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Tuesday, 10 September 1996
Page: 3159

Senator CARR(5.59 p.m.) —The opposition will be supporting Senator Harradine's motion on Austudy regulations today. We do so because upon reflection this regulation is, in our view, not an appropriate means at this time. As I understand the situation, the parliament rose last year, having failed to consider measures contained in legislation that would have had the effect of changing arrangements, whereby the Student and Youth Assistance Act would mean that Abstudy and Austudy would be changed and a new scheme called parenting allowance would be introduced.

Then, strangely enough, three days later the department produces regulations to the effect of securing those changes without the agreement of the parliament. While that is an issue that one may raise in terms of legality—there is no doubt that that is a legal act—it is a question of whether or not it is proper act in seeking to secure changes such as these.

I too have come across cases whereby married students with dependent children who were relying upon allowances paid under Austudy and Abstudy found that, unilaterally, those changes occurred as a result of these regulations as of 1 January this year. That might not seem much to a lot of people but the net effect of that, according to the correspondence that I have, is that there may well be a loss of benefits of some $65.35 per fortnight. For people who are on very low incomes, that is a large amount of money.

I understand that in correspondence from Mary Lovett to students it is stated:

The abolition of AUSTUDY Dependent Spouse Allowance (DSA) from 1 January was part of a package of measures to rationalise largely identical spouse benefits and payments with a similar purpose and to reduce financial dependency between partners by providing financial entitlements directly to the spouse rather than to the student as the notional breadwinner. Spouses now need to apply to the Department of Social Security for assistance in their own right.

You can see how those sorts of regulations will be interpreted under this government, where you will see up to 180,000 persons removed from the social security benefits list.

It seems to me that there is a need to have another look at this. As I understand it, it was said that there were supposed to be identical spouse benefits. When you actually examine the detail, it suggests that the loss of $65.35 per fortnight is not identical. It is quite clear from examination of the detail that the moneys payable under this new allowance, and under the way these regulations have been interpreted, is a loss of benefits to people normally entitled to benefits. I could go into some detail on those matters.

In essence, what occurred under the living allowance was equal to the dependent spouse allowance unless one took the option of a $7,000 Commonwealth Bank supplementary loan, which would reduce the living allowance by $3,500 I am informed. Without that supplementary option, both the living allowance and the dependent spouse allowance for 1996 would have been some $7,351 respectively. Under these changes, the amount payable for the parenting allowance by DSS is $280 per fortnight which is equal to a lesser amount than that paid for under the old dependent spouse allowance which it replaced.

It is not just a question of being $280 less, because if you look into this further you actually see that some old allowances were incorporated within that one allowance and they have now been removed. I am advised by the correspondence that I understand was sent to the minister—and the minister would be aware—that you get a situation where married students already used to receive the $62.80 as parenting allowance and the only difference between the $62.80 and the maximum possible amount of $280.20, which should be seen to replace Austudy's previous dependent spouse allowance, is an increase in the parenting allowance of some $217.40 per fortnight. For a calender year, this equals $5,652.40 which you will notice is $1,698.96 or some $65.35 per fortnight short of the Austudy dependent spouse allowance.

For a mature age student with school children, that means a loss of some considerable amount of money. I believe that students who have entered courses on the basis of allowances and on the basis of a benefit being payable to those persons ought to be able to complete those courses with those benefits intact. If they are eligible at one point and they remain eligible under that criterion, you should not have a circumstance where the rules are changed half way through a course. That is essentially what is occurring here. Therefore we have, as Senator Harradine has indicated, a clear case of the retrospective application of these regulations.

Departmental officers are explaining to students who complain about this that there is a streamlining of certain duplications between the various departments that operate—that is, the departments of DEETYA and Social Security—which, I am told, has resulted in inevitable reductions for some. The whole purpose of this scheme was to provide an identical basis for allowances which is not occurring.

It seems that people who are living on tight budgets, and who have been living on tight budgets for some time while they were studying, cannot afford to lose $65 per fort night. Senator Harradine has indicated the cases that he is aware of and I have put cases that I am aware of as well.

The department has acknowledged that these are disallowable instruments. What I find odd is that they sought to provide these changes in this manner and that legislation was not introduced into this parliament when the government returned to this parliament with its legislative list. I find it a little odd why they have relied on regulation of these circumstances, and it seems to me that there needs to be further explanation on those matters.

The cases that we have before us suggest to me that there is an opportunity here for the Senate to correct the actions that the department has taken at a time when the parliament itself had failed to pass a bill which contemplated the abolition of the dependent spouse allowance. It is an appropriate occasion for the parliament to actually uphold this disallowance motion, and I suggest the government reconsider its position in that light.