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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12004

Dr STONE (Murray) (12:35): I rise to speak on the Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011. I can understand why the previous speaker, the member for Lyne, was so shrill in defence of his actions. I think he stands condemned and should be ashamed for his blocking and cutting down of debate on this legislation the last time it was before the parliament. It was because of his seriously misplaced sense of his own importance that we were not able to debate this bill.

This bill is one of the most significant ever to come before the House in terms of impact on the younger people—the next generation—of my electorate of Murray. We in my electorate have one of the lowest levels of formal educational attainment in Australia. We have generations of farm families who have learned on the job and are excellent at what they do, but they have typically not had access to tertiary education. Of course, times have changed, and now most families aspire to have their young ones move beyond secondary education to either an apprenticeship or a university course. Unfortunately we have very few tertiary course offerings nearby or in the electorate, although the number of these courses has improved since I was elected in 1996. The reality is that for the vast majority of school leavers who aspire to a university education they or their families will have to find some way to pay the roughly $20,000 per annum for their living away from home to study expenses.

In northern Victoria and Murray, we have just come through 10 years of drought and then the floods. The prospect of the Gillard-Brown carbon tax is already biting, with the extra costs to our energy-intensive export-exposed food manufacturing driving factory closures and job losses. Never has there been a more important time for us to have higher education alternatives for our next generation of young people.

Can you imagine the distress when at the height of the drought the Rudd government decided that their mounting debt and program disasters and their outrageous costs could be trimmed a little be squeezing country kids out of eligibility for independent youth allowance? Their crude strategy was effective. The Labor government simply took the most densely populated parts of regional Australia where they could expect most of the independent youth allowance applications to come from and ring-fenced these off in a zone they called 'inner regional'. Can you imagine the horror when parents in Deniliquin and Echuca realised the con?

This involved applying conditions for eligibility for the allowance that were impossible for students to meet. Students were required to work 15 hours a week for at least two years after completing secondary education. This meant a deferral of at least two years from courses, which universities virtually always denied. The alternative was to work for at least 18 months where you earned at least 75 per cent of the maximum Commonwealth training award payment or around $19,532.

Again, in my small and large rural communities, the door-knocking and desperate requests of teenagers seeking full-time jobs with wages with only year-12 qualifications and no work experience virtually always ended in those students being turned away. They could not get the work. They could not leave home to find the work. It was a disaster. As expected, many of the students simply had to let their higher education aspirations go. Families who were looking forward with pride to the first of their family ever to gain a university qualification were suddenly confronted with the reality that they could not afford to pay their students' living costs, and the Labor government did not want to know about it or they simply did not care.

We had rally after rally in Murray; we had thousands of petitions signed; we had deputations and begging letters to ministers, with parents and grandparents joining with their students. We pleaded with the Rudd and then the Gillard government to relent and give rural students a fair go. After all, we know that country born and bred professionals are much more likely to take up their careers in their home or like communities. They go back to the bush.

Country raised and educated professionals are not afraid of the long distances, the dusty travel, the small populations, the droughts, fires, floods and pestilence that colour the lives of rural communities. With fewer country educated graduates, we will be exacerbating the next generation of rural skills shortages that are already a feature of Australia's two-speed economy. Again, this government does not seem to know or care. For any government to deliberately target cost-cutting measures to impair the skills development of the next generation simply beggars belief. I think it will go down as one of the darkest decisions to be made by any government ever.

Finally, in a face-saving episode, the Gillard government asked Professor Kwong Lee Dow to review the situation. I know Professor Kwong Lee Dow very well. I knew that he would provide the right outcome, and this government was shamed into a backflip. But it is too late, let me say, tragically for too many of my families.

I want to give you some statistics because this government is very fond of giving statistics, and previous speakers have done this from the other side making it look as if the damage was contained. But let me quote you the real statistics—that is if the minister is to be believed when he supplied these answers to questions on notice that I put to him some time ago. I asked for him to tell me how many youth allowances, independent youth allowances and rent assistance packages had been allocated to my electorate of Murray—bearing in mind that only half of the electorate, the less populated half, was affected or allowed to continue with the old coalition policies. It was my inner regional half that was caught up in this scam.

In 2007, during the height of the drought but under the coalition, 400 students applied for a tertiary youth allowance. In 2011, under Labor's new cost-cutting measures with the inner regional definitions and hopeless and impossible criteria designed to squeeze country students out of the budget, they had the desired outcome: only 247, or nearly half the students, applied in 2011 compared to 2007; only 66 actually received the full rate of the youth allowance in 2011 compared to 235 who received the full youth allowance under the Howard government in 2007. These are disgraceful figures.

Let's look at the independent youth allowance: in 2007, 137 received the independent youth allowance; in 2011, to June, only 48—48 compared to 137. These are the statistics out of the minister's own portfolio. I think they are a disgrace and they indicate a serious crisis for my electorate of Murray in terms of its potential to have its own skilled people trained at tertiary education facilities in the future.

Let's look at rent assistance: in 2007, 3,185 of my students received rent assistance; in 2011, to June, only 1,742—so just over half again. I think those statistics are incredibly damning. I think they are from a government which really has some reckoning to do. How can any government say that in order to introduce cost-cutting measures it will continue with pink batts, dodgy solar panels, set-top boxes, grocery watches, fuel watches and all sorts of extraordinary expenditures while it cuts the capacity of country students to realise their dreams of a university education?

It is not just the dream that individuals have had dashed; as I said before, these rural communities and economies are already suffering as a result of these reductions and worse is to come. At Echuca College, where years 11 and 12 students are just now contemplating their futures and, for year 12s, university places are being applied for, this year less than half of the Echuca year-12 students have applied for a tertiary place. That is a condemnation on this government's head, and I am ashamed that this government thinks that this bill, which finally puts the show right, will be enough. We will have to have a lot of compensatory support to look after that lost generation of students who could not access tertiary education because this government was inept and did not care.