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Wednesday, 26 November 2003
Page: 18020

Senator LUDWIG (11:22 AM) —My speech is going to be a little longer. In relation to the Family and Community Services (Closure of Student Financial Supplement Scheme) Bill 2003 some senators on the other side of the chamber indicated yesterday, when I spoke on the education bill, that I may not have an interest in education. I can assure the Senate that I do have an interest in education. I outlined the other night that my interest in education stretches back some years. Having participated in the education system, at tertiary level and in a number of different institutions over the years, I have an intimate knowledge of our education system. I also have an intimate knowledge of this government's ability to destroy it, but that is a debate for another day.

This bill has been put forward to close down the Student Financial Supplement Scheme by 1 January 2004. It is yet another attack by this government on tertiary education, which will force many students to leave the higher education system altogether. The Student Financial Supplement Scheme was introduced by Labor in 1993. In its current form, the scheme allows students to trade in $1 of their Austudy payment for every $2 of loan received. Students who are ineligible for income support because of their family's income can currently receive a loan of up to $2,000 if their parental means are below $64,500. Under this scheme, students did not have to commence repayments until five years after the loan was taken out, and voluntary early repayments attracted a 15 per cent bonus. Repayments commenced only when a student's taxable income reached a minimum threshold, which is currently $34,494. Many students who are currently dependent on this scheme may soon be forced out of higher education if the scheme is terminated. It is one of the issues this government has failed to take into consideration in its haste to terminate the scheme.

The fact that this bill could determine whether some students actually graduate or are forced to drop out should indicate to the government just how close to the breadline many students live. The other side, from the big end of town, sometimes miss how close students live to the breadline, how they have to struggle to ensure that they attend and pass their courses, but also survive.

Students who will be particularly affected by the abolition of this scheme are those who cannot access part-time employment in order to subsidise their studies. In essence, the bill is saying to students, `You have to work, to find part-time employment, to be able to subsidise your educational pursuits.' It detracts from the overall message that this government needs to consider. This was an issue I raised the other night in the education debate. The bill institutionalises the concept of having to work part-time, without any alternative. For those students who may not have part-time work available, it will have a significant bearing on their income.

There are many universities in Queensland where part-time work just may not be available. In regional areas, in more disparate parts of Queensland, there are universities—thank goodness they have managed to put universities in regional areas—where the availability of part-time work may not be as great as its availability in inner metropolitan areas such as Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Some courses attract students with high levels of contact hours, students with disabilities and students with children. Sometimes the way the courses are structured, requiring many class contact hours, means that students may not be able to do the part-time work which is prevalent in that particular area. All of those issues build in a way that a student may be able to progress their studies and fit in part-time work if it is available. I am sure most students would work part-time if the work was available, but it may not be available and it may not suit the course that they are doing. Therefore, there are alternatives available to ensure that students can maintain their studies.

In Queensland, students in campuses such as the University of Southern Queensland in Toowoomba, the Central Queensland University in Rockhampton and James Cook University in Townsville and Cairns will have far fewer options in their search for part-time work than those students in inner city Sydney or Melbourne. If these students do not manage to find employment to support their limited income, leaving university may be their only option.

One of the more farcical reasons put forward by the government for terminating this scheme is that they are worried about creating high levels of student debt. That seems at odds with the closure of this scheme. With the government putting forward the Higher Education Support Bill 2003—the debate on which they have adjourned—which will force universities to increase fees by up to 30 per cent, their claim of worrying over student debt is a sham.

Minister Anthony said that he is concerned about the level of debt for students and the possibility that, for example, a student might graduate with a debt of $28,000 to the federal government. Of far greater concern for students now is the ballooning debt stemming from this government's obsession with deregulating student fees in universities. Minister Anthony should look at that more closely. The fact that a student may soon pay as much as the extraordinary amount of $100,000 to complete a law degree in this country makes the assertion that this government is concerned about student debt laughable.

