Senator NASH (New South Wales) (1.00 pm)—I rise today to make a contribution to the matter of public interest discussion, and I think it most certainly is a matter of public interest that I am raising. It is that of the issue of student access to independent youth allowance. Over the last year or so, we have had many discussions in this chamber about independent youth allowance—‘unfortunately’, I say, because this is something we should have been able to stop talking about in this chamber some time ago.
What has been the case is that the government has made some changes to the eligibility criteria for independent youth allowance. Most of my colleagues in this place would be very well aware of this, particularly those coming from regional areas, where this has a particular impact. What the government has done is put legislation in place that treats regional students unfairly. It has completely taken away fairness and equity for regional students. Let me explain. In the past students could access independent youth allowance by working at least 15 hours a week over two years after leaving school, or doing what we call the ‘gap year’, earning a certain amount over the 12 months and then being able to access the allowance after 18 months. Also, they could have worked an average of 30 hours a week over the 18 months. But it is the gap year issue, in particular—as it is colloquially referred to, and I will keep referring to it as that, as people do understand it as the gap year that students take—that has been changed for so many of our regional students.
What the government has done is to have used a map—the Australian Standard Geographical Classification map for remoteness areas—to determine which regional students are able to access independent youth allowance and which students are not. There are entire regions called ‘inner regional areas’ in which students are not able to qualify for independent youth allowance. The eligibility criteria simply do not apply to that. If students live in the inner regional areas, their only way of accessing independent youth allowance is by working an average of 30 hours a week over 18 months in a two-year period. This means those students must take two years off before they go to university if they are to have any chance at all of accessing the independent youth allowance. I say ‘any chance at all’ because, as we well know, those colleagues of mine who live out in regional areas and those who actually understand regional areas—like Senator Brett Mason, even though he does not live there—know that the difficulty of getting 30 hours’ work a week out in the regions is enormous. So the government has put in place a situation that has resulted in some regional students being treated differently from others. Students who live in the outer regional, remote and very remote areas can indeed access independent youth allowance using the gap year, but students who live in the inner regional areas cannot—and I hope this is a speech you are paying attention to, Mr Acting Deputy President Ludlum, given that the Greens have professed support for regional students quite often in the past. It is very important that you do listen to this, because it will make sense when I get to the end of my speech.
What we have seen is a map with lines that preclude some regional students from accessing independent youth allowance—and there are thousands of students who can no longer access independent youth allowance, and that is just appalling. What has happened with these lines on the map is that we have situations where students living on one side of the road can access it while students living on the other side cannot. That is simply wrong. The answer I was given the other day in estimates from the minister, Senator Evans, and the department was: ‘That happens when you have maps that do these things; you do get lines on a map and some miss out.’ That is not good enough. My very good colleague in the other place, the member for Gippsland, Darren Chester, has been talking about a town in his electorate called Yarram, which is about 21⁄2 hours drive from Melbourne. The main part of the town is regarded as inner regional. The line on the map wraps around the back of that town. He has students who attend the same schools and living in the same street who are being treated differently by this Labor government simply because of a line on a map. Seven minutes down the road is the town of Port Albert, and it is completely outer regional—they can all access it.
This sounds a bit confusing for people, but I am painting the picture for you of the absolute inequity that exists for regional students. If a student resides in a regional area, they should be able to access independent youth allowance. It is as simple as that. It should not come down to where they live. It should not come down to where their house is. It should not come to which side of a line they fall on. They should be able to access it. This is a matter of equity and, interestingly, during the estimates process last week, the minister and the department admitted that it was purely that the government did not want to spend the money that would be needed to include the students living in the inner regional area being able to access independent youth allowance.
This is a government that can waste billions of dollars on pink batts, a government that can completely stuff up and waste millions and millions of dollars on school halls—and, again, my very good colleague, sitting over here, Senator Mason wells knows the disaster that has been. So this Gillard Labor government can waste billions of dollars on that complete mismanagement and yet they cannot find the funding to ensure that regional students are treated fairly—to ensure that regional students have access to tertiary education. That is simply not right, and this Prime Minister should hang her head in shame. She was the minister at the time who made these changes. She is now the Prime Minister and she has the ability to change this legislation. And it is a simple change: to change the wording to include inner regional so it is under the same eligibility criteria as the other three zones. It is that simple, and the Prime Minister has the power to do it.
