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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12072

Mr NEVILLE (HinklerThe Nationals Deputy Whip) (17:14): As an MP who represents a regional seat and regional students who aspire to going to university, I am very pleased to speak on the Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011. From the outset, let me congratulate Senator Fiona Nash whose focus and persistence drove this issue and led Nationals and rural Liberals to persist with this issue for 2½ years. The government have finally capitulated and, hearing the speeches today, you know why they had to.

The bill, as we see it today, has been a long time coming. The government's delay in seeing common sense in the issue of students in regional areas qualifying for the independent rate of youth allowance has caused untold heartache for thousands of families living in regional Australia. Over those 2½ years, how many kids did it deprive of or drive away from tertiary education? That is the real crime. Finally, after these 2½ years of lobbying by students, parents, educational stakeholders, communities and the coalition's rural members, the government has introduced legislative changes to make accessing independent youth allowance easier for students classified as living in inner regional areas.

The government has, at long last, agreed to ditch the 30-hour-a-week work rule for inner regional students and apply exactly the same and fairer criteria that apply to students in outer regional, remote and very remote areas. This may appear a complex issue, but in fact it is really quite straightforward—all regional students deserve to be treated the same when it comes to accessing independent youth allowance.

Under the government's original scheme, virtually every student in my electorate was classified as 'inner regional'. The only exceptions were students living in a wedge of sparsely populated country. In fact, the map used to decide the various classifications is actually one used by the Department of Health and Ageing in deciding the remoteness of areas of regions throughout Australia. What that has to do with tertiary education bewilders me. The absurdity of this arbitrary boundary is demonstrated by the fact that students living on the eastern side of Goodwood Road—Goodwood Road being an artery through my electorate—were classified as 'outer regional' whilst those on the western side were classified as 'inner regional'. Students in this situation could wave to each other from their bedroom windows, but one of them would have work 30 hours a week for 18 months over a two-year period to qualify for the independent rate of youth allowance whereas the other could simply work for a lump sum of $19,500 over an 18-month period.

The quandary was exacerbated by the fact that finding paid employment in regional Australia has become increasingly difficult under this government. In the Wide Bay Burnett region it has been particularly hard, as the region's unemployment rate has risen consistently since Labor came to power. When the coalition left government in November 2007, the region's unemployment rate was 3.5 per cent. Since then it has climbed to more than 10 per cent, and in August it hit 12.3 per cent.

We all know how hard it can be for young people to get their foot in the door when it comes to getting a job. This is proven by the unemployment rates for young people in the Wide Bay Burnett area. The full-time unemployment rate for people aged 15 to 24 in the Wide Bay Burnett region paints a stark picture of what I am saying. In November 2007, the full-time unemployment rate for this age group in the Wide Bay Burnett region was 9.2 per cent. If you have a look at July of this year, it is up to 28.9 per cent. That is almost one-third of young people in the region without any form of paid work. As you can imagine, the pool of jobs for kids who want to work part time is not going to be real bright either.

Just what sort of government expects its young people in such a poor employment environment to find a job and then work three-quarters of a full-time load before they can qualify for educational assistance? I could never see the sense of this. On the one hand, we of all parties run around saying: 'We've got to keep our kids in tertiary education. We've got to be the smart country. We've got to be ready to have lots of well-educated people at the end of the mining boom. We've got to have all these things.' We know how tough it is for kids to get a job in country Australia. But despite all that, we have put a totally unrealistic measure on this inner regional group which makes it almost impossible for them to qualify. What we should have had is a simple measure of—over 12 months that covered one gap year of the student, not over 18 months—a demonstration that they could live independently. That is all that was needed. It did not have to be the bureaucratic nightmare which it became.

I take you to the case of Cairns and Townsville. I am not critical of Cairns and Townsville as communities—they are marvellous communities, but I am using them as a basis of comparison. They did not have to suffer this inner regional classification. Townsville has a population of 186,000 people and Cairns has a population of 151,000. They have university campuses of 11,000 and 4,000 students respectively. In other words, there are lots of opportunities for kids in those towns, a) to get jobs and, b) to go to university, and yet they had to meet easier criteria. Their students could qualify for the independent rates under these easier criteria and only have to contend with the maximum youth unemployment rate, in Townsville's case, of 17.6 per cent. As I said before, the rate in the Bundaberg and Harvey Bay area is 28.9 per cent. So those students living in much larger cities serviced by jet aircraft, fully fledged university campuses and fair employment opportunities have a much easier lifestyle than kids living in Childers or Bundaberg or Hervey Bay or Bargara—students in my electorate who are forced to jump through higher hoops. Statistics already show that young people living in regional and remote areas have much less chance of obtaining a university degree than those living in the cities, and throughout this saga the government has made it even more difficult for them. I did a little bit of research on this and I found that the population of regional Australia is approximately 25 per cent of the total population of the country, whereas the tertiary student participation rate in regional Australia is 18 per cent—18 per cent against a total population of 25 per cent. In other words, regional Australia was at a disadvantage before all this nonsense the government participated in commenced.

