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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 602


Mr PYNE (12:32 PM) —Respectfully, I have to disagree with the motion of the Leader of the House based on the advice that you have presented to the chamber. The opposition does not agree with the government that this bill cannot be considered and we do not agree with your ruling, Mr Speaker, that the parliament cannot consider this bill. It is our view that the parliament is perfectly capable of considering this bill. It is quite capable of amending it, of defeating it and of passing it. We fully accept that, under the Constitution, once the parliament has passed a bill it is up to the government whether it presents it to the Governor-General for royal assent. That is quite clear in the Constitution. The Constitution does not say that the parliament cannot even consider a bill, motion or any other action the House of Representatives wants to take. At election time the public elects 150 members of the House of Representatives. This is the people’s House and it has the capacity to determine its own rules and to do whatever it chooses to do. We are not in any way in breach of the Australian Constitution by sitting here today and considering a bill—considering what is simply a piece of paper in the form of a bill which would deliver justice for rural students rather than the government’s latest volte-face today, which is a review being brought forward 12 months.

Today’s vote is not about the legal technicalities of this bill, this House and the Australian Constitution. Today’s vote is about whether we vote for rural students or with the government’s review. Mr Speaker, we very rarely disagree with your statements to the House, but on this occasion our view is that the government is hiding behind legal technicalities in order to avoid what they have accepted is an unfairness. If the government wanted to it could right now adopt the coalition’s bill. It could immediately adopt the bill passed by the Senate. If the government had any good faith at all it could immediately adopt the Senate bill and make it its own bill. We would be more than happy to let it sail through the parliament today so that inner-regional students across Australia would be given the opportunity to have the same access to youth allowance as their cousins in other parts of rural Australia.

There is an inherent unfairness in the way the youth allowance has been developed by this government. Let me give you a very short, potted history. After holding out for 12 months against the government’s youth allowance changes introduced by the now Prime Minister because of their unfairness across all of regional and rural Australia, we were determined that money should flow to as many rural students as possible, so we did a deal with the government to pass as much of the youth allowance reforms as we could that would affect rural students in a positive way. We said at the time that inner-regional students were being discriminated against, we did not like it, we did not support it but we were not prepared to stop money flowing to other rural students in order to punish them in the way the government has punished inner-regional students. But we did in the Senate move a motion at that time—I think Senator Nash moved the motion and was supported by the entire coalition—that would have included inner-regional students in the definition of the criteria for youth allowance. That was defeated by a combination of the Greens and the government in the Senate.

So we are acting entirely consistently with the approach that we took at the beginning of this youth allowance debate. We believe that rural students do not have enough access to tertiary education. The Senate inquiry found that, while 55 per cent of students in metropolitan areas go on to tertiary education, only 33 per cent of students in rural and regional areas go on to tertiary education. It seems utterly remarkable to me that the Labor Party, which claims to be the party of social justice, would change the law in a way that would actually make it harder rather than easier for rural and regional students to get to university. I cannot fathom why they would go down that track but they have. So what we are saying today is that the House should be given the opportunity to consider this bill that has come from the Senate. We should be given the opportunity to consider it and we should pass it.

The legal technicalities that the Leader of the House has hidden behind are all very well for a government that refuses to accept the mistake that they made previously with the youth allowance. I say to the Independents and crossbenchers: if we consider this bill today, if we allow this debate to occur, it is open to the government at any point in the debate to adopt this bill and make it their own.

I know that this morning they gathered the crossbenchers together with the Attorney-General and told them that this is unconstitutional and cannot be done, and said that they will bring forward a review. The member for Lyne has put out a press release saying that they have reached another historic agreement with the government. But this agreement with the government simply brings forward a review by 12 months and accepts the unfairness of the eligibility criteria, because otherwise the government would not say:

… the government will ensure that the new eligibility arrangements which would be implemented from 1 January 2012 would eliminate the distinction between inner regional and outer regional students …

They have accepted the unfairness of their criteria and yet the crossbenchers have agreed apparently that they should change these rules that they have admitted are unfair on 1 January 2012.

If they are unfair, why wouldn’t they change the rules immediately? Why wouldn’t they ensure that all students, including those who graduated from year 12 in 2009 in inner regional areas, are able to access the youth allowance? If they know that that is unfair, why wouldn’t they act immediately to open the doors to the youth allowance for those students? They could apply at Centrelink tomorrow if we change the rules so that all those students from 2009 are not discriminated against. Under the government’s backdown today what we will end up with are students who qualified for the youth allowance before 2010, students who qualify for the youth allowance from 1 January, 2012 and a cohort of students in 2009 and 2010 who are operating on rules that the honourable member for Lyne, his compatriots on the crossbenches, the government and the opposition all say are inherently unfair.

