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Thursday, 10 February 2011
Page: 427


Senator XENOPHON (10:45 AM) —At the end of last year the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010 was brought before the Senate by the opposition. Let us cast our minds back to the events of last year. It is important to remember that an agreement between the government and the opposition was made in March last year about changes to the youth allowance scheme, and yet, for reasons best known to them, the coalition waited until November to introduce this private senator’s bill. I cannot help thinking that this delay has led to a lot of frustration and the subsequent animosity we have seen surrounding this issue. But, having said all of that, I do agree that there are serious anomalies in the new scheme and they need to be urgently addressed.

I have long maintained that all private senators’ bills should be referred to a committee inquiry for full and thorough scrutiny before any vote takes place, and that is why I could not vote on this bill until now. This is a prime example of why committee inquiries are so important, because the inquiry allowed us to hear firsthand the experiences of regional students and the difficulties they face when it comes to accessing and affording tertiary education. It highlighted the anomalies and the inequity of the current scheme and the inappropriate use of the Australian standard geographical classification remoteness areas map, which is actually based on access to health networks.

Australia is a nation that strongly supports the notion of equality, and access to affordable education is a key tenet of that. I think we all agree on that. Access to higher education should not be about where somebody lives, and a person should not have to choose what they learn based on where they live. It is clear that relocating for tertiary studies comes at a significant personal and financial cost to families. Youth allowance goes some way to assist these students and is a key factor in whether or not an individual can afford to go to university. I would like to read from a submission to the committee inquiry from Mr Morris Dickins. He said:

My wife and I live in the rural city of Mount Gambier, South Australia which is 450kms away from either state capital city where my daughters can attend university.

My eldest daughter, finishing high school in 2008, qualified for youth allowance under the old system. She had a gap year and worked very hard to earn the $19,532 that was required. A job that required her to work shifts in the horticultural industry and one that required an 80 kilometer round trip from her home.

I will say parenthetically that Senator Back made reference to this young woman, who worked in a potato factory. Mr Dickins went on to say:

Even with her youth allowance payments we are still required to help fund her accommodation with regular fortnightly payments.

My second daughter has just finished her year 12 exams and is awaiting her results. Her dream is to study to become a Chiropractor in 2012 after having a gap year in order to get some money behind her before heading off to University in Melbourne, Sydney or Perth as these are the only places offering this course. This surely will be a clear demonstration of her independence.

Because of the type of hospital Mount Gambier has, through the Australian Standard geographical Classification (ASGC) we are classed as an inner rural city. This means to qualify for youth allowance my daughter will be required to work 30—

hours—

a week for 18 months in a 2 year period.

Mr Dickins went on to say:

It will be extremely difficult for my wife and I to assist both our first daughter plus fully supporting our second daughter to be away at university. The cost of having a student from the country at university is somewhere between $15,000 to $20,000 per year. It is unreasonable to expect a student to work 30 hours a week while studying full time. So we will be required to support her to the amount $55,000 to $70,000 until she turns 22 where she will qualify for Independent Living allowance.

To think that if we lived on the other side of the road, as many of my daughter’s friends do, we would still be 450kms away from Adelaide or Melbourne, our daughters would still have to leave home to study, my youngest daughter would not be discriminated against because of the status of our hospital in our community and she would get youth allowance like her friends will.

I spoke with Mr Dickins’s eldest daughter, Sarah. Sarah Dickins is intelligent, articulate and bright, and it concerns me greatly that young people like her may not be able to further their education because they are deemed to live in an inner regional area rather than an outer regional area as a result of the inappropriate use of the map I referred to.

Education is fundamental, and we need to invest in it. Many believe that education is a human right, and I think that speaks to how seriously we need to take this issue. We need to ensure that all those who want to study are able to study, and the financial pressure on regional families whose children want to relocate for university studies is significant. It might be easy for some to say, ‘Well, you don’t need to go to that university; go to one closer,’ but that is the same as saying: ‘I know you want to be a chiropractor, but, hey, there’s a local course for teaching. Change your career aspirations.’ Why should a student who lives in a regional area be at a disadvantage to study the course they want to study and have the career they want to have?

I need to stress that Mount Gambier is not the only example. Other major regional cities fall into this inner regional category, even though they are still 500 kilometres away from the nearest city. I believe that all regional students should be classified as one group, not categorised in four separate groups as is currently the case under the application of the ASGCRA map.

Another key point that was raised in the inquiry was the importance of investing in regional youth, who more than likely will return to the regional centre and bring with them their skills. This government has repeatedly spoken about the importance of investing in our regions, and education must be a key part of that. I agree with what the government has said about that. I supported the government’s bill in March 2010 which made changes to the youth allowance criteria to ensure that only those who legitimately needed financial assistance to study received that support and that the scheme was not able to be rorted, and I commend the then minister, now Prime Minister, for those reforms in terms of the issue of legitimate need. They were important changes. However, I believe the application of the ASGCRA map to determine who is eligible for youth allowance based on locale is inappropriate.

In the absence of any alternative approach I will support this private senator’s bill. The government knows I have acted in good faith; I wrote to the government about this on 21 December, after the evidence was given. Of course I would have preferred to postpone the debate and vote on this bill until the minister, Senator Evans, was able to be in the chamber, but I understand that Senator Nash has given an undertaking to her constituents, as have I, to have the bill voted on this week. I have had useful discussions with Senator Evans’ office in relation to this and I hope that the passage of this bill may trigger further discussions in good faith between all interested parties to see if there is another way forward. But in the absence of any other alternative, given the undertakings I have made to my constituents—to Sarah Dickins, to her family and to many others like her—I have no choice but to support this bill. I see no other way forward.

To my colleagues, to my friends in the Greens: I cannot support the second reading amendment. There is an imperative here to deal with a fundamental injustice. Some fundamental anomalies have arisen. I am not blaming the government for that at all. They are anomalies that none of us foresaw at the time, and that needs to be said in good faith about this. But I do not think it would be fair to the students who need support to have conditions to the support of this bill. I understand where Senator Hanson-Young is coming from on this—


Senator Hanson-Young —Are you offering them false hope, then, because they are not going to get—


Senator XENOPHON —Senator Hanson-Young is asking whether I am offering them false hope. Not at all, Senator Hanson-Young. I am saying there is a principle here that this is an anomaly that needs to be dealt with. The fundamental principle here is that we need to deal with the anomaly. I believe that the process of this bill will be a very valuable and useful one in furthering discussions on further arrangements between the mover of the bill and other interested parties such as Senator Hanson-Young. I think that that is the best way forward at this stage. We need to deal with the anomalies because we all want some access and equity in educational outcomes. That is why I look forward to the review that the government has been undertaking in relation to this and I look forward to further discussions. But I feel that the right thing to do right now is to support this bill.