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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12075

Mr WINDSOR (New England) (17:29): It is with pleasure that I rise to speak on the Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011. I made a few notes for my speech. At the top of them I have noted that I am very disappointed in the road just taken by the member for Hinkler, for whom I have great personal regard. It highlights the way in which the National Party in particular have turned this issue on its head for political advantage. I was not going to do this today but, given the comments I have heard, I now think I will. I will place on record some of the Senate Hansard from when the previous arrangements were put in place. The member for Hinkler may not have known about this but I think he should know, and it is something that members who are really interested in the youth allowance debate should be aware of. I am very proud of the role that I have played, and I congratulate the member for Lyne, Rob Oakeshott, in terms of the arrangements that have been put in place since the hung parliament—the review was expedited by 12 months—and the final agreement to review the disparity between inner and outer regional students. Obviously, this has been of concern to a lot of young people and their parents, and that would seem to be a bit of an indicator that the opposition in this parliament appear to be very keen to create fear amongst people. Even in recent months, when they were very well aware that this issue was going to be resolved through the budgetary process et cetera, they have gone out and continually created that fear.

The genesis of the issue between inner and outer regional students actually came out of the last parliament, and I think most of us would remember that. I was involved in the debate at the time. With the nature of the Senate at the time, I was attempting to negotiate on the final night with Steve Fielding—in fact, the current Prime Minister was the minister at that time—to come up with a regional package that would overcome some of the issues we are still talking about today and which have been resolved through the injection of $265 million.

People who have followed this debate or who have been taken in by the guilt process that the National Party in particular have been trying to cover up should know that one of the reasons those negotiations with Senator Fielding were not able to get through was that the government of the day and the National and Liberal parties had done a deal whereby inner and outer regional students would be treated differently. So rather than being the bastion of good against evil, the National and Liberal parties were in part the creators of this difference between inner and outer regional students. It was based on a sum of dollars rather than a long-term policy in relation to country students. Both sides of parliament were complicit in the arrangement.

I will read from some previous documentation. The deal struck by the coalition with the government in the previous parliament, which enabled students in outer regional and remote areas to apply under the old eligibility rules, excluded students from inner regional areas such as Tamworth. The amendment referred by Senator Nash at the time to include inner regional students under the old criteria was very much political trickery to cover up their botched deal with the government. This was particularly highlighted by Senator Fielding during the debate in the Senate regarding the amendment. Students of this particular issue should have a good look at this. Senator Fielding, on 17 March 2010, noted:

It was very interesting to hear Senator Carr say that the coalition, which is the National Party and the Liberal Party, did not include inner regional in their agreement with the government. That is interesting. Where was the National Party when you were sitting down with the minister agreeing to a deal that cut out rural and regional areas? Where were they? They are here now. But where were they when the minister said that they did not include inner regional in the deal? That is funny. The National Party did not seem to want to stand up then.

That is the genesis of the problem we face. A deal was struck on behalf of the coalition—and Christopher Pyne does not deny this because he was a signatory to the deal—that inner and outer regional students would be treated differently when the legislation went through the Senate. The National Party had a bit of a panic and the guilts in the Senate at the time even though their shadow minister had signed off on the deal. Suddenly they thought: 'This doesn't look good for us. We have not stood up for our people. We'd better run an amendment in the Senate—which we know will fail because our shadow minister has already signed a deal on it—so that we can refer to it as a valiant attempt to stand up for country kids if anybody ever reflects on this grubby deal between Christopher Pyne and the government minister at that time.' And that is what the member for Hinkler has just done. So that is the genesis of the issue that we are dealing with.

I remember being involved at that time in getting a retrospectivity issue removed from that particular piece of legislation, which in fact had been agreed on by some members of the coalition at the time. Marching forward to the new parliament, I remember that this issue was raised in the decision-making period when we were working with both Mr Abbott and Ms Gillard on the formation of a new government. Given that a great number of regional students were now able to gain access to youth allowance through new criteria based on their parents income rather than through the work test, it was decided that there needed to be a review: how do you put in place something that actually embraces the income of the parents—so that some students are not encouraged towards a gap year; they can go directly to university and access youth allowance on the basis of the parental income—and takes out the disparity between inner and outer regional students?

