Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12009

Ms MARINO (ForrestOpposition Whip) (12:55): It has taken 2½ years for this government to finally end its discrimination against students and families in regional and rural areas, including students and families in my electorate in the south-west of Western Australia. There is no doubt that the Prime Minister's original intention in 2009, as the then Minister for Education, was to totally strip away independent youth allowance for every student in Australia in a perverse form of cost saving, which was confirmed in Senate estimates. This is from a government that was in the throes of wasting billions of taxpayers' funds on pink batts, green loans and overpriced school buildings. The government has been absolutely determined to make rural and regional students pay for its waste and mismanagement through changes to youth allowance—basically, as one parent said, condemning students on the basis of where they live. It is the government's postcode method of discrimination. What an appalling decision it was and what dreadful trauma, stress and pressure it has caused. I have seen it almost on a daily basis throughout my electorate.

In giving evidence, Shelley O'Brien, from the Injury Control Council of WA, said:

These financial pressures, we understand from mental health, lead to family disharmony; increased levels of mental ill-health and depression; pressures on other family members and risks to younger siblings; increases in domestic violence; potential loss of family home or car; family discussions about financial prioritising; feelings of discrimination; and, in small communities, the fears of shame leading onto isolation are real pressures.

Why would the Prime Minister do this? Why would she penalise families when we know categorically that Australia's geography and demography pose significant challenges for regional families, especially when young students move beyond the educational experience offered by country schools to secondary or tertiary education in larger cities?

Many regional students have no choice but to relocate to study, like the young people in my electorate. They and their families face a significant increase in their cost of living due to living away from home, as well as many social and personal challenges. Students from regional areas are less likely to finish year 12 than their metropolitan counterparts and are significantly underrepresented in tertiary education. Fifty-five per cent of metropolitan students go on to tertiary education compared to 33 per cent of students from regional areas. Evidence has shown that it is the financial barrier of the cost of relocation that prevents more regional students from undertaking tertiary study. In Western Australia, 14.9 per cent of students whose home is located outside the capital city defer their studies. Literature suggests that this is due to the need to accumulate financial resources to be able to study at university.

In spite of these statistics, in early 2010 the Labor government altered the eligibility criteria for independent youth allowance as a cost-saving measure, as I said. Under the new system, students from areas that the government identified as inner regional were required to work more hours for longer than other students before being considered independent. Students mapped as outer regional could be classed as independent if they had been out of school for 18 months and had earned at least 75 per cent of the maximum rate of pay under the wage level A in that 18-month period. This meant they could basically take one year off, earning a wage to allow them to meet the income requirement within that one year. They could then enrol in their preferred tertiary course the next year and wait out the remaining six months while studying before claiming independent youth allowance.

But if you are a student from the south-west, in an area described by the government as 'inner regional', you could not access the same criteria. Inner regional students were forced to work an average of 30 hours a week for a minimum of 18 months out of two years. This meant that these same inner regional students had to take at least 18 months off, and for courses that are set and which do not have a midyear intake like medicine, law, vet science and others they had to take two years away from study. Two years is an awfully long time and, unfortunately, many students from inner regional areas do not come back to their study.

The practical result of this was that while outer regional, remote and very remote students found it possible to qualify for independent status while taking off only one year—their gap year—inner regional students could not. This was a discrimination against these students. The Labor Party's changes to youth allowance slashed the tertiary education opportunities for the regional or rural students right across this nation. Their changes to the legislation just discriminated against regional students' access to independent youth allowance, and that was just through those arbitrary lines drawn on a map.

The amount of emails, phone calls, visits and petitions—everything that we did to bring the damage this was doing to the attention of the government—were where from day one we worked overtime to change this decision and to bring this to the government's attention on a daily basis, where possible. Both this House and the Senate sent clear messages to the government that rural and regional students and their families should be given a fair go. The government has had the opportunity to do this previously. They did not have to wait this amount of time. Young people and their families could have been accessing this a long time ago. Both houses passed motions to this effect a full year ago, in October 2010. The government's response to that at the time was not to fix the problem but just to initiate another review: to stall, to obfuscate and, ultimately, to try to avoid admitting that they got it wrong. They did get it wrong.

But nothing could ultimately hide the fact—the truth—that the Prime Minister, in particular, got this so horribly wrong as the minister for education. This was wrong. This discriminated against rural and regional students. It was really plain to all fair minded people that the government policy was discriminatory, and basically a direct attack on those aspirations of regional students and their families. As a result we have the government dragged kicking and screaming to the table by an opposition campaign for fairness to fix the appalling mess that the government created.

I believe the government will try to put their usual spin on it. I note that in response to a dorothy dix question from the member for New England on 19 September this year the Prime Minister said:

Because of the advocacy of Labor members, the member for New England and the member for Lyne, in the last parliament the government acted to create a better and fairer system of youth allowance for Australian students generally and particularly for country students.

