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Monday, 30 November 2009
Page: 9300

Senator LUDWIG (Special Minister of State and Cabinet Secretary) (11:14 AM) —I move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows—

Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2009

This Government is determined to deliver on our election commitment to rebuild essential student services and amenities on university campuses.

We made this commitment because unlike those opposite - we understand the critical importance of ensuring that students have access to vital campus services.

And we make no apology for honouring that commitment today by reintroducing this important legislation.

The Higher Education Legislation Amendment (Student Services and Amenities) Bill 2009 proposes a balanced, practical approach to funding campus services and amenities.

Those opposite have been so blinded by ideology that they are simply unable to have a reasonable debate on this issue.

This Bill does not allow for a return to compulsory student unionism. In fact the legislative provision which prevents a provider from requiring a student to be a member of a student organisation remains unchanged.

The Government does not want to return to the past. We simply want ensure that students have access to vital services and amenities on campus in the future.

By voting against this important legislation during the last sitting period, the Opposition voted for the continued demise of student services including child care, counseling, health, sport and fitness services.

The Government refuses to allow this to happen.

Following, extensive consultations with students and universities in 2008, it was found that $170 million had been stripped from funding for services and amenities. This resulted in the decline and in some instances complete closure of health, counselling, employment, child care and welfare support services.

These are fundamental services that help students to navigate university life, achieve success in their studies and enable them to participate in sport and the university community.

Subsequently, it is students who are being forced to pay the price of the $170 million - both directly and indirectly.

Alarmingly, it was discovered that some universities had been forced to redirect funding out of research and teaching budgets to support services and amenities that would otherwise have been cut.

Universities Australia, the peak body representing the university sector painted the picture clearly last year, stating;

‘Universities have struggled for years to prop up essential student services through cross-subsidisation from other parts of already stretched university budgets, to redress the damage that resulted from the Coalition Government’s disastrous Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU) legislation.’

Some universities highlighted alarming price hikes for parking, food and childcare - in one case a price hike in the order of 500% annually.

It is our students who are paying the price for the previous Government’s ideological approach to student services.

The Australian Olympic Committee has noted that there had also been a serious impact on university sport, saying and I quote that:

‘…the introduction of the VSU legislation has had a direct negative impact on the number of students (particularly women) participating in sport and, for the longer term, the maintenance and upgrading of sporting infrastructure and facilities and the retention of world class coaches.’

Since then, Universities Australia and other bodies that have the interests of the students at heart have repeatedly called on the Parliament to pass this legislation.

If the Opposition fails to support this important legislation once again, then it is Australian students who will pay the price.

And the students who will suffer most as a result of this decision are those from rural and regional areas.

University services and amenities in regional areas are not just used by students but the whole community. In regional areas the sporting facilities at the university are often the only major facilities in the area and the university provides a social hub for the community.

And importantly support services offered at regional universities create much needed jobs in local communities.

The National Party indicated at their recent conference that they were willing to support this legislation so far as it will provide funding for essential health and sporting services and amenities.

This is welcome news and I commend the National Party for their commitment to students from rural and regional areas. But I call on them to recognise that there are other essential campus services, which are also in dire need of funding.

These include, for example critical legal and welfare services. Now, one of the arguments from the National Party in relation to these services is that if students think they are important then they will pay for them voluntarily.

In response to that, I would ask the Nationals to consider this question.

How many students do you know, who go off to university, age 18 for the first time, who expect to become involved in a legal dispute with their landlord?

How many students plan to develop a serious mental health condition that requires counselling?

How many students plan to need access to an emergency loan to cover basic costs of living, when they become sick and are unable to work for several weeks?

The answer is none.

These important services are there to support our students when things don’t go according to plan.

And when you’re a teenager from the bush, living away from home for the first time - you’re all the more likely to come up against some of these challenges.

These campus services and so many others are no less important than health services and sporting facilities and no less worthy of funding.

I call on the National Party to vote to support this legislation, because it supports the students at the University of New England, the students at Eden Cowan University, at Charles Sturt University, at James Cook University, the University of Ballarat and so many others.

Last time this legislation came before the parliament, the National bowed to the wishes of their Coalition partners and failed to cast their vote to help students from rural and regional areas.

The Coalition didn’t vote against compulsory student unionism. The Coalition voted for the continued demise and possible destruction of vital services and amenities on university campuses.

I know that the National Party recognises how important this Bill is and I call on them to join with the Government to rebuild essential services and amenities on our university campuses.

This Bill is in the best interest of Australian students, it’s in the best interest of our universities and it is in the best interests of rural and regional Australia.

Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009 [No. 2]

Last night the Liberal and National parties continued their war on students by moving to make sure around 150,000 were denied scholarships next year.

This did this by stopping the bill leaving committee once their amendments were rejected by the Senate.

They did this by voting against a sensible compromise - supported by the Greens and Senator Xenophon - which would have addressed the concerns they say they have and which would have allowed this legislation to go forward and deliver over 150,000 scholarships, lower the age of independence, substantially increase the parental income test and improve the personal income test.

There was no reason to vote against our compromise amendments if you actually care about students.

But the Coalition did.

The compromise amendment would have extended support to gap year students who live at home - as well as students who need to move - if they are from families with incomes below $150,000.

The changes would be made revenue neutral by ensuring that during the first year transitional period the Student Start Up Scholarships would comprise two payments $717 - worth $1434.

After this the student start up scholarships would revert to their original value of $2254 (indexed) and delivered in two payments each year worth $1,127.

The Government made these compromises as a result of the advocacy of the Greens, who recognised the importance of passing this bill but who wanted to ensure that the current independent arrangements are available for gap year students who are living at home.

We also adopted a number of Green amendments which are reflected in this bill. These included a review of the legislation by 2012 (in addition to the Triennial Review agreed to as part of the Bradley Response)

We welcome a review because we expect it will tell the same thing as our analysis - that these changes will be good for low SES, rural and regional students.

The second is a move to have the Government administer the new workforce participation criterion by averaging the 30 hour requirement rather than requiring that students work ‘at least’ 30 hours per week.

While this amendment has the potential to have a substantial impact on the budget, we believe that we can implement this in a manner which would deliver more flexibility for students without impacting on the budget.

This will be done by averaging by over periods of up to 13 weeks, this will accommodate situations where young people do not work 30 hours consistently every week, provided that their employment can be genuinely characterised as full-time in nature.

And, in addition to these amendments, we have also agreed with the Greens to set up a taskforce which will focus on issues of participation and attainment of regional students in tertiary education. The work of this taskforce would compliment the work of the review into regional loading but the taskforce would focus more specifically on regional and rural participation and attainment. The taskforce would report at the end of 2010.

All of these changes show just how far the Government has been prepared to go to meet the concerns that have been raised with us. These would have allowed us to pass the bill and deliver additional support to students that need it the most - this includes more than 150,000 students who would have received a new scholarship but who will now miss out.

So, today we have re-introduced the legislation into the house with these Greens amendments as well as the Government amendment in the body of the bill.

This Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009 amends the Social Security Act 1991 to implement a key aspect of this Government’s landmark reform agenda for higher education and research. It contains this Government’s response to the recommendation on student income support from the Bradley Review of Higher Education.

This bill brings in a massive range of reforms. Without this bill:

  • more than 150 000 students will not receive start-up scholarships worth $1434 in 2010 and $2 254 after that.
  • and 21 000 Commonwealth Scholarships will not be paid to new students in 2010 as the Coalition voted to remove them earlier this year.

This means there will be less support for students next year than there was this year.

Almost 25,000 families with incomes between just $32,800 and $44,165 will miss out on an increase in their support to the maximum rate. A further 78,000 who would have received a higher part payment or who would have received youth allowance as a dependant for the first time will miss out.

Students who choose to move to study will not be eligible for a $4000 Relocation Scholarship in 2010.

The age of independence will remain at 25 rather than reduce to 22 by 2012, which would have seen an estimated 7 600 new recipients of the independent rate of allowance.

The reforms to Youth Allowance will have consequential effects for ABSTUDY and, in some cases, Austudy.

Our new system will help ensure that education is accessible to all, not just those who can afford to pay.

Universities and students support these changes - the Universities Australia, the Group of Eight universities, the Australian Technology Network of universities, the Innovative Research Universitie and the National Union of Students- have all supported these important reforms and have called for them to be passed.

Last week these groups stood with the Deputy Prime Minister and called on the Coalition to pass the bill.

They said:

“Well we as a Group of 8 support this Bill. We think that it’s particularly important that it pass, that it pass quickly so that we can give some information to and certainty to the students.” (Ian Chubb, Vice Chancellor of Australian National University)

“I speak really with my other fellow Vice Chancellors on behalf of the entire higher education sector who’s unanimous on supporting the legislation… from my perspective, failure to pass this legislation today is not only bad for the education system in Australia, but it’s bad social policy and is very bad long term economic policy.” (Ross Milbourne, Vice Chancellor of the University of Technology, Sydney)

“These students and their parents are having a tough time at present, we all know of the problems in the economy of regional and rural Australia. The proposed legislation will make a fundamental difference to all these families, all these students and their mums and dads.” (Paul Johnson, Vice Chancellor, La Trobe University)

“Let me just say that students unequivocally support these new scholarships.” (David Barrow, President, National Union of Students)

And on last Friday all State and Territory Education and Training Minister have called on the Federal Opposition to pass the Government’s Youth Allowance changes.

