I too rise this afternoon to speak on the Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011. While it is with some degree of satisfaction that I rise to acknowledge that this bill will correct an anomaly in delivering outcomes for regional students, it is very frustrating that it has taken two years to get to this point. It has probably been the single issue that has carried the highest level of interest from my electorate for the last two years, because I think education is the basic fundamental that people in Australia strive for for their children. Education is the pathway to cure most of the other problems that we deal with in Australia, particularly in regional Australia; education gives people a pathway to provide better health; education gives people a better understanding with regard to lawlessness; education is the tool that enables people to gain employment; and regional Australia has been taking second fiddle to the metropolitan areas. Even as I stand here today, a student in regional Australia has about half as much chance of completing their tertiary education as their city counterparts.
One of the great frustrations is that this was obvious two years ago. This was pointed out when the current Prime Minister was Minister for Education, and it was only through pig-headedness and stubbornness that this situation was not fixed some time ago. It was brought about by a basic lack of understanding of how regional Australia is different from the cities. You cannot live at home with your parents in regional Australia and attend a university, except on very rare occasions. So the campaign has carried on.
There was a change about 12 months ago that changed it for outer regional students, which did encompass a lot of the students in my electorate, but the towns of Mudgee and Dubbo until now have missed out. People think of students from regional Australia and they think they may be from far-flung properties or remote villages, but 84 per cent of the people in my electorate, one of the most regional electorates in Australia, are urban dwellers. So it was the students that were living in Dubbo and Mudgee-the sons and daughters of schoolteachers, police officers, council workers and all those people that are vital to provide services in those larger regional towns-who were being disadvantaged. I had parents come and see me during the last two-year period saying they had got to the point where they would have to decide as a family which of their children they thought had the aptitude for a tertiary education and which of them did not. Then they would put the resources of that family into one of their children and not the other. In 2011, I think that is an absolute disgrace.
I find it very frustrating that, at various opportunities we have had in the last two years to rectify this problem, we have not got the support. We have had regional members on the side of the government that would understand the problem but were not prepared to speak out against their leader. We have had behind me here the so-called Independents who are so glued to their coalition partners that, every time this opportunity came up, they supported the government in this. I think it is to their everlasting shame that they did not stand up for the students in their electorates.
One of the problems with this is that this is not the perfect system for funding regional students. I actually believe this parliament can do better for regional students. I think there is a case to be argued for a regional access allowance so that all students that do not live near a university have the same opportunities as those that do. So I do not think this is the perfect fix, but it is not a bad system. This is for a couple of reasons.
What was happening-and students will be able to do it now with this change-was that students would leave school and go and get a job for 12 months. After 18 months-six months into their university course-they would be eligible for independent youth allowance and the payments would come through. In a city area, those students could probably get a regular job where they could go and work their 30 hours a week to earn that money and still be eligible, but in the country a lot of the work is seasonal. So these young adults were leaving school and going off and picking grapes or other fruit, driving a header during the harvest season or working in abattoirs stacking meat-a whole range of seasonal-type work. So, in that period of time, they not only got to learn the value of a hard day’s work but also got the opportunity to have a few bob that they had earnt in their pocket and become independent, as this says. Also, quite often I found that during that 12-month period they would reassess where their priorities lay. I know some students, after working for 12 months, would then chart a different course and go into a different line of study.
So it has worked quite effectively, and it is good to see this returned. It has not returned in its original form. There still are issues with an income cap on parents and on two working parents in an inner regional area. That is a problem.
(Speech interrupted by Question Time)
I continue my speech in the second reading debate on the Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011. Education is the greatest gift that we can give our children. Education in the year 2011 should be something that is equitable throughout Australia. Sadly, this is not the case.
Regional Australian students are finding it very difficult to attend university. We are just seeing the changes to the social security amendments for inner regional students. Those change have not returned things to the way they were prior to the changes made by the now Prime Minister when she was education minister, but they have returned some form of equity into the system.
There is a case to be made for a regional student access scheme available to all regional students. If regional Australia is going to take its place and continue to grow and prosper, it is going to need young people with suitable qualifications in agriculture, food production, agronomy, engineering, mining and health-all those vitally important professions. Regional Australia is in desperate need of professional workers in those areas. We are going to make sure we can keep up the supply in the years to come, and the best way to do that is by growing our own, encouraging regional students to gain proper qualifications, enabling them to return to the regions and grow regional Australia.
In closing, it needs to be pointed out again that the reason these amendments needed to be made was because of the thoughtless, uncaring actions of the Prime Minister when she was education minister, ripping the ability for regional students to attend university. From seeing in other government departments the farce that was the RDA, Regional Development Australia-regional Australia was ignored in that funding-it is clear that this government has very little understanding or compassion for the people and students of regional Australia.
The Prime Minister brought in these changes when she was education minister, and in my time as a member of parliament I have never seen an issue cause such heartache and so much grief. I have had thousands of people sign petitions; I have had school students manning stalls in the main streets of towns right across my electorate trying to gain support to have youth allowance restored. This is a victory for the coalition, and I pay tribute to my colleagues Fiona Nash, Darren Chester, Christopher Pyne and Nola Marino, who led this charge. But it is a hollow victory when this change should have been made in the first place.