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Thursday, 10 February 2011
Page: 416

Senator MASON (9:51 AM) —I was listening to my friend Senator Marshall this morning. When he was addressing the Senate, talking about fiscal responsibility and the Labor Party in the same breath, I wondered where I was—I really did. I did not hear much about pink batts and Building the Education Revolution, but I did wonder where I was. Anyway, it is Thursday, and I will not dwell on that.

The Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010 actually seeks to enhance access to university for thousands of young Australians. Senator Nash’s private senator’s bill is another important step in reducing disadvantage. That is what this is about—reducing disadvantage suffered because of where Australians happen to live. Senators will recall the long—some might even say ‘protracted’—debate last year concerning the provision of youth allowance for university students. I will get to that in a second. The legislation that was originally proposed by the government would have made it harder—indeed, perhaps impossible—for tens of thousands of students from outside metropolitan areas to attend university by removing from them most avenues to establish independence through workforce participation in order to qualify for youth allowance. After a long legislative battle and difficult negotiations, a couple of which I did attend, the government compromised. The old rules were means tested but were retained for those young people residing in very remote and outer regional areas, as per the Australian standard geographical classification—a very bureaucratic term but an important one.

The coalition’s strong stance meant that thousands of young people who were originally excluded by Labor’s changes at least retained the opportunity to pursue higher education. I accept the compromise was not perfect, but it was the only way at that time to break the impasse and allow legislation to pass so that payments could start for large numbers of students affected by the legislation. I was lobbied up hill and down dale by vice-chancellors and others to get the money moving. We did, but the idea that somehow we broke or welshed on a deal, as Senator Marshall mentioned this morning and Senator Evans has mentioned in the past in this chamber, is wrong. You might recall that on the day that bill passed I moved an amendment which largely is reflected in Senator Nash’s private senator’s bill today. That was on the very day that the bill passed.

Senator Jacinta Collins —Then why did you not cost it?

Senator MASON —Our intention was always very clear. I often wonder whether this deal was supposed to last forever, that somehow the legislative function of the Australian parliament was going to be fettered forever and a day because of a deal done in Parliament House. That is absolute rubbish. The implication always was that there was a deal up until the next election.

Senator Jacinta Collins —What—two months? That’s rubbish, and you know it, Brett.

Senator MASON —During the 2010 election, our election manifesto said that we would relax the eligibility criteria for the independent youth allowance, which would be extended to students in the inner regional category. No-one could have missed that.

Senator Jacinta Collins —Why did you not cost it?

Senator MASON —The coalition made its intention absolutely and utterly clear. We intended—

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Moore)—Senator Mason, the noise level in the chamber is very high.

Senator Cameron —There will be workers compensation claims here if you do not quieten down. Hansard will not handle this!

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT —Senator Mason, please continue your contribution. I remind senators on all sides about interjections. The debate is flowing and will continue.

Senator MASON —The opposition remains committed to students in regional areas and to providing them with an opportunity to attend our great universities. We think that is important. For us, the opposition, the debate is all about access and it is all about fairness. Under the act, regional students living in the inner regional zone, as defined by the Australian standard geographical classification, continue to be excluded from the possibility of receipt of youth allowance under independence criteria. This leaves thousands of young Australians disadvantaged. The coalition believes that all students from regional areas, whether these areas are classified for bureaucratic purposes as inner regional or outer regional, should be treated as one. The truth of the matter is that all these students, unlike their city counterparts, have to leave home and relocate in order to attend university.

When I went to university I had to catch a bus to get there—and I was very, very privileged to be able to do so. I am very grateful that I was able to do that. If I had been living in an inner regional area it would have been much, much more difficult. We know the nation cannot bring a university into every town. It cannot be done. But we can try to bring kids who live in those towns into university, and that is what we want to do. We are trying desperately to do that. Recently the Senate Standing Committee on Education, Employment and Workplace Relations heard from witnesses addressing this issue. Some students who live in the inner regional areas, currently excluded under Labor’s legislation, have to move 450 kilometres in order to study the course of their choice. One witness, a Mr Hugh Warren, was very blunt. He said:

It is simply idiotic to pretend that driving up to three hours a day in each direction to attend uni is a viable option.

But that is the function of Labor’s law as it stands, and we do not think that is right. We do not think that that disadvantage is appropriate, and we are seeking to address that.

I have applauded in this place the then Minister for Education and now Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, for her passion and for her stated commitment on education. I have done it on many occasions. Indeed, I have also applauded, as much as it hurt me, my good friend Senator Carr because I honestly believe that their heart is in the right place on these issues. I have never, ever doubted the Prime Minister’s commitment to education—never in this place, never publicly or privately. But, as senators may recall, I am very concerned about the implementation of many of the programs. Yesterday the address-in-reply debate gave me an opportunity to address some of those issues. I will not go there again, but I will say that part of the problem with the Prime Minister’s proposals with respect to education during the term of the Rudd government and now the Gillard government is that they have been undone by appalling implementation. We do not think that is good enough.

But the coalition agrees with this: Professor Bradley said that we should lift to 40 per cent the percentage of 25- to 34-year-old Australians having a bachelor’s degree by 2025. The coalition has accepted that as a goal. Professor Bradley and, indeed, Ms Gillard are right to say that there are three great areas of disadvantage in this country: kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds—we accept that; Indigenous kids; and young Australians living in rural and regional areas. They are the three great areas of disadvantage.

Fifty-five per cent—more than half—of metropolitan students go on to tertiary education, and barely a third of students from regional areas do. It is not because kids from regional areas are less intelligent; it is because they do not have access to higher education. That is what Senator Nash’s bill is trying to address. We have to do that. If we all agree that 40 per cent of young Australians should attend university and receive a bachelor’s degree, we have to do something about it. Sure, it will cost money, but it has to be addressed.

The United Negro College Fund, an American organisation which helps African Americans close the gap with the rest of young Americans in tertiary education, has a slogan: ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste.’ Indeed, it is. I know there is still great untapped potential out there for young people to reap the benefits of education, excel and help to contribute to a better, fairer and more just life in this country. Higher education benefits the individual, but it also benefits the community as a whole. I accept the Prime Minister’s commitment in this regard. I absolutely do.

We want to ensure that a young girl from Dalby has access to tertiary education. She might be our next Nobel prize winner. We want her to be able to go to university. A teenager from Orange might find a cure for cancer. We want to make sure he has access to university. A boy from Shepparton might be the next Manning Clark or, perhaps better still, Geoffrey Blainey, and we want him to be able to go to university to write that history. There are many young Australians who do not have access to tertiary education. They need it. Senator Nash’s bill addresses that.