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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12069

Mr TEHAN (Wannon) (16:59): It is with mixed emotions that I rise to talk on the Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011. They are mixed emotions because, as the member for Barker has so eloquently outlined, the government has finally decided to do a backflip, listen and make the changes that we have been asking for for 2½ years. The problem is that it has left students for 2½ years in limbo. To start with I would like to see the government coming in here and sincerely offering an apology to those students who were left in limbo for the last 2½ years.

This afternoon I would like to outline the cases of two of those students to whom the government might consider making that apology. They are two students who have been left in limbo because of this government's tin ear. It is a tin ear that this government has—and I hate to say it, but it seems to be the Prime Minister in particular who has the tin ear, because let us not forget that it was the Prime Minister in another guise when she was the Minister for Education who brought in these changes and heralded them as fair and delivering to students more access to tertiary education, not less. It is the Prime Minister who ultimately should be the one who apologises to all those students in regional Australia who have missed out on accessing a tertiary education over the last 2½ years.

I want to place on the record just two examples of students who have had difficulty because of the changes the Prime Minister brought into this chamber when she was the minister. This is a letter I got from Anna Zebra:

I have been increasingly frustrated with the Youth Allowance situation and the fact that it directly disadvantages country students. I am more than happy for you to use our situation as an example. and will outline our story:

We have four children, and at this stage two have chosen to pursue a tertiary education, which in both cases involves them moving over two hours from home to do so. We live about 10 minutes from Hamilton in a small town called Tarrington. Unfortunately we are not in a financial position to support two children living away from home.

My daughter Jaz completed year 12 in 2008 and took a year off in 2009 to work and travel, then comenced her tertiary study in Melbourne in 2010. She qualified for Youth Allowance as an independant having satisfied the requirements, and is continuing to study and support herself this year.

My son Tyler completed year 12 in 2009 and also took the following year off to work so that he could also qualify for Youth Allowance. Unfortunately the requirements were changed in this period so that now due to the "zoning" rule he cannot recieve the payments and will have to try to support himself in his sudies at Ballarat University. I will outline his situation in point form below—

and she goes on. In the end, Tyler decided not to attend Ballarat University and deferred his position for 12 months—a prime example of what happened as a result of this government's changes.

I will also read out the case of Michelle Jansen, and hers is even more tragic. She grew up in a family living outside of Hamilton and had decided that once she finished year 12 she was going to attend RMIT in Hamilton for the nursing course. She decided that she wanted to move out of the home, so she did this and incurred all the expenses which go with that: purchasing her own fridge, washing machine et cetera. She started working in the local McDonald's and started racking up the hours she needed to qualify as independent. Sadly for her, the rental accommodation that she was living in burnt down, and she lost everything. As she says in the letter that she wrote to me, 'That night was the worst night of my life.'

She had a small amount of contents insurance coverage that did not cover all of her possessions, which then just meant that she had to work even harder to pay for new contents. She says, 'This disaster put me back to square 1.' But with persistence she recovered and was heading along to being able to do her nursing course at RMIT in Hamilton. Then, sadly, RMIT in Hamilton could no longer offer their nursing course. As she writes in the letter to me, when she heard this news:

I was bawling my eyes out!

I couldn’t believe that one of the things that kept me going through the house fire incident, was cancelled on me. I was very frustrated and hurt for a second time in a period of a year! I didn’t know what to do.

She explored whether she could go to Warrnambool to do nursing there. There is a very good course offered by Deakin. Fortunately for her, someone else was trying to look after her and was able to point her in the direction of accessing a full Commonwealth fee scholarship—without her knowing—at Bundoora in Melbourne. Delighted by this news, she thought, 'Okay, now I will look and see how I can qualify to get my independent youth allowance.' As she said:

I worked it out that I had earned more than enough of the 75% with independent youth allowance and that I would be able to afford uni down in Melbourne possibly after all.

I had decided to go down to orientation week, have a look around and see what it was going to be like. It seemed so out of my comfort zone! I was used to the quiet country life and had only been to Melbourne approx. 7 times in my life that I can remember. The big city was too busy and I hated it there! It was a place I was avoiding when deciding where to go to university for nursing.

