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Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Page: 2041

Senator FIELDING (Leader of the Family First Party) (10:58 AM) —Today we are once again talking about the level of income support we provide to help our kids get to university. You would think a clever nation would make it easier to get to university, not harder. But guess what: the Rudd government is making it harder for some kids to get to university, especially thousands of kids in regional areas. The question we have been asked is: do we want to disadvantage regional students and put them two years behind people living in the city? That is exactly what the government’s changes to youth allowance will do. The Rudd government’s changes to youth allowance eligibility criteria will force school leavers from regional areas to delay their study plans by two years in order to go to university. Many may well decide to not bother going to university if it means having to wait so long just to qualify for youth allowance. It is already hard enough for regional students to get into university with the extra cost of having to live away from home and now the Rudd government wants to put them two years behind their city counterparts.

The Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009 [No. 2] will make it even harder for kids in country areas to go to university and harder for all those kids that need to relocate to go to university. It is a crazy policy. As I said, a clever nation would be making it easier for our kids to get to university, not harder. That is why, back in November, the Senate tried to get the government to change their mind on this crazy policy that would sell out kids in rural and regional areas and those who had to relocate to get to university. Unfortunately, the Rudd government stubbornly refused and was even willing to withhold scholarships from kids so that they could try to ram through this crazy policy of forcing kids to delay their university study by two years.

That was just a few months ago. A few months on we find that the National Party in coalition with the Liberal Party has rolled over, done a backflip and sold out thousands of kids in the regional areas of Australia. That is right, the National Party and the Liberal Party in coalition have caved in to the government’s pressure and struck a deal that will leave regional kids as second-rate citizens. In fact, the coalition have cobbled together some half-baked deal that will see no extra money for our kids. They have cut back student scholarships and it still leaves students in places such as Ballarat, Bendigo, Sale, Shepparton, Traralgon, Wangaratta, Warrnambool, and Wodonga out in the cold. That is just in Victoria. What about other parts of Australia, such as Albury, Wagga Wagga, Orange, Dubbo, Tamworth, Rockhampton and we heard just before from a coalition senator about Mackay? It is a farce.

Let us remember that we are talking about real kids with parents who want the best for their kids. Every year thousands of students who need to relocate in order to go to university now will have to delay their studies by two years in order to qualify for youth allowance. Time and time again, regional communities are treated like second-class citizens and now we have the National Party with the Liberal Party in coalition doing a deal that will clearly treat regional areas as second-class citizens. Both the government and the coalition are equally guilty because both parties campaigned on giving a fair go to regional students. Both parties now have abandoned these kids when it matters most.

This bill just proves the divide between city and country when it comes to politics. It is a disgrace that in the entire Senate there is only one senator willing to stand up and fight for the country students and make sure that they are not being dudded. Even the National Party have sold out regional communities once again and do not have the guts to stand up when they are negotiating with the government. Until yesterday, the National Party and Liberal Party coalition said they would not sell out regional communities on the youth allowance. But, clearly, they cannot be trusted.

The Senate first passed amendments that would have had ensured rural and regional students were not disadvantaged but the government refused to accept the Senate’s decision and instead elected to leave students high and dry. The Rudd government had a choice between providing a more generous package for students or providing them with nothing at all. The government went for the option of giving students nothing at all. Since November, students have been left in limbo wondering what is going on with their education while the government has been off playing politics with the issue. This is ridiculous and it is not the way any government should ever behave.

Just a few weeks ago thousands of students across the country began a new chapter in their lives and started their studies at university. But for many of these students, instead of going out to orientation days or buying the books for their courses, they were sitting back at home still not knowing their fate because the government was refusing to budge on the bill. Thousands of students have been left in limbo because of the Rudd government’s arrogance and stubbornness and its commitment to taking a sledgehammer to Australia’s higher education system.

The government has tried to hold the Senate to ransom by cutting all the scholarships until the Senate passed the youth allowance changes. We warned of this when it changed the scholarships earlier last year. The government’s actions are reckless and they have put the welfare of students, particularly those from regional areas, in jeopardy. The changes to youth allowance eligibility criteria are blatantly unfair and will see fewer people from the country area heading to university instead of trying to get more kids to go to university.

