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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 646

Mr OAKESHOTT (3:37 PM) —I think there are many of us in this chamber from regional areas who are salivating at the chance to talk about better regional access to education and I know there are many members of parliament who are also salivating at the chance to have some parliamentary push-back on the executive. This is therefore a welcome debate before the House this afternoon. I need to also reflect and hopefully remind the House why we are able to have this debate: it is because we have a working parliament with tight numbers.

We have had a successful vote on the opposition motion on youth allowance because we were able to negotiate in this parliament the ability of private members to bring forward motions and private members’ bills for debate in this House. We are having a vote because this parliament allows for debate and consideration on private members’ bills. I think generally we are talking about regional education because of some sensitivities of many members of parliament pushing the importance of regional education and access and participation in education.

We are also talking about some of the deeper questions faced by a chamber such as this with regard to the roles that are played by a parliament and members of parliament versus those played by the executive. Again, it is not a debate that is normally had when there is a majority government, so I welcome this opportunity. Hopefully, all members will reflect on why we are having this debate and the advantages that come with a tight parliament, and hopefully those traditions can now continue whenever a majority government returns in the future.

I think the point was made in earlier debate about reflecting on traditions of parliamentary procedure and practice; however, it is also fair and quite right to say that this is a unique set of circumstances, and so those traditions need to be lined up against the realities of the moment. We should not be afraid of, if need be, shaping precedent for the future and being aspirational about shaping a direction for this parliament and the people of this country that is in the national interest.

With regard to regional education, access to education and youth allowance, I would not be on my feet right now if it were not an important issue. To be fair to all sides of politics, I know many members of parliament, both privately and publicly, have also expressed similar views. We can bang on about the politics, but the reality is there is an issue, there is a problem and it does need to be resolved. Before we get there, however, we are also in denial if we do not recognise there is a constitutional question before the chair. I will not say whether I agree or disagree, but there is a question before the chair. The clerks of the House of Representatives deserve to be listened to. Their advice and the advice from the Speaker deserve to be heard. We can deny it, but I think the legal advice to government and the detail that has been provided deserves to be listened to and considered.

From my perspective, I accept the fact that an appropriation without savings is questionable with regard to constitutionality. We can argue yes or no, but what is without doubt is that, if a precedent is established from this legislation, it is definitely unwieldy with regard to the way government would operate into the future. So we have constitutional lawyers at 10 paces, but in the end the question is: can government function with members of parliament in US congress style putting up private members’ bills with money attached to them and without savings measures? That deserves consideration, and I accept that that is a step too far for functioning government.

However, there is an amendment from the Greens and it captures the compromise position. If there were to be savings measures attached to bills in the future, that is a sensible move for parliamentarians to demonstrate in whatever they want to bring forward as a preferred issue that it is important to them. If they can attach to that legislation savings measures of an appropriate amount, I think it is a sensible amendment to the principles of how an Australian House of Representatives could or should work into the future.

That amendment is one that I will certainly be supporting, and I will be interested to see how all parties deal with it. I can only guess that the government will violently oppose it, again from the executive position. The question will be for the opposition to consider, because denying that as an opportunity when going for an even higher standard of having direct access to the Treasury bench from opposition is an odd position. The question of Treasury or bust versus a compromised position where all of us have to meet the discipline of presenting bills with financial savings as well as any money requests, I think, is important for a parliament in its dealings with the executive and the Treasury.

In the case of the bill that has come from the Senate, and in particular from Senator Nash—and I congratulate her, by the way, for bringing this bill forward and bringing the issue forward to this House—I hope it is an example to some of her party colleagues, not in this place but in the other place, who got us into this mess or were a party to getting us into this mess. At the end of the last parliament, the Senate cut an ugly deal that created this concept of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ regional areas and placed a geography test on top of a poorness test. That has proven to be a failure. So for Senator Nash to pick that up early and bring it on, I think, deserves congratulations, and hopefully the Senate has learnt a lesson on the back of that.

Mr Chester —Say it again, Rob; she’s here now.

