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Tuesday, 28 June 1994
Page: 2184

Senator BROWNHILL (Deputy Leader of the National Party of Australia) (12.09 a.m.) —Today I met with members of the Isolated Children's Parents Association, ICPA. They make what has become an annual pilgrimage to Canberra to meet with ministers and their advisers, opposition spokesmen, departmental officers and anyone who cares to see them, to put their case for a better deal for children living in isolated areas of Australia. When I met with them last year they seemed reasonably confident that they would receive a fairer cut of the cake from the federal government. They came this year post budget realising that once again they had been forgotten. They had been fobbed off because other supposedly more pressing issues got the money, but more of that later.

  For those who do not know what the ICPA does, let me explain. It is an organisation of parents of children who live too far from schools to enable them to commute to schools. The children receive their education either by mail or over the wireless by UHF; alternatively the children are sent away to schools in towns and cities hundreds, and in many cases thousands, of kilometres away. For those in the bureaucracy, and for those in the Labor party who believe that anyone living on the land is a rich squatter with inherited wealth and a stash of money, let me tell them that half of the membership of the ICPA is made up of parents who are shearers, farmhands, itinerant workers and others.

  The group is not rich; thus it is not powerful and it is not strong. The group cannot afford a professional lobbyist. Those who come to Canberra are the ones who can afford to get here. They do not fly first class and they do not stay in four star hotels. They represent kids who really are the disadvantaged in society. As the ICPA president, David Houston said today, `Between geography and the assets test, our kids miss out on everything'.

  A few weeks ago I made a three day visit to western New South Wales to talk with landholders about land care and other issues. One of those `other issues' was the difficulties under which families raise and educate their children. I talked with people from the Tibooburra Outback School of the Air; with the teachers who had left places like Queanbeyan and gone to Tibooburra with its 18 kids in school and 25 others `on the air' because they believe that that is where the real teaching and the real kids are. They are teachers who, despite the harsh conditions, really believe in what they are doing.

  I talked with the children's helpers—the people who live on outback properties and help the children with their schooling both on air and at home. They are paid a pathetic amount; probably the dole would be a more profitable option. The helpers cannot be paid any more because there is not any money in western New South Wales to pay them. Landholders out there run sheep, and for those who do not know it, the wool market collapsed some years ago but the cost of running and shearing sheep has not got any cheaper; nor has rabbit and woody weed control, shire rates, diesel, food and everything else that goes to constitute a living in that area.

  The ICPA raised a number of issues today, but there is one that I want to particularly highlight tonight. Under the assistance for isolated children scheme, the AIC, parents of children in outback areas receive a home tutor allowance of $10 a week for primary children and $20 a week for secondary students. When I visited western New South Wales I spoke with parents who receive a lousy $10 a week for teaching their primary children at home and $20 a week if they have their secondary aged children still at home. They teach their children in between doing the books for the farm, acting as a stockhand outside the house, running a house where the local store is many hours away, and fitting in the other normal social activities.

  In this the International Year of the Family I contend that the AIC is one of the most blatant anti-family measures currently on offer from the federal government. It is anti-family because it provides that tutors at home can receive $10 a week for each child, but if the parent—usually the mother—moves into town and sets up a second home, in effect breaking up the family, the family can receive $2,500 per child per year.

  What has happened in western New South Wales is that families that have taken that option because they cannot afford to send their children to Adelaide—the closest capital city where their children can board—either break up permanently, or the father decides that trying to run a property on his own with no family to come home to at night simply is not worth it, the farm is sold up and another statistic is added to the job queue.

  To me that is so blatantly unfair that when I was first acquainted with it I could not believe it was happening and I did not know why the government was doing it to real Australians—people who are the salt of the earth. I am told by the ICPA that the number of affected children is around 9,000. It would hardly be financially crippling if the government were to offer every isolated child a living away from home allowance. After all, in theory it is already available. If every child were to be moved into town the total cost per year would be around $22 million.

  When we are spending billions of dollars on social security and millions of dollars on city based child care for two income non-means tested urban families, but nothing for rural families—we have allocated $2.2 million in this year's budget for writing a national agenda for families, but refuse funding for 9,000 children in isolated areas of Australia—the inequity is as blatant as it is wrong.

  The Labor Party talks of government funding that is equitable and needs based, but that same government provides $23 million to outfit the department of foreign affairs offices in New York and Canberra. The Labor government produced the Towards a fairer Australia: Social justice strategy paper, saying it was committed to ensuring that its policies and programs enabled women to live with economic security and independence, freedom from discrimination, and equality of opportunity. But it pays them $10 a week to educate their children. Where is the fairness and equity in that?

  The ICPA has a valid point. The biggest difficulty is one of perception. These people living on the land are regarded by too many in the bureaucracy and on the government benches as the established wealthy—the landholders who measure their properties by kilometres, not hectares. It may be true that their properties are large, but these days they run more rabbits than sheep and they measure their properties by the size of their debt. They are all in debt—some irretrievably.

  The isolated children of Australia need our help. It is important that we provide it. This is an issue that I do not intend to give up on because the inequity of it is so massive that it demands our attention. It is no coincidence that the 14 poorest electorates in Australia are rural electorates, and the three poorest are held by the National Party. Neither is it a coincidence that the third richest is Canberra—a Labor town.

  We need to seriously re-examine the traditional bias in Australia against the people on the land. In Australia we need to appreciate where the needs are greatest. I suggest that western New South Wales and the other outback and remote areas of Australia are a good place to start. But it is not only the landholders; the workers in that area also have a real need. They are all real people.