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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12060

Mr BRUCE SCOTT (MaranoaSecond Deputy Speaker) (16:19): I rise to speak on the Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011. I note that the speaking list is devoid of anyone from the other side of the House who is to speak at any great length. It is only this side of the House that has a great interest. When I look at the speaking list it shows that members of this side of the House have a real interest in regional Australia, the welfare of those families and the students who have been adversely impacted in terms of access to post-secondary education.

For two long years the coalition has been fighting this issue with the Labor government and their unfair tightening of the criteria for youth allowance. All we ever got from the other side of the House when we put up amendment after amendment through whatever means we could find, or a private member's bill, was no, no, no. That happened every time we put up a sensible amendment or a sensible private member's bill, one that would address this anomaly and also help so many families out there in regional and rural Australia who have been impacted by this very, very unfair measure implemented by the then education minister, now Prime Minister.

Since March 2010, students living in inner regional areas have struggled to qualify for the independent youth allowance because of the changes that were made to the eligibility criteria by this government. As I said a moment ago, the then education minister, the now Prime Minister, first proposed a tightening of the criteria in mid-2009. What it meant was that inner regional students would have to work an average of 30 hours a week over a two-year period. What we have seen here is the government—finally—listening to this side of the House, and we will now see these changes being made.

This whole debacle is really just another example of this government's lack of understanding of regional Australia, yet when this government was formed we heard that it was going to be a government for regional Australia. A firm and solemn comment and commitment by the now Prime Minister was that it would be a government listening to regional Australia. If the government knew anything about regional Australia, they would understand the tyranny of distance and how it adversely impacts on regional students, particularly in Queensland because of its diversity and decentralised nature. My own electorate of Maranoa covers 42 per cent of the landmass of Queensland and three particular towns were considered inner regional Australia—they were Dalby, Kingaroy and Warwick. In the electorate of Maranoa there is no university, but those towns are considered inner regional Australia for the criteria for eligibility for youth allowance.

Not having a university in Maranoa or the three largest towns of my electorate, Kingaroy, Warwick and Dalby, means that students from right across the electorate, including those three towns where the biggest impact was felt, have to leave home to gain access to post-secondary education. The closest university to Dalby, for instance, is the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba. That is more than 80 kilometres away. Warwick is about the same distance from the University of Southern Queensland. The same university is the closest for people in Kingaroy but it is 150 kilometres away. As you would know, Mr Deputy Speaker Slipper, the University of the Sunshine Coast is almost 200 kilometres from Kingaroy. Yet these three towns, under Labor's unfair criteria, were considered to be even more metropolitan than the city of Cairns—would you believe it—which has an international airport. Townsville also was considered to be more outer regional than Dalby, Kingaroy and Warwick and it is home to the James Cook University, yet Dalby, Kingaroy and Warwick were considered more inner regional than Cairns or Townsville.

The cities of Townsville and Cairns are considered outer regional Australia. This means that those students in Cairns, which has a population of about 150,000 people, who would like to become eligible for independent youth allowance can work just 15 hours per week to meet the work test for this allowance. But in Dalby, Kingaroy and Warwick, which have populations of around 10,000 to 12 000 people respectively, young people were forced to work an average of 30 hours per week because they were considered more inner regional than those students from Cairns or Townsville. It is just unfair what this government imposed on those students from rural and regional areas.

One classic example of the anomaly was that these lines drawn on maps used the access to health services map—nothing to do with education, but they were the criteria. We looked at those lines on the map. Just north of Dalby there is a little town called Kaimkillenbun. There is a little state school, a hotel and a welding business as well as people living in town. It is a lovely little community of about 150 people. The railway used to come into Kaimkillenbun from Dalby. It is disused now. If you lived on the eastern side of the railway line, you were considered inner regional Australia; if you lived on the other side of the railway line in this town of 150 people, you were outer regional Australia. That is how absolutely ridiculous these lines on maps were and how little this government understood the impact it would have and how it would even divide communities.

