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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 649

Mr TEHAN (3:52 PM) —I find it alarming that we are here today debating whether we can debate the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010, but it does not surprise me that we are doing it when you look at the newspaper headlines of today such as that in the Tasmanian Advocate ‘Students urged to lobby for equity’:

The fight continues to give Devonport and Latrobe students the same youth allowance entitlements as their North-West counterparts.

The member for Braddon is quoted in this article. Mr Sidebottom said he was happy to debate the issue again. I look forward to Mr Sidebottom joining us so that we can debate this in proper terms.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. Peter Slipper)—The honourable member for Braddon, I think, is the term that the member for Wannon intended to use.

Mr TEHAN —Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. This is a very important speech and I got a little bit excited and carried away. The Courier Mail headline is ‘Backflip on youth: Gillard blows millions’:

In a spectacular backflip likely to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, the Gillard government will today announce it is fast-tracking a review into regional youth allowance.

‘Gillard cave-in heads off crushing defeat’ says the Daily Telegraph:

The Gillard government has caved in to a $300 million Coalition demand and will overturn its youth allowance laws in an extraordinary political precedent.

‘Coalition push on student pay bill’ says the Age:

The federal Coalition hopes to make history today by forcing Labor to relax youth allowance eligibility for regional students.

That is why Labor does not want to debate this bill. I have a word of warning to the crossbenchers on this: private members’ bills are worthless unless they lead to action. We can have debates and we can talk for 12 months or for two years, but unless we get action on this issue the debating will be meaningless and the private members’ bills will be meaningless.

I use an example of a family in Tarrington in the electorate of Wannon who have contacted me. In this family currently there is a student who under the old rules is accessing independent youth allowance and attending university in Melbourne. There is another member of this family who wanted to do exactly the same thing this year, but they have not been able to and, under what is being proposed by the government, they will be left in limbo. Fortunately, if these changes go through, there will be a third member of the family who will be able to access once again independent youth allowance and will be able to go to university. But, as a word of warning to us all, we have to do our best to look after the student that has been left out.

While she is here in the chamber, I would like to praise Senator Nash for her bill. She has been like a dog at a bone on this issue and in defending regional and rural Australian students. I congratulate her on her foresight in getting this bill through the Senate and into the House today. I also praise others on this side who passed a bill on this through the House last year. It goes to show that what we need is action now.

I understand that what has been agreed by the government with the crossbenches is to bring forward the review into what is happening to regional and rural students as a result of the changes which were made to the independent youth allowance. We do not need another review. I am sure a visit by the Prime Minister or the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations and the crossbenchers to any regional or rural electorate will suffice because there is no issue for young people in my electorate—and, from what I have heard, from other members—that has hit a nerve like this independent youth allowance issue. It is seen as discriminatory and the record sadly is backing that up.

A report just released called Deferring a university offer in regional Victoria 2010 shows that 30 per cent of those who defer do not take up their offer or remain in their course. We are forcing more people to defer their course to get income so they can work, yet in regional Victoria 30 per cent of those students will not end up completing their course. More than 81 per cent of those who defer are in the two lowest quartiles of socioeconomic status. These laws are targeting the most vulnerable, those people who cannot afford to go to university. They are the ones who are being disadvantaged. Only 7.8 per cent of city students deferred in 2010 compared with 15.2 per cent of regional students. There is an inequality between city and country areas—that is the divide. As Toni Jenkins from the Southwest Local Learning and Employment Network said when she read this report, data indicates that the academic profile of students in our region is just as high as in metro areas. It is clear that other factors, such as financial hardship, are impacting on their outcomes. We have the evidence already; we do not need another review. We do not need a gag on a debate on independent youth allowance. What we need is action—we need action so that regional and rural students can access the income that they need to go to tertiary education this year and next year.