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Tuesday, 12 February 2013
Page: 1105


Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (21:23): As is so often the case, I find myself in furious agreement with my neighbour, the member for McMillan, and I thank him and congratulate him for his contribution, particularly in relation to compulsory voting. I concur completely with his sentiments, particularly when you consider the need to engage our younger generation in all aspects of civic life. Unless there is an element of compulsion, I agree with the member for McMillan, perhaps they may not participate in any way whatsoever and their voice will not be heard.

I appreciate the opportunity to rise tonight to speak to the Appropriation Bill (No. 3) 2012-2013 because I want to raise an issue which relates specifically towards young people in our community. The issue that I want to focus on in my comments tonight is that of the education opportunities and the lack of opportunities for young people in regional communities, particularly in terms of the way the federal government provides a system of student income support. I have risen many times in this place over the past five years to talk about the way regional students are treated unfairly and inequitably under the current system. I have been joined by my colleagues, including the member for McMillan and several other regional members as well as, I suspect, members opposite from regional communities, to wage a battle which we ultimately won when we opposed the changes that were made to Youth Allowance by the Labor party, with the unthinking and perhaps unknowing support of some of the Independents, who perhaps did not quite realise what they were locking our community into.

Unfortunately, it was something of a hollow victory when we forced changes on the issue of inner or outer regional geographical classifications a couple of years ago. The people's voice was heard, and it was heard very strongly. We had thousands of people from throughout regional Australia signing petitions, writing letters to members in regional areas and attending rallies the length and breadth of Australia. Many of them also contributed to the review that was undertaken by Professor Kwong Lee Dow. But I fear that what has happened in the ensuing period of time has been just tinkering around the edges of the system of student income support.

I believe the system as it exists today needs a complete overhaul. We need to start by recognising the current inequity in the system. Those who live in the suburbs may think this is a welfare or social justice issue, but to me this is entirely about fairness and equity. Rather than have me stand here tonight and lecture the parliament again on this topic—anyone listening can refer to the Hansard for the many, many speeches I have made on it—I want to quote from a letter received today from a family in Geraldton in Western Australia, which is obviously a long way from Gippsland. I have quoted people from the electorate of Gippsland in this place many times before. This letter sums up the feelings of angst and despair amongst many regional people when it comes to the issue of student income support. The letter, from Steve and Kerry Cosh, says:

Firstly and most importantly—it should cost students from regional areas no more than students from city areas to access university education. At the moment this is not the case. Country students, whose families earn more than the parental income threshold, receive no help at all—no Youth Allowance, no Start-up Allowance and no Rent Assistance. How can this be fair when those families living in the city, earning the same income, do not have the relocation and rental costs that regional families are required to pay when their children want to attend university? My husband and I live in Geraldton WA which is located over 400kms from Perth. Our twin daughters attended their first year at university at Edith Cowan University last year. We decided they would need to work a gap year in 2011 after they finished High School as we could not afford the ongoing costs associated with them moving to Perth straight away. We were also of the belief that if our girls gained independence through working a gap year, as many have done before them, they would qualify for Youth Allowance.

That is an important point. It shows that regional families have misunderstood this great, confusing bureaucracy which has developed around Youth Allowance. So the students believed that by taking a gap year and achieving independence, meeting the workforce eligibility criteria, they would be entitled to some student income support. The letter goes on to say:

After checking with Centrelink, to our surprise and disappointment, even though our girls were deemed independent after satisfying the third element criteria, we were told that as from last year, we would be subject to a Parental Income Test. We were of the understanding, as are many others, which 'independent' meant students were not dependent on their families—so why is the family's income taken into account? The recent introduction of the parental income test by the Gillard government has caused a great deal of stress and hardship for us and many rural families.

The letter continues in significant detail. But the parents also make very clear a point about wealth and whether the parental income test is really relevant. They say:

We are in our mid 50's and have a $170,000 mortgage. We only bought our first house about 6 years ago and have very few assets—we do not consider ourselves wealthy at all. … Many of us are not wealthy asset rich families. … The current cost to accommodate students at the Joondalup University Campus is over $200.00 per week each, this did not include meals. … As we could not afford this we were lucky enough to find private accommodation which was very difficult to find. We spent many weekends travelling to Perth, lining up at home viewings along with 30 to 40 other people. The cost of this, including travelling accommodation, was very expensive. In the end it was just luck … we were able to find a rental property. Although we are still paying over $1000 a month just in rent, the cost of re-locating and setting them up with furniture and whitegoods was a very costly exercise. We live over 400 kilometres from Perth and the cost of travelling to visit our daughters is expensive, as it is for them, when they return home for holidays and family reasons. These are all costs that city families and students living at home do not have. After allowing a modest $100 a week for food each, the total cost to us will be over $21,000 for the first year. Many incidental costs occurred along the way as well. This does not take into account the thousands of dollars we will be paying in university fees. Regional students relocating to the city, face not only financial pressure but emotional upheaval as well. Many of these students have not been away from their home and families for long periods of time. Most will be required to find work (and work more hours than city students do) to support themselves along with shopping, cooking and household duties.

They envy their city friends who are still living in the comfort of their own homes. This makes it very difficult for them to find enough time for their studies. We know of students many last year who have returned home before completing their studies because of these added pressures. These regional students are legally adults, have worked for a year and don't live in the family home. They are looking after themselves and most have to work part-time while studying to make ends meet. They are living independently and should automatically qualify for centrelink assistance as independent students.

