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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12066


Mr SECKER (BarkerOpposition Whip) (16:44): I rise to speak on the Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011. Students from regional areas have had their lives put back on track after this government finally decided to go back to the old rules for youth allowance, as the rest of Australia had been begging them to do for over two years.

I want to tell the House about the youth allowance story. It was a disgrace. It took this government so long to fix the discrepancies—and, yes, they have been rectified, but for 2½ long years it was a disgrace. Back in 2009, after the Labor government handed down their budget it was discovered that the budget harboured a huge discrepancy for regional students. The government, in their wisdom, had decided that students hoping to receive vital youth allowance funds to assist them on their journey to further education would have their fate pinned on a map designed for health services—not education services, health services. It was just ridiculous to use a map which was based not on educational criteria but on medical criteria relating to the availability of doctors. And this was deciding the future of our young people.

The sorry example of how regional students were being unfairly discriminated against by this government was in Mt Gambier in the south-east of my electorate. Mt Gambier is about 450 kilometres away from Melbourne or Adelaide universities, their nearest universities. It is a long way, and obviously there is no way students can actually go to university every day from home. Under the old criteria, students had the opportunity of getting youth allowance if they were away from the workforce for 1½ years. For two years in Mt Gambier if you lived in the city—450 kilometres away from Adelaide or Melbourne—you were treated like a student in Adelaide or Melbourne, but if you lived outside the town boundaries you were treated as if you were under the old Howard government conditions.

One Mt Gambier student's story unfolded in the local paper. Had their family home been built on the opposite side of White Avenue, a main road in Mt Gambier, it would have been classified as outer regional. But because they were on the other side of the road they were classified as inner regional. If they had been classified as outer regional then, under the old Howard government rules, which this government finally accepted, they could have gained financial support immediately after graduating. Instead, this student had been working four jobs during her gap year to satisfy the current 30-hour commitment.

A local school principal said that families were confused by the existing youth allowance eligibility criteria and that families needed to plan well in advance for their child to move away from home for study. These regional students were forced to find 30 hours of work a week, and anyone who has any idea about regional communities would know that this is very difficult. Communities such as those in my electorate do not have endless retail outlets and fast food eateries for young people to work in for 30 hours per week. Small businesses were already feeling the labour pinch, and then the Labor government wanted them to supply jobs for 30 hours per week for an 18-month period with no guarantee that their investment in those children's futures would actually be returned to them. It just did not make sense and, in most cases, was not possible.

I received a huge amount of letters, phone calls and emails from concerned students and parents over the length of this debate. This was a genuine problem that needed to be fixed, and we gave them the answer, but for 2½ years the government ignored the coalition on this issue. As the representative of a large rural electorate where parents are faced with huge costs to fund their children's university studies hundreds of kilometres away, I was extremely concerned by the government's arrogant dismissal of the very sincere problems that were caused by their careless changes to the support arrangements for rural and regional students.

Over the length of this debate the calls I received were all different, but the stories were similar: the students were very keen to attend university but could not afford to do it without the support of youth allowance. Obviously, they had the cost of shifting to Adelaide and setting up residence in Adelaide, and that was not covered by the youth allowance. A councillor for Mt Gambier had been lobbying the federal government to urgently rectify the independence criteria for Mt Gambier since early last year. He said that the independence requirements were unreasonable, unfair and impractical, particularly during university, and that regional students needed more support to compensate for the expense of moving to the city.

I am glad that the government is finally giving students in Barker a fair chance of furthering their education, but why did it take so long? The government had half a dozen chances to change the criteria for youth allowance: why did it take so long to fix an issue that was so obvious? The coalition continually pushed for the government to make the criteria fairer for inner regional students. We tried to give a voice to those students who were being treated so unfairly, but the government did not seem to want to listen. We introduced motions and legislation, we tabled petitions, we held roundtables and we spoke to the media over and over again, but this government is so arrogant that it took 2½ years for Labor to see the error of its ways. So arrogant was this government that members on the other side voted against the coalition's private member's motion on youth allowance criteria, to the detriment of students all over Australia.

During several debates on this matter members on the other side suggested that we were ignoring the government's announcement earlier this year about the increased numbers going to university. The coalition does not have a problem with that; it welcomes that. We support that, but there was still the problem of the criteria for the so-called inner regional students not being based on educational criteria but on medical criteria and the availability of doctors. This had nothing whatsoever to do with the ability of students to attend university.

We were trying to address the problem, which was caused by the government, but it took the Labor members 2½ years to come to their senses. The government claimed that the number of inner regional students receiving youth allowance increased by 4,250 students, or 20 per cent in 12 months. The problem is that the government did not disclose that there are many students receiving only a part rate of allowance. The truth is in the details once again.

