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Tuesday, 23 June 2009
Page: 4008

Senator WILLIAMS (3:06 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for innovation, Industry, Science and Research (Senator Carr) to a question without notice asked by Senator Adams today relating to Youth Allowance.

I would like to contribute to the debate on the very important issue raised by my colleague Senator Adams today in question time; the issue being the government’s changes to youth allowance handed down in the budget on 12 May this year. Coming as you do from a regional and rural area in South Australia, Mr Deputy President, you would be well aware of this issue too. The point I make is that this is the hottest issue that my office has ever had to handle in my brief time in this chamber.

There are two problems with this change to the youth allowance. The first one is how the government has changed the goalposts halfway through the game. Those students who have taken a gap year this year have gone out and found a job. Some I know have sacrificed a scholarship after Centrelink advisers told them they are better off to sacrifice a scholarship, take a gap year and declare independence from their parents. They are the first lot that are going to be severely damaged, if I could use that word, in this change of policy by the government. The situation is simple. Instead of them just taking the gap year and earning a gross wage of some $19,500, from memory, the government has changed the rules so that they must work for 30 hours a week for 18 months. So, under these regulations, those students planning to go to university in March next year for the start of the term now do not qualify for youth allowance. As I said, the government has changed the goalposts halfway through the game. Those people are livid. The parents are annoyed. As you would be well aware, Mr Deputy President, parents want the best thing in life for their children. They want a good education for their children, to see them go through year 12 and take a gap year. For them to be constrained from attending university and carrying out tertiary study is a complete knockdown for not only the students but also the parents.

I would like to refer to a letter I received from a person involved in the public sector. This lady makes it quite clear on one issue, and I will read it out to you:

Parents and students are all angry that the Government has changed the rules halfway through the game. As all the students have deferred their courses already, and I have checked with two Queensland universities, they cannot defer a second time. As a result they will have to surrender their place and take their chances at a second round, no guarantees they will be successful in obtaining their original choice.

What she is saying is that those who have to defer again may not get back into the university or the studies which they have already applied for and been accepted for. She goes on to say:

It would also mean that these children will be out of study for two years if they are forced to attempt to meet the 18 month two year full-time employment. They all feel betrayed and discriminated against.

My writer goes on to say:

Secondly, it will affect rural students and families the most as it is the biggest strain on these families to send their children to university, the major cost being the accommodation component. These families are not affluent, as suggested in a recent Australian newspaper article.

In answering a question today, Senator Carr referred to those in a niche market—those living out on properties, many of whom have suffered drought since early 2002. Many parents have suffered the situation where there is no crop, where they have to buy fodder to keep their stock alive, where they get low yields with their wool and where they do not have the weaner cattle to sell off. These families are the niche market that the minister refers to. These are the ordinary people who wish to pursue a tertiary education. These are the future doctors and nurses, the future dentists and veterinary surgeons, the future lawyers et cetera. These essential services are required not only in the cities but in those rural and regional areas. I pay specific attention to nurses. With our ageing population, there is more demand for nurses, especially in aged-care facilities, let alone in hospitals and local medical practices. This is a really serious problem. How do we keep things going without enough nurses? I am sure this chamber is going to hear a lot more about this issue before the legislation comes into the Senate and we can get to work on correcting it.