I thought if I went, I had the option of withdrawing before 31st of March if I disliked it, could fill in a leave of absence, or transferred possibly if I made it through the whole year.

While all this decision making was going on for her and she was deciding whether she should go down to Melbourne for what she has explained would be a huge move, she started inquiring at Centrelink as to when and how she would get her payment for independent youth allowance. Sadly, she was told after two or three weeks that she would not be able to get any independent youth allowance at all. She goes on in the letter to describe her sadness at having her house burn down, of having her two courses in Hamilton and Warrnambool not available to her, and then having being able to go to Melbourne taken out of her grasp. Her sadness turned to pure anger at the mishandling and bungling of the independent youth allowance issue.

Those are just two examples—and I have received many more—from students in my electorate who have suffered as a result of this federal government's bungling of this issue. I would hope that at some stage someone from the government—and it should be the Prime Minister because it was her legislation—would come into this place and offer an apology. Students in inner regional areas have suffered for 2½ years as a result of the changes made by this Prime Minister.

I could think, 'Okay; this is explainable,' if it were a unique example of the incompetence and bungling that we have seen from this government. But, sadly, it is not. Sadly, the lessons do not seem to be being learnt. One only has to look at the live export issue, or the turmoil that the Australian population has had to endure over the last 48 hours or the problems with the BER program. I was at a school in my electorate only four days ago; they have been looking at their brand new gymnasium for two terms, but the students, sadly, cannot access it. It is just story after story after incompetence. It is sad what it is doing to the Australian population. I think that they are looking to government and wondering how incompetent a government can get. How can it do this to these people? How can it do this to these students in inner regional areas? How could it come up with a policy which it said was providing fairness when, in fact, it was doing quite the opposite? It is not a good situation.

As we have seen, the government had 2½ years to fix this. For 2½ years we have tabled petitions in this place, for 2½ years we have put forward private members' bills in this place and for 2½ years we have written to ministers about letters from students who are being impacted upon. Yet the government would not act. Why wouldn't it act? I hope it was not out of malice towards these students from regional and country Australia or that they were out of sight and out of mind and were not cared about. If that is the case, it is sad beyond belief.

I hope that the government has learnt from this sad case which has occurred over the last 2½ years and I hope that now it will seek to address the whole issue of providing proper financial assistance to tertiary students from country areas. There are two things which the government could do. It could say that we need a complete review of how the system works. We have to look at ways of ending the decline in the participation of students from regional and rural areas. That is the first thing—a complete review of the funding is required. The second thing required is that the government could provide assistance for universities in regional and rural areas. We have to ensure that those universities have the support that they need to offer the necessary courses. That way, we can not only get country students accessing those universities but also get city kids going to regional and rural areas to attend university. You could get a crossover which would work really well for Australia as a whole. We are seeing the continued urbanisation of Australia, which is a growing issue that we are continuing to grapple with. By putting more focus and more resources into our universities in regional and rural areas it would help with the growing issue of urbanisation in Australia today.

As I said at the outset, I rise to speak on this bill today with sadness because of the impact it has had on regional and rural students for 2½ years. I also rise knowing that, finally, the government has acted, and I ask, once again, for the government to admit that it got it wrong and that it has caused a lot of angst for students in inner regional areas. I hope that the government has learnt from this. I hope that, in future, it will look at the consequences that come from changing legislation and implementing something which in the end hurts, in particular, our country areas.

It might be all well and good to have decision making which improves the lot of those in urban areas, but the government should always remember that there could be unintended consequences for those living outside urban areas. That is exactly what the legislative changes made 2½ years ago by the government did, and they caused an enormous amount of angst in inner regional areas. The 2½ years to fix them was far too long. I am glad that the government has finally owned up and admitted that it got it wrong. An apology from the government would be appreciated by us on this side. I do not expect it, sadly, but it would be good if it did come. I hope now the government will move to improve the lot of country students who want to access a tertiary education and will look to review the whole funding system.