This government cannot even pretend to be concerned about student debt when it has presided over a 30 per cent increase in HECS, loans at commercial rates and the introduction of up-front undergraduate fees. The government has also been guilty of selective listening when detailing the supposed support for this bill. The assertions that the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee and the National Union of Students unconditionally support this bill is just plain wrong. I hope that the government will come into this chamber and correct either me or themselves. Someone has to be wrong. I think they are wrong. The CEO of the AVCC has stated clearly that the provision of subsidised loans requires a better scheme rather than its total removal. The NUS has also stated that, whilst they do not support the concept of student loans, the government must increase youth allowance and the Austudy payment to compensate for its removal. I am sure that the minister, in his summing up speech, will be able to put me straight about that, or at least agree with me, rather than continue to blur the edges of the truth. Needless to say, these increases in student income are not on the government's agenda.

The government's argument that the scheme is not being utilised and should therefore be abolished is also suspect. When you have an end date, rather than a grandfathering provision, you really have to ask yourself: is that truly their motive or are they simply trying to truncate or end the scheme and leave people out in the cold? That seems to be a better view, which the government has adopted. There are currently 40,000 students using the scheme, despite the fact that there has been no serious attempt to promote the scheme to students. Although subject to very little advertisement or promotion from the government, this scheme has attracted significant support. It is unconscionable to remove a service from that many students based on the reasoning that there is simply not enough of them. That is false and misleading. There may be some merit in the minister's belief that this scheme is administratively cumbersome. If that is the case, then deal with the administratively cumbersome issues, rather than what this government tends to do—that is, throw the baby out with the bathwater. The solution, however, is not to abolish the scheme but rather to restructure it to ensure that the processes are streamlined and efficient. If those issues were the problem, they could always talk to the shadow minister to work through them. That is probably not their intent at all. I think their true intent is simply to abolish the scheme, to cut and run.

It is a real failure in this government's public policy if they believe that a beneficial student assistance program should be abandoned because the government cannot get the administrative process working. The catchcry of this government seems to be, `If it is administratively cumbersome, too difficult, troublesome or complex, let's just cut and run and find something else'—or not replace it at all in this instance. The Student Financial Supplement Scheme is not perfect—that is a given—but it does play a valuable role in assisting students who are in desperate need of income support. Put simply, many students will abandon their studies without this support being continued.

At a time when the number of Australians commencing tertiary study has dropped for the second year in a row, the government should be doing everything it can to encourage students to obtain higher education and not taking the axe to one of the few avenues of assistance that may keep students in the system. The Student Financial Supplement Scheme was introduced in 1993 in response to student demands for additional financial support while undertaking studies. The government's intention to end the Student Financial Supplement Scheme is yet another brick in the Howard government's wall of meanness. Over the past six years this government has consistently attacked the most vulnerable in our community.

Students attempting to complete tertiary studies are often in need of additional funds to assist them with day-to-day costs, including rent assistance and supplementing education tools. It is the responsibility of the government to assist those most in need. This is one of the areas where this government really fails to appreciate some of the finer points of assistance, of being able to lend a helping hand and understand where you can make a difference. A small difference can have a big result. This government has lost sight of that.

This scheme has been accessed by almost 550,000 students since its inception in 1993. You can hardly say that the scheme has not been used. Why do students need access to this money? From the government's perspective, it is a case of, `Who cares?' I do not know whether they care. The government have not offered any alternatives to the cancellation of the payment. There have been no constructive contributions to the debate by the minister's department. There have been no commitments to students and no commitments to our universities—none whatsoever.

The Family and Community Services (Closure of Student Financial Supplement Scheme) Bill 2003 is a mean-spirited bill because it attempts to close access to the Student Financial Supplement Scheme without any replacement policy. We know that there are problems with the supplement, but the government is closing it down and not putting a replacement in place to bolster students' income or to deal with employment options, regional and remote issues or administrative problems. There are a whole raft of issues to consider. You might have grandfathered some, you might have phased in a replacement. I am not here to suggest that the opposition should be telling the government how to run its program, but you certainly have to pause sometimes and ask, `What is the policy behind this particular bill?' That is the argument. I do not think there is any real policy behind this bill. I think it is an empty, mean bill and the government has missed the mark with this legislation. The government should not proceed with it; it should take it away and think seriously about how it can improve the lot of students, more importantly those who require additional funds to remain at university, rather than take an axe to the scheme.

