Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009 [No. 2]
Debate resumed from 30 November 2009, on motion by Senator Ludwig:
That this bill be now read a second time.
The coalition in principle supports efforts to improve the ways in which assistance to students is targeted. The government is very right to do that. We have never had problems with the bulk of changes in the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009 [No. 2] that is before us today, such as the introduction of new scholarships and most of the changes to youth allowance, but we have major problems with two aspects of the bill: firstly, its retrospective impact on students who have already made decisions affecting their lives, work and education based on the law as it previously stood and, secondly, the attempt to narrow the avenues to achieving independence by workforce participation for the purposes of receiving youth allowance. We thought that the changes proposed by the government would unfairly impact on students from remote, rural and regional areas by making it more difficult for them to qualify for youth allowance and thus pursue their further education.
The coalition also maintained that it was wrong of the government to put in the same bill the non-contentious reforms, such as the new scholarships, and the more controversial changes, such as the one I mentioned before. This was bound to be a recipe for trouble, and we were proven right. It has taken us from mid-May last year until mid-March this year to arrive at a position where we can debate and pass this bill. But arrive at that point we finally have.
The bill currently before the Senate represents the result of negotiations undertaken between the government and the coalition. It embodies what I believe is the best deal achievable by all of the parties under the circumstances. This is not to say that this is the best deal that could be. We believe that the government should have been more generous to rural students, and as such I foreshadow that in the committee stage I will move an amendment which will reflect the coalition’s view of what a better outcome for rural students would be.
The nature of any compromise is that neither side gets everything they want but at least both sides get some of what they want. This is the case here. The government gets the bulk of its reforms through, most of which, I remind the chamber once again, the coalition actually never opposed. The issue of retrospectivity is now resolved and the workforce participation path to independence has been preserved for many rural students who would otherwise have missed out if the original version of this bill had been allowed to pass. But, as I said, the coalition believes that even more should be done.
The Minister for Education and Deputy Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, has made much of the government’s intention, in response to the Bradley review, to both increase the overall participation in higher education by young Australians and increase the access and participation by young Australians from groups in our society who are currently underrepresented at our universities. The government is right to do this, and the coalition supports this aim as it is a noble one. There is no question that Indigenous students and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are disadvantaged when it comes to accessing university. With that, the coalition has no quibble. There is no debate about that. But what we have argued and we make no apology for is this: not only are those two groups affected and disadvantaged with respect to access but so too are rural kids in this country.
As we now know from Senate inquiries and other inquiries, university access by rural kids is falling. It is getting worse. It is getting more difficult. So what the coalition has been fighting for for 18 months now is a better deal for those disadvantaged Australians. It is quite right for the government to talk about Indigenous kids and kids from low socioeconomic backgrounds but it is also right for the coalition to talk about another disadvantaged group, and that is kids from rural Australia. We make no apologies for that. That is why we would never back down on the major premise of our argument: that these kids need extra support.
In this instance, while the coalition supports restructuring student support measures in broad terms, we have always maintained that changes proposed by the government to the youth allowance regime were too restrictive and would impact on too many rural students and make it impossible or significantly more difficult for them to pursue higher education away from home. In particular, we have argued that the abolition of two out of three workforce participation routes for youth allowance eligibility as an independent would make it harder for many young people from rural and regional communities to go to university. Young people in rural and regional Australia have to move to the city if they are to pursue further study and are not necessarily able to rely on financial support from their parents even if their parents’ income or assets mean that they are ineligible for youth allowance under the parental means test. When it comes to rural kids going to university the challenges are different. I caught a bus to university. If you live in outback Queensland, my home state, you cannot do that, so the challenges are quite different for rural and regional kids, and that has been the coalition’s argument from the beginning.
Because this significant cohort of students from the country is ineligible to receive dependent youth allowance, thousands every year currently gain eligibility for independent youth allowance under the workforce participation criteria. This means that they have to earn about $19½ thousand within an 18-month period, which most do during the so-called gap year. This government was seeking to abolish this pathway because it was allegedly rorted by some families and students.
The government are right to attack this. When I was at university—and it is a long time ago—this system was being rorted and the government are quite right to attack those rorts. The opposition supports them in doing that. The problem of occasional abuse of the system might be solved but only at the cost of serious disadvantage to many more innocent students and, indeed, rural students. That was our problem. There was mischief and the government tried to counter that—fair enough—but the solution, in a sense, was difficult, caused many problems and disadvantaged rural students.
The Senate rural affairs committee, chaired by my good friend Senator Nash, which looked last year at the question of access to education by rural students, clearly disagreed with the government’s approach and recommended against closing altogether the two out of three workforce participation avenues as planned by the government. Even the Victorian parliament’s Education and Training Committee, chaired by Labor member Jeff Howard and with an effective Labor majority, unanimously agreed, saying:
... the Committee believes that the removal of the main workforce participation route will have a disastrous effect on young people in rural and regional areas.
And that comes from the Australian Labor Party. The truth of the matter is that you cannot increase access to higher education by underrepresented groups, such as rural kids, by putting obstacles in the way of those students accessing higher education.
As a result of the compromise reached between the government and the opposition, the amended version of this bill will keep the existing second and third workforce participation routes—that is, firstly, students who worked part-time for at least 15 hours a week for at least two years since leaving school or, secondly, students who have been out of school for at least 18 months and have earned at least 75 per cent of the maximum rate of pay under wage level A of the Australian Pay and Classification Scale, which is about $19½ thousand in 2009 over an 18-month period. It is open to students whose family home is located in a very remote, remote or outer regional area as defined by the Australian Standard Geographical Classification, ASGC, and the following conditions that also apply: the young person is required to live away from the family home to study and the combined parental income for the relevant tax year does not exceed $150,000.
Financial responsibility was always a big consideration for the coalition and we always wanted to ensure that any changes proposed by us would be budget neutral. The estimated cost to the youth allowance package as a result of the agreement between the government and the coalition is about $104 million over the estimates period ending 2013-14. To fund this it will be necessary to reduce the value of the Student Start-up Scholarships to $1,300 in 2010 and $2,115 in 2011 and subsequent years, indexed from 2011. This provides savings of about $102.8 million over the estimates period ending 2013-14.
