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Wednesday, 11 May 1994
Page: 586

Senator TEAGUE (11.27 a.m.) —We have before us the Student Assistance Amendment Bill 1994 and the Commonwealth Reciprocal Recovery Legislation Amendment Bill 1994, which affect assistance arrangements for students throughout Australia. The opposition has given careful consideration to these two bills. Essentially, the bills are bringing disciplines, especially disciplines on recipients of Austudy, to the administration to ensure that what is intended as the benefit is more precisely what happens, that disciplines are tightened to ensure that there are no overpayments and that, where there are overpayments, they are reasonably repaid.

  The Liberal and National parties broadly support the bills that are before us, but one matter which I will refer to towards the end of my speech will lead to my moving at the committee stage amendments that affect the assets test for health cardholders, which a year ago was clearly announced to be a benefit that the government was extending to, and would be of special benefit to, those suffering in the rural crisis in Australia. The government eventually reneged on that—and did it in a most deplorable way—and we will hold the government to its original announcement.

  I return to the main body of these two bills. The Student Assistance Amendment Bill provides for the first time a legislative basis for existing programs that we have been used to discussing for many years now—that is, the assistance for isolated children, and the other program, Abstudy. It is good to see that there is a legislative basis for these two programs. It is the case that the Liberal and National parties have long called for assistance for isolated children both in the original calling for a program for these families and the needs of their student sons and daughters, and then calling periodically for setting the pace with regard to increasing those benefits and making sure that they continue to meet the needs of isolated families. The Labor government has periodically agreed with our urgings, but has apparently been reluctant to concede the justice in the arguments put by the Liberal and National parties that affect isolated children.

  Abstudy is a program that has bipartisan support and has been seen from both sides of parliament as an important instrument to help Aboriginal Australians gain tertiary qualifications—indeed, even secondary qualifications—that will assist them to have the same opportunities and outcomes as other Australians. Abstudy is broadly parallel with Austudy. With regard to both of these programs, we welcome this new provision of a legislative basis.

  The bill extends the debt management regime to several programs, including Aboriginal programs, and extends the time for notifying changes of circumstances from seven to 14 days. It also decriminalises failure to do so and introduces a weekly charge for non-notification. These are disciplines which are already in place for Austudy, by and large, and will be consistent with Austudy arrangements as a result of this bill. The opposition does not object to these new disciplines.

  The bill adjusts thresholds for the repayment of the financial supplement. The Senate will recall that a supplementary scheme to Austudy was introduced following the Chapman report and students are allowed to opt for a loan up to twice the amount that would have been available to them by grant. But it becomes a loan and, therefore, there is a judgment to be made by students as to whether an Austudy supplement by way of loan is of more advantage to them in their studies than a lower amount that would be entirely by grant. The thresholds for repaying the loans and for HECS liabilities have been different until now and this bill brings the thresholds into alignment. We also note that there are provisions to index the dependent spouse allowance. We regard these as reasonable measures and we support them.

  The Democrats have given notice to me in the last 24 hours that they will move amendments in the committee stage resisting bringing the thresholds into alignment.  I am sure that Senator Bell will explain them in due course and I will hear what he has to say with regard to those first nine amendments, but at this moment we are not convinced to support those measures. We are disposed, subject to hearing his speech, to accept the thresholds being aligned.

  The Commonwealth Reciprocal Recovery Legislation Amendment Bill 1994 brings changes to three of the established acts that relate to students—the Social Security Act, the Student Assistance Act and the Veterans' Entitlements Act. Under these three acts there are benefits that are received by a number of students and there are repercussions in relation to recovery if there is overpayment to a student receiving Austudy that relate to reducing benefits. With regard to any moneys that are owed to the government or any due charges that have not been fully paid, this measure allows a deduction from the payment that would ordinarily be made under any of these three acts. This is really only honest bookkeeping. We in the Senate have a proper duty to all taxpayers, and it is a matter of reasonableness to see these provisions in place.

  I come to a matter that the scrutiny of bills committee—a very important committee of this Senate—has brought to our attention. As we know, this committee looks at every piece of legislation before it is debated here. If there is a trespass upon the established principles of law or the unintended inclusion in a bill of a matter that is not necessary or ought not to be there, then the committee will report that fact to the Senate and put forward a remedy.

