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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12019

Mr COULTON (ParkesThe Nationals Chief Whip) (13:38): I too rise this afternoon to speak on the Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011. While it is with some degree of satisfaction that I rise to acknowledge that this bill will correct an anomaly in delivering outcomes for regional students, it is very frustrating that it has taken two years to get to this point. It has probably been the single issue that has carried the highest level of interest from my electorate for the last two years, because I think education is the basic fundamental that people in Australia strive for for their children. Education is the pathway to cure most of the other problems that we deal with in Australia, particularly in regional Australia; education gives people a pathway to provide better health; education gives people a better understanding with regard to lawlessness; education is the tool that enables people to gain employment; and regional Australia has been taking second fiddle to the metropolitan areas. Even as I stand here today, a student in regional Australia has about half as much chance of completing their tertiary education as their city counterparts.

One of the great frustrations is that this was obvious two years ago. This was pointed out when the current Prime Minister was Minister for Education, and it was only through pig-headedness and stubbornness that this situation was not fixed some time ago. It was brought about by a basic lack of understanding of how regional Australia is different from the cities. You cannot live at home with your parents in regional Australia and attend a university, except on very rare occasions. So the campaign has carried on.

There was a change about 12 months ago that changed it for outer regional students, which did encompass a lot of the students in my electorate, but the towns of Mudgee and Dubbo until now have missed out. People think of students from regional Australia and they think they may be from far-flung properties or remote villages, but 84 per cent of the people in my electorate, one of the most regional electorates in Australia, are urban dwellers. So it was the students that were living in Dubbo and Mudgee—the sons and daughters of schoolteachers, police officers, council workers and all those people that are vital to provide services in those larger regional towns—who were being disadvantaged. I had parents come and see me during the last two-year period saying they had got to the point where they would have to decide as a family which of their children they thought had the aptitude for a tertiary education and which of them did not. Then they would put the resources of that family into one of their children and not the other. In 2011, I think that is an absolute disgrace.

I find it very frustrating that, at various opportunities we have had in the last two years to rectify this problem, we have not got the support. We have had regional members on the side of the government that would understand the problem but were not prepared to speak out against their leader. We have had behind me here the so-called Independents who are so glued to their coalition partners that, every time this opportunity came up, they supported the government in this. I think it is to their everlasting shame that they did not stand up for the students in their electorates.

One of the problems with this is that this is not the perfect system for funding regional students. I actually believe this parliament can do better for regional students. I think there is a case to be argued for a regional access allowance so that all students that do not live near a university have the same opportunities as those that do. So I do not think this is the perfect fix, but it is not a bad system. This is for a couple of reasons.

What was happening—and students will be able to do it now with this change—was that students would leave school and go and get a job for 12 months. After 18 months—six months into their university course—they would be eligible for independent youth allowance and the payments would come through. In a city area, those students could probably get a regular job where they could go and work their 30 hours a week to earn that money and still be eligible, but in the country a lot of the work is seasonal. So these young adults were leaving school and going off and picking grapes or other fruit, driving a header during the harvest season or working in abattoirs stacking meat—a whole range of seasonal-type work. So, in that period of time, they not only got to learn the value of a hard day's work but also got the opportunity to have a few bob that they had earnt in their pocket and become independent, as this says. Also, quite often I found that during that 12-month period they would reassess where their priorities lay. I know some students, after working for 12 months, would then chart a different course and go into a different line of study.

So it has worked quite effectively, and it is good to see this returned. It has not returned in its original form. There still are issues with an income cap on parents and on two working parents in an inner regional area. That is a problem.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Hon. Peter Slipper ): Order! The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 43. The debate may be resumed at a later hour and the honourable member for Parkes will have the opportunity to continue his remarks.