The letter goes on, but it ends with the point that:

It is the Australian Government's responsibility to ensure that access to tertiary studies is equitable for all students and their families, no matter where they reside.

I wanted to quote from that letter, because many times in this place I have been accused of politicking on this issue, sometimes by the Prime Minister herself when she was the education minister, and that has disappointed me, because members of the Nationals, and regional members in particular right across Australia, have been absolutely fair dinkum on this issue. We have stood up in this place on many occasions and made the point in relation to the lack of support for students from regional communities trying to achieve their absolute best by going to university.

I stand here tonight and demand from this government and from any future coalition government—and that may be the case after September this year—to find a better way and a fairer way to care for the needs and interests of regional students. There is a better way, and that is to provide a tertiary access allowance for all students who are required to relocate to attend a tertiary institution.

If we are not prepared as a nation to build universities in every regional setting—and I am not proposing that we should—then we have to help to provide access for all regional students.

Mr Broadbent: Hear! Hear!

Mr CHESTER: The member for McMillan is right in endorsing my comments. We are talking about all regional students. This is a question of equity of access. In my view, a tertiary access allowance should be in the order of something like $10,000 per annum and it should not be linked to parental income.

We should not require a student to take a year off study and undertake a gap year unless that is their personal choice. The gap year provision has become somewhat anachronistic. It is unfair for students who want to get on with their studies. Some students just want to go from high school straight into their studies. But, instead, in a bid to try and fulfil some complex bureaucratic eligibility criteria, to achieve this notional status of what we call independence, they find out that their parents' income will still be counted against them.

So it is quite frankly a bizarre situation. As a government, as a nation, as a department of education, we cannot have it both ways. We cannot be telling these kids: 'You have achieved independence by working for 12 months and getting $19,500. But, by the way, we are still going to hold your parents' income against you. You are not really independent.' You cannot have it both ways. They are either independent and they get the youth allowance or they are not independent.

This is a bureaucratic nightmare. It is a mess. The Centrelink staff themselves do not understand the system. They simply cannot weave their way through the maze which exists at the moment in relation to youth allowance and the whole system of student income support. We have set up a series of hoops which we expect these young people to jump through, but then we deem them 'not really independent', because we use their parents' income to stop them from actually accessing any benefits whatsoever, if they want to actually go on to achieve their full potential and undertake university studies.

This is a topic which I and many others could talk about all night, because it is a source of enormous frustration for regional MPs. I recognise that what I am saying tonight—that all students from regional areas forced to move away from home to access university should receive in the order of $10,000 per annum—is going to have a cost to the bottom line of the budget, and it would probably be in excess of $200 million per year from the rough calculations that I have done. But there would be benefits in cancelling the current allowance, and in the reduction in staff hours of the bureaucrats required to navigate their way through the current mess.

But we have a Prime Minister who wears like a badge of honour around this nation her claims to be an education Prime Minister.

If she is serious about her claims and her ambition to raise university participation targets, if she is serious about her so-called education crusade, this is a gaping, glaring hole in her credentials and her claims to be a Prime Minister who cares about education.

The Prime Minister is already wearing some level of baggage in relation to education because of the $16 billion that was spent on school halls. The $16 billion on school halls, billed as the Building the Education Revolution program, did not have a single educational outcome attached to it. There were no improvements in literacy, no targets for numeracy and no targets for university participation rates tied to the spending of that $16 billion, so I will not wear from this Prime Minister or the education minister that we cannot afford to provide a fair deal for regional students when we can spend $16 billion on school halls without a single educational outcome attached to it.

There are other issues attached to helping regional students achieve their full potential in terms of participation in university. There are other issues in relation to aspiration and the quality of teaching available to them in a regional location. But the economic barrier is the single biggest factor which prevents regional students from participating in university studies at the same level as their city cousins. Unless one member in this place is prepared to stand up here in this building and tell me that city kids are smarter than country kids, there is no explanation for why country kids do not participate in university at the same rate, unless it is the economic barrier. Unless anyone from a suburban electorate is prepared to stand up and have that debate with me tonight, saying that city kids are smarter than country kids and that that explains their participation in university, the simple issue of access is the biggest factor. The biggest barrier for regional students in achieving their full potential is the economic barrier, and we can do something about it in this place.

This remains an enormous sticking point for Australian regional families. Even after students achieve their so-called independence criteria under the barriers we have established, they can be excluded from receiving any assistance whatsoever under the current arrangements which were put in place by this government. The system of student income support should be making sure that every student in Australia, regardless of where they live, has the opportunity to achieve their full potential. We have a desperately long way to go when it comes to regional areas. Regional students remained vastly under-represented at our university campuses.

This is an issue that goes beyond the individual students. It also goes to the simple concern I have about regional growth and prosperity in itself. It is a separate point that is related. We constantly talk in this place about our skill shortage in regional communities, but parents will make a conscious decision to move away from a regional community to a city because they can support their kids better in their university years, if they cannot receive income support while they are still in a regional location. This is a direct wealth transfer, as well, from regional communities to city communities, because our country parents are paying rent to support their children from a regional location.

The debate does not end here. This is a major social and economic issue. It should not be this hard to get a fair go for regional students.