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Monday, 30 August 2004
Page: 26709

Senator JACINTA COLLINS (7:53 PM) —The Family and Community Services and Veterans' Affairs Legislation Amendment (2004 Budget Measures) Bill 2004 implements two key 2004 budget measures in the Family and Community Services portfolio. Schedule 1 amends the Social Security Act 1991 and the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986 to exempt the fee waived and fee paying scholarships for the income test for income support payments. Schedule 2 amends the Social Security Act 1991 to expand the eligibility criteria for the carer allowance by allowing a new group of carers to qualify for carer allowance if they provide certain care for an adult with a disability even if they do not live with that adult. Labor will support this bill as it is largely beneficial in nature. However, I would encourage carers and students to be wary of this government should it be re-elected. It always has an agenda to find some way to claw back the benefits.

This is certainly the case with the carers measure in this bill. Carers need only to look at the debacle last year where the Howard government set out to remove 35,000 families from carer allowance—a disgraceful act. And earlier this year, before the budget, Labor obtained leaked budget cuts to carers outlined in a 62-page cabinet-in-confidence letter from the minister to the Prime Minister. Page 7 of the letter said:

The proposals in the package are linked and most require changes to legislation. The fourth proposal is a savings proposal which would reduce the period for backdating payment of carer allowance to 12 weeks for both adults and children from the current 26 weeks for adults and 52 weeks for children and would substantially offset over four years the cost of the additional assistance proposal.

It is clear that the minister had a plan to pay for the measure we are debating today by cutting payments to those who apply for carer allowance in the future. This cold-hearted measure proposed cutting $30 million from the carer allowance by restricting backdating provisions. Families waiting for the diagnosis of serious conditions would no longer be allowed to backdate claims to when loved ones first fell ill. Despite the minister's efforts to disown her own measure we can only conclude that it is still sitting in the bottom drawer should the coalition be returned for another term. The simple fact of the matter is that you cannot trust this government. Before the last election John Howard promised not to cut anyone's social security benefits, but then after the election we saw the proposal to cut $70 a fortnight from disability pensioners and the cuts to 35,000 carer allowance recipients. These were cuts to social security benefits that the Prime Minister had promised us we would not see.

The small carer allowance initiative in this bill is an initiative well overdue. The Social Security Act currently requires a carer to live with the person for whom they are providing care to qualify for the carer allowance. This co-residency requirement departed from the practice under the former domiciliary nursing care benefit, which the carer allowance replaced from July 1999 under this government. The old benefit allowed some discretion for the payment in situations where there was no co-residence. So this measure rectifies that problem. The measure today includes a new requirement that care must be provided for at least 20 hours per week. There has been some concern about the operation of this measure and the requirement for at least 20 hours of care. Labor do have concerns about this new test, but are more or less satisfied with the government's explanation of how it will be administered and that it will be essentially the current eligibility for co-resident carers. Labor will monitor the operation of the 20-hour test and, if it is found to be deficient, we will pursue measures to ensure that it operates more fairly. This matter goes to one of the Democrat amendments. Whilst Labor share similar concerns, we are not inclined to support the amendment today as it will hold up the implementation of the measures in this bill. If the House were sitting and the bill could be dealt with in that place subsequent to the amendment it might be a different story but, for now, it is important that the bill pass the Senate.

The other measure in this bill deals with student scholarships. Currently they are required to be taken into account as income unless specifically exempted from the income test for income support payments. As announced in the 2004 budget all fee waived and fee paying scholarships will no longer be included as income under the social security test for income support payments under the Social Security Act 1991 and the Veterans' Entitlements Act 1986. The exemptions will apply to scholarships offered in the secondary, vocational education and training and higher education sectors. The government has estimated that the exemption will benefit approximately 1,550 students at the present time, increasing to 2,220 students. This, of course, is a drop in the ocean when it comes to the burden presently placed on students. This government has ratcheted up HECS fees to unbearable levels. Students are now leaving their education with debts that put them behind the eight ball when it comes to buying a home and starting a family.

We also have the full fee-paying places—the $100,000 degrees that the Prime Minister promised us would not occur but which we now find have occurred. In the last 12 months we have also seen the government axe the financial supplement loan scheme, which, whilst not perfect, provided much needed help to students struggling to afford their education, particularly disabled students. The measures today are pretty meagre compared to this government's record in heaping financial burdens on students.

This brings me to the other Democrat amendment today, which seeks to broaden the scholarship exemption to those that provide direct financial assistance. Labor is not disposed to agree to this amendment, as it will treat income received from scholarships differently from income received from employment. Labor does not support treating income earned by students less favourably than that of those receiving a university scholarship. The amendment would result in students who sacrifice study time to work three or four nights a week receiving less youth allowance than students who receive the same money from cash scholarships. This is not a fair approach to address the financial pressures on students. Labor believes that a fair approach is to strengthen Commonwealth income support and to take off the long-term pressure in relation to HECS fees. Labor has already outlined reducing the age of independence for youth allowance and extending rent assistance to Austudy recipients, two desperately overdue policies which would have significant impact. There is more to be done, and it will take some time, but quick fixes that will treat students of similar means differently, whether they are receiving a scholarship or working, is not the fair approach.

To sum up, I would urge carers and students to be very sceptical about this government and these measures. The government promises one thing before an election only to claw it back afterwards. Labor will be supporting this bill today, but carers and students can be assured that the measures will be clawed back if the coalition is re-elected.