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Thursday, 30 June 1994
Page: 2370

Senator BOSWELL (Leader of the National Party of Australia) —I seek leave to have a speech incorporated in Hansard. I have spoken to the duty minister, who has agreed.

  Leave granted.

  The speech read as follows—

I rise to speak on a very important matter which is the need to bring about some form of social justice for rural youth who form one of the most disadvantaged groups in society, but a group this government has steadfastly ignored.

Despite the underpinning rationale of the government's recent white paper—"working nation" that the youth of Australia should be in either school, training or in employment, many rural youth are excluded from one or more of these options in a way that is unfair and inequitable.

Firstly education—there are countless numbers of eligible students who cannot afford to continue their education as a result of their family's essential farm assets disqualifying them from Austudy assets test, despite their having a low income.

Currently students cannot be assessed for Austudy independently of their parents until the age of 23.

Are these rural students expected to wait six or seven years before completing their educations?

Secondly jobs and training—as we all know, employment prospects for young people in rural centres are bleak.

For rural students denied the opportunity to finish their schooling, there is little hope for them to be found in the jobs compact.

The 96,000 Jobstart, wage-subsidised placements during 1993-94, were mainly sourced from the retail, manufacturing, entertainment/restaurants, construction and wholesale trade.

Clearly the vast bulk of these jobs will be found in the capital cities, particularly Sydney and Melbourne.

The government's commitment of $50 million to regional policy will go nowhere in creating anything like the job opportunities that will be found in the capital cities.

The new youth training allowance for under eighteens is subject to the same means test as Austudy.

Unless these children move away from home and declare themselves independent of their parents, the same number of young people who currently cannot access Austudy, cannot access the youth training allowance, except for the minimum, non means-tested payment of $30 a week.

Unable to afford to continue their educations, unable to get a job, unable to access the youth training allowance, except for the minimum payment, countless number of rural youth are essentially cast aside by this government.

Why are the dependents of the vital wealth-creating primary industries sector treated with such callous disregard?

Australia today is a divided county. The gulf in employment, essential services, prospects and lifestyle between metropolitan and rural and regional Australia is widening with each year.

Rural youth are particularly hard-hit. One third of under twenty five year olds are unemployed.

The only way they will ever gain employment when economic conditions improve is if they are sufficiently skilled to meet the skill levels demanded by employers.

We need a trained, highly-skilled workforce and the best way to achieve this is through assisting able students to complete their secondary and tertiary educations.

It is an absolutely lamentable situation that able students have been denied the right to pursue tertiary studies at university or tafe, because their parents farm assets disqualifies them from receiving Austudy payments.

One of the most inequitable situations that exists in Australian society today is that of students from low-income farm families who are prevented from participating in further education, as a result of being denied Austudy assistance.

As a Department of Employment, Education and Training brochure states, without financial assistance, thousands of students would be unable to complete their educations.

This is certainly the case of many farm families who have been consistently denied Austudy eligibility due to holding farm assets over the assets threshold, despite having low or zero incomes.

The notion that because a farmer owns a property valued at over $734,000, the current Austudy limit, that he can afford to educate his children, in many cases can not be validated.

A farm and farm-related assets cannot be realised easily.

We are still in the midst of a rural recession and the effects are felt nation-wide.

A third of Queensland and New South Wales is officially drought-declared.

The recent ABARE farm survey report reveals that average broadacre farm profits have been negative for the fourth consecutive year.

This represents the average—many farms would have experienced negative profits for far longer than 4 years.

Wool growers have been struggling on under low prices for several years now.

The special circumstances that affect rural families, such as prolonged drought and low wool prices must be acknowledged.

Children from struggling farm families should not be denied an opportunity to further their education because of the family farm.

A recently prepared NFF submission contains DEET estimates that rural people's participation in higher education is only two thirds the rate of people in urban areas.

Data collected by DEET shows that in 1993 there were 450,000 austudy applicants. 506 Applications were refused on failure of the assets test. 48% Of these were rural applicants.

The coalition recently moved an amendment to the Students Assistance Amendment Bill which would act to exempt students holding healthcare cards from the Austudy assets test.

Student assistance should be based on evident need.

When families qualify for a healthcare card issued by the Department of Social Security, they are subsisting on a very low income and clearly are in evident need.

A family's income stream is a far more accurate representation of their financial circumstances than an assets test.

It is the income stream that provides, or in many cases for rural families is not able to provide, food, fuel, textbooks, school uniforms.

Not ageing farm machinery, tractors or land which often could not be sold at any price.

These assets which are essential to run the farm are clearly not assets in the way investment property, holiday houses, cars and boats are assets and should not be dealt with in the same manner when assessing Austudy eligibility.

Our amendment was also designed to hold the government accountable to its 1993 budget commitment stated in several Department of Employment, Education and Training publications including the Austudy application form and guide and the Austudy guide to student finance—that all healthcare card holders would have the Austudy assets test waived.

As is well known by now the government broke this commitment earlier this year.

In doing so it turned its back on the plight of rural youth from battling farm families in an utterly unconscionable manner.

It smashed the educational aspirations of hundreds of students that had been built up through this budget promise and does not seem to care.

Recently the coalition pressed this amendment again and the bill has once again been returned to the House of Representatives.

It is now up to the government to salvage the critical situation it created through the revocation of its budget promise and support our amendment when the Student Assistance Bill is dealt with again in the House.

The NFF submission is a moving testament to the shattered hopes, and wasted talents of hundreds of rural students, cruelly denied the opportunity to further their education.

The wasted talents of these young people is tragic and cannot be overstated.

To cite just a couple of cases—

Consider the case of a 20 year old student from Roma with a tertiary entrance score of 925 which would qualify her for many university courses, but who is unable to attend university because of ineligibility for Austudy and her parents cannot afford to support her.

Her ambitions shattered—she is on unemployment benefits and works casually as a ringer.

Another student from Goondiwindi who failed to meet the austudy assets test and whose family cannot afford to support her, is forced to remain at home, unemployed.

There is the case of a student from Jandowe who is receiving Austudy, with the assets test waived, courtesy of the healthcare card.

This payment will cut out at the end of the month, and while her parents will be able to support her for the rest of the year, they will not be able to extend financial support for the remainder of her 3 year course.

Her future at this stage seems very uncertain.

Another student from Bundaberg commenced a computer course at Bundaberg TAFE with money he had saved and with the anticipation of receiving Austudy.

He was refused Austudy due to his family's farm assets so had to pull out of the course, return home and apply for unemployment benefits.

And yet another student from Theodore was denied Austudy due to the assets test, despite the family qualifying for a healthcare card. Their only solution was to retrench a station hand in order to be able to send her to university.

I could relate many more such stories.

The specific circumstances may differ for each family, but the thwarted ambition of these young people can be evidenced in every case.

These young people are our future.

Their parents produce much of this nations's wealth.

These youngsters desperately want to make a contribution to the nation themselves, but because of their family's specific circumstances, are denied the opportunity to do so.

Instead they are cast on the scrapheap, forced to languish on the dole when they could be finishing their educations and furthering their skills.

This is a problem that this government must address and has the opportunity to do so through supporting the coalition's amendment to the Students Assistance Amendment Bill.

The cost of providing Austudy payments to able students currently denied assistance is one that I believe this country should be able to afford.

The wasted talents, shattered hopes and thwarted ambitions

of countless rural students is too high a price to pay—for the students themselves and the country at large.