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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12056

Mr McCORMACK (Riverina) (16:04): Since March 2010, students living in inner regional areas have struggled to qualify for independent youth allowance because of changes the Labor government made to the eligibility criteria. However, on 21 September 2011, after a hard-fought campaign of more than two long years, the Labor-Independent-Green government performed a backflip with regard to independent youth allowance—a backflip on legislation, on poor policy of its own making. It was a backflip they needed to do. Embarrassed into their change of heart because of the dogged determination of the shadow parliamentary secretary for regional education, Senator Fiona Nash, and many other members of the coalition—in fact, I would say all members of the coalition, as we were united on this front—the Labor government have at long last brought fairness to the table and thousands of regional students have secured a much-needed reprieve with regard to their independent youth allowance criteria. This followed a review report conducted by Professor Kwong Lee Dow which recommended allowing inner regional students to apply for independent youth allowance under the exact same rules as outer regional, remote and very remote students—in other words, what it was originally and what the coalition has been demanding all along. The cities and towns in my electorate whose students fall into this inner regional category include Wagga Wagga—the largest inland city in New South Wales—Junee, Gundagai, Tumut, Coolamon, Mangoplah, Batlow and Adelong.

In 2009, the then education minister, Julia Gillard, proposed tightening the criteria. This meant that students in inner regional areas had to work an average of 30 hours a week for 18 months over a two-year period. This was yet another example of how little the then education minister and now Prime Minister knows and understands about regional communities, because securing close to full-time work in regional Australia is difficult. Some students were forced to defer their studies for up to two years and those who opted to go straight to university would have undoubtedly struggled to meet their work and study commitments. It was a bizarre move for someone who said, in her 1998 inaugural speech in this parliament, that 'not only economists but ordinary people understand that the future of Australia and the future of themselves and their children is tied to educational success'. We all agree with that, so why was there such unfairness when it came to independent youth allowance? Why was this of Labor's own making? It was grossly unfair and the changes were devastating to students and their families. Coalition MPs and senators were swamped with emails, letters and telephone calls, and there were countless examples of inner regional students missing out on much-needed assistance to afford tertiary study. But I am sure it was not only coalition MPs and senators who were being swamped with calls; I am sure Labor members, regional Independents and the Greens member were receiving similar sorts of calls about how palpably unfair it was. I know the member for Maranoa, who sits beside me, also received a number of calls about how unfair the independent youth allowance criteria were.

In forums, personal one-on-one meetings and constant correspondence with parents and guardians, I was told about the difficulty of having to choose which of their children they could afford to support at university. In some cases, they were not able to afford to help them at all. Some families were left to tell their children that they could not go to university, simply because of these unfair rules foisted on them by this Labor government.

Many families were struggling to make ends meet after years of drought—a decade of drought—followed by devastating floods. Other students gave up on their dream of a further education, an education that the Prime Minister acknowledged in her maiden speech as being so important to future success and prosperity. It was blatantly obvious that once again this government did not understand the trials, tribulations and hardships the people in regional Australia already were facing—the weather, commodity prices—and now this foisted upon their children was another blow.

A government's role is to govern for all—for the people, by the people, not 'to hell with the people'. This is what was happening. It was not just those in metropolitan areas or those in areas deemed eligible by arbitrary lines on a map as has been the case with this sorry story. The inner regional map which deemed those who would receive youth allowance and those who would not was actually a health map; it was not even meant for determining which students should and which should not receive assistance. That map was drawn up for health purposes. A Senate inquiry in December 2010 heard similar, disturbing evidence. On 21 October 2010, during Senate estimates, department officials confirmed that the changes targeting inner regional students was a cost-saving measure. What an insult. What a disgrace.

To restore the equality between regional students the coalition introduced a bill which both Labor and the Independents—despite having many inner regional students in their electorates—deemed unconstitutional. The government instead opted to bring forward a review of student income support reforms, including youth allowance, which was to report by 1 July this year and for any changes to be in place by 1 January 2012. The irony is that, had this government not changed the independent youth allowance criteria in the first place, it would not need to spend money on more changes to the detriment of other students. It is yet another example of this inept Labor government's hopeless economic management.

From 1 January 2012, students from inner regional areas will be able to access independent youth allowance under exactly the same rules which apply to students from outer regional, remote and very remote areas—and it is about time. Any employment undertaken over the period since a student has left school will be counted towards the independence test, even if that work was done prior to 1 January 2012. School leavers of 2009-10, if they have been working during the period since they left school, will be able to count that toward the workplace criteria to qualify for independent youth allowance in 2012.

But, as I said, this has been a whole sorry story from start to finish. Labor MPs and the regional Independents, the member for Lyne and the member for New England, have been trumpeting the government's changes when in fact for months and months they hardly said a thing about the matter. The irony is that money will be taken away from other youth allowance measures or will be delayed, which will affect many students. The regional Independents and Labor MPs could have made these changes a whole lot sooner had they supported the coalition's effort to restore fairness on a number of occasions.