The coalition believe that, while this is a good start and goes some way towards addressing our concerns about access by rural students, more should be done. I concede that there are anomalies. Every time you have a map and you mark a line on a map there will be anomalies and inconsistencies. When I was in the gymnasium this morning my good friend the member for Hinkler, Mr Neville, was talking about some of those anomalies. I concede, and I am sure that the government would concede, that no matter what system you have there will always be anomalies. But, to partly ameliorate that, I intend to move on behalf of the coalition an amendment that will seek to preserve the second and the third workforce participation routes for students in inner regional areas as defined by the ASGC.
I am also happy to say that the other issue which troubled the coalition about this bill, that of retrospectivity, has also been finally resolved. Under the bill as it was originally proposed by the government, many students around Australia would have found themselves in a very difficult situation. Essentially, the law was being changed midstream and the government would have left thousands of students floundering.
This was an issue of equity as well. It was an issue of equity because, in making their decisions about their studies, many students around Australia relied on the information provided to them by teachers, counsellors and Centrelink officials. They, in good faith, made their decisions about their future appropriately, based on the official advice that they received. The government was attempting to change the rules halfway through the game, and that is not fair. The basic principles of the rule of law demand that legislation not be made retrospective and thus disadvantage people who have done nothing wrong but have merely followed the law as it was originally stated. The basic principles of decency demand that the people currently in the system be allowed to proceed and that any changes be introduced only with the future in mind and not affect any current students.
I am glad to see that the government has made amendments to the bill to keep the existing workforce participation rules for students until 1 July 2010, which removes all retrospectivity from the bill. I also welcome other changes to the original bill that came about through intervention by Senator Xenophon and the Australian Greens—namely, the establishment of a Rural Tertiary Hardship Fund, worth $20 million. The government has already agreed to the creation of a rural and regional task force should the legislation pass. This task force will consider how the $20 million fund could be delivered, from 2011, to help prevent the barriers to rural and regional students attending university.
As I stated at the outset, the coalition broadly support the bill but could not do it wholeheartedly until our valid concerns regarding retrospectivity and access for rural and regional students were considered and addressed. They have been partly addressed. I believe that the agreement achieved with the government makes for a better deal for rural students than they would have received under the original, unamended bill. But, as I have said, it is not an optimal outcome. That is why I will be seeking a further amendment to extend the scope for students who can achieve independence through workforce participation. This is an issue that the coalition take very seriously and we intend to revisit it and make it right when we are back in government.
I do not do this very often in the Senate, but I would like to thank some people. This has been a long—some might even describe it as tortuous—process of negotiation with the government. I would like to thank my National Party friend Senator Nash and my Liberal colleagues in rural seats for their ardent and consistent advocacy for rural students. I thank Senator Fielding, who I know will contribute to the debate later, for his counsel on these issues and unwavering support for rural students. I would also like to thank Senator Hanson-Young and the Greens, and Senator Xenophon, for playing, I think, a constructive role in this debate. I should thank Mr Pyne and Ms Gillard and, indeed, their advisers for sitting down and negotiating in a robust way and also in very good spirits. So I thank Ms Gillard and her staff, and Mr Pyne and his staff. Finally, I should thank Senator Carr, who, as always, despite his robustness in the chamber, is a delight to deal with outside.
It is always a delight to follow my very good colleague Senator Mason. At the outset, I would like to commend him for the work he has done on this issue. It has been, as he said, a particularly arduous process for nearly a year now. I think it was last May that we started on this process. It has been particularly difficult for those students who are living in regional areas. I would also like to thank and commend the work of my Nationals colleague Darren Chester, the member for Gippsland. He has been absolutely relentless in making sure that we get the right outcomes for regional students right across the country.
When this legislation, the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009 [No. 2], was first brought into the chamber, it was greeted by this side with disbelief, in a lot of ways, because of what the government was putting forward. We did say at the time that there were positives to it, there were some things that we agreed with, and we still hold to that. We have been very open and honest about our measurement of the legislation and how it would operate, particularly the increase to the threshold for youth allowance, which we saw as a positive thing.
At that time, the government made the decision to remove the criterion for students to access independent youth allowance through the gap year pathway. If ever there was a decision made without any consultation or any understanding of regional Australia, that was it. It was absolutely appalling. The government had no idea whatsoever of the pathways needed for regional students to access tertiary education. There is an incredible inequity that exists between our regional and metropolitan students that I will go into a little later. But for the government to look at removing that independent youth allowance criterion without putting any other measure in its place to make sure that regional students had a pathway to university was simply negligent. It was absolutely negligent.
At the same time, the minister for too many things, Julia Gillard—and there must be too many things because things seem to be slipping through the cracks now—also said that those students who had finished year 12 in 2008 and embarked upon the pathway of trying to access independent youth allowance by taking their gap year last year could no longer access that allowance. Snap! Bang! There goes the rug from underneath them. She literally changed the rules midstream. How appalling is that? I think I must have used the word ‘appalling’ about 10 times now and I will probably use it a few more times as well. I think, Senator Mason, you might have to help me out with a few more adjectives.
Thank you very much, Senator Mason. All of those students who had, in good faith, embarked upon their gap year with a view to getting independent youth allowance for assistance were simply told by the minister, ‘Sorry, that option’s not available to you anymore. You’ll have to find some other way.’ That was not good enough. I know that my Nationals colleagues, my regional Liberal colleagues in particular and my not-so-regional Liberal colleagues like Senator Mason recognised the absolute failing in that particular policy. To the credit of the coalition, last year we got the minister to do a partial backflip, allowing those students who live more than 90 minutes away by public transport from their tertiary institution to be grandfathered so that they are able to get the independent youth allowance. But still tens of thousands of students who had embarked on this process in good faith were left out on a limb.
What we have seen with the deal which the government has put to the coalition and has now been agreed is that all of those students will now not be hit with retrospective legislation. All students who finished year 12 at the end of 2008 and undertook a gap year will be able to access independent youth allowance this year. I have to say what a great decision that was. It should never have happened in the first place. This is the issue—this government going holus-bolus into yet another policy decision on the run, giving no thought to the detail, the impact and the effect that decision was going to have, particularly on regional students. At least that one has been addressed.
