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Wednesday, 21 October 2015
Page: 11932

Mr HUTCHINSON (Lyons) (10:01): The Social Services Legislation Amendment (More Generous Means Testing for Youth Payments) Bill 2015 is a really important bill for the people of my electorate, an electorate not dissimilar to Indi or Farrer, and I see that the member for Farrer has just come into the chamber. These are rambling, rural communities with small towns, away from the higher education institutions, where so many young people aspire to go to further their opportunities in life.

Before I speak to the detail of the bill before the House, I want to comment on the member for Bendigo's contribution last night, which I had the displeasure of hearing. It was literally a rant with mistruths and misrepresentations. I understand the Labor Party are going to support these amendments and, rightly, they should. But this contribution had one misinformed scare campaign after the other. It started with $100,000 degrees.

The member for Bendigo should know that in that important discussion we had around how to fund universities into the future, a number of institutions did come out at that time, including the Australian Catholic University, a Victorian institution, saying their fees would not change. The University of Western Australia, one of the nation's top universities talked about a four-year bachelor degree costing in the order of $50,000, not $100,000. So the misinformation that was being peddled from the other side about impediments to students from all around the place was disingenuous and was really an insult to the intelligence of the people of Australia. I think they are over it and that they have had enough. I think Australians want a more mature discussion around what the real issues are.

One of the real issues is not the cost of education because nobody, from whatever background or wherever they live in Australia, has to pay a cent up-front. The cost of tuition is not the issue. The issue for young people from regional and rural Australia is that they have to travel because they have to live away from home. They do not have the luxury of having the family home to stay in and, therefore, the associated reduced costs.

I do not want to dwell on this because it is going into the distant past, but I want to briefly talk about my own circumstance, having grown up in Tasmania. When I finally decided on where I wanted to head in life, I took myself off to Geelong. At the time, I remember there was state government assistance which was $30 a week. I was fortunate to get loan from my father. The miserable fellow would not do anything other than give me a loan! And for years after he reminded me of it. He sadly died in 1989 and I do not know whether I ended paying it all back or not. It was as much a lesson about the reality of life, that we often forget now in this place where we always have our hand out.

A few mates and I bought a few sheep and leased a few sheep down on the Bellarine Peninsula. We did a little shearing on weekends and some crutching for people—probably under the designated rate that the unions were suggesting at the time would have been appropriate. Nevertheless, we managed to get through. We all have our stories. It is difficult when you are living away from home and you are going on to study. It is no different today really than it was 20, 30 or 50 years ago. We have to manage.

What we should have in this country is equal opportunity to study. You can never contrive outcomes, but we should allow young people from wherever they are in Australia, whether they live in Campbell Town in my electorate of Lyons, or up the Derwent Valley in towns like Ouse or Bothwell in the central highlands, or they come from the member for Farrer's electorate at Broken Hill, to have equal opportunity to study. It should not matter what your postcode is, where you come from in Australia, to go on and get a higher education. That is what this bill intends to do.

It introduces a 2015 budget measure to provide more generous and consistent support for families with dependent young people who quality for certain youth income support payments. It has the following elements. From 1 January 2016, it will remove the family assets test and family actual means test for the youth allowance parental means-test arrangements. From 1 January 2016, it will align parental income test exemptions for youth allowance with existing arrangements for family tax benefit part A. From 1 January 2016, it will remove maintenance income from the youth allowance parental income test assessment. From 1 January 2017, it will instead apply a separate maintenance income test for the treatment of child support like that currently applying to family tax benefit part A.

From 1 July 2016, where a family has a dependent child who receives an individual youth payment that is parentally income tested and has younger siblings who qualify for the family tax benefit, the family pool for the youth parental income test will include all children who qualify for the family tax benefit. This is important, as I mentioned, for families and communities around my electorate, all of whom have to travel away from home to get higher education. It is important for the children of farmers, where it is often the case—and this is true all around Australia, as it is in Tasmania—that families have assets but having available cash is problematic for them. These changes recognise that circumstance. Small business people in regional Australia will often be in a similar situation. I will refer a little bit to Senator McKenzie's good work in this area. I have been involved in her group, along with the member for Durack and others. I will touch on that in a second.

We also have had specific challenges in Tasmania. For many years, high schools have only gone through to year 10. Thanks to the good work of Minister Jeremy Rockliff, the Tasmanian Minister for Education and Training, that is changing. There is a process in place now where regional high schools will, like the rest of the country, be going through to year 12. The dropout rate of students at year 10 is just simply unacceptably high. It is one of the things that I believe is really holding our state back. This change is one of the things that the state government, supported by the work we are doing here, is doing to help students in regional areas have the same opportunities as their urban cousins.