Back in 2009, more than 700 local residents signed a youth allowance petition I sponsored, protesting Labor's decision to make retrospective changes to the scheme's qualifying criteria. Their concerns were entirely understandable. It costs families between $18,000 and $20,000 each year to have a student away at university; it is very different, of course, if they live at home. Many students from my electorate aspire to attend capital city universities—not for any self-aggrandisement but rather to get to certain courses that are not available on regional campuses. Under the government's former manifesto, either those kids had to work full-time hours whilst studying to have any hope of qualifying for the independent youth allowance or their parents had to subsidise their living costs. Either way, it made their lives, and the lives of their parents, very difficult indeed.

Labor and the Independents have continually thwarted the Coalition's attempts to fix the problem and make the criteria fairer for the thousands of students affected. While perhaps you can understand the indifference of the members for Melbourne and Denison in this matter because of the sorts of electorate they come from, I was surprised that my colleagues the members for Lyne and New England should have made it difficult. I would have thought they of all people, with University of New England and Southern Cross University campuses in their electorates, should have been at the forefront of that.

Mr Windsor: Now you're just like the rest of them.

Mr NEVILLE: No, I am not like the rest of them. We have to be answerable for things, and I think you guys have to sometimes as well. Anyhow, earlier this year the Senate passed a coalition bill that would have made it easier for students living in inner regional areas, including Bundaberg, the Coral Coast, Childers and Hervey Bay, to access the allowance. The bill required fair and equitable treatment for regional students in accessing independent youth allowance, and it was something families in my electorate, as I said, were crying out for. Unfortunately, the government reacted by saying the bill was unconstitutional, and in a matter of days the four Independents voted with federal Labor in favour of Labor's then commitment to 'review' the student income support scheme sometime in the future. That was hardly the solution. At that time, the review was slated to report by 1 July of this year, with changes to be operational from 1 January next year. The coalition pushed for the government to act immediately after the review concluded, but the two regional Independents again voted with Labor, which ensured that the time frame between the recommendations and actual changes was not shortened. For the life of me, again—these are two people I respect and get on with—I could never understand why.

The delay, of course, caused great frustration for families living in regional areas. They had to wait until September to hear the fast-breaking news that the government—surprise, surprise—had decided to let inner regional students apply for the independent allowance under the same rules as outer regional, remote and very remote students—in other words, what it was originally and what the coalition had been demanding all along. Specifically, to be able to qualify for the independent youth allowance, students from 'inner regional' areas will have to earn at least $21,009 over an 18-month period or have worked at least 15 hours a week for at least two years after leaving high school. That will be achievable; the other measure was very difficult. So in a nutshell, after to-ing and fro-ing, public debate, legislative changes and the heartache of regional families, we have come right back to where we started from.

What I am pleased to see though, is the ability of 2009 and 2010 school leavers, if they have worked and met the requirements, to qualify for independent youth allowance when these changes come into effect. But to achieve all this, of course, the government has to find savings to offset the costs of the changes, and they come in at around $265 million, comprising: (1) wind-up of the Rural Tertiary Hardship Fund; (2) deferral of measures to extend youth allowance eligibility for masters by coursework students from 1 January 2012 until 1 January 2014; (3) reducing the value of start-up scholarships from $2,194 a year to $2,050 a year from 1 January 2012; and (4) adjusting the amount of the relocation scholarship. Of course, the irony here is that, had the government not changed the independent youth allowance criteria in the first place, they would not have been put in the position where this $265 million was necessary.

That having been said, I return to my original theme. I congratulate Senator Fiona Nash. She did a persistent, well-measured and careful job on this. She led the coalition's National Party and rural Liberal members to a very successful outcome, and I must say I am delighted for all regional Australian students.