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November 18, 2009

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (4.43 pm)
— I rise to speak in support of the motion moved as a matter of public importance by the member for New England and I commend him for raising this issue. I also commend other members for their contributions to the debate so far. I think the maturity of the debate reflects very positively on the House. I note that also present in the chamber is one of the great champions of regional students in the member for Cowper, as well as the member for Braddon—I read his speech on the youth allowance issue very closely and I congratulate him on his contribution in that regard. I think what this debate today points out is that there are champions on both sides of the House when it comes to education, and I congratulate the Independents as well in that regard.

That is why I have been disappointed that in the last couple of months the debate over student income support in relation to youth allowance has descended somewhat into some fairly vitriolic attacks, which were typified a bit today by the minister for education’s approach. I think the chamber is above that in the sense that I believe there is a great deal of support on both sides of the House for measures to improve the opportunities of education for students, particularly those from rural and regional areas. I do not deny for a second that the previous government could have done more, but it is also ridiculous to suggest that any government would do nothing in relation to education.

This is a shared responsibility between students, parents, teachers and the state and federal governments. So I think the motion put before the House today has provided an opportunity for some cooler heads to prevail, and I congratulate the member in that regard. Quite clearly, in representing our regional electorates we are very much aware that parents, students and teachers are very keen for us to come here and advocate on behalf of our communities to get the best possible opportunity for our students and to do everything we can to make sure they get a fair go. We can point to a number of issues—the member for Lyne referred to a few in his electorate and certainly there are some in the Gippsland electorate. For example, the year 12 education retention rates are appalling. I am not going to stand here and blame state governments or previous governments or whatever else.

It is a simple fact of life that we need to do better, and it should not be this hard to get a fair go for country students. So I accept that part of the problem is the economic barrier. But as has also been touched on by other speakers, the aspirational barrier is a real concern for us in rural and regional areas. Like many other members, I speak to students in schools right across the electorate of Gippsland and I tell them that in terms of the economic barriers and student income support I will come to parliament and do my best for them in that regard. In terms of the aspirational barrier, they have got to be the ones who look within themselves and decide how they are going to achieve their absolute best in terms of their future achievements in life. I tell them that whether it be as bobcat driver, just be the best bobcat driver in Gippsland; whether it is going to be as a builder, then go along and do the apprenticeship and there is nothing wrong with that decision either; but if they want to aspire to go to university then it is up to us to try to help them with those economic barriers.

From a social justice perspective, it is a question of equity—and I think that we appreciate that on both sides of the House—and for those who are a bit more hard-nosed, the economic-minded ones perhaps in the House, there is also a question of productivity for us. Helping children from rural and regional areas achieve their full potential gives us the skills we need for future generations. There is no question that the skill base shortage that we face in rural and regional Australia is best addressed by bringing up our own children and giving them the opportunity to achieve their full potential and achieve their training in trades or whatever it might be, or in university qualifications.

I throw into the debate in the limited time I have available the point that I am not sure how much longer Australia can continue to import skilled professionals from overseas. I think the social licence, for example, in taking medical professionals from the less privileged countries than ours is just about worn out. Those doctors are actually needed in their home countries and I am not sure that Australia can continue to do that without doing everything in its power to train our own doctors and to provide our young people in rural areas with every opportunity to fill the huge gap in rural and regional health provision. I make those opening comments— and I am getting very close to making my closing comments—and I am sure that it is a topic that will come before the House in the very near future.

In the limited time that is available to me I refer to the student income support and the lecture we have been receiving in terms of what is a fair go for country students looking forward. There has been much made now of the amendments which were passed in the Senate, and I acknowledge that members of the Liberal and National parties, and the Greens, and I think Family First, supported those amendments.

That would suggest to me that the minister must realise that there is actually a bit of a problem with the retrospective nature of the changes that she is proposing. That is why there is such frustration within parliament and in the broader community. I urge the minister to sit down with those who have their concerns and in a mature way see if we can work through this. Right now we have students finishing their VCE or HSC exams and they need certainty.

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