I will just go through those occasions for the benefit of Hansard and for the benefit of those people who may not have been following this whole sorry saga. There was a coalition notice of motion in the House of Representatives last October to make independent youth allowance fair for inner regional students by reinstating the same fair criteria which applies to other regional students, and it was supported by the members for Lyne and New England but opposed by the Labor MPs. There was the coalition's Social Security Amendment (Income Support for Regional Students) Bill 2010 introduced in the House of Representatives in February this year, which sought to reinstate the same fair criteria that applies to other regional students. The debate was disallowed by Labor, with the support of the members for Lyne and New England. There was an amendment to appropriations legislation in the House of Representatives in early March, again to reinstate the same fair criteria for inner regional students from 1 July 2011, immediately after the review into student income support reforms rather than waiting until next year. But, again, this was defeated by Labor MPs with the support of the regional Independents, the members for Lyne and New England. There was a similar amendment to Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs legislation later in March, which was again defeated by Labor with the support of the members for Lyne and New England. There was a similar notice of motion in the House of Representatives in June this year—and what do you think happened there? Again, it was defeated by Labor, again with the support of the members for Lyne and New England.

The government and the Independents claim the number of regional students receiving youth allowance has increased by 26 per cent, or an additional 7,400 students. They fail to say how many are actually receiving independent youth allowance compared to those on dependent youth allowance. Nor do they mention that many students receiving dependent youth allowance are only receiving a part rate of that payment.

The coalition has persisted through amendments to legislation and notices of motion for the government to act after the review finished in July, but they were all delayed and defeated by Labor and the two regional Independents. Whilst all this was happening, every time it was brought up in the House Labor backbenchers from regional areas were voting against the wishes and the whims of their people; they were saying nothing outside the House and they were saying nothing inside the House. But they certainly chirped up and in parrot fashion followed the Prime Minister and the minister for education when they decided to do the backflip—not before time. Speaking of the minister for education, on 21 September this year, when moving that the bill be read a second time, the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth said:

The Australian government is committed to reforming higher education and, in particular, increasing students' access to university.

That, as I say, is an admirable course. He went on:

Higher education is central to achieving the government's vision of a stronger, fairer and more productive nation.

'Hear, hear,' I say, and I am sure everybody else would agree too. He went on to say:

The impact of the reforms has been measurable with more students qualifying for assistance, especially young people from low- to middle-income families.

The reforms have also had a positive impact on families from regional and remote areas of Australia with more young people who need to live away from home being able to access student income support.

So why did Labor change the rules in the first place? Why did they make it so unfair for regional students—students, as I say, from my electorate and, as we have heard, from the electorate of the member for Dawson? I know that the member for Maranoa and the member for Gippsland have been affected—members of the coalition in regional areas—and, just as importantly, Labor members with electorates in regional areas have also been affected. Not only were their electorates affected; their families were also affected. The students in those families were affected, yet many Labor backbenchers chose to remain silent whilst all this was going on and then they chose to walk the distance from there to here to defeat our sensible moves and our sensible amendments, which were deemed unconstitutional every time.

Here is a Labor government which does not listen. It is another example of a Labor government which did not listen during the water issue. It is a Labor government which has not listened in the asylum seeker issue. It has foisted a carbon tax upon Australia which it did not want. It is time this government started to listen to the people. As I say, this independent youth allowance farce was brought about by this government. It was foisted on the good people of Australia, the good people in regional areas who I often think of as real Australians. They are the real Australians who grow the food and grow the fibre. It is tough enough to carry out that job without having unfair youth allowance criteria placed upon them by a Labor government which refuses to listen and which refuses to care, especially by Labor members who know full well that what the coalition has been proposing all along has been fair and equitable.

This parliament should be all about fairness and equity, but certainly with the independent youth allowance it has not been. It has continued to ignore the wishes of the people, and it has continued to ignore the wishes of regional students who have a difficult enough job as it is to gain tertiary education. They are behind the eight ball all along when it comes to getting university degrees, yet they had this unfair independent youth allowance criteria put upon them which made it so much more difficult for them. For the life of me, I cannot understand—and I know my colleagues cannot understand either—why students in metropolitan areas were treated differently from students in inner regional areas. I ask again: why was there so much unfairness? Why did it have to take Senator Nash and others on this side to pull this government kicking and screaming to the table of fairness in this and so many other issues? Why won't this government listen? As I say, it has not listened during the water issue. Fortunately, Griffith was not in the inner regional area, but Griffith and Leeton are certainly very much affected by the issue of unfairness when it comes to the water debate. As a whole the Riverina has also had this unfair independent youth allowance to deal with and to put up with. It is not fair. I am glad that it has taken this for the government to finally see reason and to finally bring about change. I welcome it. Hopefully it will be the start of many things to come where the government finally does start to listen to the people of Australia. (Time expired)