This also posed a significant problem for employers in these towns. Where was the incentive to hire a young person and train them only to watch them take those skills away should they qualify for independent youth allowance—once they had worked 30 hours a week over a period of 18 months? I had many calls from these students, their families and some employers, who said: 'Why would we take these people on for 30 hours a week? It's almost full-time employment. We would lose them should they qualify for youth allowance in 18 months to two years time.' It was plainly wrong and quite divisive and it impacted families who wanted to do the right thing by their young people who were desperate to gain post-secondary education.

For those young people, if they got a job it was almost the equivalent of a full-time job—30 hours a week is eight hours short of a full-time job. It may be that those students will then say: 'I've got a job and that's important. I've got job security. I'll bypass further education because I've got a job.' They will be part of that generation, because of this government's decision, that will not take up post-secondary education because it costs money to leave home. They would not qualify for independent youth allowance as they would have under the Howard government and they may never take up post-secondary education. That was one of the great tragedies of this legislation that this government imposed on these families and communities.

People from regional Australia, if they have grown up there, gone away—and been assisted to go away, as we would want—and gained post-secondary education qualifications, are the ones most likely to come back and practise with those qualifications in their communities. For instance, we are short of doctors in regional areas; we need pharmacists; we need people in law firms in regional areas. If they have grown up there and their extended families are there, they are the ones most likely to come back. Yet these students are the ones, because of the legislation introduced by this Prime Minister when she was the education minister, who were going to be denied that financial support or were unable to meet the criteria that was becoming so arduous that they may decide not to go on with any education beyond high school. I now welcome the government's decision to abolish the unfair inner regional classification. Now, at long last, after saying, 'No, no, no, no,' to every amendment and every private member's bill that we introduced to this place and the upper house, they finally accepted what we have been saying and fighting for all along: that regional students be considered for the youth allowance under the same classification.

It is a small victory for the families of Maranoa, who have supported me and the coalition and urged us to continue this fight and not give up the first time we got a 'no' from the Labor Party—and from the Independents, who sit to our left on the crossbenches and supported the 'no, no, no,' to the amendments and the private members' bills that were put up by this side of the House. I say to those families out there: thank you for the continual support that you have given us. Thank you also for the fact that you have waited long and hard and for your desire, which you expressed to me on so many occasions, to save whatever you can and put money aside to make sure your children were not denied, during the period leading up to this bill, the opportunity to gain a post-secondary education.

The Labor government has missed the opportunity to completely overhaul the system. Access to post-secondary education should not be a privilege for those who live outside of easy access to university, as the other side of the House and those on the crossbenches obviously think. In the crossbenchers' support of the 'no' case of the Labor Party they are saying, 'It is a privilege and you should move your whole family to a capital city or a regional centre that has a university.' It should be a right for all Australians, regardless of whether they live in a regional or metropolitan area.

Labor has had the chance to completely rework the student income support system and help regional and rural students meet the increased cost associated with attending university because they have to leave home to gain access to university. As I said in my opening remarks, the electorate of Maranoa makes up over 40 per cent of the landmass of Queensland and yet there is not one university. So, effectively, all students who live within the boundaries of Maranoa and want to go on to post-secondary education have to leave home, with all the costs associated with that.

Many of us in this place—I have and I imagine many on the other side have—understand the costs associated with post-secondary education and the cost of moving away from home to live in a flat or in a college at university. It is enormous and often families are unable to meet that cost and their children are unable to attend post-secondary education. That is why the independent youth allowance has been so vital to support students in gaining basic access to a university for post-secondary education qualifications.

Our plan for a tertiary access allowance will address this issue of inequity. It levels the playing field so that all regional students who are forced to relocate to undertake university studies receive support for accommodation and living away from home costs. Regional, rural and remote Australian students and their families deserve to be treated the same as their metropolitan cousins, who have access to university, can live at home and can maintain a part-time job at the same time, which is another way of helping the family with the costs associated with tertiary education even in the cities.

I welcome what, at long last, the government have done to the independent youth allowance. They have been dragged kicking and screaming to the realisation that they got it wrong, just like so many other things they have got wrong. I am certainly looking forward to talking to families at the start of next year who will be able to access this independent youth allowance because of the fight this side of the House put up. We have never given up on getting fairness and equity into the independent youth allowance criteria.