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Wednesday, 9 May 2012
Page: 4277

Mr SYMON (Deakin) (12:02): I speak in support of the Family Assistance and Other Legislation Amendment (Schoolkids Bonus Budget Measures) Bill 2012. This is a particular subject that I have always spoken on in this place. In fact, the old education tax refund goes back to 2008. I spoke on that bill at the time and subsequently in 2011, when the education tax refund was adjusted to include school uniforms. But, having heard some of the debate here this morning—especially the contributions coming from the opposition benches—I really do wonder if many of these members have ever gone out and spoken to their constituents about school costs. Although the education tax refund was a very good scheme, it did not cover all the costs of sending children to school, and anyone who has children at school would know that. Although it covered books and stationery, although it covered computer items and equipment, although it even covered such things as iPads, there was a big list of essential school items that were never part of that but on which parents will now be able to spend the money provided by the schoolkids bonus.

The list is quite instructive. Many of us in this place have children at school, and we know about these bills. There are things like the school fees you get at the start of every year or even before the start of the year. A government primary school is $250, $300 or $400 a student. A secondary school can easily be double that. That is in Victoria. And that is just the start. That was not covered under the old education tax refund, but it is most certainly what a parent would regard as an education expense. The other big one is school camps. I quite often get letters about this from parents who are a bit distressed that they cannot send their child to a school camp because they simply do not have the money. Again, under the old education tax refund that was not an allowable expense. Under the schoolkids bonus it will be. The money will be there in the bank account and, hopefully, some more kids will get to go away on camps because of payments like that.

There is another one that I have spoken to quite a few constituents about over the years, and that is after-school tutoring costs, sometimes for children who need more help than they can receive in school and sometimes because they may actually be getting ahead by doing that. Again, that has not been part of what was on offer and can now have money directed to it.

There are many others on the list as well. Sporting equipment is a big one. For all of us who have children at school who play sport—and that is most—things rapidly escalate beyond the school uniform. It does not take much at all for a piece of sporting equipment to set you back several hundred dollars, and they do not always last as long as you would like as kids grow bigger.

There are other items. A really big expense—though not every child has them—is musical instruments. A lot of schools have music programs, and that is a great thing, but they all come with a cost. There is generally a cost for the musical instrument or the hire of it, and there is a cost for the teacher. Quite a lot of these classes are done during school with extra cost or after school with extra cost. It is a great thing. It is a wonderful component of education. But if a child is at school and decides to play the flute it is possible to rent that flute for a year. That would cost quite a few dollars. You can buy one for around $200 or $300 at the cheap end. It goes up from there. If a child chooses to play a musical instrument such as the cello, the costs can go through the roof and be four figures rather than three. And that is quite common. Again, under the old education tax refund, although that is what a lot of people would regard as an education expense, it was not part of the scheme and could not be claimed. There are other things on the list that are also important. School subject levies and levies for consumables in subjects such as woodwork and home economics are not necessarily packaged by schools in their fees in ways that could have been claimed under the old scheme. Now parents have money coming to them to provide for such items. There is a long list of others as well. Not so much in the government school sector but in the private school sector many schools raised building levies. Schools without as much money can only really finance new buildings by raising levies on parents to supplement what they get from the federal government. Again, that was not covered under the education tax refund.

There are smaller costs that also were not covered—costs like library book fees. If a school charged for such services there would not be many parents who would not regard that as an educational expense. There is also the old favourite, which any of us with children at school would know, which is school photos. I am probably showing my age, but when I was at school and it was the day for photos a large number of kids would be sitting on several levels of benches with a board at the front and maybe a football. We got one black-and-white photo and it was sent home. I do not remember if there was a charge, but it may have been a dollar or two. These days school photos come as packages, and the cheapest one that my children were offered started at $30. You get folders with various different poses and the class shot, but there is no cut price.

Mr Hartsuyker: There are no front teeth too.

Mr SYMON: That happens at school too. If there are a number children in the household, that happens every year and it is very easy to spend up to $70 on school photos. That is part of the educational experience. If a child misses out on having their photo when everyone else in the class has their photos it is not good for them and nor is it good for their parents because it is a record of what went on at school. I regard that as an educational expense, but photos were not covered under the old scheme.

Talking about the week-to-week functions of schools, there is not one parent in Australia who would not know about requests for school donations. There is always a chocolate drive, a raffle or a donation in lieu of attending on a weekend to clean out the gutters. Whatever it may be, schools need to raise money, but under the education tax refund scheme those sorts of expenses were not covered. Again, they are pretty important to the school and they are money out of the parents' pockets. Other things that are not necessarily thought of when looking at education expenses are transport costs such as bus fares. They add up, but were not covered under the old scheme. Again, most parents would say if children have to go to school on a bus it should be regarded as an educational expense. I think they are right.

There are many items that are now covered but that were not covered before. That is a great thing for parents right across Australia. It is a great thing that the money is going to be paid upfront, rather than parents having to collect receipts and wait around for a refund, in some cases for more than a year depending on when the expense was incurred and how soon the taxpayer gets to an accountant to get the paperwork done. Those expenses will now be covered—money before instead of money after is good for the family budget.

Those people who think that parents with children at school will immediately run off to the pub and blow the lot, as I have heard some people in this place say, really misstate the case of those parents. Most parents of children who go to school work very hard to get the best education for their children and a little bit extra helps. I am sure, like everything in society, not every last dollar that goes to every last person will be spent on educational expenses. Some may go on other household expenses too. As it is a government payment, it is not up to the likes of me to tell a family how they should spend their money. If they direct it to education for their kids and that covers some of the expenses I have just gone through then that is a great start. I am certain that even with these payments some items on the long list of expenses that were not covered by the education tax refund will still not be covered for many people, but this bonus is a great help.

Governments should be lending assistance to those who need it. By targeting family tax benefit A recipients the schoolkids bonus does exactly that. There will be high-income families that do not receive it and there will be low-income families and middle-income families that do receive it. I put it to the House: who is better able to afford to send their children to school, a low-income family or a high-income family? I suspect it is the high-income family in just about every circumstance. Producing the payment before children start the school year and the fees have to be paid is a good thing—as I said, usually school fees are not paid the year a child starts school as the bill is sent out and the school wants payment before the end of the previous school year. Generally these accounts arrive a couple of weeks before Christmas, which is the worst time for a bill to arrive because of all the other Christmas expenses and the hangover in January when the credit card bill inevitably arrives.

The education tax refund was a great step forward that was put in place by a Labor government. I think the schoolkids bonus is an even better step forward. Waiting around for your receipts to be checked and for the tax office to send a refund was an improvement, but now there is a better way of doing that. I have seen people coming into this place today to talk about how this money could be spent, which I think only devalues how parents will spend it. Money that is directed towards their children's education is not only an investment in that family's future but also an investment in Australia's future. I commend the bill to the House.