:

(1)   registers its dismay that this legislation cuts out the ‘gap year’ pathway to Independent Youth Allowance for students who must leave home to attend University, requiring that students instead find 30 hours employment per week for 18 months in order to gain Independent Youth Allowance;

(2)   registers its concern that this legislation will lead to the retrospective removal of access to Youth Allowance for a number of students who undertook a ‘gap year’ in 2009 on the basis of advice from Government officials, including teachers, careers advisers and Centrelink officials; and

(3)   urges the Government to:

(a)   offer further amendments that will remove all of the negative retrospective effects of this legislation; and

(b)   provide a reasonable pathway to gaining Independent Youth Allowance for those students who must leave home in order to participate in Higher Education”.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. JE Moylan)—Is the amendment seconded?