Mr OAKESHOTT —I just praised Senator Nash, who has just joined us. What is not in that legislation in detail, which is unfortunate—I gather it is in press releases and in public commentary—is the nation-building fund as the funding mechanism. That, for me, is a problem—that it is not actually identified in the bill. Going back to that previous point is the reason why. It would have been handy for the funding mechanism to be identified, as well as savings measures alongside that. The nation-building funds do place pressure on the budget bottom line. If there is a spend from that, they are accounted for in the budget cycle and they therefore need to be addressed as a budget item. Therefore, it is not as if these nation-building funds are off on one side as something that can be tapped without budget consideration. At the moment we are all going through the regional round of the Health and Hospitals Fund. That will have budget implications. There are important capital expenditures that are hopefully going to be announced over the next three or four months for many regional projects. Wagga, in front of me, is one example; Port Macquarie is one; so is Tamworth, next to me—look at all the hands go up. These have budget implications and are an example of why these nation-building funds cannot just be tapped without broader budget consideration. So for me it is not an either-or.

The other problem with the nation-building funds is that, if we just tap the education funds or nation-building funds generally, what they were going to be used for starts to be questioned. The EIF, as part of the agreement that was reached with government, does have a regional capital round attached to it, and that will hopefully be opened by government soon. I have been meeting with many vocational education providers and universities who want to develop some really good projects for education, many in regional and rural Australia. Therefore, another genuine concern is this either-or choice between youth allowance and the EIF. I would prefer that we be able to see the EIF do its job of providing capital projects for education in regional Australia and that we do what we can to get the result of better youth allowance outcomes for regional and rural students within Australia and tackle that topic of engagement with education and increasing participation rates.

In response to all of that, what I have tried to do is capture the very real substance of the issue that has been raised, and that is the issue of this ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ regional designation and the problems associated with that for many students. The electorate of Lyne is no different to any other. I now have a line right down the middle of the electorate—a line in the Lyne—where there are those that are in and those that are out and have a different set of rules of qualification for independence. But I also do not want to see a constitutional argument, rightly or wrongly, used as a show stopper in getting this issue addressed, either wittingly or unwittingly.

So, in response, over the past week several of us have been trying to reach an agreement with government on the substance of the issue, and we have reached an agreement in the following terms. It is that the government will bring forward by 12 months the review which is required by the social security amendment act to report by 1 July this year. That is only about 16 weeks away. It is not just another committee; it is the legislated review that is part of these youth allowance changes. This is bringing it forward to a time now 16 weeks away—something that is not in the substance of the bill itself, by the way. So we can now bring that forward and start that process of considering the impacts of the recent reforms, including the capacity of regional students to access higher education and appropriate savings that can be made to pay for extensions in eligibility for youth allowance. The changes will be informed by the findings of the review. The government will present legislation to the parliament this year with a view to implementing new eligibility arrangements with effect from 1 January next year—so 2012. The government will ensure that the new eligibility arrangements which would be implemented from 1 January would eliminate the distinction between inner regional and outer regional students, so we have blown up that concept—that deal that was done in the Senate—of the hybrid model and the geography test put on top of the poorness test, which is the fundamental problem that we are debating today. The final agreement point is that the solution will be evidence based, financially responsible and sustainable in the long term. Given the tough budget environment, any new spending needs to be offset by savings. If there is any political capital in this at all, in my view it is that last point. Depending on events today, if this is where we end up then the arguments around the savings measures and the ability for as much money as possible to be put into youth allowance based on a poorness test are an important fight for all of us regardless of political persuasion.

I will be surprised if we get down to the substance of the bill, because I do think there is a constitutional fight to be had. I acknowledge the amendment that has been put up by the Greens, and I think that is a sensible compromise position for the parliament in its relationship with the executive. I certainly think that provides some good prudential boundaries for members of parliament when they bring bills in in the future. I hope to see, either through this bill or through the actions of government through the agreement reached, the issue of regional participation in education finally getting addressed, and addressed in an equitable manner.