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Wednesday, 19 May 1993
Page: 817

Senator TEAGUE (11.34 a.m.) —Mr Acting Deputy President, this is my first opportunity to congratulate you on your new position and wish you well in your duties associated with being one of the acting deputy presidents in this chamber.

  The Opposition does not support the disallowance motion moved this morning by Senator Sowada of the Australian Democrats. We believe the account Senator Faulkner has just given of the Budget decision is an accurate one and one that the Opposition supported at the time. Indeed, we wanted to go further and call for a proper review of Austudy. We welcome the Chapman review and the implementation of its major findings—that is, the loans scheme that has been added to Austudy. But we still believe that Austudy is not well managed. It still requires review to ensure that it is fair and is seen, especially by students, to be fair.

  Let me focus on the Austudy question that is involved in the regulation that Senator Sowada's motion seeks to disallow. I must first refer to the principle of equal opportunity of access to education. The Liberal and National parties support very strongly equality of opportunity to education. Through student allowance schemes—through the support of students at tertiary and secondary levels—we wish to see equality of opportunity achieved. At the same time, it is our responsibility to be accountable to all taxpayers for the spending of their money in a way which is fair and balanced—in terms of the interests of students to have access to education, on the one hand; and the interests of taxpayers to have a minimum reasonable level of taxation, on the other.

  For years the Democrats have consistently argued that all students should have access to Austudy. The Democrats are not happy with the independent rate of allowance. They want to see a vast extension of the numbers of students who would be free of the parental means test so that they could gain the Austudy allowance. At the moment, if students come from moderately or very wealthy families, they are not eligible for Austudy allowances because it is seen that they have a means of support from their parents' income—even if they are aged 18, 19, 20, 21 and so on. It is only at age 24 that they are deemed to be independent.

  I want to be fair to the Democrats. On the one hand, they have consistently gone to campuses and said, `Write your cheque; tell us what you want. We'll support you; we'll give student allowances'. Then, on the other hand, they are embarrassed when all the promises they make to the electorate add up to a burden of billions of dollars in extra taxes which would be laid upon the Australian people. Indeed, the Democrats do understand that they are a high-taxing party. They did not want to see the tax cuts that have been put in place by the present Government. They did not want to see the tax cuts that the Liberal and National parties were offering. They want to have higher taxes and they want to have more schemes to benefit groups such as students.

  The Liberal and National parties have called for additional benefits in one area—that is, for the children of rural families suffering as a consequence of the rural depression. Many students, tertiary and secondary, have been cut off from any Austudy benefit purely on the basis of the asset value of the farm, not because there is any income in the family. This has led to very serious deprivation for these students who have had to stop their studies. So in this area there is a need for more compassion on the part of the Labor Party and a recognition of the impact of the rural recession upon these families.

  In the generality, I have debated education policies on campuses as much as any senator over the last 15 years. Senator Sowada referred to those of us who have debated on campuses. During the last election campaign I proudly went to all of the campuses in my State of South Australia and I defended the policies which I believed were going to improve the education outcomes for students. I did so alongside speakers from the Labor Party and speakers from the Democrats—the Democrats president and the second Senate candidate in South Australia, a young man who spoke very earnestly and very well for the Democrats alongside Senator Crowley and me on one such occasion. Other representatives of the Democrats also debated with me. I believed I was well received in the campuses of my own State of South Australia and I do not duck any debate at any time on any campus, especially when it is against the inadequacies of the Labor Government's provision for education.

Senator Collins —I heard that you were a big hit.

Senator TEAGUE —I thank Senator Collins. It is the case that there was some severe misrepresentation of coalition policy from Fightback on some of the campuses—especially with regard to so-called up-front fees, or the costs to students—put about by our opponents as the implication of Fightback being implemented on a Liberal-National Party government being elected. It was possible by direct contact with students to refute those lies, those misrepresentations, and to put clearly our policy.