The member for Lyne and I had a number of meetings with the Prime Minister and others—the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations, Senator Evans, and many staff members—in the formulation of the policy after the review had taken place. I am proud of the role that I have played in that. But people should remember that the genesis of a lot of this stuff was in a parliament where Christopher Pyne, on behalf of the coalition, signed off with the minister of the day and agreed that inner and outer regional students would be treated differently.

There has been prancing about and the gnashing of teeth in here today about how this has all been created because of Senator Nash. I congratulate Senator Nash because she has talked about this issue, but she did not stand up in the Senate when the time was right to stand up. She agreed to the deal and then found this might be used against the coalition at a future time, so they resurrected this mickey mouse arrangement to make it look as though they had stood up when they had not and when their shadow minister had already signed off a deal.

This year there have still been some in the Senate who have been guilty about the distancing of the inner and outer regional students. So suddenly we started to see some legislation which was obviously tailored towards country Independents in this chamber. They were political pieces of legislation rather than attempts to do anything meaningful about a real issue. I have been in a hung parliament before. I have seen it before. It was the Labor Party back then trying to do it when I was supporting a Liberal government. The Labor Party would dish up what we used to call these embarrassing country Independent issues almost daily.

Senator Nash and others decided, 'Let's introduce some legislation into the Senate and we can reverse order it back to the lower house.' The member for Lyne and I looked very seriously at those pieces of legislation and I sought legal advice from the clerks. I also sought legal advice from outside the building as to the constitutionality of those money bills. I know the general public does not fully understand that, and I understand that they do not, so it is easy for people to play politics and say, 'We tried.' Senator Nash has been saying for months, 'We tried, but the dreadful country Independents would not support us and isn't it terrible,' having forgotten what happened on 17 March 2010 when the coalition sided with the very amendment that took out the inner regional students. They were complicit in that deal.

So we had this run of bills that were unconstitutional because they were money bills and there were all sorts of threats to test that in various places. I take notice of the clerks. I think the clerks in this parliament are a credit to our democratic processes. All of us in this building from time to time have had a need to talk to the clerks about various private issues or complex pieces of legislation. Irrespective of political persuasion, the clerks give extraordinarily good advice and their confidences are kept. I think all of us would agree with that statement. I have talked to the clerks on a number of occasions. I got written advice as to whether the Senate legislation could go through the House of Representatives and, if it did, whether it would be accepted by the Governor-General. That advice was that they did not think that it could, they thought it was unconstitutional, and that even if the House did pass the legislation it probably would not go anywhere. There was a whole range of other machinations that I will not enter into.

I also sought independent legal advice from outside the parliament. That was not to check on the clerks—I have the utmost faith in their views—but I thought it was worth getting an outside opinion. Similar opinions were given. I am quite disappointed in the member for Hinkler. I do regard him as a friend and I think he is a very good member of parliament and a good representative of his community, but he is running this nonsense that the country Independents—as he calls them—did not support the coalition's attempt to change the legislation over the confusion between inner and outer regional students. The member for Lyne and I worked diligently on getting this done. It is done, it has been done and it has been fixed. We have maintained the very real advantages that were not in the original Howard legislation and were not in the butchered arrangement between Christopher Pyne and the minister in the previous government. We have maintained the parental income arrangements as well as gained the capacity to remove the differentiation between the inner and outer regional students.

The conga line of people coming into here today trying to create an old type of history demonstrates the guilt they must have felt from when they signed off on the deal they argued against for the next two years. They then introduced these country Independent mickey mouse pieces of legislation in the Senate to make it look in the public arena that country people were voting against their own people. One of the things we all have to have regard for in this place, irrespective of politics, is the Constitution. That is the process that I went through in determining the constitutionality or otherwise of the bills that were coming out of the Senate. So I congratulate the minister, I congratulate the government and I congratulate all who have been involved in a constructive process to rectify a problem that was created five years ago. (Time expired)