But the Coalition still refuses to pass it - even with the whole sector unanimously saying that these changes are a good thing and the states asking that it be passed.

The Group of Eight even had to remind the Opposition that Student Income Support is not a political play thing and have called on the Opposition to cease its uncaring approach to the important matter of students having sufficient income to succeed at university.

The Coalition needs to understand that given their amendments were not endorsed by not passing the bill they are hurting the groups they pretend they want to help - students who have to move away from home to study, rural and regional students and students from low income backgrounds.

I think David Barrow, President of the National Union of Students put it well when he said,

“Last night so many good elements were blocked; a drop in the age of independence to 22 - blocked, new personal income test thresholds - blocked, new scholarships - blocked, a system that gets the poorest students to university - blocked,” he said.

“What remains is an inequitable relic of the Howard-era. It is easily rorted by the privileged. It means 30% of gap year students will not return to university. The current system disadvantages poor and regional students the most”.

Ross Milbourne from The Australian Technology Network of Universities said

Failure by the Coalition and Family First Senator, Steve Fielding to support this amended legislation is not only bad for the education system in Australia, but it’s bad social policy and is very bad long term economic policy.

The amended Bill would have delivered a level of financial security for those students most in need.

These scholarships help very poor students give more time and attention to their studies by reducing stress and worry, reducing their paid work hours, and increasing their sense of belonging. As a result, these students have attrition rates about 40% lower than other students - the benefit of this scholarship is tangible.

The Liberal’s have shown where they stand. For political expediency and against students - it is unclear whether they even understood the compromise amendments that they rejected.

We have brought this bill back and we will continue to put pressure on the Liberals until we can deliver much needed support to students.

I urge members to support this Bill.

Statute Law Revision Bill 2009

This Parliament has a strong tradition of passing Statute Law Revision Bills with bi-partisan support since they were introduced in their current form by the Frazer Government in 1981. In the Second Reading Speech to the Statute Law Revision Bill 1981 the then Attorney- General, Senator Durack, said:

The Government has decided to introduce Statute Law Revision Bills into the Parliament on a regular basis, at least once in each year and, if required, once in each sitting. This will enable the prompt correction of mistakes and errors and removal from the statute book of expired laws.

In support of that Bill, the then Shadow Attorney-General, Senator Evans, congratulated the Government for this innovation, as:

a rational legislative measure aiding in the avoidance of the unnecessary cluttering of the parliamentary process with what are on any view small issues most of the time.

This history of uniform support shows us that Statute Law Revision Bills are regarded as non-controversial Bills for the orderly, accurate and

up-to-date maintenance of the Commonwealth statute books.

However, this house-keeping work is itself an important contribution to the legislative landscape and the broader justice system. Statute Law Revision Bills improve the quality and accuracy of Commonwealth legislation, and enhance the effectiveness and accessibility of the law for the Australian public. This continual process of statutory review complements the Government’s commitment to enhancing the operation and accessibility of the federal justice system for all Australians.

The retention of outdated or unclear legislative provisions makes the law complex, inconsistent and difficult to access. It imposes needless costs on the community and makes the law inaccessible for those who cannot afford legal advice. The Statute Law Revision Bill 2009 runs the ruler over Commonwealth legislation to ensure that it reflects the highest standards. Clearer, easy-to-use legislation protects the public’s right to understand the law and is of fundamental importance to provide access to justice.

Scrutiny of the statute books extends beyond the correction of minor errors and the clearing away of obsolete Acts. The Bill also amends a number of statutes to ensure consistency of language and to remove gender-specific language. While the Statute Law Revision Bill 2009 might not rival the immortal words of Shakespeare, words have their meaning and the words in statutes reflect contemporary Australian society. It is appropriate that we ensure our statute books exhibit current social standards.

The Office of Parliamentary Counsel has demonstrated its high level of expertise in the initiation and preparation of this Bill, to make sure that in future our statute book remains as accurate and effective as it can possibly be. I commend the Office for the quality of its work in reviewing, correcting and updating the body of Commonwealth legislation by preparing this Bill.

Ordered that further consideration of the second reading of these bills be adjourned to the first sitting day of the next period of sittings, in accordance with standing order 111.

Ordered that the bills be listed on the Notice Paper as separate orders of the day.