November 9, 2015
Mr CHESTER (Gippsland—Assistant Minister for Defence) (12:19): It is with great pleasure I join this debate on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (More Generous Means Testing for Youth Payments) Bill 2015, but also it is a great pleasure to follow my good friend and colleague the member for Grey, who spoke very eloquently and made the case about the unique barriers which confront regional families when it comes to helping their children go on to achieve their full potential. And like the member for Grey, one of my great motivations in even running for parliament was to make sure that I could do my bit to help young people achieve their full potential in Gippsland, or in other parts of regional Australia. It is a great pleasure to participate in this debate on some positive news, but I hasten to add I still regard the area of student income support, and youth allowance more generally, as a policy area of unfinished business, where there is more work to be done.
But the bill before the House does provide more generous means-testing arrangements for youth payments, and the changes will help regional and rural families to better support the transition of their children from school through to further study, including those children who continue to study beyond year 12. As the member for Grey indicated, around 1,200 families from regional and remote areas will be eligible for an increase in payment from the removal of the family actual means test, and there are also expected benefits from the removal of the family assets test. This change, in particular for farming families, will mean that their farm assets will not be counted toward the test for their children accessing youth allowance.
All families currently subject to the family assets test and the family actual means test will benefit by reduced regulatory burden. So this is a great win for many regional MPs who have lobbied for change in this area. In addition, some children from regional and remote areas who often face higher study costs associated with living away from home will benefit from an increase in their rate of youth allowance and we will see others qualify for youth allowance for the first time, with some of them able to access payments of more than $7,000 a year.
The bill follows a great deal of hard work by the member for Grey and many others. But I would like to acknowledge the Victorian senator Bridget McKenzie, who was part of the interdepartmental committee on access to higher education for regional and remote students and was one of the driving forces behind the changes we see before the House today.
Removing complex and unnecessary means testing and improving the operation of parental income test is a good first step in responding to the concerns that have been raised by parents in relation to means testing, and will also assist with the level of participation of young regional people in tertiary studies. While the changes are great news, they will certainly boost the numbers of families that the government will assist, and that level of assistance will encourage more young people into study to help build their careers, which will make an important economic contribution and a major boost to the skills base of regional communities.
Looking at the speaking list for today’s bill, I note that, of the 20 MPs listed to speak, every one of them is regionally based. It is an important point to make, because this is an issue which tends to divide this House on the basis of city versus country. As I said in my opening remarks, I regard this very much as unfinished business: there is still work to be done. The reason so many regional MPs are speaking on this bill is that they recognise that there is still a great deal of work to be done. I encourage my city based colleagues in this place on both sides of the House to take the time to try and understand this issue, because it is complex.
As the member for Grey indicated in his comments, this is not an issue of children making the choice to live in rural and regional communities; it is a decision that their parents have made, and the children find themselves at a significant disadvantage when it comes to furthering their career options. This is about helping young regional people achieve their dreams. This is making sure that young people in our regional communities do not have barriers placed in front of them which we can reasonably address in this place.
The system of student income support, as it stands today, is still broken, and the changes before the House today are a very important step; however, they do not change the fundamental concerns I have with the issue of access for young people in regional communities who are forced to move away from home to attend university. It is a totemic issue for regional MPs across the pay divide. What we are seeing right now is a direct transfer of wealth from the pockets of regional families into the city based landlords or city based universities.
We are still failing to grapple with the fundamental concerns that many regional MPs have about this issue. There are two points at the heart of underperformance or underinvolvement of regional students in universities: one is the aspirational barrier—we need to get better as leaders in our regional communities at encouraging young people in regional towns to aspire to achieve great things in their lives. It is a challenge for us to address in our communities. The second is an economic barrier, and we can do something about that in this place. We can help regional families overcome some of the cost barriers that are placed in their way when their children are forced to move away from home to attend a course and improve their skills.
The economic barriers faced by regional students are the costs on top of the costs that every other student faces. The member for Grey mentioned the HECS system, and every student has the opportunity to defer the payment of their course costs through the HECS system. But a young person moving from Gippsland to attend university in Melbourne faces additional costs: rent, living in a residence or travelling back and forth from home—sometimes three or four hours, if they want to return and still be part of their family back in their community. The magnitude of those costs is somewhere in the vicinity of $15,000 to $20,000 per year—that is $15,000 to $20,000 of after-tax income which is being directly transferred from a regional family into the city. I think it is something that this House can do more to address into the future.
