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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12063

Mr HARTSUYKER (Cowper) (16:34): I welcome the opportunity to follow on from the member for Maranoa, who has very effectively highlighted the stupidity of what this government had done to students in regional and rural areas, but I very much welcome the effect that this new legislation will have on many families in my electorate of Cowper and throughout many areas of regional and rural Australia. It will end more than two years of unfairness, uncertainty and hardship for young people trying to plan for their higher education future. To many, the changes to the test for independent youth allowance in this bill will make the difference between attending university or not.

We have all seen evidence of the difference to earning potential that a university degree can make. To deny young people that opportunity on the basis of geography alone—that is, on the basis of the definition of an inner, as opposed to an outer, remote or very remote, area—showed an ignorance of the conditions in regional Australia and an arrogance in that the government failed to listen when the huge flaw in its own legislation was clearly pointed out time and time again. It was Labor's failure to listen, and the support offered to Labor in this House by two people who know regional Australia well, the Independent members for Lyne and New England, that resulted in, as I said, two years of uncertainty, unfairness and hardship.

I will turn to the role of the Independent members later, but first let me say that it came as no surprise when the government refused to listen to critics of its youth allowance changes. It did not listen when it was told that rushing through its home insulation program would result in a distortion of the market with newly formed and inexperienced companies taking advantage of the opportunity to earn a fast buck and leaving a trail of shoddy and dangerous work in their wake. We all know the consequences: fatalities, house fires and a repair bill that ran to $1 billion to put right a $1.5 billion scheme. It did not listen when it was told that its bank deposit guarantee scheme should be capped. We all know the consequences there: a run on deposits in non-authorised deposit-taking institutions, resulting in savings being frozen and income streams drying up. It did not listen when it was told that a ban on live exports would cause grave problems for cattle exporters, but it went ahead just the same.

And the then Minister for Education, now the Prime Minister, did not listen when she was told that imposing a 30-hour-a-week work requirement for independent youth allowance for inner regional areas did not reflect the reality of life in those areas. She did not listen when she was told that it was unfair to differentiate between inner and other regional areas. The reality is that work is hard to find in regional Australia where the unemployment rate is typically above the national average. With the exception of the areas enjoying the mining boom, businesses generally are just getting by or doing it tough. The reality is that a would-be student would be very lucky to find one employer alone who could offer 30 hours a week or more and would usually have to find two or three employers. That then raises the difficulty of juggling the competing demands made by the employers. I might remind members that this was at a time when changes to the award system prevented employers from offering the short shifts that might have helped would-be students in such a position.

She did not listen to the fact that work in regional and rural areas can be very seasonal, which makes achieving the 30-hour-a-week milestone increasingly difficult in times when seasonal work is unavailable. There is also the problem of physically getting to work. Regional towns do not have urban transport systems, as most of us know. Young people trying to finance their university education find it difficult to run their own car. And in regional areas many families live some distance from centres of population and sources of much-needed employment. As for differentiating between inner and other regional areas, that would suggest that there was a substantial difference in terms of the ease of finding work and transport, but the reality is that there is little or no difference, and drawing a line on a map never made any sense. Children attending the same school would end up being treated differently because they lived on different sides of a line, one with a home in an inner regional area and one with a home in an outer regional area.

For instance, in my electorate, those living in the communities of Urunga and Repton, a mere 10 kilometres apart in the same labour market, were divided by the ruling on independent youth allowance. Those young people living in Repton and Urunga would also be faced with the fact that to pursue the university course of their choice they would inevitably have to move away from home. Driving 10 kilometres up the road would not open up a whole new range of courses. Ten kilometres up the road, the range of courses would be exactly the same, yet under the government's proposal they would be treated entirely differently.

All of this should have been crystal clear, but apparently it was not to a minister who did not know, or did not care to know, what life is like in regional Australia. We tried to tell her and asked her to split the original bill as we wished to support other measures it contained, but, no, the minister just would not listen. The consequences were as predicted. Many inner regional students were forced to delay or scrap their plans or missed out on the assistance they should have had. Parents were forced to choose which of their children they should support. Many were not able to support them at all.

As with many other Labor policies, the changes left confusion, heartbreak and anger in their wake. More than 50 parents came to a youth allowance rally in Coffs Harbour to make their views known and many contacted my electorate office. Of course, this could all have been avoided. It could have been avoided if Labor had been willing to listen. It could have been avoided if two members with an intimate knowledge of regional Australia had not supported Labor's ill-informed plans. I refer, of course, to the member for New England and the member for Lyne, whose records on this issue amount to a betrayal of regional interests. We have seen recent research by Newspoll which has shown plummeting support for these two members, due in no small part to the decisions that they make in this House and the fact that they are perceived in their electorates to be selling out their constituents.

When the coalition put forward a bill to provide fairness for inner regional students, the Independent members sided with Labor and claimed the bill was unconstitutional, despite advice from the President and the Clerk of the Senate. Instead, they opted for a review. When the facts were clear, they opted for a review, which further delayed resolving the issue and ensured that students and their families were left in limbo. Time and time again we had the member for Lyne and the member for New England voting with the Australian Labor Party and against the interests of regional and rural students. Time and time again we had the member for Lyne and the member for New England selling out their electorates. This was despite voting with the coalition in October last year on a notice of motion that would put inner regional students on the same footing as other regional students. Clearly, they then decided it was in their interests to dance to the government's tune, as they usually do, and voted against our measures which would have restored fairness far sooner.

This has been a sorry episode which has thrown the life plans of many young people into disarray. I welcome the changes that will come into effect in January, but the problem could have been avoided and the remedy could have been put in place far sooner. That is what happens when you have a government that refuses to listen to advice and you have Independent members who vote for the ALP rather than truly represent the people who sent them to Canberra.

We heard the member for Lyne in this place today seemingly blaming the whole matter on the major parties. Apparently the major parties were the cause of the problem in which regional and rural students found themselves. But the reality is that the people in his electorate are growing tired of his rather worn-out song and excuses. The reality is that the problem we have today exists because the member for Lyne continues to side with the Australian Labor Party instead of standing up for the people in his electorate. The students in the electorate of Lyne wanted relief from this ridiculous government plan, but what did the member for Lyne do? He was just like a puppet. He toed the government line, as he does. It was interesting to travel to Port Macquarie recently. We had our National Party conference there and the word on the street from everyone we talked to was utter disgust about the decisions being made by the member for Lyne on their behalf, concern that the member for Lyne was not representing their interests but the interests of Labor and that he was turning his back on the needs of regional and rural Australia.

I certainly commend this legislation. It is long overdue. It will make some welcome improvements for regional and rural students, but unfortunately a cohort of students will miss out. They will miss out because of poor decision making by the government, because of the government's failure to listen to advice and because of the unswerving support of a couple of country Independents who should know better.