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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12054

Mr CHRISTENSEN (Dawson) (15:54): I associate myself with the comments of the member for Gippsland, particularly in relation to the National Party's policy of a tertiary access allowance. I think that will happen eventually in this country and we will get a better deal for regional and rural students. Speaking of regional areas, I come from one, the electorate of Dawson, and so I think it is only right that I speak on this Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011, which affects regional students. Once again, we are debating the inequities that this government forced onto regional students, and it is not the first time I have had the opportunity to speak on this matter. The inequalities that this government created are really a form of student apartheid and the Liberal-National coalition has been trying to correct that for a very long time. We have been trying to correct the issue since this Labor government took a perfectly good system and broke it in 2009. What the government demonstrated at that time, and up to this point, is that it has no understanding of regional areas. It simply does not appreciate the difference between regional centres and metropolitan centres.

Independent youth allowance aside, regional centres face a whole range of inequities on a daily basis. Regional centres do not have access to the resources and facilities that are available in many cities. Regional centres do not have access to the same goods and services that their city cousins use every day. Regional centres experience the tyranny of distance firsthand. Regional centres often cop a higher cost of living. There are many things that are more difficult in regional centres, and one of them is tertiary education. There are lower tertiary education participation rates from regional centres, and there is a reason for that. There are even more obstacles in this field.

I use two towns in my electorate of Dawson as examples. The main population centre, Mackay, was once a sugar town but is now predominantly a mining town. The cost of living in Mackay is placing enormous pressure on families. Mackay is considered an inner regional centre—it is a thousand kilometres from Brisbane. There is less distance between Brisbane and Sydney. There is less distance between Sydney and Melbourne. Somehow Mackay has been classified as inner regional. There is no university that is primarily based out of Mackay. We do have a subcampus, I would call it, of Central Queensland University. It is a very good campus; it has the potential to be, and will soon become, the main campus of CQ University. At the moment it is still a subsidiary campus of a university that is based in another town, Rockhampton. Some students wanting to go to university can study some of the courses at the Mackay campus of CQ University and others can at least do their first year of study at the Mackay campus before having to relocate to Rockhampton. Many more students who want to do other subjects that are not on offer at that university have no choice but to relocate to a capital city. They have no choice in this matter.

In contrast, Townsville—some of which is in my electorate of Dawson—is classified as an outer regional centre. It is in fact further away from Brisbane than Mackay, but it is a larger centre with more facilities, more population and more services, including the main campus of James Cook University. James Cook is a fine university and attracts students from many other centres, including capital cities. Townsville students wanting to undertake tertiary studies have many more opportunities than their counterparts in Mackay to do so without having to relocate, yet it is easier for them to qualify for independent youth allowance. This is the kind of student apartheid that this government has introduced in regional centres throughout this country. The problem that we have faced since 2009 is that we have a government that refuse to listen and refuse to admit that they were wrong on this count. It is the same attitude that we have witnessed with so many other debates and issues. It is the same attitude that we have witnessed with that e asylum seeker policy. They took something that worked perfectly well and they undid it. Then they stubbornly refused to admit they were wrong and tried everything they could think of to fix it—except to put it back to the way it was. The Liberal-National coalition have been trying to fix this independent youth allowance program since the then education minister and now Prime Minister created the problem. A coalition notice of motion last year sought to make independent youth allowance fairer for regional students. And guess what? Labor opposed it. The coalition then tried to introduce an amendment in February to fix the problem. Guess what happened again? Labor opposed it and they disallowed debate on the matter. The coalition gave them another chance. We proposed another amendment to the appropriations legislation in March—which again would have fixed the problem. Surprise, surprise: Labor once again opposed it. Another amendment later in March, to the families, housing, community services and Indigenous affairs legislation, could also have fixed the problem. Again, Labor opposed it. In June, another notice of motion was opposed by Labor. All the way through this process, we have seen the so-called country Independents, the member for Lyne and the member for New England, siding with Labor on this matter, to the detriment of regional Australia and regional students. The government have been consistently good at saying 'no, no, no' to regional students on this front.

Finally, we have an admission. Finally, the government are now saying, 'We got it wrong.' Finally, there will be a rebalancing of student income support towards students in regional areas. But, very sadly for some students, it is going to be far too late. For some students, going to university was not viable because of the discrimination that was imposed by this Labor government. They have been forced to take a different path in life because there was no viable financial option for them; and that is an absolute disgrace.

Some students have incurred large debts, having been forced to take out large loans, because they could not get the same support that was given to students in other areas who actually had more choice. What a bizarre set-up. Some students from regional areas with lower populations and more choice got better provision of income support than students in places like Mackay—simply because of their postcode. They were students who were lucky enough to live in a town that had a different classification—outer regional not inner regional. But not Mackay students. Under this government, it will be forever remembered that Mackay students and many others in areas deemed 'inner regional' were treated as second-class citizens.