So what I say to the crossbenchers is: wash away that unfairness, get rid of it. Make the rules for youth allowance apply immediately. Allow all those students from 2009 to apply. I can tell you what is going to happen. Students and their families in all our electorates after this latest shambles from the government—this latest backdown, which is just another embarrassing bandaid measure designed to cover their embarrassment because of their failure—will ask, ‘How come because I graduated in 2009 I should somehow not be able to access the youth allowance whereas my brother, my sister, my best friend or whoever, who graduated in 2010, will be able to access the youth allowance?’ It makes absolutely no sense.

So what I say to the crossbenchers and obviously to the opposition is: the government’s backdown does not solve the problem; it simply creates a new problem. I understand that the government have told the independents that they have given them an ironclad guarantee that what they do will have the same effect as the Senate bill, but what the Independents need to understand is that that is not true. What the government have promised you will not deliver what the Senate bill would deliver.

The Senate bill, if we pass it today, will mean that every student who should be able to access youth allowance because of their circumstances will be able to do so under the old rules. Whereas, if you stick with the government’s backdown position today, there will be a cohort of students who will not be able to access the youth allowance they otherwise would have and so you will have cemented in place an unfairness which would not be in place if the coalition’s bill is passed today. It is a very important distinction.

The government says it will give you an ironclad guarantee that they will adopt the coalition’s changes in the Senate. Just like the ironclad guarantees, I assume, on the solar panels program, on the emissions trading scheme, on the carbon tax promise before the election, on health reform which has been changed over and over again, on the start date for the national curriculum and on the mining tax. I could go on and on about ironclad guarantees. There was the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin plan which was a cast-iron guarantee before the 2010 federal election—


Mr Chester —Cash for clunkers.


Mr PYNE —The cash for clunkers scheme! The list of government ironclad guarantees, hyperbole and over-the-top claims and announcements does not match their delivery. It never does and yet here is an opportunity for the crossbenchers to vote with the opposition to ensure that rural students are given the youth allowance that they deserve.

I know it is very intimidating when the government gathers together the Attorney-General, public servants and others and says, ‘You’re being unconstitutional.’ But the House of Representatives is supreme in this country. We are a parliamentary democracy. If the House of Representatives wants to debate a motion or a bill, we are perfectly entitled to do so. If it is passed, amended or defeated, that is the end of the matter, but it is certainly up to the government whether it is presented to the Governor-General. But that is a different distinction from whether we can consider it. If we do not consider this bill today, we will be establishing a precedent that the executive can intimidate the parliament into not debating a motion, a bill or any other matter which they deem to be an appropriation.

The President of the Senate, John Hogg, who is a Labor senator and not a member of the coalition, says the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010 is not an appropriation bill because it does not create a new appropriation but simply adds to an appropriation that is already present. The coalition has found the savings necessary to fund this change to youth allowance through the Education Investment Fund at least until a review can be properly and thoroughly conducted that establishes how to get rural students to university—how to get them into tertiary institutions. These constant bandaid measures are not sufficient or acceptable. I note that, apart from one, every one of the crossbenchers represents a rural, regional or inner regional electorate. Our constituents will be watching very closely to see whether the crossbenchers stand up for rural students or are bamboozled by the government into not doing what they are quite entitled to do in this House, which is to consider a bill and then leave it in the government’s hands to reject it by not presenting it to the Governor-General.

I have said all along that we fully accept that, under the Constitution, the executive has to present bills to the Governor-General and that we cannot do that. That is a time-honoured tradition going back to the English Civil War, and we certainly have no proposals to change the way the executive deals with the Crown; but that does not mean that the parliament cannot consider a bill. If this debate had occurred in the 17th century, it would have been regarded by the English parliament as a vital debate about what the House of Representatives—or, in that case, the House of Commons—was capable of doing. I can assure you that our forefathers in previous parliaments would never have been intimidated into not considering a bill because they were taken to a room by the Attorney-General and intimidated into saying that they could not even consider a bill in the parliament—but that is what is happening today.

Finally, the House needs to understand that even if the government gets its way and stops this bill from being considered today—and even if it implements its backdown, which it announced in the dead of night last night to the Telegraph in the hope that it would cut off this debate today—there are thousands of students across Australia who will miss out on youth allowance. But the other choice is to consider this bill, pass this bill and force the government through political pressure to change the youth allowance immediately, starting from tomorrow, so that every student who is entitled to government support for their youth allowance to enable them go to tertiary institutions has the opportunity to do so. If we do not pass this bill today, and if we do not even consider it, families across Australia will think that their parliament has let them down.