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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12017

Mr JOHN COBB (Calare) (13:25): It was, I guess, not just with a sense of 'About time,' but with a sense of huge relief that we speak on this bill at this time, particularly those of us who are responsible for regional Australia in an ongoing and serious sense. The Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011 is desperately needed to bring some equity and fairness into the youth allowance system for tertiary students, particularly in the electorate of Calare. This amendment could have been avoided had Labor not made unnecessary changes to the eligibility criteria for youth allowance two years ago. The current Prime Minister when minister for education said when introducing the changes:

The changes will make a real difference for families trying to send their kids to university and will help ease the cost of living pressures that university can place on students and their families.

Fast forward to today, and the Prime Minister has performed yet another backflip reminiscent of the spectacular, 'there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead' move. Changes to the youth allowance system disadvantaged many tertiary students in my electorate as the vast majority of the Calare electorate is deemed to be inner regional. Students were not entitled to the same living away from home benefits as those in regional, remote and very remote areas. Having spent most of my political career in remote and very remote areas, I know how much they needed the living away from home allowance. Having also always had what is deemed inner regional—almost my whole electorate, with the exception of Forbes and Parkes, is inner regional—I realise that inner regional students, in the main, also have to leave home to get a tertiary education.

Thanks to the hard work of the students, parents, teachers and my colleagues on this side of the House we have succeeded in achieving changes to the Prime Minister's ridiculous legislation from when she was the minister for education. I would like to thank those students, parents and teachers who took part in the independent Review of Student Income Support Reforms and who helped to ensure that future groups did not suffer the same injustice.

Going to university is not cheap but it is exceptionally difficult for students in the bush. This is a concept that was clearly lost upon a city-centric Prime Minister, then education minister, and a city-centric Labor government. I remember the students—three from Orange and one from Cowra—who came to the Senate hearing. They were put under incredible pressure by senior members of the government about what their parents had and what they did not have. Those students represented themselves and regional students from the whole of Australia, including Calare, and they did it with guts and in a very articulate way under intense pressure from people who should have known better.

I would like to quote a mother from Laffing Waters near Bathurst:

My daughter is one of the unlucky children leaving school in 2009 therefore, not able to claim independent youth allowance. She had to relocate to start her degree and with the workload is unable to work. The new laws surrounding inner regional areas are unjust to say the least. If you have to relocate 4 hours away from home to study your chosen course these children should be entitled to some assistance.

This is from a concerned mother of three near Orange who contacted me when the Prime Minister changed the youth allowance scheme:

The recent passing of the amended bill does not address the key issues for many students, most particularly those who must relocate to study. Why not acknowledge the financial penalties for country families with children studying at metropolitan universities? Why not supplement their living away from home allowances, rather than removing them?

Thanks to the communities, the Nationals and the coalition, common sense has prevailed. As of 1 January 2012, tertiary students considered to be living in the inner regional areas will be able to access independent youth allowance under the same rules that apply to students from outer regional, remote and very remote areas. Relocation scholarships will increase from $1,000 a year to $2,000 a year for the second and third years of study. There will be a feasibility study into the establishment of an income contingent loans scheme to help students who have to move away for practical placements in their chosen professions.

This is good news for hopeful tertiary students in the Orange, Blayney, Bathurst, Oberon and Lithgow local government areas, as well as those from east of Molong in Cabonne who are looking to attend university in 2012. Students who began university in 2010-11 have had to suffer at the hands of a government with bad plans and bad policies. The government have only recently discovered how bad their mistakes can be for regional people.

Taxpayers now have to foot the bill to re-introduce changes and essentially to clean up Labor's mess. Had this government listened to the coalition in the first place, listened to the students, listened to the mothers or listened to the teachers, much of this problem could have been avoided. We as an opposition have raised this issue numerous times in parliament. We have moved motion after motion and introduced amendment after amendment trying to rectify the Labor government's destruction of the youth allowance scheme. All attempts were blocked—rejected by members opposite, mostly with the help of two independent MPs who are supposed to be in this place to stick up for regional Australia.

I find it quite incredible that the government are standing up in an apologetic way almost trying to skite about all they have done when the same part of the legislation which was taken away and is now being returned could have been returned at numerous times when the coalition's Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill sought to reinstate the same fair criteria that apply to other regional students, but it was disallowed by Labor with the help of the independent members for Lyne and for New England. An amendment to appropriation legislation in early March would have done the same thing, but it was defeated by Labor with the support of the members for Lyne and for New England. When a similar amendment to the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs legislation was introduced in March, it was again defeated by Labor with the support of the members for New England and for Lyne, although it was attempting to reinstate the same issue. A similar notice of motion in the House of Representatives in June this year was again defeated by Labor with the support of the members for Lyne and for New England—those same two independent members who now stand in the House saying how great this is. I guess only they and their electorates can figure that out, although perhaps their electorates are somewhat puzzled as well.

When I think of the need that regional Australia, our communities and sections of them—and I speak as a member with a large percentage of Aboriginal or Indigenous people in my electorate—have for Aboriginal nurses, teachers and, in particular, police officers, who mostly need tertiary or university education to achieve those aims, I ask: why would you want to discourage that? Why in heaven's name would you want to make a hard pathway even harder?

The previous speaker talked about how proud he was of his government's record of looking at regional universities. We all know the best way to have trained and professional people in your regional communities is to train your own. I say to the previous speaker and his government, especially the ministers for education, employment and workplace relations and the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government that if they want to do something for regional universities, they should listen very carefully to the application by CSU in Bathurst to start up a medical school in Orange. That would make it one heck of a lot easier for country kids to be trained in regional Australia.

I did not go to university. I would always use experience before I would use education when employing somebody. But I do realise just how important it is. I do realise that, in this day and age, if you want to have a registered nurse or a teacher, or a policeman or woman who is going to get far in the police force, they have to go to university. Regional Australia needs these places and these people more than anyone. I will probably never be able to comprehend why people come to this place and say, 'We're here to get a decent deal for regional Australia, because those who profess to aren't,' stand in this place and numerous times vote against their own people with this Labor government. That is something I cannot and will never understand. I am quite sure I am in good company with all their constituents.

This is something that we stood by. This is something that the kids, the students, the parents and the teachers have to be congratulated for not backing down on. My colleagues did not back down on it. Thank heaven that finally the former minister who brought this problem forward has backed down as Prime Minister and that now, as of 1 January next year, kids can get back that which they had before and regional Australia can perhaps look forward to a few more nurses, a few more teachers and a few more good police officers.