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Thursday, 10 February 2011
Page: 430

Senator NASH (10:55 AM) —Firstly, can I thank all of those who have made a contribution to my bill this morning. It certainly has been a very lively debate. I would like to thank the member for Sturt and the shadow minister for education, apprenticeships and training, Christopher Pyne, the member for Gippsland, Darren Chester, the member for Forrest, Nola Marino, as well as all my other colleagues for the support that they have given me with this bill because, while this is a private senator’s bill, it is certainly a bill that is very strongly on behalf of all of my coalition colleagues. I would also like to thank Kent Spangenberg, who many years ago, in my very early days as a senator, raised with me the issue of inequity for regional students. I also thank Senator Xenophon and Senator Fielding especially for their contributions today.

One of the saddest things I have ever seen was Senator Marshall stand up today and discuss a bill that affects regional students. His first comment was that the coalition was ‘trying to sabotage the government’s fiscal program to bring the budget back to surplus’. How sad an opening that was from the senator on the other side, because this is not about fiscal responsibility of the government and bringing budgets back to surplus; this is about students in rural and regional Australia who are so devastatingly affected by a current policy of the government. The very fact that Senator Marshall started with that particular comment shows that, as Senator Hanson-Young said, this government has no understanding of the impact of the current independent youth allowance policy on our regional students, and it is indicative of the fact that they have stuck their heads in the sand and completely refused to even address the fact that the issue exists. They simply say, ‘It’s all fine’ and ‘It’s all part of a deal we did with the coalition.’ What a load of rubbish! It is political posturing, and they should have been strong enough to say, ‘There are some unintended consequences here and we are going to fix them.’

Those with the greatest strength can identify when there is a problem. Those who have even greater strength can identify when there is a problem and then move to fix it. Interestingly, as usual the government over there on the other side have not done their homework; they have not done their research. They have come in here and blathered on with a whole lot of rubbish and they have not actually checked their facts—which, colleagues, is not surprising because that is running fairly true to form for the government. They do not check their facts, they do not do their research and they certainly have not given the Australian people anything like a substantive policy since they came to government, particularly in the area of education.

Senator Marshall and others—Senator Collins and Senator Cameron—said that we did not budget for it. Unfortunately, they did not do their homework: yes, we did budget for it. Not only did we budget for it; we submitted the costings to Treasury and Treasury had no comment whatsoever to make, indicating that they had no problem at all with the costings. So perhaps the government might have liked to have checked that little fact before they came in here ranting and raving that we had not done our costings, which we absolutely had.

Senator Marshall is the ultimate, today, in hypocrisy. Colleagues, let me read you a little quote from the inquiry. Today Senator Marshall said, ‘It’s all about sabotaging the government’s fiscal program.’ What most people do not realise Senator Marshall said during the inquiry with regard to my bill to make fair for regional students the access to independent youth allowance was this: ‘I guess everyone would like to support this bill. In fact we have had very little opposition to it.’ Gosh! That is a bit of a contrast. I think somebody might have dropped a different Senator Marshall in on the other side today, because what he said today was precisely not what his comment was during the inquiry process.

Talk about just using words for the sake of making a political point. In all of this the government has completely forgotten that it is regional students and their future that we are talking about. It is the very fact that the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has been talking about an education revolution and how important education is that makes the government’s position on this so incredibly sad, because she knows that there is a problem here. The Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Chris Evans, knows that there is a problem here. I do acknowledge that he is not here today and, of course, we would much prefer that he was here to be part of this debate. But he is very well aware of all these issues and he knows that there is an issue.

For this government to stand up and say that they will not find the money to allow around 5,000 students who live in the inner regional area to be subject to fair and equitable criteria for independent youth allowance is simply not acceptable. Cost is no excuse to not treat regional students fairly. Regional students are not cash cows. They are not the place this government should be taking funding from because they want to be seen to be fiscally responsible. As my very good colleague Senator Mason said earlier, and he was quite right, we are sitting in a sort of parallel universe here when the opening from the government on the other side was about the importance of fiscal responsibility. It would be laughable if it were not so serious. If time permits, I will run through a few of those areas to show just how hypocritical that was from Senator Marshall.

The other issue that the senators on the other side, from the government, have thrown up today is the constitutional issue. Isn’t this interesting? Again, they have not bothered to check their facts. They have not bothered to do a little bit of research on this issue. Interestingly, this issue has been rolling around for a while. Minister Chris Evans, as everybody would be aware, wrote to the President of the Senate way back in November. Thinking deeply, on advice from the Attorney General that it was not constitutional, the minister says to the President, ‘On that basis I would be grateful for your assistance in drawing this matter to the attention of senators so that steps may be taken to ensure that the bill does not proceed.’ How inappropriate was that. The President of the Senate did respond—who, may I point out, is Labor senator Senator John Hogg—saying to the minister, ‘It is quite inappropriate for you to ask me to take steps to ensure that a bill does not proceed on any basis, let alone on the basis that the House of Representatives has a different view of its constitutionality.’ What is it about this piece of policy, what is it about this bill, that the government is so determined never to even debate it? They did not want to debate it back then, and what is particularly interesting is that, in that same letter from the President, he says, ‘The bill introduced by Senator Nash is quite in accordance with the Senate’s view of section 53 of the Constitution.’ So perhaps senators on the other side, before you came in here ranting and raving about the constitutionality, should have checked with ‘your’ President of the Senate as to his view of the appropriate way forward in the Senate chamber.