There is a grave inequity between regional students and metropolitan students when it comes to accessing tertiary education. I chaired the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs inquiry into rural and regional access to secondary and tertiary education opportunities. It became blatantly clear that the financial inequity which exists between regional and metropolitan students is stark. We know that around only 33 per cent of regional students go on to tertiary education, compared to 55 per cent in metropolitan areas. That simply is not good enough and it should not be tolerated. We know that this is because of the financial hardship caused by the fact that regional students have to relocate to attend university. They do not have the luxury of a university or even a choice of universities within the bus ride which Senator Mason referred to earlier. In so many instances, they are forced to move away from home to attend university.
Through all the work which has been done, we know that it costs $15,000 to $20,000 a year to relocate a student to attend a tertiary institution. Where is the equity in that, when city students are able to access universities which are practically on their doorsteps and regional students have to travel away, at a cost of up to $20,000, to university? This is one of the key points which is wrong with the system as it currently stands. In my view, we need to revamp the whole system. We need to start again and have a good look at what are the appropriate measures for supporting tertiary education. The inequity which exists is simply intolerable. We should have in place a tertiary access allowance so that we can address that inequity.
If you have a student in Sydney whose parental income is, say, $70,000 and a student out in a regional area whose parents also earn $70,000, both students receive the same amount of youth allowance, but on top of that, the regional student, who has to relocate, has to come up with $15,000 to $20,000 per year. That is simply not fair. People who choose to live in the regions should not be disadvantaged because universities do not exist where they live. That inequity leads to such a disparity between our regional students who go on to university and our metropolitan students who go on to university. We should be doing everything we can to encourage regional students to get to university, not make it harder. We know that students who undertake tertiary education in regional areas are far more likely to practise a profession in the regional areas. All credit to John Anderson when he set up the RAMA scheme because he knew that medical students from regional areas are far more likely to go back—about seven times more likely—to regional areas to work as doctors. And what is this government doing? It is trying to make it harder for regional students to get to university. How dumb is that? That is not a very flash adjective but it is about the best one I can come up with and is probably the most appropriate. It is a no-brainer that we should be doing more for regional students and not less. We should be giving regional students more support, not less.
This government has some bizarre view—I do not quite know what it is—that regional students should have to fend for themselves. It is indicative of the manner in which this government treats regional Australia. You see it time and time again. Regional Australia is absolutely disregarded by this government, not just in youth allowance but in a range of areas. The first Rudd government stripped more than $1 billion from country Australia. Regional development programs worth $436 million were scrapped and replaced with one program worth only $176 million. Existing agriculture programs worth $334 million were replaced with ones worth only about $220 million and most of those were about climate change. The second budget was worse. No specific program was put in place to support development in regional Australia and the area consultative committees across the nation were axed. The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry was the only department hit with an extra efficiency dividend. It goes on and on. Land and Water Australia has been abolished and $12 million has been taken from the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. And this is a good one: they abolished the single desk for wheat—a good idea, if ever there was one!
And now look at what they have done for regional students across Australia. Not only have they done nothing; they have tried to make it worse. It is about time this government started to realise the importance of regional Australia to the future of this nation. Next time Kevin 747 is flying across regional Australia, he should look down and realise that those regional communities are the engine room of this country.
I do apologise. Next time Prime Minister Kevin and his 747 plane are flying over regional Australia he should look down and make sure he recognises how important those people are to this country. What is most important about regional communities is the young people in those regional communities. They are the ones we should be supporting. We should be doing everything we can to ensure that they have a bright and sustainable future and a bright and sustainable future actually in those communities.
What happens if regional Australia simply ceases to exist? The way this government is going there is a pretty fair chance of that happening. How are we going to feed ourselves? Where is the food production going to come from? How are we going to make sure that we can feed and water the nation? This government’s complete disregard for regional Australia is getting nothing short of breathtaking. Keep in mind that none of the changes made in this deal, which the government has backflipped on, would have happened if it had not been for the National and Liberal parties saying, ‘No, not on.’ I certainly commend the member for Sturt, Christopher Pyne, on being absolutely resolute in saying, ‘No, we will not let this happen as is.’ It would have happened if we had not stuck up for people, particularly in regional Australia, and the original legislation would have simply gone through.
The gap year students would have been forgotten. They would have had no chance of having any assistance this year, and they would have taken their year off thinking they could. They would have been absolutely hung out to dry by this government. The regional students that want to access independent youth allowance would have been completely hung out to dry—nothing, nada, for them. This deal is not perfect—far from it. At least some of those regional students are now being taken into account where they were not previously. Quite frankly, how did the government think it was the slightest bit appropriate that they not take into account all regional students, that they not take into account every single regional student that needs a pathway, every single regional student that needs support, every single regional student that needs some assistance to go onto tertiary education, because they should be supported? How on earth did they think picking some regional students was all right but then thinking, ‘Gee, we will leave these ones out of the bag over here. We won’t worry too much about them. It doesn’t matter as long as we have covered some regional students’? It is rubbish. They should have simply made sure that they had included all of them—every single one.
My guess is that it is all about dollars. We know that we need to be economically responsible in this country. But when this government has blown billions of dollars on school halls—some of which the schools did not want—and billions of dollars on pink batts that have gone into ceilings, it has probably created the worst governmental debacle in terms of running a program that this country has ever seen. Billions and billions of dollars have been wasted. What are they saying now? ‘Let me see, those regional students that fall outside our lines on our maps—we’re expecting them to be the ones to cough up for the budget neutrality.’ Well, that is not on. How can they possibly sit there on the other side of this chamber knowing about all the waste, knowing about all the billions of dollars that have just gone up against the wall, and then turn around to those regional students who are going to miss out on the opportunity of getting independent youth allowance and say: ‘Too bad, so sad. We’re going to leave you out because we’ve got to be budget neutral and you’re the losers.’ It is just extraordinary. It is the most arrogant display from a government and shows the complete disregard they have for regional students.
What makes Mrs Smith’s daughter or son in one part of the country, in the regions, different to Mrs Jones’s daughter or son in another part of the country? I will give you the answer to that: absolutely none. So why has the government gone down this road of picking a line on a map and saying, ‘This regional student living on this side will be okay, but the one on the other side we actually don’t care about. By the way, chat to each other across the lines on the map because you’ll probably be able to see each other.’ It is stupid. The lines on those maps are just wrong because it is not about those regional zones; it is about how far the regional student is from the university. That is the issue. It is not about where in a region they live; it is about how far they live from the university that is the important thing. That is why, quite rightly, the coalition is going to—as my good colleague Senator Mason has already flagged—move an amendment to include the other inner regional zone on that map.