  However, I do not want to reinvent a debate which took place in February and March of this year; I want to say to senators that the coalition's policies remain and they are subject to review. All the unnecessary hooks in our policy that were intelligently rejected by students, staff or parents—and when I say intelligently, I mean with a proper appreciation of what was meant—can be identified. I urge my colleagues in the Liberal and National parties to make sure that we remove those hooks; we will then be able, in our dialogue with those members of the public over the next 12 months, to put forward all the more clearly the advantages that we took, even to the last election.

  I press on to refer to the impact of the regulation before us. Let us refer to the initiative that began this decision of the Government. In the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training, in March 1991—that is a little more than two years ago now—there was a very well considered report on student financial assistance. One of the matters that this committee unanimously agreed upon—and we must give some credit to a large, well established House of Representatives committee—was stated on page 18 as follows:

  Between 1988 and 1990 the proportion of students on part allowance has increased from 37 per cent to 56 per cent. This trend is even more pronounced at the secondary level where the proportion has increased from 32 per cent to 60 per cent.

In other words, those who are not getting the full Austudy allowance, but only part of it. The report continues:

DEET stated that these trends could not be explained by changes in the operation of Austudy. Many of these students would be receiving very small allowances. The Committee doubts if the payment of these small allowances has any effect on retention or participation rates.

  Indeed, page 19 of the report shows the department's own view which is as follows:

Austudy provides the financial assistance to permit people to make the decision to continue in education.

The Liberal and National parties have asserted for years that that is what the purpose of any sound student assistance scheme ought to be. The report continues:

In other words, traditional factors such as career choice, job opportunities and family perceptions can produce logical decisions to continue in education, once the issue of financial support is resolved. Financial assistance therefore plays a supporting but important role in the decision-making process.

Like Abraham arguing with God about his nephew Lot, we can then consider where the line ought to be drawn in terms of what small allowance, if it were to be withdrawn, would materially affect the decision of a student and the student's family as to that student continuing in secondary or tertiary education.

  This committee—and by implication the department itself—and certainly the coalition parties, and the Government through its Budget decision, have said that there will not be a significant change to enrolment if payments of $20 a week or less were removed. The money gained by removing the smallest allowances would enable better targeting of money to those students who were most in need to ensure that they had equality of opportunity and access to education.

  Senator Sowada rightly referred to the 38,000 students affected by this decision made by the Labor Government in the last Budget. The decision was made following the report of the House of Representatives Standing Committee and, as Senator Sowada again rightly said, following the policy decision made by the Liberal and National parties in 1991, in August 1992 the Government decided to do this in the Budget. The regulation was brought down in December, and that is the regulation Senator Sowada is seeking to disallow.

  That total of 38,000 students—which is made up of 30,000 students in secondary education and 8,000 students in tertiary education—who will be affected by this decision is to some extent balanced by an extra 52,000 who will be receiving Austudy for the first time because of the new eligibilities and the widening of Austudy's availability to those in greatest need.

Senator Harradine —Why discriminate against large families? They are discriminating against large families.

Senator TEAGUE —I am trying to conclude my remarks, but I will say this in respect of his comment about large families. There has been a change to the effect of the means test upon large families where there are a number of siblings undertaking secondary or tertiary education. There has been a cutback and less money is available to those large families. All I can say is that the Government and the Liberal and National parties still regard that means test as fair, even if it is a reduction. I have not been convinced that that change will deter students from enrolling in education, but rather that it will be other factors.

  I conclude by responding to Senator Sowada's comment that the Democrats had the appropriate policy on this matter. It is true that they took a clear policy to the election last March, but the Democrat vote went down from 13 per cent to four per cent. One of the reasons for that was the excessive taxation which would inevitably follow the implementation of the announced Democrat policies, including this one. I say on behalf of the Liberal and National parties that we will not be supporting the disallowance motion, and we call upon the Government to complete the review of Austudy so that it is seen to be well managed and fair.