Senator O'Chee —A very important committee.

Senator TEAGUE —As Senator O'Chee says, it is a very important committee. For years the reports from that committee have been unanimous. Mr Acting Deputy President, as you would know, we give a great deal of credibility to the scrutiny of bills committee. In this case, that committee has reported real concern with regard to shifting the liability that falls upon students when there is overpayment from being a liability that arises from failure to notify to being what is called a strict liability. In most areas of law, strict liability falls upon a person who offends by a deliberate action that causes some cost for which there is need for redress or reimbursement. In this case, the bill is placing strict liability upon students receiving overpayment, but their offence may be only that they failed to notify on time, and the overpayment may be actually rather small. It can also be of a moderately high amount.

  In this case, the Scrutiny of Bills Committee is concerned about this new and, to it, unwarranted placing of strict liability on such students. This change also effectively reverses the onus of proof in that students would have to prove their innocence, as it were, or prove why they should not attract a penalty. If the bill did not have these provisions, the onus of proof would fall upon the department.

  This has led to some circulated amendments, again from the Democrats, for which at the moment I am not indicating support but, rather, concern. I want to hear the argument by our colleague Senator Bell for the Democrats and, more particularly, I say to the minister and the advisers: I want to hear very carefully the government's response to the very legitimate concerns of the scrutiny of bills committee.

  As I understand it, the Democrats are moving the last five of their amendments, Nos 10 to 14, which relate to this matter. If they were to be adopted, large slabs of pages 16, 17 and part of 18 would be removed from the bill. Essentially, they affect the schedule, clauses 48, 49, 50, 51, 52 and 53.

Senator Crowley —The government will accept Senator Bell's amendments arising from the scrutiny of bills committee report. That information may assist Senator Teague in his further discussion.

Senator TEAGUE —I hear the interjection of the minister. I ask that, in summing up, the minister respond very carefully to this matter. As I say, I have yet to be persuaded entirely that the right remedy is clearly to hand, but I will listen in due course.

  Let me now refer to the particular amendment I will be moving in the committee stage. This arises from disgraceful action by the present Labor government. In the last budget the minister clearly announced that the Austudy benefits would be made available to students on the basis that there would be no assets test for any family that held a health care card. There was no ambiguity about it. And families, especially some who are struggling in the bush, hit by the rural crisis, took the consolation that their son or daughter could proceed to enrol in a university or other area of study on the basis of a clear government announcement.

  Not only was this announced at the time of the budget, it was also in a press release last September by the Department of Employment, Education and Training; in the budget papers—there was no ambiguity in the estimates committees of the Senate; and it was in the Austudy brochure and the Austudy application form. All of this transpired in August, September, October and November last year. When the regulations for this matter were published in December, to have effect from 1 January and the whole of this calendar year, lo and behold, there was no provision in the regulations for this clear announcement.

  There was no press release. There was no statement by any minister of this government to say that a mistake had been made or that the decision had been reversed or anything else. The families, acting upon this information, found out only when they had made their application and were told, `Even though it is in the Austudy brochure, even though it is in the Austudy application form, even though it is in the DEET announcement of September, even though it is in the government's budget, it is not actually true. A misunderstanding has been perpetrated by a few officers.'

  These people were told individually about this without any announcement. This is just not good enough. In considering legislation the Senate is required to hold governments accountable for what they say to the Australian public. Governments cannot act in such a disgraceful way. It is estimated that there are perhaps 200 families who will be allowed Austudy if the announcement is upheld.

  This bill gives us a chance to add a request—and because this is an addition to the bill in the Senate and has financial implications it cannot be an amendment, it must be a request. After some discussions, I am confident that this is a request that will be supported by the Senate. That request will need to go down to the House of Representatives to be agreed to. I will spell out the words of the request when we get to the committee stage, but essentially it is to give an exemption from the assets test to families applying for Austudy if they are holding a health care card. I will say more about it in the committee stage. By and large, as I said at the beginning, the disciplines in these two bills are acceptable to the opposition.