Do you know what I think, colleagues? I think, if the government do not accept that amendment, then the people of Australia are going to think: ‘Why not? Why aren’t they accepting that amendment? The coalition are putting forward that all regional students should be able to access independent youth allowance if they have to leave home to go to university.’ Maybe I am a little bit biased about all of this but I think that most Australians are pretty sensible people and they think pretty clearly. When the coalition say to them, ‘We tried to get all regional students taken into account,’ and the government do not pass our amendment, then the government are effectively saying, ‘We don’t care about all of the regional students; we will just do some.’ Let me tell you what the people of Australia are going to think—I could be wrong but I do not think I am: ‘Why is this Rudd Labor government treating regional Australians unfairly? Why is the Rudd Labor government creating a divide between regional Australians?’
Let me be absolutely clear on this. If only some regional students and not all of them from this point on are able to access independent youth allowance it is the government’s fault. It is nobody else’s fault but the Prime Minister’s and Minister Gillard’s. It is nobody else’s fault but theirs. Do not let anybody tell a different story, because that is where the buck stops. It is a bit like health. Apparently the buck stops with the Prime Minister when it comes to health. But what sort of buck was that? It certainly did not stop there very long. He promised the people of Australia he would fix the hospitals but he neglected to tell them, ‘Not for a very, very long time.’
The responsibility for fairness and equity lies with the government. The Liberals and Nationals have done everything that they possibly can to get the right outcome for regional students. After all of this, if regional students and their families want some fairness and equity they will throw out Kevin Rudd’s Labor government and they will put the coalition into government, because it is the only way we are going to get any fairness or equity not only for regional students but for regional families across the country from one side to the other. This government is never going to do it.
If the government does not agree to this amendment and regional students miss out on getting access to independent youth allowance, it will be on the government’s head. Those on the other side will have to live with it. Every time one of those students cannot go to university because they cannot afford it and this government does not give them any financial assistance, all of those on the other side of this chamber and in the other place should hang their heads in shame because it is entirely their responsibility. They can fix it, they can agree to this amendment and they can make sure all regional students are covered. They should do it; it is the right thing to do. If they do not, it just shows their negligence when it comes to regional Australia.
I stand today, together with my coalition colleagues in this place, to speak on this Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009 [No. 2] and to say that the government backdown on the youth allowance is welcome. It has been an absolute farce. What we have seen are rural and regional Australians being neglected over the last many months since this legislation was first introduced last year. We had a few minor changes last year from the Minister for Education, Ms Gillard, who tried to squirm out of what was an obvious problem. That was a half-baked measure; it did not do the job.
As a result of the prosecution by coalition senators and coalition members across the country, particularly in rural and regional seats, the government has finally relented. As a result of pressure from the families of those men and women who want a decent education, particularly in rural and regional areas, it has finally relented. The aspect of the government’s bill that is particularly reprehensible and which has now been fixed as a result of public pressure is the issue of retrospectivity, which should be a no-no for any government. For this Labor government to persist month in, month out and be hell-bent on trying to ram it through the parliament is a disgrace.
As a coalition we demanded three key changes to the youth allowance legislation last year and they were to remove all retrospectivity from the legislation, to ensure a pathway exists for regional, remote and very remote youth by retaining the existing gap year provisions for those students and to ensure that the changes were budget neutral. After being told that it was impossible to get those amendments up and passed, the government listened to the coalition, listened to people in rural and regional Australia and listened to the families affected regarding retrospectivity. It has finally relented and backed down.
Sadly, there are thousands and thousands of students across this country that have been left in limbo. Here we are at the end of March and the university year is well and truly underway. Schools are well and truly underway and they do not know and did not know what the future holds.
At this point I commend Christopher Pyne for relentlessly and vigorously pursuing this matter and pursuing Minister Gillard. In the Senate, Senator Brett Mason has done a sterling job to highlight the concerns, fears and anxieties of families across the country. I also commend Senator Nash for leading the Senate inquiry into this matter and for prosecuting the case particularly for rural and regional Australians and the people that she represents. She did a fantastic job.
Retrospectivity has been entirely removed from the bill. All students who began a gap year in good faith last year will qualify for youth allowance under the existing provisions. The coalition succeeded in ensuring a pathway for rural, remote and very remote students, with the government making a further $104 million concession. This change will restore all three workforce participation tests for students classified as outer regional, rural and remote who wish to apply for the independent rate of youth allowance. The changes will remain budget neutral as requested by the coalition.
My understanding is, under the revised plan, the government’s original changes required young people in rural, remote and very remote areas to find 30 hours of work a week for 18 months over two years to qualify for the independent rate of youth allowance, which was clearly impossible to meet. Thanks to the coalition, the families affected and the pressure that they put on the government, they will now be able to qualify by working 15 hours a week over two years or by earning $19,532 over an 18-month period as is currently possible under the old rules. My understanding, and what I have been advised, is that that will mean around 7,600 students over four years will be able to access university from some of the most remote and regional locations in Australia.
I put on record my thanks for the hard work of the students at Launceston College in Tasmania in collecting the 1,217-signature petitions last year and which were tabled in the House of Representatives. I congratulate Rachel Wilkinson, Jessica Baikie and Hunter Peterson for their efforts in standing up for not just themselves but their fellow students in and around northern Tasmania. I also thank Trudy Lister from Launceston College for helping to organise all of that, working with Mary Dean in my office and others to make it happen. Those petitions were tabled last year and were part of the tapestry of public pressure on the government to make a difference. So congratulations and well done.
It is a great shame that the Labor members, particularly for Bass and the regional areas like Lyons, Franklin and Braddon, have been sitting on their hands. It has been left to the coalition senators in Tasmania and the coalition members and senators around this country to prosecute the case and to make the government see reason and implement these changes, and it has finally happened. There is still scope for improvement. I know Senator Colbeck is pursuing with great vigour this anomaly regarding Devonport and Bernie, with one city being classified as regional or outer regional and therefore qualifying but the other not. I know he is pursuing that with some vigour. There is still more work to be done. I know that the coalition has an amendment in the Senate to see if we can get the government to see reason. In any event, we are prepared to look at this, once this has passed, to see if we can fix any further anomalies. Following the next election, if successful, we look forward to fixing up any further problems that may lie hidden.
