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Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Page: 2030


Senator NASH (10:10 AM) —It is always a delight to follow my very good colleague Senator Mason. At the outset, I would like to commend him for the work he has done on this issue. It has been, as he said, a particularly arduous process for nearly a year now. I think it was last May that we started on this process. It has been particularly difficult for those students who are living in regional areas. I would also like to thank and commend the work of my Nationals colleague Darren Chester, the member for Gippsland. He has been absolutely relentless in making sure that we get the right outcomes for regional students right across the country.

When this legislation, the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009 [No. 2], was first brought into the chamber, it was greeted by this side with disbelief, in a lot of ways, because of what the government was putting forward. We did say at the time that there were positives to it, there were some things that we agreed with, and we still hold to that. We have been very open and honest about our measurement of the legislation and how it would operate, particularly the increase to the threshold for youth allowance, which we saw as a positive thing.

At that time, the government made the decision to remove the criterion for students to access independent youth allowance through the gap year pathway. If ever there was a decision made without any consultation or any understanding of regional Australia, that was it. It was absolutely appalling. The government had no idea whatsoever of the pathways needed for regional students to access tertiary education. There is an incredible inequity that exists between our regional and metropolitan students that I will go into a little later. But for the government to look at removing that independent youth allowance criterion without putting any other measure in its place to make sure that regional students had a pathway to university was simply negligent. It was absolutely negligent.

At the same time, the minister for too many things, Julia Gillard—and there must be too many things because things seem to be slipping through the cracks now—also said that those students who had finished year 12 in 2008 and embarked upon the pathway of trying to access independent youth allowance by taking their gap year last year could no longer access that allowance. Snap! Bang! There goes the rug from underneath them. She literally changed the rules midstream. How appalling is that? I think I must have used the word ‘appalling’ about 10 times now and I will probably use it a few more times as well. I think, Senator Mason, you might have to help me out with a few more adjectives.


Senator Mason —I’ve got plenty, Senator Nash!


Senator NASH —Thank you very much, Senator Mason. All of those students who had, in good faith, embarked upon their gap year with a view to getting independent youth allowance for assistance were simply told by the minister, ‘Sorry, that option’s not available to you anymore. You’ll have to find some other way.’ That was not good enough. I know that my Nationals colleagues, my regional Liberal colleagues in particular and my not-so-regional Liberal colleagues like Senator Mason recognised the absolute failing in that particular policy. To the credit of the coalition, last year we got the minister to do a partial backflip, allowing those students who live more than 90 minutes away by public transport from their tertiary institution to be grandfathered so that they are able to get the independent youth allowance. But still tens of thousands of students who had embarked on this process in good faith were left out on a limb.

What we have seen with the deal which the government has put to the coalition and has now been agreed is that all of those students will now not be hit with retrospective legislation. All students who finished year 12 at the end of 2008 and undertook a gap year will be able to access independent youth allowance this year. I have to say what a great decision that was. It should never have happened in the first place. This is the issue—this government going holus-bolus into yet another policy decision on the run, giving no thought to the detail, the impact and the effect that decision was going to have, particularly on regional students. At least that one has been addressed.

There is a grave inequity between regional students and metropolitan students when it comes to accessing tertiary education. I chaired the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs inquiry into rural and regional access to secondary and tertiary education opportunities. It became blatantly clear that the financial inequity which exists between regional and metropolitan students is stark. We know that around only 33 per cent of regional students go on to tertiary education, compared to 55 per cent in metropolitan areas. That simply is not good enough and it should not be tolerated. We know that this is because of the financial hardship caused by the fact that regional students have to relocate to attend university. They do not have the luxury of a university or even a choice of universities within the bus ride which Senator Mason referred to earlier. In so many instances, they are forced to move away from home to attend university.

Through all the work which has been done, we know that it costs $15,000 to $20,000 a year to relocate a student to attend a tertiary institution. Where is the equity in that, when city students are able to access universities which are practically on their doorsteps and regional students have to travel away, at a cost of up to $20,000, to university? This is one of the key points which is wrong with the system as it currently stands. In my view, we need to revamp the whole system. We need to start again and have a good look at what are the appropriate measures for supporting tertiary education. The inequity which exists is simply intolerable. We should have in place a tertiary access allowance so that we can address that inequity.

