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Tuesday, 20 September 1994
Page: 1003


Senator TIERNEY (5.13 p.m.) —I rise to speak to the Student Assistance (Budget Matters) Amendment Bill 1994, which relates to changes in this year's budget. These changes will allow students to repay Austudy and Abstudy benefits at a time during the year in order to maximise their eligibility for a supplementary loan, and will make supplementary loans available to students who do not qualify for Austudy or Abstudy because of the spouse income test if the spouse income is less than $35,000 a year in 1995.

  The coalition has no major objections to these proposals. The bill will save the government about $6 million a year. However, as my colleague Senator Gibson has foreshadowed, we have suggested some amendments. We will be moving amendments to the second reading to highlight the failure of the Austudy scheme to assist students from rural and regional Australia.

  We advocate, through review, making assistance to students available on a much more equitable basis. We believe that grants should be made on the basis of financial need. A coalition government will alter Austudy rules so that they measure a student's or a parent's ability to realistically access and pay for further education.

  I noted Senator Bell's rather different approach to this matter. In some ways the Australian Democrats have evolved their approach to Austudy since I first came into this parliament.


Senator Kemp —Malcolm Turnbull is their adviser now.


Senator TIERNEY —Is that the reason? Senator Bell has pinpointed a number of ways in which he would ease these assets tests, but I can recall very early in my career here that the Democrats wanted to give Austudy to everyone who applied for it. The cost of that measure was $1 billion. I would have thought that if we were going to spend $1 billion on education we should have a more sophisticated way of allocating the money than that.


Senator Kemp —They would have whacked up fuel excise further.


Senator Bell —As usual, you misunderstood that.


Senator TIERNEY —Perhaps we did misunderstand it, but I am glad to see that the policy of the Australian Democrats has evolved a little since that time. I was a little bemused by the way in which Senator Bell wanted to redefine an assets test. He mentioned tools of trade as being an exemption. That is fair enough, but I do not know whether that is going to go a great distance towards solving the problems of rural families. The real problem is that rural families have an asset which might be worth a considerable amount of money but, as we are finding in this drought situation, it may not be generating very much money for them. Indeed, as I pointed out yesterday in taking note of an answer by Senator Collins, they may not have any money at all; they might have a negative cash flow.

  It seems incredibly cruel for a government to require people who have virtually no income—asset rich though they may be—to be excluded from access. That is why the coalition is very keen to see that, in certain circumstances where people are facing real hardship in the bush, they have greater access. We find that the present assets test on farmers includes more than Senator Bell indicated; it includes land, farm machinery, and livestock, and it gives no indication of ability to pay. People in cities may be able to access Austudy, but people in the country cannot because they do not have this income producing stream. High asset levels do not necessarily produce big incomes.

  Yesterday, Senator Collins kept sidestepping this issue. We wait with great interest to see what measures he will introduce tomorrow to relieve the problems that people in rural areas have faced for four years. I suspect that in relation to an assets test we will not see much joy for farm families.


Senator Woodley —He ought to explain his own policy instead of trying to explain ours.


Senator TIERNEY —What was that, Senator Woodley? I did not quite catch that interjection.

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator West)—Order! Senator Tierney, would you please direct your comments to the chair and disregard all interjections?


Senator TIERNEY —This week I wrote to the Minister for Social Security, Mr Baldwin, and pleaded with him to allow greater social security benefits, such as income and relief from assets tests, for asset-rich people so that they could undertake studies. But this very uncaring government will not relax the eligibility criteria for Austudy during what is the worst drought this century. When Mr Keating went out to the bush he talked about not leaving farm—


Senator Kemp —For two and a half hours.


Senator TIERNEY —That is right. And during that very fleeting visit he said that he would not leave the farmers behind. I wonder where he has been for the last four years. Many properties have now had eight crop failures in a row but it has taken this long for the Prime Minister to discover the problem.

  The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator West)—Order! It being 5.20 p.m., I will now call on consideration of government documents.