But it gets better, colleagues. This morning, landing on my desk is a letter—dated only yesterday, might I say—from the Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Senator the Hon. Penny Wong—she has been in the news a little bit of late—again advising me that the bill was unconstitutional, that we now have this private member’s business coming before the Senate and alerting us to the fact that the bills are unconstitutional and that, as she was aware, no offsetting savings have been put forward by me. She is yet another Labor senator. Maybe if they had done their homework they would have realised that we had done exactly that. Her President agrees it is constitutional. But what is really interesting is the fact that the government, those on the other side, have known since November that these private senator’s bills were going to be dealt with today, yet Senator Wong, in a mad scramble, chooses to write to me—oh gosh!—yesterday. They are in an absolute mess. All the government needs to do is to admit that there have been some unintended consequences and that they will fix the problem because, at the end of the day, this is about regional students who are being treated unfairly.

The government has divided regional Australia into four zones through the use of the Australian standard geographical classification remoteness area map.

Senator Mason interjecting—

Senator NASH —Thank you Senator Mason, it is a mouthful. The four zones do not even relate to the distance from universities for regional students. They have no bearing whatsoever, and the minister even admitted that during the Senate estimates process. So we have the government dividing regional Australia up into four zones. Very simply, this is the crux of the whole matter: students in three of those zones—outer regional, remote and very remote—can access independent youth allowance using a single gap year and earning a lump sum of money; students in the other zone, the inner regional, have to work for 18 months in a two-year period—so they are not going to get any assistance for two years—and they have to work an average of 30 hours a week. That is unfair and that is what needs to be fixed. It is a simple step for the government to insert one line in the legislation to ensure that all of those students are being treated equally. I understand the Greens position on this. Indeed, Senator Hanson-Young has put forward an amendment. I have said very clearly from the beginning of this debate on the criteria for independent youth allowance that this bill simply addresses the current anomaly. It simply addresses the unfairness in the current legislation.

Addressing the broader problems, and bigger inequities, for regional students in accessing education, students who in so many instances simply have no choice but to relocate to attend university, is a separate issue. And that does have to be fixed. I concur with Senator Hanson-Young’s remarks that we do need to look at this relocation issue. Indeed, I have been saying this for a lot longer than she has—and I have been saying it because the Isolated Children’s Parents Association were the ones that originally came to me with the idea of a tertiary access allowance. So this is not a new idea from the Greens. This is an idea that has been coming from regional students and their families for quite some time. But it is a separate issue. I would hope that, in the absence of the Greens being successful with their amendment today, they would see their way clear to support this bill so that regional students can at least be on the path to being treated fairly—because, if they do not, one can only assume that all of the words that the Greens are using about regional students, everything they have said here today in the chamber, is a political game and not acting in the best interests of regional students. If their amendment does not get up, they have the opportunity right here this morning to show their support for regional students by supporting my bill, and I very much hope that they do that.

This issue has been going for a long time now—well over a year. Quite frankly, it should not be so hard for regional students. The argument that the government mounts that the changes that have been made to the youth allowance arrangements have covered for the changes in the independent youth allowance arrangements is simply wrong. It is just incorrect. We agreed that there were some benefits in the legislation last March. There is no doubt about that. That is why we agreed to pass the bill. And no matter how much the government postures and jumps up and down about a deal, we only entered into that deal because the minister responsible at the time, Julia Gillard, refused to split the bill so we could deal with the issues separately. We told her we supported those parts of the legislation that were going to improve things for regional students, but we did not support those parts of the policy regarding the independent youth allowance that were going to be detrimental to regional students. We were very clear about that. We had no choice but to pass that legislation, to get those good parts of the legislation through, but from that very moment in time we have been fighting the government to make this legislation fair.

It is a very simple choice for the government. Even after they vote against my bill—which I am sure they will—they can choose to fix the legislation. It is a simple fix. The funding can come from the Education Investment Fund in the short term. They know that. They could have this whole matter fixed and resolved in a matter of weeks. At the end of the day this is not about us in the chamber. This is not about our political arguments. This is not about political posturing. This is about the future for regional students. And this government has a responsibility to make that future fair for all of them.

Question put:

That the amendment (Senator Hanson-Young’s) be agreed to.