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Thursday, 10 February 2011
Page: 421

Senator KROGER (10:15 AM) —It is with much pleasure that I rise to speak in support of the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010. Education is the keystone. It is central for any Western civilisation to provide opportunities for all Australians to have an opportunity to learn, to have an opportunity to go on to tertiary education, to provide a hand up, not a handout, so that our future, our children, can develop their own capacity to make their own way in the world. This legislation will ensure that every child, every student, has an even playing field and will have a chance to make something of themselves. We are not here talking about economic considerations, as we have just heard from Senator Cameron. What we are talking about here is providing access for all students so that they may have a chance to get on in life.

What the government has done has ensured that not everyone has an equal playing field and it directly discriminates against those in inner regional areas. This legislation is all about providing equitable access to support the important principles of choice so that tens of thousands of students will have the opportunity to choose to go on to tertiary education and not be hamstrung by things that this government is imposing upon their families. This government is seeking to pull the rug out from many aspiring kids and families and it should really seriously consider the implications of what it is planning.

Finding full-time employment in regional areas and small communities is often very difficult. Frankly, the current legislation does not take into account the realities of life in regional Australia. So many students living in inner regional areas in Victoria are currently missing out on the independent youth allowance because of the changes the Gillard Labor government has made to the eligibility criteria. Yet the government has continued to ignore these students’ concerns and the concerns of their families. Seasonal employment sectors in agriculture, in tourism, in fruit-picking in regional areas cannot provide work throughout an entire year and many of the students want to apply for independent youth allowance and are currently unable to do so. As well as this, regional students face significantly increased costs associated with relocating for study, which many regional students have no choice in. Many of them to pursue the studies of their interest have to move from their home and their family to pursue their area of interest, to pursue their aspirations. This is just another layer of bureaucracy, another layer of direct block, if you like, that is making it very difficult. It is blocking them and making it more difficult for them to make that choice.

Affording tertiary education is a real issue for all students but in particular for regional students and their families. The recent Senate inquiry found that only 33 per cent of regional students go on to tertiary education compared with 55 per cent of metropolitan students. It begs the question why. Why is it that so few regional students are able to pursue possible dreams to go on to tertiary education? This inequity has been fostered by the inaction of this government and it must now end. Under the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Act 2010, regional students living in the inner regional Australia zone on the Australian standard geographical classification map continue to be excluded from accessing independent youth allowance if they do not qualify for Labor’s new criteria. The coalition sought to move further amendments to include students living in the inner regional zone, because we listened to our constituents and we know what it is that is concerning them. We know this is a critical issue and we tried to address it.

Senator Nash —Hear, hear!

Senator KROGER —Senator Nash, to her great credit, has tried to do that, but these amendments were defeated by Labor and the Greens. The exclusion of the inner regional zone has resulted in unfair eligibility criteria for regional students. All regional students who have to relocate to attend tertiary education should be treated equally.

I have to say it is really difficult to understand why the Gillard Labor government would deny vital assistance to regional students yet waste billions of dollars on pink batts and overpriced school halls. We saw in the first stimulus package cheques for $900 being posted to everyone, yet they are scrimping in the areas that matter. It is even more difficult to fathom how the Gillard government could publicly preach the virtues of being ‘equitable in education’, the importance of education in Australia, and offering everyone a ‘fair go’ in a spirit of so-called mateship. Yet, as we all know, actions speak louder than words.

We must never forget that the Prime Minister was responsible for these changes as the education minister. It is the Prime Minister who should now show leadership and fix this inequity that is hurting so many regional students. In early 2010 the Labor government, with Julia Gillard as education minister, altered the eligibility criteria for independent youth allowance, requiring students from areas identified as inner regional to work more hours for longer before being considered as independent. Clearly, the Prime Minister was not one of those aspiring kids when she was looking at her opportunities to go to university, and neither were her family, since she does not understand how difficult it is for students aspiring to go to university to take themselves out of the study stream into the workforce on a permanent basis and then get back into the mode for studying.

I would suggest that, by demanding that people work full time for 18 months, they are making it just that much harder for the kids to get back into the study stream. For those parents who have had to help, guide, encourage and nurture their children into getting back into university and into their course, I suggest that they would be most concerned with the Prime Minister’s views on this matter.

This new policy divides regions and electorates, with arbitrary lines on maps determining student eligibility for independent status. Two towns in the same area on different sides of the line will have different educational outcomes. Students may come from the same class in the same school but be discriminated against based on which side of the line their homes sit. This discrimination is unacceptable.

The coalition wants to encourage students to complete year 12 and support them when they move away from home to higher education. If the government agrees to the motion and implements the changes, inner regional students will be able to access the monetary based criteria and will only have to take a 12-month gap rather than that very difficult 18 months.

In speaking in support of this amendment I would like to quote Labor’s Senator Marshall, Chair of the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Legislation Committee:

I guess everyone would like to support this bill. In fact, we have had very little opposition to it. The only opposition to it probably comes from those who have to find the money to pay for it and fund it. That is always a dilemma.

To Senator Marshall and the Prime Minister I say, ‘Go back to the drawing board and look at the spending frenzy that you have been pursuing since you have been in government. This deliberation would not be on the table if money had not been flushed down the toilet on programs that have been clearly inefficient and have delivered no value for money.’