If you have a student in Sydney whose parental income is, say, $70,000 and a student out in a regional area whose parents also earn $70,000, both students receive the same amount of youth allowance, but on top of that, the regional student, who has to relocate, has to come up with $15,000 to $20,000 per year. That is simply not fair. People who choose to live in the regions should not be disadvantaged because universities do not exist where they live. That inequity leads to such a disparity between our regional students who go on to university and our metropolitan students who go on to university. We should be doing everything we can to encourage regional students to get to university, not make it harder. We know that students who undertake tertiary education in regional areas are far more likely to practise a profession in the regional areas. All credit to John Anderson when he set up the RAMA scheme because he knew that medical students from regional areas are far more likely to go back—about seven times more likely—to regional areas to work as doctors. And what is this government doing? It is trying to make it harder for regional students to get to university. How dumb is that? That is not a very flash adjective but it is about the best one I can come up with and is probably the most appropriate. It is a no-brainer that we should be doing more for regional students and not less. We should be giving regional students more support, not less.

This government has some bizarre view—I do not quite know what it is—that regional students should have to fend for themselves. It is indicative of the manner in which this government treats regional Australia. You see it time and time again. Regional Australia is absolutely disregarded by this government, not just in youth allowance but in a range of areas. The first Rudd government stripped more than $1 billion from country Australia. Regional development programs worth $436 million were scrapped and replaced with one program worth only $176 million. Existing agriculture programs worth $334 million were replaced with ones worth only about $220 million and most of those were about climate change. The second budget was worse. No specific program was put in place to support development in regional Australia and the area consultative committees across the nation were axed. The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry was the only department hit with an extra efficiency dividend. It goes on and on. Land and Water Australia has been abolished and $12 million has been taken from the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. And this is a good one: they abolished the single desk for wheat—a good idea, if ever there was one!

And now look at what they have done for regional students across Australia. Not only have they done nothing; they have tried to make it worse. It is about time this government started to realise the importance of regional Australia to the future of this nation. Next time Kevin 747 is flying across regional Australia, he should look down and realise that those regional communities are the engine room of this country.


The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Forshaw)—Senator Nash, you know that is disorderly. You should refer to honourable members by their correct title.


Senator NASH —I do apologise. Next time Prime Minister Kevin and his 747 plane are flying over regional Australia he should look down and make sure he recognises how important those people are to this country. What is most important about regional communities is the young people in those regional communities. They are the ones we should be supporting. We should be doing everything we can to ensure that they have a bright and sustainable future and a bright and sustainable future actually in those communities.

What happens if regional Australia simply ceases to exist? The way this government is going there is a pretty fair chance of that happening. How are we going to feed ourselves? Where is the food production going to come from? How are we going to make sure that we can feed and water the nation? This government’s complete disregard for regional Australia is getting nothing short of breathtaking. Keep in mind that none of the changes made in this deal, which the government has backflipped on, would have happened if it had not been for the National and Liberal parties saying, ‘No, not on.’ I certainly commend the member for Sturt, Christopher Pyne, on being absolutely resolute in saying, ‘No, we will not let this happen as is.’ It would have happened if we had not stuck up for people, particularly in regional Australia, and the original legislation would have simply gone through.

The gap year students would have been forgotten. They would have had no chance of having any assistance this year, and they would have taken their year off thinking they could. They would have been absolutely hung out to dry by this government. The regional students that want to access independent youth allowance would have been completely hung out to dry—nothing, nada, for them. This deal is not perfect—far from it. At least some of those regional students are now being taken into account where they were not previously. Quite frankly, how did the government think it was the slightest bit appropriate that they not take into account all regional students, that they not take into account every single regional student that needs a pathway, every single regional student that needs support, every single regional student that needs some assistance to go onto tertiary education, because they should be supported? How on earth did they think picking some regional students was all right but then thinking, ‘Gee, we will leave these ones out of the bag over here. We won’t worry too much about them. It doesn’t matter as long as we have covered some regional students’? It is rubbish. They should have simply made sure that they had included all of them—every single one.

