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Tuesday, 22 June 2010
Page: 6233


Ms MARINO (7:28 PM) —I rise to speak on the Higher Education Support Amendment (Indexation) Bill 2010. This bill seeks to replace the safety net adjustment wage price index with the professional, scientific and technical services wage index published by the Australian Statistician for all amounts subject to indexation under part 5-6 of the act, from 2012. The safety net adjustment wage price index and its replacement make up 75 per cent of the total index, with the remaining 25 per cent continuing to be the CPI.

Revising the indexation arrangements under part 5-6 of the Higher Education Support Act forms part of the Labor government’s acceptance of the recommendations arising from the Bradley review of higher education. The Bradley review recommended that the government maintain the future value of increased base funding for higher education by an indexation formula that is based on 90 per cent of the labour price index, professional, plus the CPI with weightings of 75 per cent and 25 per cent respectively. The new index is considered to reflect the impact of inflation on the higher education sector. The practical effect of this legislation will be a more generous indexation rate applying to all grants under the act from 2012, which will result in an additional expenditure of more than $2.6 billion over five years, according to the minister’s media release dated 12 May 2010.

The coalition, as you would know, Mr Deputy Speaker Schultz, is committed to the principle of the continuation of indexation of university funding and, by implication, the current arrangements regarding indexation as they stand prior to this bill. But I rise tonight to speak on this higher education bill, as I believe it is vital that people of all ages have access to lifetime learning opportunities, education and training programs—and particularly so in my electorate of Forrest. I am committed to supporting improved opportunities, equity of access to tertiary education and student retention in the south-west of WA.

It is ironic that this bill is about higher education when, since the May 2009 budget, students, parents and families have been and still are in continuous contact with me regarding the Labor government’s changes to youth allowance, which have affected and are affecting great young people from my electorate and their educational opportunities. While the coalition was able to achieve some concessions for gap-year students, the Labor government’s ‘inner regional’ classification for the majority of south-west students means that many young people who have no choice but to move to access tertiary education outside the south-west have additional significant financial barriers—anything from $15,000 to $20,000 to $30,000 a year—to doing so, and some will not be able to afford to do so.

These Labor government changes to youth allowance have hit south-west students particularly hard. Some families in my electorate have stated that they have no choice but to relocate their whole family closer to tertiary education facilities—a major loss to the whole south-west region. Others have said they are now forced to choose which one of their children will be able to gain a tertiary education, because they cannot afford for more than one child in the family to be able to do so. That simply is not right. Students from the south-west who need to relocate for tertiary education deserve better. This is, unfortunately, just another example of the Labor government neglecting regional and rural communities. My most recent email is from a young student in Busselton, Sarah-Jane, who is desperately seeking some form of financial support for her higher education. Her email read:

I am a year 12 student at Busselton Senior High School. Next year my goal is to attend Notre Dame University and study a Bachelor of Arts, double major in Journalism and Mass Communications.

However the costs of the course and moving to Perth are well beyond what I can currently afford and this course is not offered at ECU in Bunbury or Curtin in Margaret River, I believe.

I was wondering if you could give me some advice on who to contact …

That was in relation to, perhaps, scholarships or sponsorships to help university students. As many in this House would know, many regional and rural representatives have repeatedly made representations to the minister directly and here in this House on behalf of students in our electorates. I acknowledge the other coalition members and the shadow minister in this House, who have worked so hard since the 2009 budget to represent these same regional and rural students. I acknowledge the efforts of the member for Kalgoorlie, the member for O’Connor, the member for Hume and the member for Murray. We have had a range of members working tirelessly, as have our constituents. These constituents have also worked tirelessly, writing emails and letters and signing petitions. Without them, we would not have seen any of the concessions at all on what was seriously flawed youth allowance legislation, and thousands of gap-year students would have missed out on youth allowance and possibly the chance to access a tertiary education.

And this attack on the educational opportunities of south-west students comes at the same time that the government has spent $16 billion on school halls and buildings in a program that has typified waste, mismanagement, schools not actually getting the facilities they need and taxpayers not getting value for their money. We have seen $1.7 billion wasted in this program, with $7.3 million just for plaques and display signs. I would like to offer some of that to Sarah-Jane, who needs assistance to achieve her education. I have reports of serious over-engineering in the program—the use of stainless steel roofing instead of Colorbond in inland areas, which I am told adds at least 40 per cent in additional cost to taxpayers, while at the same time students in my area, the south-west, and in other parts of regional Australia are struggling to meet the additional work requirements of the ‘inner regional’ definition for youth allowance.

