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Wednesday, 11 May 1994
Page: 663

Senator BELL (5.10 p.m.) —The Australian Democrats welcome the amendments introduced by Senator Teague on behalf of the coalition. We recognise the work that has been done by various members of the coalition in reaching a conclusion and arriving at these amendments. The original announcement by the government should have been welcomed and implemented. Our position today is consistent with one we have held over a number of years. We believe that the assets of country families are more like tools of trade. They are not liquid assets generally and are not easily redeemable.

  We have heard in the past in debates in this particular area that it is not usually possible, nor is it usually a recommended path to follow, that the back paddock be mortgaged to facilitate the trip of Johnny or Mary to university or to any other further studies. That argument has been put over a number of years. It has been difficult to arrive at a situation where an agreement has been reached. I well remember that on one of several occasions that I tried to introduce this reform on behalf of the Democrats I was admonished by former Senator Walters—I am rather glad she is not here at the moment because I fear such admonition would still be directed at me—who said that such a move would cause a blow-out and would be financially irresponsible.

  It is strange that now the government rather than the coalition is proposing that as a defence. Nevertheless, I am very pleased to see this move because it is logical and consistent with our position. We need to look at this potential defence that such a move would bring a blow-out of expense to the department. This could never be a universal benefit because, as has been mentioned by Senator Teague, there are criteria that need to be satisfied. The first criterion is that a health care card must have been issued by the DSS to the parents; that is not an easy criterion to satisfy. Having met that condition, one finds that it is then further qualified by the need to be involved in an activity for which Austudy is payable. This reduces the potential group of people to whom this condition would apply to a very small number.

  We have already been told that, after the decision was announced in the previous budget, after the decision was published, after handwritten application forms were lodged and after pamphlets had been published, at the beginning of this year only some 100 were affected. If because of all of the extra publicity that this matter has received this time we double that figure, I do not think we would be overwhelmed by a blow-out. We should recognise that and dismiss any suggestion that the department will be crippled by meeting this great need, particularly from rural students.

  Other students will qualify through this path for an easier payment of their rightful Austudy entitlements, but they will be few in number. For the sake of equity, perhaps the government should cease to resist worthwhile amendment and support it.