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Thursday, 10 February 2011
Page: 413


Senator HANSON-YOUNG (9:42 AM) —I rise today to participate in what is a first: priority time for private senators’ bills. It is something the Greens fought very hard for, something we have been talking about for a long time. Thankfully, because of the enormous support that we got throughout the election, we were able to actually implement this in our agreement in the forming of the government. I think it is wonderful that all sides of politics are now able to participate in putting issues on the agenda that affect their constituencies, things that the government of the day try to ignore and do not want to deal with. Of course, I would have liked to have been talking about a Greens bill today, but here we go: after years and years of the coalition saying they would not give precedence to private senators’ time, we are now dealing with their bill first.

The bill in question is Senator Nash’s bill, which attempts to fix up the dodgy deal that was done between the coalition and the government over the issue of youth allowance in the first place. We know that when the government brought in their whole package of youth allowance reforms there were some very positive things in that package. There were also some things that were quite devastating, particularly for rural young Australians. That was because it made it more difficult for young people from the country, who have to move out of home in order to go to university, to get the support that they need. It made them jump through further hoops and over higher hurdles. I understand that, in the midst of a prolonged standoff in this chamber in particular, between the government and the opposition, the Greens and the Independents, trying to get a better result for country students, the deal that was done unfortunately did not fix the problems in relation to those disadvantages facing young people in country Australia.

We now see the need to fix this problem. While I stand shoulder to shoulder with Senator Nash in being concerned with the issues facing young people—Senator Nash and I sat on various committee inquiries talking about this—the issue really is that young people from country areas who have to move out of home need to be supported. If we are serious about investing in our rural communities then we need to get our young people to university, get them trained and get them skills so that they can go back to their country areas and be the doctors and be the nurses that their country towns need. We need to ensure that they have skills and expertise to take back to their communities. The best way of doing that, the best way of getting those skills back into those communities, is to educate their young people. But the way the current system works disadvantages those kids. However, the idea of simply going back, as this bill suggests, to the old rules—which still make young people jump through hoops and over hurdles—is not the way to go about it.

I have spoken to the government various times about this. You really need to understand that the government does not believe that this is a problem. Until they accept that there are issues here, it is going to be very difficult to deal with this problem. Unfortunately, we are in a situation where we do disadvantage young people simply because of the geographical location that they live in. This bill, however, does not deal with that. This bill still puts young people from those country areas in a position where they have to defer their university course to earn money and then prove that they deserve support. We know that only 30 per cent of those young people who defer their studies will end up going to university. That means that of all those young people who work so hard, supported by their families, to get through high school, to get the grades, to get the acceptance to university, only 30 per cent of them are going to be able to go on to university, because we have put barriers in front of them. This bill does not remove those barriers. I would like to amend this bill to remove those barriers.

I am also concerned about how we pay for this. We have heard from Senator Marshall about the issues that the government has with how the opposition propose to fund this. The explanatory memorandum to this bill, circulated by the authority of Senator Nash, outlines that funding would be appropriated from the Education Investment Fund to cover this cost. This is the exact same fund that the government themselves have decided to cut to help fund their flood relief. We saw Tony Abbott on Tuesday stand up and say, ‘Yes, we agree with all the government’s spending cuts, plus we will put in a few of our own,’ including, of course, cutting aid to schoolchildren in Indonesia. There is a hole now in Tony Abbott’s budgeting. I do not know where he suggests this funding should come from, but I do know where the Greens believe this should come from.

The Greens believe that if we are to implement a support system for country students that does everything they need, that does not require them to jump through hoops and over hurdles, that does not require them to put at risk their university career by having to defer, then the government could fund a properly supported system, based on our amendments as circulated in the chamber, to simply give them support because they are geographically disadvantaged. We would fund that through a properly applied resource rent tax. We have been saying for a long time that this is something that the government should look at. If we do not do this—if this bill passes the chamber without accepting the second reading amendment that I will move—then there is no funding for this bill. So Tony Abbott and Senator Nash might sit there and say, ‘We have our ideas on how we will fund it,’ but they have now got a black hole in their own budget.

So how will this proposal be funded if indeed we do not move to support what the Greens are proposing, which is an increase and a properly applied resource rent tax? That would cover the cost of educating our young Australians from country areas so that they can invest in their communities. It would ensure that they do not have to defer their studies and it would ensure that they are supported to get the training that their communities desperately need. We would be putting a value on education that would mean that we actually believe in it. Julia Gillard is meant to be the education Prime Minister. This is the opportunity to prove that you are totally, deadset behind investing in education.

It should not matter whether you come from the bush or whether you come from the city: you should be able to access higher education if indeed you have worked so hard to get there. You should not have to have barriers put in front of you simply because of the town in which your family has brought you up. In South Australia, my home state, we have the ludicrous situation where students from Mount Gambier cannot get the support that they need based on this deal that was cut by the coalition and the government because they are considered to be in a zone which means they do not get that extra support. Yet they are 300 or 400 kilometres away from the nearest university. What are the coalition and the government going to do to fund a system that will support those kids in Mount Gambier or those in Renmark, Port Augusta or Port Pirie?

These are the issues that the government needs to think about. Unfortunately, the bill in its current state does not deal with the issues. We need to amend that. We need to remove that discrimination against country students. My amendment does that. It simply says, ‘If you have to move out of home in order to go to university and your household income is less than $150,000 then you will get that support because we believe that your getting an education is a really important thing for Australia and for your communities.’ That is what my amendment does.

How will we fund it? We know that the budget is tight and we also know that there is a way around that. We know that we need to start investing in our educational programs. That means using things like the resource rent tax to say: ‘We are ripping all of these irreplaceable minerals out of the ground. How about we put this towards the education of our future—the training and skills needed for the future of our country.’ That is what we are talking about. I look forward to the committee stage of debate and I move the second reading amendment standing in my name:

At the end of the motion, add: but:

(a)   the Senate is of the opinion that these reforms should be funded through a reconfigured mining resource rent tax that would generate sufficient additional revenue to cover the costs, replacing the Education Investment Fund as the source of the funds as proposed in the explanatory memorandum to the bill; and

(b)   a message be sent to the House of Representatives informing it of this resolution and requesting its concurrence in the resolution.