I had an email from another parent who contacted me, and she said:

My daughter is currently undertaking a gap year. She is hoping to commence university studies in 2011 if she can get some form of financial support as in the form of Youth allowance.

She contacted Centrelink last week and she was told that she had to work an average of 30 hours per week for 18 months before she could qualify as an independent student for youth allowance. She was told that the opportunity to qualify as an outer regional student … does not commence until July 1st this year, which would mean that she cannot begin university until 2012. It is impossible to work 30 hours per week for 18 months as an unskilled seasonal worker.

This is the very issue that I have been taking up with the minister over and over again. As those of us who live and work in regional areas know, it is so difficult and sometimes absolutely impossible for young people from very small communities to find that 30 hours of work a week for 18 months. It is just not possible. The mother went on to say:

Last year the students in regional areas were able to qualify under the existing arrangements, having to earn a minimum amount of money. This year it seems that the gap students literally fall in a gap. Why is the opportunity to qualify for youth allowance for rural students made harder?

Without youth allowance we cannot support her and her 2 brothers who are already at university.

The arrangements for rural students accessing higher education is a disgrace.

This is what is going on in my electorate. This is not an isolated email or an isolated story. I forwarded these stories and the emails on to the minister, asking her to respond directly to these families and these students. They do not have the option of being able to access higher education or a tertiary qualification in their field in the south-west area. There is no choice: they have to move. It is going to cost them more, and they have been defined as ‘inner regional’. To qualify for the independent rate of youth allowance, they have to work 30 hours a week for 18 months. How do I explain to these parents that their children’s education is less important to the Labor government than the tragic and failed Home Insulation Program, which is costing them as Australian taxpayers $1 billion to repair because of the government’s incompetence with the program?

This type of waste and mismanagement has also cost my local occasional childcare centres. We talk about education right through to the tertiary level. We have some occasional childcare centres, as well as the childcare centres in the wheat belt areas of Western Australia, as you would know. The Labor government has cut their funding, and it has come as a huge blow to the many rural and regional centres that simply do not have the numbers to sustain their centres on a full-time basis. This is again a lack of understanding of how rural and regional areas work. Here we have groups of young mums who do not simply sit back and expect a handout from the government; they are actually taking responsibility for their community based centres. They fundraise, they manage their centres and the finances and they take a direct hands-on role in their children’s day care. What a great way to go. But they cannot afford the increased fees caused by the loss of the federal funding, yet the government has withdrawn its 52 per cent funding share in WA. It is a total of $420,000 from the 28 centres in regional and rural areas. These centres have operated for almost 20 years in my electorate. One of these centres has provided sustainable, affordable and necessary day care for years. A number of these mums also have home-based businesses. They need this child care to be able to go about their home-based business. It is just another example, like the changes to youth allowance, that clearly shows that this government simply does not understand, or is not willing to understand, regional and rural communities and their issues, but is equally prepared to waste and mismanage taxpayers’ funds on insulation, on school buildings and, according to Senate estimates, on the approximately $82,000 it costs for every asylum seeker.

Another promise that was made by Labor ahead of the election was to end the double drop-off for parents by building an additional 260 childcare centres across the country, to enable working mums and dads to make a single drop-off of their children at the school and childcare centre at the same time. But this has also been axed. Apparently the market has changed radically in two years, so the childcare centres are no longer needed. In a continuation of what was promoted as an education revolution, the computers in schools program has only delivered 26 per cent, or 1,472, of the 5,660 computers promised to the south-west of WA. They should have already been delivered. It is well behind the national distribution average of 33 per cent and is yet another example of the government’s neglect of regional and rural Australia.

As a result of Labor’s addiction to spending over the past three years, Australia will have a $57 billion deficit after July this year. The Labor government is borrowing $700 million a week—a hundred million dollars every day—for the next two years to fund this gross economic mismanagement, yet our students in rural and regional areas are still missing out. The Labor government has a history of poor economic management, and we also know that the coalition government paid off $96 billion of Labor debt over our last period in government.

In conclusion, the coalition is committed to education and to equity of access to tertiary education for rural and regional students, students who have no choice but to relocate to study. We are committed to a fund to assist regional students to stay in school until the end of year 12, focusing on information technology and attracting and retaining quality teachers in regional schools. We also believe very strongly that school principals and school councils should be able to lead and be accountable in managing their funding responsibility. We are committed to capital investment in regional universities and to providing innovative solutions for country students.