But Australian families know exactly who has been working constantly for the unfair and discriminatory changes to be scrapped. People in my electorate know very well. They have been with me every step of the way on this. They know exactly who was responsible, and they know who has been working tirelessly to get this fixed. It was certainly not the members of the Labor Party.

Let us refer to debate on the motion I moved in this House a year ago calling for fairness and an end to the discrimination. This motion was framed to require the government:

(a) urgently to introduce legislation to reinstate the former workplace participation criteria for independent youth allowance, to apply to students whose family home is located in inner regional areas as defined by the Australian Bureau of Statistics instrument Australian Standard Geographical Classification; and

(b) to appropriate funds necessary to meet the additional cost to write a daily limit and give expanding the criteria for participation, with the funds to come from the Education Investment Fund; and

(2) to send a message to the Senate acquainting it of this resolution and request that it concur.

In the debate I asked:

… the Prime Minister and all parliamentarians for fairness and equity of access for the thousands of regional students who have to relocate to attend tertiary education who are currently classified as ‘inner regional’.

I said to this House:

Put simply, I am asking whether members of this parliament believe in a fair go for rural and regional students and their families or whether this parliament will continue to discriminate against these same students and families.

That is what I asked for. And how did members of the Labor Party respond? They opposed the motion, and in doing so opposed a fair deal for regional students. And certainly a lot sooner than this.

I note that the member for Hunter said on that day:

Yes, there will be losers. There have been losers in my electorate and I have spoken to many of them. I sympathise with them, but the government has to make tough decisions.

Yes, there were many losers under that Labor government policy—many students from inner regional areas who had to take two gap years off, not one, and many young students that we cannot fix the problem for now, even with this legislation. In the meantime they deliberately chose to change what they were doing in years 11 and 12 because they knew they would not qualify for youth allowance, and they knew that their families could not afford to send them. So they have already made this decision, and this has had an impact on their education and their opportunities. I have spoken to those students, and that is what this did to those families.

In the debate on the motion, Labor members pointed out that the government had a limited bucket of money and they were simply changing who they were going to give it to. So they decided that young people in inner regional areas did not have a right to that opportunity for higher education. Instead of funding fair and equitable access to tertiary education for all of those students who needed it, this government picked winners and losers, based on their postcodes. So many great young people and great families in my electorate were the losers.

They talk to me on a regular basis. I have spoken to the parents who have had to take a second job and I have spoken to families that have been so distressed and distraught by this. On Saturday at the Brunswick Show parent after parent came up and asked me if this is going to be changed and when it is going to be changed. This is critical: how could the government get it so wrong? How could you get it so wrong?

So we—not the other side of the House—fought the fight for fairness and equity in independent youth allowance. On this side of the House we moved motions, we sought to amend bills, we developed and tabled petitions and we encouraged the community to put their case to the committee. They wrote letters; they wrote emails. The thousands of people who were left devastated by this government's actions were supported by coalition members in their fight for equality—and still are to this day.

The coalition got behind the regional families because we were hearing them and we understood. We get it; we live there. We understand what people go through and how important education is to young people in regional areas. They need that education and we need those great young people back in our part of the world. We got behind them, and we understand the issues facing parents and students who are struggling financially to cover the costs of having young people living away from home to study. We were hearing stories of students who could not afford to get a tertiary education and so were opting out.

As I said, these young Australians were abandoning their educational dreams and aspirations. We were hearing of parents having to choose which one of their children they could afford to send to university. That has been one of the results of this in the last couple of years. The changes in this bill will remove some of the bias and discrimination imposed by the government's last bill, and I really want to thank the hundreds of families from the south-west who have not only contacted my office and me personally but have prepared submissions for inquiries, fronted up to Professor Kwong Lee Dow's meeting in my electorate and appeared in person before committees to outline the inequality of the government's criteria for independent youth allowance.

While we have had some success, I am determined to keep up the fight on behalf of south-west students and families until they have an equal chance of fulfilling their educational aspirations. But the discrimination continues. Another result is that none of those same students on independent youth allowance will have access to relocation scholarships. So, for me, the fight continues, and I fight on behalf of those young people, those families and their opportunities for education. I note the government have claimed that the number of regional students receiving youth allowance has increased, but they fail to say how many are actually receiving independent youth allowance compared to those on dependent youth allowance. Nor do they mention how many students receiving independent youth allowance are only receiving a part rate of the payment.

I want to thank all of my colleagues on this side of the House who, from the time that this government changed this legislation, stood with us, particularly those of us who are regional and rural members—those who understood and respected the fact that young people in rural and regional areas must have equity of access to education. It is the best opportunity not only for the young people and for the communities they will come back to and serve but for the future of this nation. Young people are always our future. The education they receive is a critical part of that.