Family First voted to amend the government’s bill so that students who were forced to relocate would be eligible for youth allowance under the existing criteria. These were sensible changes but the government was stubborn and unwilling to listen to the concerns of ordinary Australians and would not have a bar of it. It remains a fact that Australian university students receive among the lowest levels of income support across the OECD countries. Now the government wants to cut the regional students out instead of helping them get to university. What kind of education revolution is this? What kind of education revolution sees a government scrap scholarships for students before putting new ones in place, then make it harder for kids to qualify for youth allowance? Instead of making it easier for students to go to university we have a situation now where 20 per cent of all students in my home state of Victoria who have applied for university this year have missed out. This is not an education revolution—it is penny pinching. It is backwards policy. It fails to invest in Australia’s future.

The changes to youth allowance will put us even further behind and it is not something that Family First can support. It took months of campaigning and public pressure to get the Rudd government to just come to their senses. It reluctantly did a backflip on its original policy and granted an exemption for students who were in their gap year. This may have fixed one issue but it still does not go to the heart of the problem that regional students are being sold out and disadvantaged compared to students in the cities. The government thinks that it has wide support for its policies but that is because the government has started to lose touch with the people. It has clearly stopped listening to families in regional Australia and thinks it is so high and mighty that it can tell them what is best for them without listening to their opinion.

Take, for example, the letter I received from a council in regional Australia which passed a motion regarding the youth allowance bill. It says:

Dear Senator,

At council’s recent meeting, it was unanimously resolved to correspond to the Prime Minister, the minister for education … the members of the Federal Senate to vigorously oppose the Federal Government’s intention to drastically reduce our rural and regional students’ access to tertiary education by proposing to make changes to the youth allowance bill.

The government needs to understand that we are talking about real people, real kids and real families and about education and allowing the young to get to university. We are not talking about names and numbers on a piece of paper. Thousands of students are going to be worse off under the government’s changes to youth allowance, and it is ridiculous for us to be penny-pinching when it comes to the future of Australia, which is our kids. I have a media release from GET REEAL, the Rural Education Equity Alliance, dated Wednesday, 17 March 2010. It is interesting that it is headed ‘Dismay at youth allowance deal’. The media release says:

GET REEAL spokesperson Di Doyle warned of continued low education outcomes and shortages of professionals in the region under the new legislation.

This is about the bill that we are talking about here. It goes on to say:

Most of Victoria’s and Australia’s country kids would face an uphill battle to get to university.

There is this quote from Ms Doyle:

“In the past thousands of country kids took a gap year so they would be deemed independent from their families and thereby gain the youth allowance. The government has now made it all but impossible for our students to do that.”

This follows on from the quote:

Despite her assurances to the contrary, Julia Gillard’s package falls well short for most country families who remain severely disadvantaged under the new proposals.

Clearly, the government has misread the situation and how much regional areas are relying on youth allowance in allowing kids in those areas to get to university. It is a shame that the Rudd government has not been willing to listen. It is a shame that the National Party, with the Liberal Party in coalition, have decided to sell out regional Australia.

I have a media release from Christopher Pyne which I received late yesterday. It says that since May last year the coalition, which is the National Party and the Liberal Party, has sought three changes to the youth allowance legislation, as its second bullet point says, ‘to ensure a pathway exists for regional’ youth. In the next few lines they talk about what they have achieved but they conveniently leave out ‘regional’. They are quite happy to put down ‘outer remote areas’ but they conveniently leave out ‘regional’. How can you leave out regional Australia if you are for regional Australia? It is outrageous to think of that. The government was in trouble on this issue, and the National Party and the Liberal Party, in coalition, have caved in and sold out regional Australia. There is no other way to look at this issue. Yes, you are going to move an amendment. But you know you could have held out and got more for regional Australia. It is wrong. I think the government will pay the price at the ballot box at the next election over this issue.