The measures outlined in this bill aim to align more closely the parental means test arrangements for youth allowance with the arrangements for family tax benefit part A. The bill will improve and amend the social security law to simplify and improve the complex parental means tests for youth payments and more closely align them with the family tax benefit part A means test in the family assistance law. It will include siblings eligible for the family tax benefit in the family pool for the youth parental income test from 1 July 2016, which will mean an easing of the income test taper and an increase in the income test cut-outs. These changes will allow some dependent young people who are currently not entitled to receive youth allowance or other youth payments to receive them.

Last month my electorate, along with a number of other electorates around the country, very gladly hosted a forum. We held it in the most central place that we could find—Campbell Town in the northern midlands of Tasmania. We were very pleased to welcome Senator Bridget McKenzie, who has lead the federal government's higher education reform forums around the country. Indeed, Senator McKenzie has just completed a series of regional higher education forums to discuss access to higher education and the initiatives in the 2015 budget.

Feedback from the forums, including from the people at our forum at Campbell Town, will provide input to the final report of the interdepartmental committee due in November this year. 'Interdepartmental' refers to the fact that there were representatives from one of the largest policy departments, the Department of Social Services, but also from the Department of Education. It was fantastic to have not only Senator Bridget McKenzie there but also, as I said, representatives from both of those departments.

We had more than 50 educators and parents at the forum. It was during the middle of the day so that is something that indicates the importance of this issue, as people lead busy lives. They came from across my electorate and around Tasmania—from my colleague the member for Bass's electorate, the member for Braddon's electorate and also from the electorate of Franklin. People also came from Tasmania's leading higher education institutions. We had: Sue Kilpatrick and Merran Rogers from the University of Tasmania; Frans Ammerlaan from Vocational Language Learning Centres; Shelly Barnett, a teacher from Hobart's Rosny College; Stephen Norris, the headmaster of Launceston Church Grammar School—my old school; Keith Wenn, the principal at Launceston College; Jane Teniswood from the East Coast Network Group based in Triabunna; Rick Birch, who is the coordinator of the South East Trade Training Centre at Sorell; and Kate Thompson and Emily Gardner from the Isolated Children's Parents' Association.

There was a broad discussion about the challenges that Tasmania uniquely faces. We think of Tasmania as a relatively small place and, yes, you could fit Tasmania into the member for Durack's electorate. Nevertheless, accessibility to higher education is just as much an issue for Tasmanians as it is for people living in remote areas of WA. As I said before, it should not matter what your postcode is when it comes to the opportunities you have to participate in higher education. I think that is an aspiration that all of us in this place share and would support.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics figures indicate the trend unemployment rate for Tasmania is falling. That is a fantastic thing, but youth unemployment is still too high. The proportion of those not engaged in higher education is higher in Tasmania than it is nationally. If I do nothing else during my time in this place, I am determined to do everything I can in conjunction with my state colleagues to improve this. That is why I am so pleased to be able to speak on this legislation, which will address that challenge. About 49.5 per cent of Tasmanians aged 15 to 24 attend full-time education compared to 52.3 per cent of young people nationally. Doing whatever we can to improve these rates is necessary and important.

Removing the family actual means test will see around 1,200 more people receiving youth allowance for the first time as well as increase payments for about 4,860 existing students by approximately $2,000 per year. It is a significant amount of money that helps with those costs of living, be it accommodation or other things when we have to live away from home. The changes mean farming families, who are very well represented in my electorate of Lyons, and others as well, will not have farm assets counted towards the means test for their dependent children when they are claiming youth allowance.

This, indeed, is an important reform, especially for the people of my rural communities in Lyons. It is not so much about the actual cost of education, as I highlighted before, particularly in the case of university, and the reforms that were proposed would also have been expanded to those sub-bachelor courses and those associate diplomas. So the benefits of HECS and HELP loans that are available to people doing bachelor degrees would have been expanded to those pathway courses through the reforms that were proposed, and that certainly would have provided a huge opportunity and been of huge benefit. It is something that I know the University of Tasmania has been advocating for a very long time, and many of the students that participate in those associate degrees, for which they have to pay up front, would have been included if those reforms had been successful and would have had the same advantages that people going on to do degrees have had.

Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this debate. I do not think there is anything more important that we can do in this place than to support our young people to have equal opportunity in this great country—not equal outcomes, because we will never be able to achieve that, and that is not the society I want to live in. I want to see people who work hard, people who are smart, being able to take advantage of that opportunity. We will never be able to control those things, but one of the things we can control in this place is giving people from regional Australia the same opportunities as people who live in urban areas.