2009

SOCIAL SECURITY AND OTHER LEGISLATION AMENDMENT (INCOME SUPPORT FOR STUDENTS) BILL 2009 [NO. 2]

November 26, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (10.57 am) — I congratulate the member for Chisholm for noting the outstanding educational contribution that Bridget McKenzie, the Senate candidate, has made in the past and will continue to make in the future. It is on another education issue that I rise today. I want to express my extreme disappointment and indeed frustration with the way the debate over the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009 [No. 2]—the Youth Allowance bill—has been conducted.

What we have seen has been enormously disappointing for not only the students involved, their parents and teachers but also the members of parliament who came in here with goodwill in an attempt to deliver an outcome which is in the best interests of students—particularly in my case from regional areas. I have been disappointed with the minister’s approach from day one. Rather than attempting to negotiate or to work through the issues that were presented in good faith, she has developed into something of an ideological warrior and tried to bludgeon everyone into submission.

It has been very disappointing. Once the battle lines have been drawn the opportunity for any good faith negotiations has gone out the window. We have put ourselves in a situation where, as the minister acknowledged last night, basically the students are now in limbo. We have put ourselves into a stalemate, and I think we are better than that in this place. There are members on both sides of the House who have a great contribution to make in terms of student income support issues. It is a folly for any of us to believe that all wisdom resides on one side of the House.

After the first introduction of her proposals in May, by about July or August the minister conceded that the workforce criterion issues, which were going to affect students in their gap year, were misguided. Finally, after receiving multiple representations from members on both sides of the House, she conceded that there needed to be changes and she did make some amendments to the legislation. Now, six months after the proposal was first put to the parliament, we are in a stalemate position and the minister is lashing out and blaming everyone else but herself.

I think if we had negotiated in better faith several months ago we would not have got ourselves into this position. There are many on both sides of the House who have advocated reform of student income support and I have listened closely to the contributions that others have made in this regard. I have advocated reform from the day I was elected 18 months ago, and I have spoken to the minister’s office and written to her on several occasions— starting from the day I was elected—in relation to opportunities to provide more support for students, particularly from rural and regional areas.

I believe that there is an enormous amount of good faith on both sides of the House to deliver an outcome but what we had last night was a situation in the House that descended more into namecalling and trying to blame each other for the mess we have got ourselves into. The ones who are going to be left in no-man’s land, as it were—the students themselves and the people we were originally trying to help—are the ones who are going to miss out, the way things stand at the moment.

I have been one of those people who have certainly supported many aspects of the legislation that the minister put forward in relation to the income thresholds. They were good moves. But where the minister lost her way was when she started drawing up the ideological battlelines and trying to inflict these new regulations on students who were already in their gap year. The situation is that, basically, these students acted in good faith. They received information from their Centrelink advisers, their career advisers and their teachers and put plans in place two or three years ago; they did not make them overnight.

Students in a lot of my regional schools made their plans in about year 10. To have the minister say, ‘We’re going to pull the rug out from under your feet; you’re not going to be entitled to the independent rate of youth allowance under the previous arrangements’ was an act of poor faith, I believe, on the minister’s behalf. I do concede that the minister’s amendments were intended to overcome that situation. However, there is still the 90-minute barrier in terms of the impact that the legislation will have on students who will miss out on the concessions that the minister made in her transitional arrangements. There is still the fact that thousands of students are not accommodated by the minister’s change of view.

My position on this legislation is well known. I have advocated strongly in my electorate and in the House at various times when I have had the opportunity to speak on it. I appeal to the minister that in future, when we have a situation where there is clearly a division across the parliament—and I know for a fact that backbenchers on her side were raising issues about these changes when they were first introduced—to take the time to talk with members who come to her and raise issues in good faith. When I have 50 students writing to me about issues of great concern to them, I forward those letters to the minister. It is not a scaremongering campaign.

We do not deserve to be vilified in our local area as a result. I believe that the minister has done herself no favours in this regard. I encourage the minister to put out another media release in my electorate, like she did last week, and vilify me again, because the more she does that, the more the people of Gippsland realise that I am standing up for my constituents.

(Time expired)

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