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Tuesday, 10 February 2015
Page: 388


Senator McKENZIE (Victoria) (20:49): Mr Acting Deputy President Williams, I am sure you will appreciate my contribution tonight as I seek to outline the Nationals' Wodonga statement. I would just like to briefly mention some words by Franklin D Roosevelt. He said:

We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.

At the National Party's meeting in Wodonga last week, we committed to ensuring that regional Australia has a future. That requires us to make investments in our youth, whether they stay or go, and to ensure that the quality of the education that they are able to access is world-class and that they will be able to participate in meaningful career options so that they can provide for their future families and themselves and also contribute to our local economies and drive our industries within the regions. We also need to make sure that our young people in regional Australia are safe. When young people grow up in an environment of safety and community, I think they will achieve their best selves. Those are the things we came together last week to discuss. We need to invest in that. We also need to invest in the material infrastructure that will allow regional economies to fully harness the opportunities that the digital economy will provide.

When the Nationals headed to Wodonga last week, The Border Mail reported that the 'Nat pack' was in town. It was on the front page. It was our first party room meeting for the year and we mapped out our priorities for regional Australia. United behind our leader, Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss, the Nationals spent Thursday talking to Wodonga locals. We heard from local government and businesses about their priorities for the region. That encompasses the federal seat of Indi, which is a seat that we will be contesting at the next federal election. One of the most exciting aspects of our time in the seat was to hear directly from locals. Local businesses, including Campbells Wines—it is a great wine region—councillors, education providers and the like around Wodonga were really engaged with the Nationals. Having the whole team in town added real vibrancy.

We committed to developing over that period of time a holistic regional youth policy, including access to tertiary education—that was a prime aspect of that policy—and jobs and ensuring safer communities. Delivering on those policy areas has great potential to deliver great outcomes for the people of Wodonga, Indi and more broadly in regional communities right across the nation. Last week, the Nationals committed to delivering on jobs for our young people. We are going to investigate ways in which we can support our young people into work, building on the principles of mutual obligation. Currently in the regions we have backpackers doing work in our local communities, from fruit picking to working in dairies, packing sheds and the like, when we should be employing our local young people. In Indi the youth unemployment rate is 15.6 per cent. That is above the national average, and that is reflected right across regional Australia. That is a tragedy. We need to ensure that our young people know the value and self-worth that comes with holding down a job and being able to provide for yourself, interact with others and be engaged. We risk an entire generation missing out on such benefits, and we are committed to addressing that, which I am very proud to say.

We also understand the importance of education and research to our local economies. We know how important graduating from university is, with graduates earning on average 75 per cent more over a lifetime than school leavers. Educating regional students is vitally important to regional economies and economic development, particularly as we move to a digital economy. There are new ways of doing business. I look at the importance of robotics and the impact that advanced manufacturing and new technologies are having, even on our traditional industries in the regions of agriculture. We need highly educated individuals to assist us with the food task ahead.

When regional students decide a university education is for them, they face many challenges. I am sure that you, Mr Acting Deputy President Williams, you are well aware of those. They have to move away from community, they often have to move interstate and will be hundreds and hundreds of kilometres away from friends, family and support structures. Not only are there societal, individual and emotional impacts but there is a significant financial impact to moving. Students at city based universities face a yearly cost of more than $12,000 for accommodation with basic services and upwards of $25,000 for fully serviced accommodation. That is not an insignificant amount for those people working and living in the regions. This can see families paying more than $70,000 over a three-year degree just to accommodate one of their children from a regional community, before even one cent is put towards tuition and books.

In my role as chair of the Education and Employment Legislation Committee, I am keen to always look at ways we can improve access to higher education for regional students. That means we need a range of options. We need regional campuses in our local communities conducting research into the industries that matter to us. We also need online education, which means we need investment in infrastructure that is going to assist with that. We also need to ensure that we provide adequate support for those who seek to study away from home. We must examine, in a very deep and meaningful way, what limits regional and remote students face, including those from Indi, when they want to participate in higher education.

With our regions facing ever-increasing skill shortages for many university educated professions, such as medicine, law, accounting and others, it is important to encourage regional students to get a higher education, because research tells us that they are more likely to return. They may not return to their home town, but they will return to a town in the regions because they understand more than most. I wish more Australians would take up the offer to head out of the cities to see what wonderful lifestyles and opportunities exist across regional Australia. The Nationals are committed to addressing the imbalance faced by regional students and, as part of that commitment, we are determined to review the appropriateness of existing and planned support for students. As we know, many students have been forced to use the welfare system in order to support them leaving their homes and heading away to university. We need to examine that more closely and seek innovative options, given the budgetary constraints we are currently under.

The future of young people, as I outlined earlier, depends on their health. I have spoken in this place before about the ice epidemic. We spoke about that last week in Wodonga. We want to investigate new ways to tackle the scourge of ice in our regional communities. I held a forum last year. Regional representatives, senators and members from the coalition right across the country, gathered together and spoke about the very real impact this was having on their young people. There has been an explosion of that drug across regional Australia and local authorities are struggling to combat it. Fatal drug overdoses in Victoria involving ice increased by more than 250 per cent between 2010 and 2013. This is something we have to deal with. I particularly want to commend the Assistant Minister for Health, Senator Nash, for her commitment for the Australian government to tackle this as a first priority. The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre will be examining what we can do about this. We need to ensure that state ministers are involved in that conversation because we cannot do this alone.

Finally, I would like to briefly touch on the other investment that we spoke about last week. The National Party is investing in not only young people but also infrastructure that is going to allow us to fully harness all the opportunities that the digital economy provides. The technology that is coming out is so transformative. It will overcome the tyranny of barriers that regional citizens have felt for a very long time. It has a huge amount of power. We need to ensure that we build the infrastructure and encourage ways to operate and deliver, ensuring that regional Australians can fully participate and local economies can bloom and flourish. It means mobile phone coverage, internet access and looking at the ABC to make sure we have access to local radio and weather reports that actually matter for when we put in our crops and when we do not. It is ensuring that we have communication services, such as Australia Post, ensuring that regional communities remain connected.

The Nationals are a working part of a strong and united coalition, and we recognise the important role that regional communities play in creating a prosperous Australia. (Time expired)