The issue is that so many students in our regional areas have no choice but to relocate to attend tertiary education—to go on to university or to go on to further education. They simply have no choice. There is not a university down the road, as there is for so many of our metropolitan students. They simply do not have that choice or that option. And not having that choice or option comes with a price tag of around $15,000 to $20,000 a year. Those students have to find that money through no fault of their own. They have no choice but to relocate. The government argues that the separate youth allowance provisions look after the financial needs of these regional students. That is simply rubbish. So many of these parents living out in these regional areas have come to me and said that they simply cannot afford it. Under the youth allowance provisions once you start going up through the brackets the amount of youth allowance decreases, and when you have parents who have one, two or three children who want to go away to university it is absolutely impossible, in so many cases, for them to actually send their children away. What really brought it home to me was when the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport, which I chaired at the time, did an inquiry into access for regional students to secondary and tertiary education. I had parents come to me, and one lady in particular who said to me, ‘We have three children. They all want to go on to university. We simply can’t afford it. Now that they can’t access independent youth allowance we simply can’t afford it.’ They said to me, ‘We are going to have to choose which one of our children we are going to send to university.’ I think, in this day and age, that is appalling. Every student should have the right to go on to tertiary education and not be precluded because of stupid decisions by this Labor government to treat regional students unfairly. It is not fair; it is not right; and it is not on.
I will now take those of us in the chamber here and those listening—and those in the other chamber, in particular the Prime Minister—to some comments that the Prime Minister made when we were discussing these changes a year or so ago now and some comments she made even prior to that. When we were talking about youth allowance she made a comment on 16 November 2009 talking about the changes to youth allowance where she said:
This is a new system to better support students who need that support the most, including country students.
She ripped the hearts out of thousands of regional students. This is absolute rubbish. If she was truly committed to that comment then she would come out today and she would say, ‘There has been an unfortunate, if you like, result with these changes and we do need to make sure we treat regional students fairly.’ Let us go back to November 2007, when she said on the ABC Insiders program:
... We want to make sure kids right across the country, irrespective of what family they’re born into, whether they’re in the centre of the city, in a regional centre or outback Australia, that they all get the support they need for their education.
Again, what a load of rubbish; what a lot of hollow words when we see what the minister actually did from that point in time—and that was to make it so much more difficult for so many of our regional students to be able to go on to tertiary education. The Prime Minister also said on 13 March 2008 in a speech she gave:
And I am announcing a new long-term goal for our post-secondary education system: guaranteed access to higher education or skills training for every young Australian with the talent and willingness to give it a go. To me, that includes regional students—and I think it is about time this Prime Minister put her money where her words were and stood up and fixed this issue to make sure regional students can have fair and equitable access to tertiary education. If her response is, ‘That is fine; it is all taken into account by youth allowance,’ she simply has no understanding whatsoever of the impact of these changes on our rural and regional students. It is not fair. It is not right, and it is so easily fixable. The funding could come from the Education Investment Fund, which the coalition put forward as part of our policy during the election campaign—because we actually realised and understood how important it was for all regional students to have access to independent youth allowance as a pathway for them to be able to go on to tertiary education. To do anything less than to provide that fair and equitable access for regional students to my mind is an abrogation of the Prime Minister’s duty to the young people across this country.
I will be introducing in the chamber tomorrow a private senators bill which will require the equal treatment for students in inner regional zones with those in outer regional, remote and very remote areas—that is, that they all be able to undertake the gap year to qualify for independent youth allowance. It is a very simple bill: it is one line that gets inserted into the current legislation, and the Prime Minister could do this very simply. She needs to realise that the inequity that exists is no longer tenable. Around 55 per cent of metropolitan students go on to tertiary education. That is compared to only 33 per cent in the regional areas, and the evidence for that came out through our inquiry. We know that the disparity in those numbers, which is unacceptable, is caused by the financial difficulty and the financial burden that sits with these students and their families simply because they have no choice but to relocate.
I would hope that my good colleagues in this chamber on the cross-benches—the Greens, the Independent and the Family First senator—would see their way clear to support this bill. It is so important for thousands of regional students right across the country that this bill be passed. We should not even be in the position of having to bring a private senator’s bill into this chamber to put a focus on this issue. It is simply appalling that the government does not realise the impact on our regional students, and on their families, that precludes them from going on to tertiary education. This is supposed to be the land of equal opportunity. The Labor government and the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, have the opportunity now to stand up and say: ‘It is the land of equal opportunity. We are going to give regional students equal access to all of those opportunities. We are going to fix the legislation.’
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