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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 617

Mr CHESTER (1:36 PM) —In opposing the government’s motion I endorse the comments of the member for Forrest because this debate is all about a fair go for regional students. I would also like to reflect on what we are seeing here today: the true colours of this government and its so-called education revolution as it attempts to effectively gag this debate on one of the most important issues facing rural and regional communities.

The Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010 has passed the Senate and should be debated in this chamber. If the government wants to hide behind constitutional issues it can bring in its own legislation to reflect the intent of the Senate bill. A failure to do so is an insult to the thousands of young regional Australians trapped in the mess that was created by the former Minister for Education, Julia Gillard.

Make no mistake, the government’s attempts to block debate on this bill have nothing to do with the Constitution, nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of student income support; they have everything to do with protecting the hide of the current Prime Minister. From the day the former education minister started amending the system of student income support, she talked big and she delivered a mess to regional Australia. This was no education revolution; it was tinkering around the edges and it distorted the system to such an extent that regional students have borne the brunt of the changes. The government at that time insisted that the changes were budget neutral, but at the same time this government was throwing $900 cheques around like they were confetti at a wedding. It is an appalling message that they sent to the students of Australia: the Labor government believed that plasma TVs were more important than giving regional students a fair go and handed out $13 billion in cash handouts and have shafted regional students in the process.

I congratulate the Senate, and in particular I congratulate Senator Fiona Nash, for introducing this bill. I thank her for her doggedness and her determination because she understands the plight of regional students. She is a woman of substance, much like the member for Forrest and the member for Murray and others who have spoken in the past on the need to get a better deal for regional students.

We have heard from several members on this side already, and many on this side understand the problems with the current system of student income support. There are a few on the other side who I believe understand as well but they are just too scared to come out publicly and raise their voices. Whatever happened to this government’s promise to let the light shine in? Let us have this debate, let us do the right thing by regional students and start fixing the mess. There is absolutely nothing to stop this government adopting the bill and introducing it themselves if they are so worried about its constitutionality. Minister Evans has already publicly acknowledged there is a problem with the current system. He is trying to cut a deal with the Independents for a review and changes to be made next year. But if that deal goes ahead, we will have another class of forgotten students—the class of 2009—who will be out of the loop in respect of the issue of inner regional independent youth allowance. I say again: the government has the capacity to fix the mess now and deliver a fair go for all regional students rather than the discriminatory boundaries we currently have between inner regional and outer regional.

The Leader of the House claimed earlier that his side has more regional members of parliament—and finally one regional MP has made his way into the chamber—so let us hear from them. Let us hear from the regional MPs from the Labor Party’s side. The member for Corangamite, the member for Bendigo, let us hear what they have to say because their students are also being discriminated against in this process. They clearly did not care enough to come in here and listen to the debate here today, or perhaps they have been gagged as well?

Mr Albanese —Where are your mates? You’ve got none!

Mr CHESTER —I would invite members from the other side to come over and participate in the debate.

Mr Albanese —Where are your mates? Where are they?

Mr CHESTER —I take up the Leader of the House’s comment about where are they? Where are your regional MPs? Why aren’t they speaking out? Have you gagged them as well?

Mr Albanese —Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise on a point of order: it is a bit rough when there are no members of the National Party in the chamber to hear him speak, for him to be critical of—

Mr CHESTER —What’s your point of order?

Mr Albanese —He is casting aspersions on members, which is against the standing orders!

The DEPUTY SPEAKER —There is no point of order. The Leader of the House will resume his seat.

Mr CHESTER —I invite regional MPs from the other side to speak up on youth allowance, to speak up on the issue of inner regional and outer regional boundaries. I invite them to speak up because the member for Corangamite has towns like Colac, which is considered inner regional. They have to have different workforce criteria for participation in the independent youth allowance, so I invite them to come out and speak and raise their voices on this issue.

The bill, which has passed the Senate and should be debated in this House, is not the final solution, but it is a lot better than the current mess of inner regional and outer regional boundaries which exist today and discriminate against so many regional students. What we need is a complete overhaul of the system of student income support with a focus on levelling the playing field. In the interest of fairness and equity, regional students should have a tertiary access allowance they can access which compensates them and their families for the additional costs of moving away from home, which metropolitan students do not incur.

This government cannot keep hiding behind its ‘education revolution’ slogan. It has to deliver a better deal for regional families, and this bill should be debated. By declining to consider the bill, the House is denying a fair go for regional students.