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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 651

Mr CHRISTENSEN (3:59 PM) —I rise to speak on the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010 as a representative who lives in an area that is classified as an inner-regional zone of the Australian Standard Geographical Classification Remoteness Area. I represent students in the Mackay region, who are discriminated against by this legislation which restricts the independent status of youth allowance.

The members opposite have created the situation where students in some regional areas, such as those in Mackay, are treated differently to others when it comes to youth allowance. They have created the situation where students in different towns in the same region are treated differently when it comes to youth allowance. And they have created a situation where students on different sides of the street are treated differently when it comes to youth allowance, as the Leader of the Nationals outlined in the House earlier.

They have effectively created an apartheid policy in relation to youth allowance: a student apartheid. You can either get access to the independent rate of youth allowance through one set of circumstances or you can jump through a whole heap of other hoops and hurdles as students in Mackay have to do.

Today, we have the opportunity to do something about this disgraceful situation. Now we have the Labor Party trying to shut down the debate; trying to stop the vote just in order to save face. Those opposite are very happy to put politics before students; they are happy to continue to screw students over in order to save face on this issue. What a hardhearted bunch these people are. These students are real people we are talking about; they are affected by this atrocious situation—this student apartheid that the government have created. They are real people, often from families who are struggling with rising costs of living already who want the best for their children, but who are unable to fund their university degrees.

And why would that be? We could look at the University of Queensland, which outlines on its website the costs that an average student incurs. I note that many Mackay students do find their way to Brisbane to study in degrees that are not offered locally. UQ says that a student living in shared accommodation and off campus would pay approximately $14,248 for rent, food and utilities, and approximately $3,210 for establishment costs when setting up their accommodation. That is more than $17,000 in the first year alone.

But wait, there is more. UQ goes on to mention the additional living expenses, such as public transport, entertainment, telephone costs, textbooks, photocopying and clothing. And there is more: personal access to a computer and the internet is recommended for all students. And for those who need a car to get about it can vary from anywhere between $5,000 to $25,000 and $90 a week fuel costs. That is a costly exercise for most people, particularly students.

The bill that the coalition wants to put before this House helps those students and helps average families who send their students off to university. It does so by allowing students easier access to a higher rate of youth allowance, this being the independent youth allowance.

On this side of the House we have all had numerous people contact our electorate offices about this apartheid situation. I just want to draw the House’s attention to two of these people in my electorate of Dawson. The first of these is 62-year-old Stephen Parker, who happens to be the father of a young daughter who has begun studying a medical degree in Townsville. She does not get that independent rate of youth allowance, even though for all intents and purposes, she is independent. She just does not get it because it is too hard to get under the current arrangements.

Mr Parker, who is going to retire in about three years time, wrote to me about this matter, and towards the end of the letter he says:

I would not be writing to you at all if I lived in Townsville, Brisbane, Sydney or any other capital city. … My peers who live in these places have no such burdens to face and indeed many will avail themselves of assistance as well. Living outside of these places puts extra costs on families not to mention the additional hassles of finding accommodation, security and all the other worries of having children living away from home. Many of these costs are substantial. It is these extra costs that should be helped with by the government.

Sadly, all too little consideration is given to these costs under the present scheme.

For Senator Nash, who was here earlier, and for all those who are lobbying to change this, Mr Parker goes on to say that he wants to thank this side of the House for what they have done so far and he encourages us to continue lobbying for these changes.

I also want to mention the case of young Matthew Flor. His father, Darrell, wrote to me about this situation and he said that Matthew:

… completed a work placement at Team Engineering in Mackay for which he was paid. The amount that he was paid allowed him to qualify as an independent student for youth allowance purposes according to the criteria that was published on the Centrelink website at the time. Matthew finished his work placement on the 27th June, which allowed him a few days to complete his application for youth allowance before returning to Rockhampton to commence study for term 2. Using the criteria available on the Centrelink website, he completed his application and lodged it in person at Mackay Centrelink on the morning of 1st July 2010 … The Centrelink employee who accepted his application actually congratulated him on providing all the required information for independent status, and advised that he should not have any trouble with qualifying.

Matthew was later advised that his claim was rejected because the rules for independence changed on 1st July 2010.

One day late—so Matthew misses out now because of the hard heartedness of those members opposite. His family now has to scrimp and save, and no doubt Matthew has to chip in as much as he can—as much as a struggling student can—all because they created this apartheid situation. Here, now, is our chance to overturn this disgraceful piece of legislation; to give Matthew Flor, Ms Parker and many other Mackay students a fair go.

Members of the House have been pressured to say that the legislation that we are proposing is unconstitutional. Those opposite claim that it is unconstitutional, or that it is about appropriation or whatever they can dredge up to try to ensure that this bill does not see the light of day. But not everyone on the Labor side actually agrees. The President of the Senate, Labor Senator Hogg, put the view that the bill in question does not appropriate money, and he went on to say that it:

… does not need to do so because any funds required to support the measures in the bill have already been appropriated by the parliament in the form of a special appropriation of indefinite amount in section 242 of the Social Security Administration Act 1999.

The Clerk of the Senate has also said that parliament has agreed to a standing or special appropriation under the Social Security Act, which has effectively given a:

… perpetual blank cheque for payments to be made. This means that a bill to change entitlements, such as providing wider access to income support, does not need to appropriate any money because the appropriation is already in place.

That is pretty much clear cut: this bill is not about appropriation and it is completely constitutional. There is absolutely no reason to hold this bill up. I say to the House: let this bill be debated, let justice and fairness for Mackay students prevail and let this bill pass.