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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12002

Mr OAKESHOTT (Lyne) (12:25): Despite what the other place is debating right now in regard to climate change, despite what previous prime ministers have said about 'the moral challenges of our time', it is my view that climate change is not the moral challenge of our time; nor is it the economic challenge of our time. As I have previously stated quite publically, I think the moral and economic challenge of our time is access and participation rates in education. That is what makes this Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011 and work done in the area of access and participation rates so vitally important for the future of so many individuals—the families and communities of Australia—and, indeed, for Australia more generally.

This bill is also pleasing because it is a clear demonstration of the actions of the 43rd Parliament in direct comparison with the actions of the 42nd Parliament. This is delivering the outcome that should have been delivered for regional and rural students with respect to access and participation in education and better outcomes in regard to youth allowance. As many previous speakers have said, the 42nd Parliament dogged this reform. There was an attempt to make some substantial changes to student income support. Conceptually, all of those were fine; however, in negotiating in the Senate, between the major parties, it went wrong. A scheme based on a GP medical scheme became the circuit breaker between a Labor government and a Liberal-National opposition that could not reach agreement. Potentially all of the reforms were going to fall over and potentially all students would have been denied youth allowance for higher learning, as a consequence of party politics gone wrong.

As a consequence an inner versus outer regional scheme was the circuit breaker. In communities such as mine and in many communities around Australia, lines were drawn down the middle of electorates. This meant that some students received entitlements that other students did not. This created enormous confusion on the ground, inequity and plenty of politics. On the back of that, it has been fascinating to watch those same major parties who dogged it on the negotiations in the Senate in the last parliament suddenly scramble to try and do some sort of mea culpa and claim moral high ground—that they either were not involved at all or that they had some sort of wonderful solution.

In this parliament it has been resolved. This is an important package for access and participation rates in education and it will make a significant difference to the many challenges that Australia faces. I am personally thankful that the Prime Minister was willing to negotiate on this issue and that she has delivered on those negotiations. In February this year, through personal negotiation directly with her, an agreement was reached that the review required by the Social Security Act would be brought forward by 12 months to report by 1 July this year. The review was to consider the impact of the then recent reforms, including their impact on the capacity of regional students to access higher education and appropriate savings that could be made to pay for extensions in eligibility for youth allowance. The government, informed by the findings of this review, was to present legislation to parliament this year with a view to implementing the new eligibility arrangements from 1 January 2012. The government was to ensure that these new eligibility arrangements eliminated the distinction between inner regional and outer regional students. The solution needed to be evidence based, financially responsible and sustainable in the long term, and, given the tough budget environment, any new spending needed to be offset by savings.

It is worth going back to February this year, because around that time there were plenty of doubting Thomases saying that all this would never happen, and there were plenty saying for their own political reasons or their own political gain that it was some sort of dirty deal which would not deliver results for students in regional and remote communities. But every one of the issues that were negotiated is being delivered upon in this legislation. I thank the Prime Minister for both having the desire to negotiate on better youth allowance outcomes and, via this legislation, delivering on the negotiations. It is appreciated and important, because this is both the moral and the economic challenge of our time.

I hope that now some of the politics can be put behind us, but I gather from some of the things that have been said already that that may not be the case. There seems to be some attempt to enter into mythology that what happened in February this year was not unconstitutional and that instead there was some sort of giving up on students in regional areas, particularly by regional Independents but also by other members of this chamber who represent regional communities.

Dr Stone: That's right.

Mr OAKESHOTT: I have just heard an interjection to say, 'That is right.' Let us do a direct comparison between the two options that have come before the House, one now and the other in February. The one we are looking at now, which will hopefully have the support of both all members in this chamber and those in the other place, has $265 million of outcomes and removes the inner regional versus outer regional dog of a deal that was done in the last Senate—that is, in the 42nd Parliament. It is a real result with real outcomes which have been achieved without bagging anyone, without accusations, without smears. Compare that to February—no result and no real outcomes but unconstitutional and with plenty of bagging, lots of accusations and lots of smears. I would say that for everyone the choice between the two options is pretty clear: $265 million versus zero. If you are a student who is thinking about their university options from 1 January next year, I would hope you would much prefer a result that mattered and that was achieved via negotiation—or via whatever means through the political process—to the smear, the accusations and the baggings that went with zero results in real terms for students in low-income areas, in regional communities and among communities of Aboriginal descent: the three standout areas in Australia of low access and low participation in higher learning.

It is a shameful failure of policy by this parliament and so-called public policy leaders that it is the case that low-income, Indigenous and regional and rural students are up to 30 per cent less likely to be in higher learning when we have skills shortage in this country. It says that public policy has been all too comfortable leaving people behind. I do not want to be in a parliament that does that. I do not think that is the Australian way. This legislation is one important contribution that says that we do not leave people behind and that we do all that we can to bring less affluent, Indigenous and regional and rural people—all of them potentially students—to a situation where they can be valuable contributors to the Australia of the future.

This legislation matters. It has had one ugly birth through a political process that goes back to the last Senate. The major parties both should be condemned for a dirty deal gone wrong, but I am pleased that this parliament has now negotiated an outcome that cleans that up and delivers a very real result that will matter for the long-term national interest of this country.