I rise tonight to speak on the amendment moved by Mr Andrews to the Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs and Other Legislation Amendment (Election Commitments and Other Measures) Bill 2011. This youth allowance saga has been running for some time now in this place and the effects of it have been felt widely across regional Australia, no more so than in my electorate. It seems rather unfortunate that we are trying to deal with this as an amendment to this piece of legislation when the Prime Minister would have the ability to fix this today if she so chose. We are at this point, having to take measures such as this to get this issue dealt with in the House, basically because of the Prime Minister’s stubbornness in dealing with this issue. Indeed, her original changes to youth allowance when she was education minister started this whole process going. Over a period of time through different actions we have had the original criteria for youth allowance restored to remote and outer regional students. Indeed, they have been restored to a large geographic area of my electorate. Unfortunately, my biggest town, Dubbo, and probably the second-biggest town in my electorate, Mudgee, have missed out.
While the independent youth allowance is by no means a perfect way of financing tertiary education, I believe it has been quite effective. A person leaving school and working independently for 12 months to gain that $19,500 income and then being able to start university the following year is a good thing for a couple of reasons: it gives those students a time to reassess their priorities, rethink maybe what their interests are at university; and it gives them an opportunity to be truly independent-to work for someone else. Indeed, if they are going into tertiary education, sometimes when they go back into the workforce it is at a higher level and the work that they do in that year of qualifying for independent youth allowance is good grounding for them so that when they go back to work in a management position, they understand the other end of the workforce spectrum because they have spent time at end.
During the coalition’s time, when John Howard sat at the table-where the member for Blaxland is currently sitting-and behind him sat Peter Costello, the Treasurer, what happened to participation rates for regional and rural students? Did they go up? No. And, gee, didn’t the National Party do a good job then in influencing John Howard and Peter Costello! Did participation rates for regional and rural students in this country increase? They did not. The fact is they went down. For example, between 2002 and 2007, participation rates for regional students at tertiary institutions fell from 18.715 per cent to 18.08 per cent. That workplace participation criterion helped them a lot! It really assisted regional and rural students! The fact is that the changes we brought in benefited people in rural and regional electorates like mine. Hundreds and hundreds of young people will get additional assistance through the changes we have made.
The Nationals say one thing here, parading and prancing about in the House, and say another thing back in their electorates. But the reality is that, when they had a chance to increase participation rates for rural and regional students at universities-when they had stewardship of the treasury benches-they did nothing. In fact, things went backwards. Then they took a policy to the last election to actually reduce funding assistance for university students and participation of students from rural and regional areas. That is the reality, as opposed to the rhetoric, from those opposite.
This legislation is important. It fulfils election commitments and some non-budget measures. One is in relation to the work bonus, and I am pleased to speak on and support that. The work bonus allows working pensioners to keep more of their pension when they undertake paid work, and a number of my caucus colleagues have given the particulars of that in the chamber. The second election commitment fulfilled provides better access to family payments for families with a teenager aged 16 to 19 in full-time secondary education or the vocational education equivalent. Everyone who has teenagers knows that the cost does not decrease as they get older. Clothes, shoes, high-school textbooks, recreational pursuits-the costs all increase. The funding provided for here will benefit families and will have the effect, we believe, of lifting high school completion rates from that miserable 75 per cent of students under the Howard coalition government to an aspirational 90 per cent by 2015.
The third election commitment fulfilled, which I fully support as well, is improvements to the provision of the baby bonus. We changed the baby bonus arrangements to make them fortnightly across 13 fortnights-a good measure, in my view-and we are also providing an upfront payment of $500 in the first instalment which will assist in terms of prams, nursery items and the other things that mums and dads need for a new baby once it is born. While there is no change to the overall amount, I think that upfront measure will help. A further measure in the bill exempts payments to people affected by thalidomide from being assessable for welfare or income tax purposes.
Today, those opposite have waxed lyrical about their commitment to helping families, but I think they need a bit of a history lesson on assistance to families in regional and rural areas and communities across this country. The global financial crisis did not stifle our government’s commitment to reform when it came to tax relief, and we brought such measures forward three years in a row. Nor did it stifle our commitment to reforms for pensioners. We have assisted our 3.3 million pensioners-age pensioners, disability support pensioners, carers and others. Indeed, as early as March 2008, we extended the utilities allowance of about $590 per annum to disability support pensions, something that was never graciously given by John Howard when he was in power. Those opposite discriminated between people on disability support pensions and those on age pensions.
The 2009-10 budget provided $14.2 billion under our secure and sustainable pension reforms, increasing the adequacy of the level of support; increasing certainty in terms of payments; making the pension system in this country simpler, more understandable and more flexible; and making sure our social security system is secure and sustainable. From 29 September 2009, there was a weekly increase in the age pension of $32.49 for singles and $10.14 for couples. We also legislated to make sure there was a benchmark that guaranteed the pension for singles would be 27.7 per cent of MTAWE. We gave $1,400 to singles and $2,100 to couples at the time of the global financial crisis as a short-term stimulus payment. The new permanent carer supplement helped about 500,000 people across Australia who make significant sacrifices to assist their loved ones each and every day. You cannot solve their problems, but you can give them a helping hand. About 140,000 carers who receive the carer payment received a supplement of $600 annually.
As I said, we increased the single rate for the age pension-in accordance with the recommendations of the Harmer review-to bring it up to two-thirds of the combined couple rate, and we changed the indexation with respect to pensions as well. We said that there should be a new pensioner and beneficiary cost-of-living index and that, if it was higher than the CPI, which it has proved to be, it would keep better pace with the rising prices of goods. In particular, I think that the work bonus will be greatly appreciated by pensioners, because many of them do not fully leave the workforce when they transition to retirement. Part-time work for pensioners is important in terms of their financial independence, but it is also good for our economy and our community. Workforce participation is encouraged by the work bonus introduced by this government.
So the work bonus we are achieving for our senior citizens was introduced by a federal Labor government. Again, the coalition failed in this regard. The Howard government’s pension bonus scheme was too complex and failed to achieve the objects of increasing workforce participation. Do not just trust me on this because that is what the Harmer review found in relation to workforce participation. Whether it is participation and universities for regional and rural students or workforce participation for our senior citizens-those making the transition into retirement-the coalition’s record in this regard is atrocious, absolutely disastrous.
They had no commitment to the value of work; they had no commitment to regional and rural areas. They will say whatever they need to make sure that they get their fear campaigns heard in their local country newspapers and on their country radio stations, but when it comes to delivering for regional and rural areas they know nothing. They know nothing about road, rail, community infrastructure which we delivered in these areas for the first time. They know nothing with respect to education reforms. In my regional and rural seat, for the first time, we have seen education treated as a priority. We have seen 220 projects and $108 million under the BER funding. This is the kind of commitment to regional and rural Australia that is so evident by this federal Labor government that cares for those who need it.