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Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Page: 2034

Senator BARNETT (10:30 AM) —I stand today, together with my coalition colleagues in this place, to speak on this Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009 [No. 2] and to say that the government backdown on the youth allowance is welcome. It has been an absolute farce. What we have seen are rural and regional Australians being neglected over the last many months since this legislation was first introduced last year. We had a few minor changes last year from the Minister for Education, Ms Gillard, who tried to squirm out of what was an obvious problem. That was a half-baked measure; it did not do the job.

As a result of the prosecution by coalition senators and coalition members across the country, particularly in rural and regional seats, the government has finally relented. As a result of pressure from the families of those men and women who want a decent education, particularly in rural and regional areas, it has finally relented. The aspect of the government’s bill that is particularly reprehensible and which has now been fixed as a result of public pressure is the issue of retrospectivity, which should be a no-no for any government. For this Labor government to persist month in, month out and be hell-bent on trying to ram it through the parliament is a disgrace.

As a coalition we demanded three key changes to the youth allowance legislation last year and they were to remove all retrospectivity from the legislation, to ensure a pathway exists for regional, remote and very remote youth by retaining the existing gap year provisions for those students and to ensure that the changes were budget neutral. After being told that it was impossible to get those amendments up and passed, the government listened to the coalition, listened to people in rural and regional Australia and listened to the families affected regarding retrospectivity. It has finally relented and backed down.

Sadly, there are thousands and thousands of students across this country that have been left in limbo. Here we are at the end of March and the university year is well and truly underway. Schools are well and truly underway and they do not know and did not know what the future holds.

At this point I commend Christopher Pyne for relentlessly and vigorously pursuing this matter and pursuing Minister Gillard. In the Senate, Senator Brett Mason has done a sterling job to highlight the concerns, fears and anxieties of families across the country. I also commend Senator Nash for leading the Senate inquiry into this matter and for prosecuting the case particularly for rural and regional Australians and the people that she represents. She did a fantastic job.

Retrospectivity has been entirely removed from the bill. All students who began a gap year in good faith last year will qualify for youth allowance under the existing provisions. The coalition succeeded in ensuring a pathway for rural, remote and very remote students, with the government making a further $104 million concession. This change will restore all three workforce participation tests for students classified as outer regional, rural and remote who wish to apply for the independent rate of youth allowance. The changes will remain budget neutral as requested by the coalition.

My understanding is, under the revised plan, the government’s original changes required young people in rural, remote and very remote areas to find 30 hours of work a week for 18 months over two years to qualify for the independent rate of youth allowance, which was clearly impossible to meet. Thanks to the coalition, the families affected and the pressure that they put on the government, they will now be able to qualify by working 15 hours a week over two years or by earning $19,532 over an 18-month period as is currently possible under the old rules. My understanding, and what I have been advised, is that that will mean around 7,600 students over four years will be able to access university from some of the most remote and regional locations in Australia.

I put on record my thanks for the hard work of the students at Launceston College in Tasmania in collecting the 1,217-signature petitions last year and which were tabled in the House of Representatives. I congratulate Rachel Wilkinson, Jessica Baikie and Hunter Peterson for their efforts in standing up for not just themselves but their fellow students in and around northern Tasmania. I also thank Trudy Lister from Launceston College for helping to organise all of that, working with Mary Dean in my office and others to make it happen. Those petitions were tabled last year and were part of the tapestry of public pressure on the government to make a difference. So congratulations and well done.

It is a great shame that the Labor members, particularly for Bass and the regional areas like Lyons, Franklin and Braddon, have been sitting on their hands. It has been left to the coalition senators in Tasmania and the coalition members and senators around this country to prosecute the case and to make the government see reason and implement these changes, and it has finally happened. There is still scope for improvement. I know Senator Colbeck is pursuing with great vigour this anomaly regarding Devonport and Bernie, with one city being classified as regional or outer regional and therefore qualifying but the other not. I know he is pursuing that with some vigour. There is still more work to be done. I know that the coalition has an amendment in the Senate to see if we can get the government to see reason. In any event, we are prepared to look at this, once this has passed, to see if we can fix any further anomalies. Following the next election, if successful, we look forward to fixing up any further problems that may lie hidden.

What it does confirm, however, is that the government has shown disdain for regional Australia, as it has done since the day it was elected, when it removed the Regional Partnerships program, a $400 million program that was so beneficial to rural and regional Australia, particularly Tassie. The mismanagement of this program has been bordering on the absurd, but it is consistent with its mismanagement of the pink batts fiasco and its school education revolution. It is not an education revolution; it is a waste revolution. It is a waste revolution of the nth degree in terms of the hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars—in fact billions of dollars—that has been wasted. For months and months we have put our concerns on the record, but the government is just going ahead and wasting more and more money. The waste and mismanagement is shocking.

I want to say thank you to all of those families who have contacted my office and contacted the offices of coalition members around Australia to say, ‘We think the government’s system is unfair.’ As a result of that pressure—those letters, the emails, the petitions and the effort that has been made—we have been successful. You can make a difference in opposition, we have shown that. Congratulations to those who have prosecuted the case. There is still more work to be done, but we have fixed a terrible injustice for rural and regional Australia, a terrible injustice for the families affected by the retrospectivity. I am very sorry for the students who have been left in limbo, particularly over the last many months. I have had families in my office expressing their anxiety and concern for their kids and I have heard from the students directly. I am very sorry they have had to put up with this, and I hope we can put it behind us as soon as possible. The government should come clean and apologise for the inequity, the anomaly and the injustice that has been caused. It should say sorry for that. I thank the Senate.