What it does confirm, however, is that the government has shown disdain for regional Australia, as it has done since the day it was elected, when it removed the Regional Partnerships program, a $400 million program that was so beneficial to rural and regional Australia, particularly Tassie. The mismanagement of this program has been bordering on the absurd, but it is consistent with its mismanagement of the pink batts fiasco and its school education revolution. It is not an education revolution; it is a waste revolution. It is a waste revolution of the nth degree in terms of the hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars—in fact billions of dollars—that has been wasted. For months and months we have put our concerns on the record, but the government is just going ahead and wasting more and more money. The waste and mismanagement is shocking.
I want to say thank you to all of those families who have contacted my office and contacted the offices of coalition members around Australia to say, ‘We think the government’s system is unfair.’ As a result of that pressure—those letters, the emails, the petitions and the effort that has been made—we have been successful. You can make a difference in opposition, we have shown that. Congratulations to those who have prosecuted the case. There is still more work to be done, but we have fixed a terrible injustice for rural and regional Australia, a terrible injustice for the families affected by the retrospectivity. I am very sorry for the students who have been left in limbo, particularly over the last many months. I have had families in my office expressing their anxiety and concern for their kids and I have heard from the students directly. I am very sorry they have had to put up with this, and I hope we can put it behind us as soon as possible. The government should come clean and apologise for the inequity, the anomaly and the injustice that has been caused. It should say sorry for that. I thank the Senate.
I rise to speak on the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009 [No. 2]. This is the second time I have spoken on this bill. We discussed this issue at the end of last year and this Senate failed to pass that legislation at that time, leaving students in limbo over the summer period and into the first semester of this year. Students and their families, unsure of how they were to fund their way through university this year, have contacted me—just as they have with Senator Barnett; he alluded to his meetings—saying that they had to take out mortgages on their houses in order to set their kids up and get them to university because no-one knew what was happening. So while I am disappointed that we are having to rise again to speak to this issue, and we were not able to resolve it at the end of last year, I am of course thankful that we are speaking to it now and that we are able to move forward in some respects.
Of course, this is a compromise by all sides: it is a compromise by the government, it is definitely a compromise by the opposition and it is absolutely a compromise by the Greens. By no means is this package perfect—far, far from it. We now see some positive parts of the package being able to move through. We are going to get money into the hands of students through ensuring that those scholarships are rolled out; students who have had to move away from home are going to get the relocation scholarship. That is wonderful. And we have removed the retrospectivity aspect, which we are thankful for because that is bad policy. That is what I said last year: it is just bad policy to introduce something that has a retrospective aspect. These young people, taking advice that was given to them by government departments in their own schools, took a gap year in order to get the financial support to get them through university. So I am very thankful that we have been able to remove that, and hopefully there will now be some clarity for young people around the country to make the decisions they need. Hopefully this will be done before the HECS census date of 31 March. That is why we are on such a tight time frame here, because you have to be checked in and enrolled in all of your courses by the end of this month otherwise you miss out.
Yes, we are delivering some clarity here, but there is one big sticking point that we have not dealt with: those young people who have to move out of home in order to go to university and get an education—whether they are from a remote area, an outer regional area or an inner regional area or are even moving from one city to another to go to the university that they have been accepted into—should not be penalised, but under this compromise package they still are. While a deal has been made to retain some of the old workplace criteria for some students, it has not done it for all of them and those students it affects are still penalised because they are forced to delay their studies for up to two years. We are still saying to young people, ‘In order to get the financial support that you deserve, you have to prove yourself by deferring your studies.’ If they have to move out of home and they become independent in order to go to university, then they should be recognised as such and the government should be supporting them. We should not be penalising young people who work so hard through high school to get the grades to get into university and get accepted into their courses by then saying to them, ‘We don’t believe that you’re on your own; we don’t believe that we need to support you. You have to prove yourself a bit more. We’re not going to give you the support you deserve.’ Ultimately, this package still allows for that to happen. I think the Greens have been the first to try to get something through and get money into the hands of many more students so that we can get things moving. And while it is absolutely a compromise from all sides, we obviously have not been able to come up with a solution that helps everybody, and that is the next step.
Why is this a problem? It is a problem because the government wanted to introduce a major reform package without putting one extra dollar into it. What government in its right mind would announce a huge reform package in any other area than student income support without putting in the money to make that reform package work? We are in the midst of discussing the reform package for health. How will that reform package be carried out? It will be carried out through the sweetener of extra money because the government knows that there is no possible way that they can implement with any credibility a major reform package and not fund it. Yet when it comes to students, our youngest and brightest Australians, trying to get to university and get their education to become the leaders of tomorrow, the government says: ‘No, you can do it on your own. We’ll reform the sector for you, but we won’t give you any extra money to help you get there.’ That has been the big failure of this package from day one.
We have heard story after story over the last few months from prospective students and their families about how the inability of all sides in this place to come up with something we could agree on has left students and their families in limbo. I am thankful that today we are finally able to put forward something to move on, but the campaign of equality for student income support is definitely not over. Students right around the country need to make sure that their voices are heard on this right up to election day and beyond. Whoever is in government, be it the Labor Party or the coalition, need to be told loud and clear that students can no longer be expected to scrimp their way through in order to get a good quality education.
We need to invest in the education of our future leaders, and the best way of ensuring that students get a good quality education is to make sure that they are supported. Students pay more for their education today than they ever have, yet we are making it tougher for them to get the benefit of that. Even under this new reform package, where those students will get something, they are still going to have to work part-time jobs or even more than part-time jobs to get themselves through university because we have not seen an increase in the youth allowance rate.
Universities Australia, based on all their information—and they are the experts in this field—suggest that it costs students $670 a fortnight to fund their living and educational costs to get themselves through university, yet the government is scrimping by giving only some people $371, while the other young people entitled to youth allowance get less. We need to see a major injection into student income support, and with that we need to see reforms of rent assistance for young people. We need to see some proper focus on ensuring that students who are paying more than ever for their education are able to get the most benefit from that by being supported and not having to scrimp their way through just to cover costs.
Some of the stories that I have heard from students and their parents since May last year, when the government first announced this reform package, have been heartbreaking. I have heard about families of two or three in which the youngest child stops aspiring to get good year 12 results and says: ‘What is the use? I am not going to be able to go to university. Mum and dad simply cannot afford it. My older siblings are there, but I am not going to be able to get there.’ That is the type of pressure we are putting on young people—17-year-olds and 18-year-olds—through this package. I know that there are some good things in it, and that is why we have tried to get some of the money rolling out there, but the major issue of supporting those young people who are disadvantaged purely on the basis of the location of their family home is not being addressed in this package.
