darren.chester.mp@aph.gov.au 1300 131 785
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March 17, 2010

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (5.45 pm)
— This is a bittersweet moment. Certainly no sense of triumph should be felt by either side of the House. There is much work still to be done in terms of student income support going into the future. This has always been about the kids; it has always been about the young people in regional Australia. There are members on both sides of the House who have approached this issue in a great deal of good faith and have endeavoured to get a result which has been in the interests of regional people right across Australia.

I do take exception to the approach of the Minister for Education to this whole debate from May last year. She announced during the May budget that basically she was going to make it retrospective; she was going to strip the gap year entitlements off students who had prepared for their time at university, had taken a year off and were working to achieve that status. The rug would be pulled out from under them. On 25 May last year I asked the minister in question time to guarantee that country students in their gap year would not be financially penalised. She said at that time, ‘What a very silly question.’ Here we are, almost nine months later, and that very silly question has come to fruition in that the minister has finally agreed that there will be no retrospectivity for students in their gap year. That is a very good thing.

I do say to the minister in her presence that she does not always need to rush to the barricades and bludgeon her opponents to death when it comes to issues where there is concern or there are alternative points of view. I honestly believe that in this debate, in particular, there were people who were acting with good intentions towards the students. You do not manage to achieve 5,000 people signing a petition in 10 days in an electorate the size of Gippsland unless there is passion in the community and real concern about what is being proposed. That was repeated right throughout regional Australia. I acknowledge that the minister facilitated a meeting between me, Russell Broadbent and a member of her staff, and I thank her for that opportunity. From then on I believe we had a better working relationship in terms of trying to achieve some positive outcomes.

Having said all that, I do not believe this is an education revolution. At best, this is tinkering around the edges when a massive overhaul of student income support is required. We have not yet dealt with the fundamental issue of equity for regional students, and now we have actually created a situation where there are too many winners and losers. Under this new arrangement, people in the electorate of Gippsland living in towns like Sale, Maffra, Stratford, Yarram, Traralgon and Heyfield will not have the opportunity to use one pathway of achieving independent youth allowance, that being through the 15 hours per week and earning $19,500 over an 18-month period. These are small country towns and it can also be very difficult for these students to achieve the 30 hours per week required of them under the legislation which will be passed today.

I fully accept, and the minister regularly makes the point, that that is not the only avenue for achieving income support. I do give credit to the minister in that regard—the increased income thresholds will accommodate a lot of people from the poorer socio-economic areas of my electorate, and the more generous income thresholds will be well received. I have publicly put that on the record on many occasions; that is one of the good things we are doing here with this legislation.

The fact remains that families in regional areas with multiple children going to university will face additional costs of $10,000 to $15,000. Accommodation costs are not going to be covered in any way by what is going through the House today. I referred earlier to my emotions being bittersweet. It is a sweet moment for the students who will now finally be able to access scholarships—they will have some certainty as they go into the 2010 university year. I think that is the right thing for them at this time.

My bitterness relates to those students in the future who will not be accommodated by these changes, and to the simple fact that we are missing an opportunity in this place to do the revolutionary work that we hear so much about from those on the other side. We hear about the education revolution, but the students in regional Australia are really waiting to see it. They are still waiting to see when the fundamental issues of equity will be addressed, and I am concerned that they will be waiting for a very long time while this government just talks to them and spins them a line.

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