As a result of the cabinet reshuffle, we now have a new Minister for Family and Community Services who previously created havoc in the health portfolio and was demoted as a result. This new minister managed to alienate the entire medical profession with the introduction of a new tax—a tax that caused over 4,000 practitioners to voice their concerns in the largest protest ever held by doctors. The question we need to ask is: will the new Minister for Family and Community Services follow in her predecessor's footsteps and run a system which is inflexible and unworkable or will she take control of her portfolio and try to assist the low and middle-income earners who need assistance the most? Judging by comments in the Ageon30 August 2003, it seems Senator Patterson is in awe of the previous Minister for Family and Community Services. Let us hope this does not deter her from putting a more compassionate stamp on her new portfolio. As Minister for Family and Community Services, Senator Vanstone certainly had a style all of her own. We need only to look at her handling of issues like the carer allowance and the ongoing family tax benefit debacle to see evidence of her mean ways. We should recognise that she has now moved on to immigration and we have Senator Patterson taking the lead in this portfolio. Will she follow in the footsteps of her predecessor or will she correct the mistakes made by Senator Vanstone whilst maintaining vigilance over her portfolio?

The community saw the extent to which the previous Minister for Family and Community Services was prepared to go in order to save a buck. Her heartless directives and badly run social security system—through the minister's office, it appears—saw extreme financial hardship envelop Australian families, students, the disabled and the long-term unemployed. I ask Senator Patterson to reconsider the direction she may take with the typical Howard government policy of harassing low-income earners while at the same time turning a blind eye to goings-on at the high end of the income bracket, including their own retired ministers.

Since coming to office, the government has set a course of cuts which affect the low and middle end of town. This government has lurched from one embarrassing mistake to another. I ask the government to pause, because I think with this bill it is heading down another embarrassing path. It is disappointing to see that Senator Patterson does not wish to put her stamp on this particular issue, and she could. She could put her stamp on this matter, but she is not; she is going to let it run. Mismanagement and non-directional policies are contributing to the prolonged unemployment amongst many job seekers, particularly those with significant barriers to employment. It is contributing to the inability of the government to address the difficulties being experienced by Australia's long-term unemployed and has resulted in its mishandling of employment services and the Job Network in particular. All of this contributes to a government that cannot manage itself, its portfolio responsibilities or the economy.

All of this is endemic. You see it slide. You do not see it in the grand things; you see it in the small things where they simply mismanage some of those issues. This is one of those areas that might be small, but you can see that creeping mismanagement where they simply make decisions that seem, on the face of it, to be made on the run, are ill considered or are without any logic to them. They might have an underlying policy direction, but when they put it into effect, rather than deal with it in an experienced or measured way, they remove it. It is perhaps like how old Dr Wooldridge was: `We'll take a surgeon's scalpel to it to deal with it rather than try to work out another way. Rather than try some radical surgery we can try some other remedies first.'

Will the new Minister of Family and Community Services take the initiative to rectify this and step over Minister Anthony? Probably not. It does not seem she has been able to change the direction from Senator Vanstone's day. It is unlikely she will be able to assert any authority over Minister Anthony, but we will wait. We might see some change, but I doubt it. The government has consistently trodden on those in the community least able to afford schemes closing or payments being rescheduled and renamed, resulting in less income. It seems to be the way this government addresses a lot of things.

Students and families do deserve to be treated much better than the way this government is poorly treating them. The previous Minister for Family and Community Services talked about welfare frauds or cheats and about tightening the system to make it more workable and accountable. She said in this very chamber that she would see an end to welfare fraud. The only thing she presided over was the largest grab bag of moneys ever witnessed. Did you know, Mr Acting Deputy President, that there are many in the community who are so afraid of having a debt at the end of the financial year they forgo any payment rather than be labelled in the same basket as cheats and fraudsters? That is typical of this government and how it deals with those issues. It would rather remove them than deal with them in a proper and sensible way. But we know that the government is not going to change its stance on this bill; we know that the government is going to drive ahead with it. We think it is very unfortunate. We think the government should pause and reflect on this bill. We think the government should consider the plight of students a little more closely than it has in the past. And I ask the government to do that.