I have a very different view to some members on this issue of student income support, because I do not regard it as a welfare or a social security issue; I regard this fundamentally as an issue about fairness and access. If we do not have the capacity in Australia to establish regional universities and university courses within close proximity to all the young people in our community, then we have to make sure that we are prepared to assist all regional students who are forced to move away from home to attend the course of their choice. We need to improve access to our nation’s universities for regional students who often have no other option than to travel many hundreds of kilometres away from their home and support networks to pursue the course of their choice. This is a social issue in the sense that it makes good sense, because these young people are more likely to return to their regional communities with the skills they have developed at university, whether it be in law, engineering, health, teaching or other sought-after professions. The bill is a good start but it is really only a down payment on the complete reform, which is still required.
I am on the public record many times in support of a policy position which the Nationals have developed at the grassroots level—and it has been through state conferences and federal conferences of the National Party. That position is one of a tertiary access allowance, which means that any student within reasonable income test considerations forced to travel in excess of 90 minutes to attend a university will receive some level of support for those living-away-from-home costs which other members have spoken about. It is a simple recognition of the additional costs which regional families face when forced to send their loved ones, their children, away from home to attend university.
We need to do more to ease the burden on not only the families but the students themselves and the younger remaining siblings, which the member for Grey and the member for Parkes also spoke about. We have situations where families have more than one child at university, or one child at university, and children still at home and the wealth being taken out of that family has a genuine deleterious impact on the children remaining at home. I have heard stories from parents who have had to make a choice about which child they send to university. I would suggest that in 2015 we can do a little better than that.
I mentioned the impact that this economic barrier has on students. I fear that our high drop-out rate and high deferment rates for regional students have a lot to do with the pressure we place on these students when they move away from home to attend university. In many ways, my fear is that we are actually setting these children up to fail, because they are under more pressure than perhaps their city counterparts. For one, these are 17- to 18-year-olds leaving home for the first time. They are setting up a home for the first time a long way from their support networks. Because mum and dad do not necessarily have all the resources to support them, they are going to have to work part time. They are going to have to learn to live in a new city. They are going to have to safely navigate and negotiate their way round that city but also return home, if that is their choice, on weekends.
These are the issues many constituents raise with me on a weekly basis. In fact, when the former Gillard-Rudd government made changes to youth allowance—I think it was around 2009—I had literally thousands of people sign petitions in protest of the changes that were made. As the member for Grey indicated, it led to quite a significant campaign amongst regional MPs. Eventually, we did force some changes in the original proposal put forward by the then education minister, Julia Gillard—and I thank her for being prepared to make some concessions. But we still have not solved the problem, and I fear that we are still a long way from pulling together the political will in this place when I refer to the speaking list today and I see the 20 members who are speaking on this issue are all regionally based. Again, I encourage my city based colleagues to look at this issue with fresh eyes and gain, perhaps, a better understanding of the additional costs and barriers that regional families face when helping their young people achieve their full potential.
The point I want to make in closing is in relation to the skills shortage we face in many regional communities. We have had other speakers comment today that, undoubtedly, the people most likely to set up careers, to open an office, to set up a practice and to use their skills in a regional setting are probably young people who have had experience in that regional community in the first place.
We export a lot of great things from our regional communities. In my own electorate of Gippsland, we export dairy products, timber products, seafood and horticultural products. Beef, lamb, wool—you name it, we export it. But our most precious export is, undoubtedly, the children we send to university, and we want to bring them back. We want to have the opportunity to bring those children back in the future and bring their skills back to our regional communities. But if we do not invest in them at that young age—at 17, 18 and 19 through to 21, when they are at university—if we do not help them address that economic barrier, I fear that we will not give them their full opportunity to achieve their absolute best.
I am not one who suggests that going to university is the be-all and end-all. I certainly support as much investment as the government can afford in trades and other forms of training. But I do agree with the member for Grey, who indicated that we have the situation in regional communities where young people place limits on themselves on the basis of knowing what their family can afford. That is a barrier that no young person growing up in Gippsland or other parts of regional Australia should have to place on themselves.
I believe we have the capacity in this place in the coming months and years to, from at least an economic perspective, address this one barrier for young people who are moving away from home to attend university. We actually have the capacity in this place, in the decisions we make, to make a very real difference in young people’s lives. I believe we can do better. I am very heartened by the fact that members opposite from regional communities have spoken in favour of this change and other changes in the past. I am also heartened by the fact that, on this side of the House, amongst my Liberal colleagues and National Party colleagues, there is a unanimous view, a considered and determined view, to continue to pursue this issue within the government. I believe we have great capacity to do better in relation to the level of support we can provide for young people who move away from home to attend university and, just as importantly, I believe we can support their families and the regional communities that they have come from.
I believe the legislation before the House today is an important first step, but I will continue to work with members of good faith who share my passion for helping regional students achieve their full potential. I will continue to work with them in the months and years ahead to ensure we are doing everything we can to allow young people in regional communities the same opportunities—I am not after anything more—that their city based cousins and friends can enjoy. I commend the bill to the House.