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Thursday, 19 August 1993
Page: 398

Senator WOODLEY (9.20 p.m.) —I support Senator Brownhill's motion, but I do have some concerns about the absolute language which he uses in the motion. I understand Senator Sherry's frustration with such words as `a total lack of consideration and understanding'. The Australian Democrats support some measures in this budget, such as counselling services and the abolition of the assets test for isolated students.

  I have learned over the years to be very suspicious of over the top and absolute statements. However, given this qualification, I am still prepared to support the direction of the motion because it is correct in stating:

. . . that the increases in taxes and charges will have devastating effects on the people in rural and regional Australia . . .

Regardless of whether the government tinkers at the edges of the problem, as this budget does, the situation in the bush remains that the people, the industry, the families and the communities are desperate. There are families who, going back generations, have never asked for help in their lives, but who are asking for that kind of help now.

  When in St George a week ago I talked to a number of cotton growers who are some of the best farm managers in Australia. One of them, a friend of mine for many years and someone who would never ask for help, said to me, `We will cope with this drought as long as you can prevent any increase in taxes and charges. We just cannot cop any further increase in our overhead costs'.

  Over the past few weeks, government ministers, such as Simon Crean and Graham Richardson, have visited centres in western Queensland. To their credit they have listened to the people and expressed concern. They promised to make sure that bureaucratic blocks to assistance and social security would be removed. But I need to remind this house that rural families have special needs and so often that assistance and those social security allowances do not reach them.

  I give another example of a family in Bollon. At the moment the three sons are living in Toowoomba, which is 500 kilometres away. They receive Jobsearch allowance and they cannot find a job. The family is desperate for them to go home because they certainly need help. Yet, if they go home, they will lose the Jobsearch allowance. If they go home, the family will not even have enough income to feed them. I know the father, and he is so close to the edge. If this were an isolated example, then one could dismiss it. But the same story is repeated over and over again across Australia.

  Although we recognise some minor assistance in this budget, in terms of the situation which we face in Australia, in terms of the desperation of thousands of families and hundreds of rural communities, the budget simply does not even come close. I know that it is difficult to design a social safety net to cover every circumstance, but I believe that for the sake of rural families it is worth trying.

  This morning I asked a question of the minister representing the Minister for Employment, Education and Training. Although I give him credit for trying, he did not seem to fully understand the point I was making. So I want to put it on the record. Under this budget 16-year-old students at secondary schools will no longer receive Austudy; rather they will be paid through the family payments system. There are two problems with this. Firstly, the level of benefit payable to those students under Austudy used to be $64.90 per week. This will be cut to $60.80 per week, made up of about $10 in basic family payment and $50 in additional family payment, and it is available only if parental income is below $21,000.

  Secondly—and this is the serious issue—the assets limit on Austudy is around $700,000, whereas the new assets limit to apply for the basic family payment has just been slashed to $550,000 in this budget. Worse still, the assets limit on the additional family payment is just $363,500. The majority of farms are nominally worth far more than those asset levels but are still producing very low levels of income. I am concerned that much of the saving, which the government estimates at $5 million for this year and $20 million, $24 million and $27 million respectively for the next three years, will come from the pockets of rural students at a time when they can least afford it.

  What the minister did say was that the government has removed the assets test from the supplementary boarding allowance paid under the assistance for isolated children scheme. We applaud this, but the government is simply not consistent. The minister's press release announcing this initiative stated:

It is to ensure that people living in isolated areas were not excluded from receiving additional financial assistance for schooling because of assets that yielded little or no income.

We agree with the minister. That is a very good principle, and the Australian Democrats have been saying that for a long time. Now I want him to apply the same principle to our 16-year-old rural students. Indeed, the principle should be extended to a whole range of allowances and social security payments. I trust that this time, if we bring that initiative into this chamber, the coalition will support us. Finally, I am glad that Senator Brownhill has proposed this motion in the Senate, but I want to be assured that his words and those of other members of the opposition will be backed by action. The Democrats will look for the opposition's support to this end in the coming weeks.