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Monday, 10 November 2008
Page: 10314

Mr SYMON (5:45 PM) —I rise in strong support of the Tax Laws Amendment (Education Refund) Bill 2008, which will enact the Rudd government’s 2007 election commitment announced on 25 September last year. It is especially pleasing to be able to stand up in this place and speak for the working families in the seat of Deakin. This bill will bring welcome relief from the costs of education for parents of primary and secondary school students, and it is specifically targeted, the education refund being available to those parents who are receiving family tax benefit A. In my electorate of Deakin there are a total of 7,069 families who receive family tax benefit A by fortnightly instalment, and that is paid for a total of 13,008 children. Another 1,600 or so families receive their family tax benefit A by lump sum at the end of the financial year. The cut-off rate for families with primary or secondary school children for family tax benefit A ranges from $100,801 for those families with one child to $122,263 for those families with three children. These families will be able to claim 50 per cent of the cost of eligible education expenses of up to $750 per child at primary school each year, and that provides a maximum tax offset of $375 per year for each child at primary school. For each child at secondary school these families will be eligible to claim 50 per cent of up to $1,500 of eligible education expenses per year. That provides a maximum tax offset of $750 per secondary school student per year.

Like most members of this place, I visit my local schools quite often, and an issue that comes up many times when you talk to parents is the costs of schooling. Some parents are doing okay and some are doing it really tough, and extra costs that come along at the start of the school year and during the school year for essentials that cannot be done without—you cannot let your kids go to school without the right equipment—are a really important factor in budgetary pressures. So the education tax refund is an important way of dealing with it and getting money back to where it is needed to help a better educational outcome.

The education tax refund is also available to parents whose children are in homeschooling, and that is worth noting, as till now there has been very little in the way of Commonwealth support for homeschooling. It does not apply to that many people but there are certainly a group out there that strongly believe in that system, and they should also have support where it is needed—that is, to deliver materials to their students, their own children. Most importantly, the tax offset is real. It is in-your-hand money—it is not a gross amount—and, because it is a refundable tax offset, it will also be paid even if the person claiming it has no tax liability. The education tax refund is also payable to those people who may not receive family tax benefit A if they are or if the eligible child is receiving Abstudy or Student Financial Supplement Scheme or Veterans’ Children Education Scheme payments. The education tax refund is also payable to people with eligible children if they are receiving the disability support pension, Newstart allowance or youth allowance. Rather than requiring people to have a taxable income before a deduction could be claimed, as in the past, this bill will also benefit those who need it most, especially if they get by on very limited incomes. The education tax refund will be claimable from 1 July 2009 for eligible expenses incurred in the 2008-09 year.

I have had a look at the list of eligible expenses, and the more you look at it the more you see in it. I will go through those now because I think it is important that it be fleshed out, because we sometimes see a small list and sometimes a larger list, and if you read through the actual text of the bill it is quite an all-encompassing type of arrangement. It includes things like computers but also the components purchased to build a home computer. It includes computer related equipment such as printers and disability aids to assist with the use of computer equipment for students with disabilities. It includes establishing and maintaining a home internet connection, which is pretty much vital these days when it comes to education. If you have children and they come home, they certainly need access to a computer and to the knowledge base that is the internet. It is almost impossible these days to find a task set for students that relates only back to textbooks; there always seems to be a need to have this computer access. The eligible expenses also include computer software such as word-processing programs, spreadsheet and database applications, presentation software, educational games and, importantly, internet filters and anti-virus software. They include school textbooks, including prescribed textbooks, study guides and other paper based school learning material, including stationery items. They also include tools of trade prescribed by course. The eligible expenses also include running and repair costs for computers and computer related equipment such as printers and disability aids.

The good news does not stop there. When a child undergoes the transition from primary school to secondary school during a financial year, the education tax refund will apply to that student at the secondary school rate for the whole year. This will be most appreciated by working families, as the expense for a child starting a new secondary school is usually much higher than for a child continuing at the same primary school. It is also worth highlighting that if eligible expenses for a child exceed the $750 or $1,500 threshold—the annual limits for the financial year, as I have just said—they can be moved over to the next year, so the excess, over-the-top expenses can be moved to the subsequent income year. Where families have more than one eligible child, the eligible expenses can be pooled and divided between the children when accessing the tax offset, providing all the children involved would have had access to the purchased items. This could be very useful for higher cost items, such as a home computer, which may cost more than the limit set for one child. At a total cost of $4.4 billion over four years, the education tax refund will certainly be of assistance to many low- and middle-income families.

In 2007, the Brotherhood of St Laurence published a report titled Counting the cost: parental experiences of educational expenses: results from the 2007 education costs survey. This report concentrated solely on low-income families. It found that 72 per cent of respondents indicated they could not afford items that would ‘improve the education experience of their children’. It also looked at a lot of areas more closely than that. It reported that two-thirds of the survey respondents did not have a home computer with internet access. That figure compares with ABS figures from 2007 that showed that 36 per cent of Australian households did not have a home computer with internet access. The Brotherhood of St Laurence survey also recorded that 60 per cent had difficulty in paying for schoolbooks. This included almost half the respondents reporting difficulty in paying for school and education equipment. As I noted before, the education tax refund is also payable to people with eligible children if they are receiving the disability support pension, Newstart allowance or youth allowance. This is particularly important for the Brotherhood of St Laurence survey respondents, as 98 per cent had a Centrelink healthcare or pension card. Fifty-eight per cent of them received a Centrelink pension, payment or allowance, and for 40 per cent of the survey respondents this was the parenting payment at the single rate.

When the education tax refund is added to the government’s family tax benefit A bonus to be delivered from 8 December this year, there will be an even greater benefit for working families with children attending school. The start of a new school year can be financially stressful for parents, and it can be just as stressful for children, especially if they have to do without when other children attend school with more equipment than they have. It is not a new problem; it has been around for many years. Many parents do not like to think of the day their child comes home from school at the end of the year with the list of textbooks for the next year and their prices. This bill will certainly go a long way to helping out in that situation. Hopefully, it will mean that more children go to school in the next school year and, on the first day of school, will have the right books and the right stationery equipment—the things they need to be able to learn in an educational environment.

The cost of textbooks in particular may add up to several hundred dollars a year for a family. This, of course, comes straight after all the expenses of the Christmas holiday break. If you have got more than one child going to school, the bills can double or triple. If the curriculum moves around, a textbook that has been good for one year is no longer the required text for the next. When it comes to selling them off secondhand, you do not get much. When you have to buy them new, you have to pay quite a lot. The cost of buying textbooks is then followed by the cost of going to the local newsagent and getting all the stationery items for your child to go to school for the year. Again, that bill adds up very quickly. So the best thing of all about this bill is that, by keeping receipts for these items, families will get the rebate come tax time. For the many who struggle to send their children to school, it surely will be a great help during the year, and especially at the start of the year when those costs are higher. This is a good news bill that will greatly benefit working families both in Deakin and in every electorate in Australia. I commend this bill to the House.