During Senate estimates it was revealed that some students could be getting as low as a few dollars a week of dependent youth allowance, compared to the full rate of $388. I would challenge anyone to be able to afford to attend university on a few dollars a week or a fortnight. These students have packed up and moved to the city to attend university because obviously they cannot attend on a daily basis from 450 kilometres away. Not too many of them own a private jet, I can assure you, and I do not think we would be giving them youth allowance if they could afford to fly to university.

It is an obvious problem. They cannot go to university on a daily basis so they have to move from home, and that costs money. During Senate estimates questioning, departmental official Marsha Milliken said that it would be a varied mix of students, some receiving the maximum rate and some receiving the part rate. To claim that 4,250 extra students are getting youth allowance, which we would welcome, denies the fact that many of them are only on a very small portion of that allowance.

Even more concerning are the government's plans. Senator Evans was recorded as saying:

… we are committed to removing those distinctions between the various rural and regional areas, but we’ve also made it clear that there is not an endless bucket of money and I think people need to be aware that does not mean that everyone will move to the outer regional rules.

Basically, this is the government admitting that students would miss out under its watch, and now we have another Labor backflip. After all this time has elapsed since the government was first made aware of the original discrepancy, it has finally fixed the problem.

I heard the member for Braddon speak. He is a good friend of mine, and he talks a lot in this chamber. But he referred to the 2½ years as 'a period of review'. I am embarrassed for him and I am embarrassed for members on the other side, because they have to use lines such as that to cover up the big mistake that this government made. After all the pressure from angry students and parents, even after the coalition reminded the government time after time and week after week that this was just not good enough—and that was just in the period of review—it is hard to believe.

Members and senators from the coalition did a great job of keeping up the pressure on this issue. The member for Sturt in his role as the shadow minister, the member for Forrest, Senator Nash and many others were fantastic advocates for this cause. It was disgraceful that it took 2½ years for the government members to stand up and show the sort of support for students that this side of the House displayed all along. Regional students were stymied by a stupid ruling, a stupid line on a map, that is not based on educational criteria or on the ability to go to university. It is based simply on the availability of doctors in a town, not on the ability of students to go to university—which should have been the first principle.

With my remaining time I wish to raise another important issue. During the 2½ years the problems with youth allowance raged on, I took many calls from students and families who had contacted Centrelink to speak about their eligibility. I understand that it can be difficult to make every single person fit into a single criterion as set out by legislation, but time after time I received calls from frustrated students and families who had been given incorrect advice. Obviously the people in Centrelink had not been instructed to give the details on what is inner regional and outer regional and they did not understand the difference.

On 13 May this year I wrote to the Minister for Human Services, Tanya Plibersek, to make her aware of my constituents' difficulties with Centrelink advice. In my correspondence I highlighted the need to adequately train staff and suggested that problems families are facing with incorrect advice had been made worse by the youth allowance discrepancy for students from Mount Gambier. That incorrect advice suggested that they would be treated the same as those at, say, Naracoorte or Penola in the outer regional areas. They were given the wrong advice, had their hopes raised by the suggestion that they would be eligible for youth allowance and then, when it finally came back, were told they were not, so that was even worse.

Senator Nash also very kindly wrote to the minister and raised the concerns of my constituents in budget estimates on 1 June this year. In response to my correspondence, the Minister for Human Services stated that the issue was complex and apologised for the unsatisfactory service. The minister for tertiary education, Senator Evans, refused to accept any responsibility for the unfair treatment of regional students and the resulting difficulties for Centrelink staff in giving correct advice. Unfortunately, this is what I have come to expect from this government. Ministers seem oblivious to the problems that exist within their own legislation and are largely unwilling to correct them.

Sadly, that example was not the only one I heard. I had contact from other families who had also been given incorrect advice. It beggars belief. If Centrelink staff cannot understand the legislation then how are families and students meant to? This has been the case with many programs under this government. Look at the examples: pink batts, BER, computers in schools and green loans. As with all of those programs and many others, youth allowance fell victim to this government's hopeless management.

The more worrying factor is what it takes for this government to realise the errors of its ways. We all know the sad stories of pink batts. We all saw the rip-off with BER. It took 2½ long years of constant lobbying by the coalition and relentless efforts from all members before this government decided to do a backflip. We welcome that backflip, but we have to ask: why did it take so long, why did they get it wrong in the first place and when are they going to apologise to the students in rural areas who have been disadvantaged by such a shocking decision of this government?