If you have to move out of home and become independent because you have to go to a university that is not down the road—whether you have to move from a city to another city, from a regional centre to another regional centre, from a regional centre to a metropolitan area or from a remote area to somewhere else—you should be entitled to the full independent rate of youth allowance. Why do we want to disadvantage those young people who have worked so hard to get into university only to make it harder for them based purely on where their families live? It simply does not make any sense.
Students here in Australia receive among the lowest rates of income support in the OECD. While the Greens support the passing of this bill and understand that it will improve the targeting of that income support, the fact is that we should be giving more support to all students. We need to see an injection into the income support bucket. The government cannot sit idly by and take credit for introducing a major reform package without funding it properly. That is how we got into this mess in the first place.
I have said numerous times already that this bill represents a total compromise from all sides, regardless of the spin. We will hear the opposition say that they ‘won all these things’, we will hear the government say ‘the opposition have folded’ and we will hear everyone say that they had their successes, but let us call it what it is: this is not a perfect package. It is an absolute compromise, and we still have a long, long way to go. We need to ensure that those young people who should be supported are entitled to that support. If the government want to fulfil their education revolution, they have to get some money out there and into the hands of students to get them through university. That is what has to happen. We should not be punishing young people because of their aspirations and we should not be making their position even more difficult because of their family circumstances.
The Greens will not be moving any amendments to this bill, despite how poor it is. A group of students are still being punished, and young people who need to access some of this money are still being forced to defer their studies. You should not have to defer your studies just to get the support you deserve. It is bad policy. We know the deferral rates. We know about the issues that arise when young people—particularly those from remote and outer regional areas, which are the areas that this compromise affects—defer their studies. We know that those young people are less likely to go to university once they defer. That is the core fact of the matter, and it is bad policy for this Senate to insist that that is a good thing. It is bad policy.
Having said that, the Greens will not be moving amendments in this debate because we know that it has taken quite some time to get to this point. While this package is not perfect, we need to get the money out there and into the hands of students. We need to move forward. But this is definitely not over. Young people around the country who have to move out of home in order to go to university should be supported in doing that. It should not be based on the fact that they happen to live in one area versus another area. They should not be forced to defer their studies. It is bad policy to say, ‘Yes, we want you to go to university, but you put that off for a little bit because it suits us.’ It is bad policy and it needs to be fixed.
Let’s get this legislation passed so that we can get things moving, but this needs to be on the election agenda of all parties. The thousands of young people and their families around the country who contacted all of us over the last nine months need to think very hard about the type of government they want and the types of people they want representing them in the Senate to ensure that this issue does not fall off the agenda. We should not be penalising young people for having aspirations to go to university, and under this package we are still doing that. It is not perfect; it is a total compromise. Do not buy the spin from either side that this is a win, because it is not a win; this is a compromise. It is not perfect. Let’s get it through; let’s get the money out there. The fight is not over.
I thank Senator Fielding for allowing me to interpose ever so briefly. I want to add my support to the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009 [No. 2] and congratulate Christopher Pyne and my colleague Senator Mason on the fabulous work they have done to ensure this backflip by the government. It is one backflip of the government that I support and congratulate them on. As Senator Hanson-Young said, it is not perfect, it is a compromise, but it is a great win for rural and regional students—students who under the original Labor proposal would have been very seriously disadvantaged against their capital city counterparts.
In cobbling this together, the Labor Party has used a classification that has brought up some very silly results. They have used the ‘Census of Population and Housing’ paper, but even the ABS in promoting this classification some time ago put in the classification a warning that it should only be used for the purposes for which it was done. It said:
Equally, no geographical classification can safely be used as a surrogate for other variables without extensive testing of assumptions.
Obviously there was no extensive testing of assumptions. Where I come from, Townsville and Cairns are in—they get the advantage of the new arrangement that the coalition has negotiated—but the city of Mackay is out. The town of Proserpine, 100 kilometres north of Mackay, is in and the little town of Sarena, 20 kilometres south of Mackay, is in, but Mackay is out. It is just a crazy system. Rockhampton is out; Townsville and Cairns are in. Good luck for Townsville and Cairns—I am delighted about that—but what about poor old Rockhampton? What about Gladstone? Gladstone is out, and yet Townsville and Cairns in.
I want to know what Kirsten Livermore, the Labor member for Capricornia, is going to do about this. I want to know what Mr James Bidgood, the Labor member for Dawson, is going to do about his constituents in Mackay who will miss out. His constituents in Proserpine, Bowen, Ayr, where I live, and Townsville will be fine, but what about Mackay? If I were a parent in Mackay I would be camping on Mr Bidgood’s doorstep at the moment until I got some justice. What about Mr Chris Trevor, the Labor member for Flynn? Is he going to allow this to go through without a whimper? He certainly was going to allow the CPRS to go through without a whimper, and that would have destroyed the jobs of many people in his electorate. We will wait and see what he does.
This backflip is good work by the government, as far as it goes. If they had used a better classification and put a bit more energy into this rather than berating the opposition over the last three months, we might have had a better result. Congratulations again to Mr Christopher Pyne and Senator Mason on the concessions they were able to draw from the government and, begrudgingly, congratulations to the government for accepting that and making it better for many people, but regrettably not for the people of Mackay.
Today we are once again talking about the level of income support we provide to help our kids get to university. You would think a clever nation would make it easier to get to university, not harder. But guess what: the Rudd government is making it harder for some kids to get to university, especially thousands of kids in regional areas. The question we have been asked is: do we want to disadvantage regional students and put them two years behind people living in the city? That is exactly what the government’s changes to youth allowance will do. The Rudd government’s changes to youth allowance eligibility criteria will force school leavers from regional areas to delay their study plans by two years in order to go to university. Many may well decide to not bother going to university if it means having to wait so long just to qualify for youth allowance. It is already hard enough for regional students to get into university with the extra cost of having to live away from home and now the Rudd government wants to put them two years behind their city counterparts.
The Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009 [No. 2] will make it even harder for kids in country areas to go to university and harder for all those kids that need to relocate to go to university. It is a crazy policy. As I said, a clever nation would be making it easier for our kids to get to university, not harder. That is why, back in November, the Senate tried to get the government to change their mind on this crazy policy that would sell out kids in rural and regional areas and those who had to relocate to get to university. Unfortunately, the Rudd government stubbornly refused and was even willing to withhold scholarships from kids so that they could try to ram through this crazy policy of forcing kids to delay their university study by two years.
That was just a few months ago. A few months on we find that the National Party in coalition with the Liberal Party has rolled over, done a backflip and sold out thousands of kids in the regional areas of Australia. That is right, the National Party and the Liberal Party in coalition have caved in to the government’s pressure and struck a deal that will leave regional kids as second-rate citizens. In fact, the coalition have cobbled together some half-baked deal that will see no extra money for our kids. They have cut back student scholarships and it still leaves students in places such as Ballarat, Bendigo, Sale, Shepparton, Traralgon, Wangaratta, Warrnambool, and Wodonga out in the cold. That is just in Victoria. What about other parts of Australia, such as Albury, Wagga Wagga, Orange, Dubbo, Tamworth, Rockhampton and we heard just before from a coalition senator about Mackay? It is a farce.
Let us remember that we are talking about real kids with parents who want the best for their kids. Every year thousands of students who need to relocate in order to go to university now will have to delay their studies by two years in order to qualify for youth allowance. Time and time again, regional communities are treated like second-class citizens and now we have the National Party with the Liberal Party in coalition doing a deal that will clearly treat regional areas as second-class citizens. Both the government and the coalition are equally guilty because both parties campaigned on giving a fair go to regional students. Both parties now have abandoned these kids when it matters most.
This bill just proves the divide between city and country when it comes to politics. It is a disgrace that in the entire Senate there is only one senator willing to stand up and fight for the country students and make sure that they are not being dudded. Even the National Party have sold out regional communities once again and do not have the guts to stand up when they are negotiating with the government. Until yesterday, the National Party and Liberal Party coalition said they would not sell out regional communities on the youth allowance. But, clearly, they cannot be trusted.
The Senate first passed amendments that would have had ensured rural and regional students were not disadvantaged but the government refused to accept the Senate’s decision and instead elected to leave students high and dry. The Rudd government had a choice between providing a more generous package for students or providing them with nothing at all. The government went for the option of giving students nothing at all. Since November, students have been left in limbo wondering what is going on with their education while the government has been off playing politics with the issue. This is ridiculous and it is not the way any government should ever behave.
Just a few weeks ago thousands of students across the country began a new chapter in their lives and started their studies at university. But for many of these students, instead of going out to orientation days or buying the books for their courses, they were sitting back at home still not knowing their fate because the government was refusing to budge on the bill. Thousands of students have been left in limbo because of the Rudd government’s arrogance and stubbornness and its commitment to taking a sledgehammer to Australia’s higher education system.
The government has tried to hold the Senate to ransom by cutting all the scholarships until the Senate passed the youth allowance changes. We warned of this when it changed the scholarships earlier last year. The government’s actions are reckless and they have put the welfare of students, particularly those from regional areas, in jeopardy. The changes to youth allowance eligibility criteria are blatantly unfair and will see fewer people from the country area heading to university instead of trying to get more kids to go to university.
Family First voted to amend the government’s bill so that students who were forced to relocate would be eligible for youth allowance under the existing criteria. These were sensible changes but the government was stubborn and unwilling to listen to the concerns of ordinary Australians and would not have a bar of it. It remains a fact that Australian university students receive among the lowest levels of income support across the OECD countries. Now the government wants to cut the regional students out instead of helping them get to university. What kind of education revolution is this? What kind of education revolution sees a government scrap scholarships for students before putting new ones in place, then make it harder for kids to qualify for youth allowance? Instead of making it easier for students to go to university we have a situation now where 20 per cent of all students in my home state of Victoria who have applied for university this year have missed out. This is not an education revolution—it is penny pinching. It is backwards policy. It fails to invest in Australia’s future.
The changes to youth allowance will put us even further behind and it is not something that Family First can support. It took months of campaigning and public pressure to get the Rudd government to just come to their senses. It reluctantly did a backflip on its original policy and granted an exemption for students who were in their gap year. This may have fixed one issue but it still does not go to the heart of the problem that regional students are being sold out and disadvantaged compared to students in the cities. The government thinks that it has wide support for its policies but that is because the government has started to lose touch with the people. It has clearly stopped listening to families in regional Australia and thinks it is so high and mighty that it can tell them what is best for them without listening to their opinion.
Take, for example, the letter I received from a council in regional Australia which passed a motion regarding the youth allowance bill. It says:
At council’s recent meeting, it was unanimously resolved to correspond to the Prime Minister, the minister for education … the members of the Federal Senate to vigorously oppose the Federal Government’s intention to drastically reduce our rural and regional students’ access to tertiary education by proposing to make changes to the youth allowance bill.
The government needs to understand that we are talking about real people, real kids and real families and about education and allowing the young to get to university. We are not talking about names and numbers on a piece of paper. Thousands of students are going to be worse off under the government’s changes to youth allowance, and it is ridiculous for us to be penny-pinching when it comes to the future of Australia, which is our kids. I have a media release from GET REEAL, the Rural Education Equity Alliance, dated Wednesday, 17 March 2010. It is interesting that it is headed ‘Dismay at youth allowance deal’. The media release says:
GET REEAL spokesperson Di Doyle warned of continued low education outcomes and shortages of professionals in the region under the new legislation.
This is about the bill that we are talking about here. It goes on to say:
Most of Victoria’s and Australia’s country kids would face an uphill battle to get to university.
There is this quote from Ms Doyle:
“In the past thousands of country kids took a gap year so they would be deemed independent from their families and thereby gain the youth allowance. The government has now made it all but impossible for our students to do that.”
This follows on from the quote:
Despite her assurances to the contrary, Julia Gillard’s package falls well short for most country families who remain severely disadvantaged under the new proposals.
Clearly, the government has misread the situation and how much regional areas are relying on youth allowance in allowing kids in those areas to get to university. It is a shame that the Rudd government has not been willing to listen. It is a shame that the National Party, with the Liberal Party in coalition, have decided to sell out regional Australia.
