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Monday, 23 March 1987
Page: 1179

Senator TEAGUE(10.30) — I wish this evening to refer briefly to Austudy and in particular to the answer the Minister for Education (Senator Ryan) gave in reply to my question in Question Time last Friday, 20 March. I refer the Senate to Hansard, pages 1093 and 1097. I indicated to the Minister that I would raise this matter tonight and I am very glad that she is present in the chamber. The question I asked concerned a one-page insert into the Austudy application form to general secondary students which indicated that parents had an option of having the allowance paid either to their student children or to themselves. I seek leave to table the one-page insert as I am not aware that any senator besides myself and the Minister have seen it.

Leave granted.

Senator TEAGUE —In particular I asked on Friday whether this insert breached the Student Assistance Amendment Bill passed with amendments last October which stated that payments would be made to students and not to parents. I refer in particular to amended clauses 10 and 11 of the legislation. During the passage of that amendment Bill the Opposition moved a precise amendment which would have made the allowance payable to the parent save for exceptional circumstances. We continue to advocate this parent payment for two reasons. First, it is parents who are in need and who are paying the costs involved in their student children's studies and the parents are the ones who should be helped financially. Secondly, the reason we have every year until now made these payments to parents is that governments, we believe, should respect the integrity of the family and should not, through financial payments, disrupt family relationships.

At the time, the Minister said that she had given consideration to our arguments in favour of having benefits for secondary students paid to the parent rather than the student. However, she opposed the amendment on the grounds that the payment would have been penalised by income tax if paid to the parent and that any necessary changes to the Income Tax Assessment Act to avoid this penalty would have been contrary to the thrust of Government policy. I had advocated in the debate that by a simple amendment to the Schedule attached to the Income Tax Assessment Act we could overcome the problem that was in the Minister's mind, but she replied that this sort of ad hoc changing of schedules was itself contrary to the thrust of Government policy.

It was with great surprise, therefore, that in the break before the last sitting week in my constituency of South Australia I came across an Austudy application form for the general secondary allowance that contained the insert which offered parents the choice, only from the beginning of second term this year, of having the payment made to them as parents. In other words, the Minister has accepted the Opposition's arguments and backed down from the policy that she set out in October. In reply to my question she said that since the passage of the legislation she had received:

. . . a large number of representations from parents who said that they would be concerned to have the payments made directly to their teenage children and would like the option of receiving the payments themselves.

She said that the possibility of having payments made to the parent where the payments were taxed as though they had been made to the student has been investigated with the Australian Taxation Office and that a scheme had eventually been worked out. The Minister on Friday referred to `initial advice' from the Taxation Office and used the words `at that stage' in another reference to the Taxation Office. These two references, even though they may now be corrected, are still not clear to me and I do not believe that they are clear to the Senate. She said that this process had taken some time and so a late notice to parents had to be inserted into the application forms.

This hesitation about policy has, I understand, led to further delay in the availability of the Austudy application form being circulated to schools. As is well known, it was quite late this year for a number of reasons, this being one of them. The Minister also said that `every effort' had been made to circulate the information about the new option as widely as possible, but I do not accept that because I have not heard the Minister on any public occasion, apart from last Friday when she answered my question, refer to this option of parent payment. She has not, to my knowledge, issued a Press release or any circular to schools or to parents concerning this change of policy. I will be happy to be informed by the Minister if the knowledge given to me and to my colleagues and constituents with whom I have checked this matter has been updated.

In fact, the wording of the insert and the silence that has accompanied the change of policy indicates that the Minister wants to discourage parents from applying to have payments made to them. It appears that the insert is intended as a method of saying to concerned parents, `Yes, parents can have the option of having payments made directly to them', but this sounds very hollow on the Government's part. The instructions on the form state that if parents wish to exercise their rights they must fill in the details requested on the insert-that is, tick a box-and attach the insert to the application form. After all that, the insert says that another form will then be sent to the parent. In other words, parents are being fobbed off and deterred with this badly publicised and, I think, hastily drafted last minute insert.

That is not the only point I wish to raise. Immediately after Question Time the Minister added to her answer and said that an amendment to the legislation would be made in time for these payments to be made in second term. The beginning of second term, as is well known, is just after Easter, and that is less than a month away. She said that such an amendment was not actually necessary. There were a couple of versions of that in her answer on Friday, but if it was not necessary it was because the present legislation says that payment shall be made to a person determined by the Minister. I have yet to be convinced of that. She also said that to reinforce her decision she will be introducing an amendment in time for the payment to be made to parents at the beginning of second term. I would like to know why an amendment is being made if it is not necessary. I also put it to the Minister that the legislation at the time of the debate last October was quite clear to the Opposition in that it stated that payment shall be made to the student.

But my major request is this: I ask the Minister to simplify the method by which parents can have the payments made to themselves and to remove the barriers and disincentives contained even in the presently contemplated method of application. There have been two delays involved here-first, the availability of the application forms many weeks after the usual time and after the beginning of first term; and, secondly, the availability of this parent payment option, which even at the best reckoning can be from the beginning of second term but which I fear will be delayed even beyond that time. Part of my question last Friday relating to the delay went unanswered. I ask again: Did the insert cause delays in sending out the Austudy application forms?

Were the inserts included in all the forms relating to general secondary allowances? It is not clear whether they were in all of them. They were in some of those distributed in South Australia. More urgently, now there is this second area of delay-the delay in the availability of the forms that the parents will be filling in for payment from the beginning of second term. If it is the case that amendment to the legislation is necessary for payments to be made to parents, how will the Minister get the amendment passed in time for second term which is now, as I have said, just a few weeks away? The amending legislation would need to be introduced this week and passed by next week.

It is painfully obvious that the Government could well have listened to and agreed with the Opposition in October last year. The mess in which the Minister now finds herself shows that it was the Opposition that was in tune with the thinking of the parents and families of Australia, not the Government. If the Minister does not clarify all these matters and if she does not remove all the barriers in the way of parents wanting to pursue even the present tortuous route, the Government's approach will be seen as hollow and eventually empty. The present notice to parents approach amounts merely, some would say, to a public opinion poll-`Pick a box if you wish to register your request to receive a possible way to apply'. Yes, it is as vague as that.

The barriers that I believe need to be removed to make good the Minister's professions on Friday are these: Firstly, amend the legislation to make it lawful to make payments to parents, in particular in sections 10 and 11 of the Student Assistance Act; secondly, distribute clear information to parents in the Austudy explanatory booklet and in the main application form; and, thirdly, require parents to sign all Austudy applications for general secondary students and in particular to sign that part of the form where the parent payment option is set out. If the Minister fails to do this and yet, after some weeks, reports that only a minority-she said on Friday that that was her expectation-of parents have ticked the box, we will all know that the whole exercise was designed from the start to get such a dismal result but at the same time allow the present Government the quarter-truth of saying that an option was extended-an option that few knew about and that fewer could do anything about. I ask the Minister, who has listened to my remarks tonight, to respond to me in the Senate on all of these questions as soon as possible and in any event during this fortnight of sittings.