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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 657

Mr FITZGIBBON (4:28 PM) —I must say that for an issue which has been described in some quarters as building to a constitutional crisis there appears to be an enormous amount of consensus in this chamber both this morning and this afternoon. I want to congratulate each of the crossbenchers for their contribution to the debate. It is very clear to me that they are seeking the very same outcome as those of us on the government side of the House—that is, a fair and equitable scheme which supports rural and regional students who choose to travel to attend a university.

I do acknowledge also—and the member for Sturt might be surprised at this—that there is a good deal of goodwill on the opposition benches as well. I do believe that most on that side want the same thing as the government and those on the crossbenches want and that is a fair and equitable scheme for those young people living in rural and regional Australia. The problem is that those on the opposition benches, like all of us who have sat on the opposition benches, have seen an opportunity to score a political point and so to build some political capital in rural and regional Australia. If you read their contributions today, you will be in no doubt that that is the case.

Contributors before me have made the point that, when the government made its original adjustments to the independent youth allowance for students, it was done in agreement with those who still sit on the opposition benches, so I think I am entitled to claim that there is a fair degree of politics creeping into this debate. I, as a person who represents a rural electorate, find it disappointing that they would seek to exploit the concerns and anxieties of some of those rural students just so that they can build their political capital in this place today.

I have two children who are beyond their teens—they are aged 20 and 21—and one teenage child. I have a longstanding habit of describing them all as teenage children, and the fact that they have gone beyond that point I suspect somewhat reflects my age and the time I have been in this place. But I have three children attending university, and long before this became a public debate they complained to me, rightly or wrongly, about how so many of their friends were receiving the youth allowance and living at home with parents who were earning very good incomes while they, the teenage kids of a politician, were unable to secure any assistance at all. I am not suggesting that those listening to this debate should have a great deal of sympathy for my children—I certainly would not suggest that. My wife and I are in a happy position to support them in their studies, but they also do a lot to support themselves in their studies. Each of my three children work an enormous number of hours as they work their way through their education.

Let us go back to taws and ask ourselves what this whole policy change was all about. As the member for New England pointed out, we previously had a qualification regime for establishing independence which was open to abuse—there is no doubt about that. There is surely no-one on the opposition side who would claim that the regime for determining independence was not open to abuse—of course it was. Running parallel to that, as the member for New England also pointed out, was a very tough means test which started the taper rate, I think, in the high 30,000s of income and eventually tapered off in the low 40,000s of income. In other words, rural students were knocked out of the prospect of securing income support from the government while they studied at university if their parents had a family income of around $40,000.

In this day and age, that is a very tough means test indeed—no-one could argue otherwise—so the government’s approach was to attempt to put equity and fairness into the regime. This was not a savings measure. I think that is a very important point. Members opposite are out there in their electorates trying to present this as a savings measure on the part of the government. It was never a savings initiative; it was about taking a bucketful of money of the same value and making sure it was fairly spread throughout the students who are seeking assistance in this country. As a matter of principle, no-one could argue with tightening the test for establishing independence but raising the means test so that students with families earning income above that $40,000 or $43,000 or whatever it was at the time were still able to secure income support. Then, of course, we had the debate in this place, and the government reviewed the situation, accommodated some of the concerns and—as I said earlier—made some changes in agreement with those who sit opposite. It is very sad today to see them taking the opportunity to score political points and to push the government beyond the agreement that was made.

On the question of the constitutionality of the Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010, the Leader of the House has very well articulated the position, citing advice from Mr Speaker, the Attorney-General, the clerks and others. So we should not be wasting our time arguing about whether this bill contravenes section 53 of the Constitution; we should be sticking as best we can to the proposal on its merits. I am really fearful of the amendment moved by my good friend the member for Melbourne, because it creates something which I have never seen in this place: any time a backbench senator wants to introduce a bill and they meet with success, they can send it off to the House of Representatives and the precedent will be set for this House to potentially give assent to the bill and therefore have to worry about the fiscal consequences somewhere down the track.

I ask honourable members to think through that proposition. The government sets a budget annually on its best assessment—what it expects the revenue to be over the next 12 months and what it expects its outlays to be. It is not an exact science because those revenues and outlays will be determined by the strength of the economy and other factors. If we have people coming into this place on a weekly basis passing bills and then expecting the government to find the funding, it will make the whole budgetary process a farce. We will have to have a minibudget every fortnight to adjust the budgetary settings to accommodate the bill already passed by the parliament. No doubt the founding fathers had in mind when framing the Constitution the need for the executive to have certainty over its budget proposals so that it could accommodate its outlays over the course of the next 12 months with some confidence. I appeal to all in the House to continue to discuss and debate the issue. Today the Prime Minister talked about another review on the key issue—that is, how we accommodate and take care of our rural and regional students—but let us not undo more than a hundred years of convention in this place just to score a cheap political point.