My guess is that it is all about dollars. We know that we need to be economically responsible in this country. But when this government has blown billions of dollars on school halls—some of which the schools did not want—and billions of dollars on pink batts that have gone into ceilings, it has probably created the worst governmental debacle in terms of running a program that this country has ever seen. Billions and billions of dollars have been wasted. What are they saying now? ‘Let me see, those regional students that fall outside our lines on our maps—we’re expecting them to be the ones to cough up for the budget neutrality.’ Well, that is not on. How can they possibly sit there on the other side of this chamber knowing about all the waste, knowing about all the billions of dollars that have just gone up against the wall, and then turn around to those regional students who are going to miss out on the opportunity of getting independent youth allowance and say: ‘Too bad, so sad. We’re going to leave you out because we’ve got to be budget neutral and you’re the losers.’ It is just extraordinary. It is the most arrogant display from a government and shows the complete disregard they have for regional students.

What makes Mrs Smith’s daughter or son in one part of the country, in the regions, different to Mrs Jones’s daughter or son in another part of the country? I will give you the answer to that: absolutely none. So why has the government gone down this road of picking a line on a map and saying, ‘This regional student living on this side will be okay, but the one on the other side we actually don’t care about. By the way, chat to each other across the lines on the map because you’ll probably be able to see each other.’ It is stupid. The lines on those maps are just wrong because it is not about those regional zones; it is about how far the regional student is from the university. That is the issue. It is not about where in a region they live; it is about how far they live from the university that is the important thing. That is why, quite rightly, the coalition is going to—as my good colleague Senator Mason has already flagged—move an amendment to include the other inner regional zone on that map.

Do you know what I think, colleagues? I think, if the government do not accept that amendment, then the people of Australia are going to think: ‘Why not? Why aren’t they accepting that amendment? The coalition are putting forward that all regional students should be able to access independent youth allowance if they have to leave home to go to university.’ Maybe I am a little bit biased about all of this but I think that most Australians are pretty sensible people and they think pretty clearly. When the coalition say to them, ‘We tried to get all regional students taken into account,’ and the government do not pass our amendment, then the government are effectively saying, ‘We don’t care about all of the regional students; we will just do some.’ Let me tell you what the people of Australia are going to think—I could be wrong but I do not think I am: ‘Why is this Rudd Labor government treating regional Australians unfairly? Why is the Rudd Labor government creating a divide between regional Australians?’

Let me be absolutely clear on this. If only some regional students and not all of them from this point on are able to access independent youth allowance it is the government’s fault. It is nobody else’s fault but the Prime Minister’s and Minister Gillard’s. It is nobody else’s fault but theirs. Do not let anybody tell a different story, because that is where the buck stops. It is a bit like health. Apparently the buck stops with the Prime Minister when it comes to health. But what sort of buck was that? It certainly did not stop there very long. He promised the people of Australia he would fix the hospitals but he neglected to tell them, ‘Not for a very, very long time.’

The responsibility for fairness and equity lies with the government. The Liberals and Nationals have done everything that they possibly can to get the right outcome for regional students. After all of this, if regional students and their families want some fairness and equity they will throw out Kevin Rudd’s Labor government and they will put the coalition into government, because it is the only way we are going to get any fairness or equity not only for regional students but for regional families across the country from one side to the other. This government is never going to do it.

If the government does not agree to this amendment and regional students miss out on getting access to independent youth allowance, it will be on the government’s head. Those on the other side will have to live with it. Every time one of those students cannot go to university because they cannot afford it and this government does not give them any financial assistance, all of those on the other side of this chamber and in the other place should hang their heads in shame because it is entirely their responsibility. They can fix it, they can agree to this amendment and they can make sure all regional students are covered. They should do it; it is the right thing to do. If they do not, it just shows their negligence when it comes to regional Australia.