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Wednesday, 28 February 2018
Page: 2224

Ms MACKLIN (Jagajaga) (11:23): I'm speaking today on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (14-month Regional Independence Criteria) Bill 2018. In 2017 the parliament passed the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Simplifying Student Payments) Bill with the support of Labor. The simplifying student payments bill included an amendment which made it easier for young people from regional and remote areas to qualify as independent for youth allowance purposes. Recipients of youth allowance are paid at either a dependent or an independent rate. The rate of youth allowance received by someone who's assessed as dependent is affected by their parents' income, whereas the rate for a recipient classed as independent is not.

There are a number of ways an applicant can qualify as independent for the purposes of youth allowance, including where they have supported themselves through paid work over an 18-month period since finishing secondary school. The simplifying student payments act reduced the existing 18-month period to 14 months for students from regional and remote Australia. As a result of the change, from 1 January 2018, full-time students from regional or remote areas who need to move from their parental home to study can qualify as independent if, since leaving secondary school, they have, firstly, over a 14-month period earned 75 per cent or more of wage level A of the national training wage schedule included in a modern award—and in the 2017-18 financial year this was equal to $24,836—or, secondly, for at least two years worked at least 15 hours each week. Their parents must also have earned less than $150,000 in the previous tax year.

It was intended that the new 14-month period be applied to existing and new youth allowance applicants; however, a drafting error meant that this has only been applied to youth allowance applicants from 1 January 2018. The bill corrects this by applying the 14-month period to young people who were receiving youth allowance prior to 1 January 2018. It is anticipated that the bill would allow around 300 young Australians to claim independence for youth allowance purposes, using the reduced 14-month period, not the original 18-month period.

Labor will support this bill because, as with the previous act, we do believe that young Australians should have the right to a tertiary education, if they wish. Although this bill will help a small number of students, and that's a good thing, this government is making other changes that will have a significant negative impact on students. This conservative government has frozen Commonwealth grants for universities, effectively ending the demand-driven system and locking some students out of education. We've also seen this government propose a lowering of the threshold for the repayment of HECS-HELP loans to $45,000, meaning that more young Australians will have to repay their HECS-HELP debt sooner.

It was of course the former Labor government that lifted the caps on the number of university places, and this has led to significant increases in the number of students able to attend university. So, since places were uncapped in 2009, there has been a 55 per cent growth in university enrolments from the poorest fifth of Australian households, and a 48 per cent growth in regional and rural students at university. In addition, we've seen an 89 per cent growth in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students attending university and a 106 per cent increase in students with disabilities. That's been a wonderful change.

The lesson, sadly, seems to be that Labor opens the door to learning and opportunity but this conservative government, in large measure, shuts it. This Prime Minister's $2.2 billion cuts to universities are hitting home. Just today, Universities Australia chair Professor Margaret Gardner has urged the government not to 'slam the door of opportunity shut on young Australians who aspire to a tertiary education'. Make no mistake, these cuts will hurt regional and rural Australian students. We know that the Central Queensland University, the University of the Sunshine Coast and other smaller Queensland institutions have been holding emergency meetings on whether they could continue to offer some courses or services. There are reports that some universities are turning away students. It's estimated that around 10,000 students will miss out on a place at university this year as a result of this Prime Minister's harsh cuts.

We on this side of the House want to make sure that Australians, particularly young Australians, have access to the best post-secondary opportunities in the world. Sadly, this Prime Minister wants to make it harder for young people to access post-secondary opportunities. I thank the House.