I have a media release from Christopher Pyne which I received late yesterday. It says that since May last year the coalition, which is the National Party and the Liberal Party, has sought three changes to the youth allowance legislation, as its second bullet point says, ‘to ensure a pathway exists for regional’ youth. In the next few lines they talk about what they have achieved but they conveniently leave out ‘regional’. They are quite happy to put down ‘outer remote areas’ but they conveniently leave out ‘regional’. How can you leave out regional Australia if you are for regional Australia? It is outrageous to think of that. The government was in trouble on this issue, and the National Party and the Liberal Party, in coalition, have caved in and sold out regional Australia. There is no other way to look at this issue. Yes, you are going to move an amendment. But you know you could have held out and got more for regional Australia. It is wrong. I think the government will pay the price at the ballot box at the next election over this issue.
In summing up, I would like to thank all senators for their contributions as to the Social Security and Other Legislation Amendment (Income Support for Students) Bill 2009 [No. 2]. Given this is the second time we have had to deal with this matter, there is a fair bit that people have contributed. The fact of the matter is that, when it comes to a Senate debate of this type, one always remains somewhat amused at the gyrations of senators seeking to position themselves for the inevitable compromises that are involved with a reform of this type. I am certainly amused in this circumstance given the posturing and the strutting of senators, which is not unknown in this chamber, and I have no doubt we will hear a great deal more of it yet before we reach the end of this process. The difficulty is that throughout that pantomime that we have to endure we often lose sight of what is actually being achieved. I think it is worth restating that, as a result of these changes—this is what the initiatives that this government has brought before this parliament will mean—support for students will be directed much more to those that need it. In fact, as a result of the government’s initiatives, there will now be 29 times the number of scholarships available to Australian students, should this bill be passed, when compared to when this government came to office in 2007. What this scheme does is provide assistance for 150,000 university students who receive youth allowance, ABSTUDY and Austudy and will receive a $2,128 start-up for a scholarship every year.
It is a reduction. I acknowledge that it is a reduction on what we actually put to this parliament. It is a reduction, and part of the cost of the compromises that you have made is a reduction of $100 per student. Every student should bear that in mind. The cost of these compromises is $100 a head.
There is $2,128 as a start-up for a scholarship student every year and $1,300 in 2010 if this legislation passes. Do not assume that this legislation will pass, because the opposition have moved amendments which they know cannot be accepted. When they play these games—when they engage in these gestures—and when they provide these opportunistic and, quite clearly, hypocritical and fraudulent devices, they should bear this in mind: the consequences will be registered.
The measures we have here include the raising of the parental income test. This is what is at stake here: 150,000 university students have the opportunity to receive a substantial benefit and that is put at risk by yet another bit of political gamesmanship by people who have already struck a deal. The parental income test under these measures will be raised so that families with two children studying away from home can earn more than $140,000 before their allowance is cut out completely. That is a massive benefit. Students who choose to move to study may be eligible for an additional relocation scholarship worth $4,000. That is what the opposition are putting at risk: $4,000 for students who are obliged to relocate. That is in the first year of study and there is $1,000 each subsequent year. So we are not talking about just the $4,000 but the $1,000 that comes thereafter.
As a result of these changes, from 1 July 2012 students will be able to earn up to $400 a fortnight—$236 up from the old scheme—without having their payments reduced. The other great benefit of this scheme, which the opposition choose to gloss over—choose to put at risk—is that the age of independence will reduce progressively from 25 years to 22 years by 2012, which will see an estimated 7,600 new recipients of the independent rate of allowance. It will be reduced to 24 this year, if the legislation is passed.
These are genuinely landmark reforms. They have the unanimous support of 39 university vice-chancellors across this county. They have been so concerned at the opposition’s shilly-shallying and political manoeuvring that they have written to every senator urging this chamber to pass this legislation. They know the consequences of the opposition’s political gamesmanship for the 150,000 Australian students who will miss out on the enormous benefits that this government wishes to introduce.
You, on the other side of the chamber, have been defending your scheme, which Professor Bradley described as desperately unfair. What we are doing is replacing a scheme that was desperately unfair. So when you get teary-eyed about this, bear in mind—
I accept that. Senator Mason has indicated that the coalition now supports these new schemes. Senator Mason personally understood this. I have always said that Senator Mason has a better understanding of the consequences of these manoeuvrings than most of his colleagues. But it bears repeating that the scheme that people have been defending in here saw a family with two children aged 17 and 19 at home receiving a part income support when the total family income was just over $100,900 when compared with the previous cut-off of $60,000. That is the model you thought was great in the past.
What the Bradley review found, when they went to the detail of it, was that the current student income scheme—the old scheme—was incredibly poorly targeted and found that 36 per cent of independent students living at home were from families with incomes above $100,000. Professor Bradley’s research found that 18 per cent of students in this situation came from families earning incomes of above $150,000 and that 10 per cent of families who were receiving support had earnings of over $200,000. So the old scheme was not only incredibly unfair but fundamentally unjust.
We have an opportunity here today to put a new set of arrangements in place. If the amendment that has been foreshadowed is carried by this chamber, that is put at risk. This chamber gets up tomorrow night for a seven-week break. So there is a real issue here that cannot be simply glossed over by some procedural device or some attempt to pretend that you are doing anything other than what you are committed to.
Senator Mason, I do not envy you your position in a party full of such ignorant people. It must be difficult being a man who actually knows something about these topics to have to come in here and argue such an indefensible position. I understand how hard this can be, from time to time, when you have members of the House of Representatives who treat this place in a way that suggests that they do not really understand the consequences of what they are doing. Senator Mason, I am sure you would be aware that the member for Sturt actually wrote to the Deputy Prime Minister on 16 March. And while he wrote his usual sanctimonious stuff about how he would like to see more, he said:
We do believe there is still scope for improvement to the legislation for the provision of further concessions to also apply for students from inner regional areas.
I want to make sure those senators that may be living in some dream world and think they can play games with the lives of 150,000 Australians understand this. What Mr Pyne says is, ‘However, as agreed with you, we will ensure passage of the legislation this week so that Commonwealth scholarships can be made available as soon as possible to students.’
Just as long as you understand, Senator Nash, what those words ‘ensure passage’ mean. You cannot go outside and say that you were not signed up to the deal, because what we have now is a set of arrangements to give effect to landmark reforms that this government has introduced—that this government has ensured will provide enormous benefit to the people of this country—which will be supported by the coalition, unless we have another event like we saw last year with Mr Turnbull when you say one thing and mean another. We are about to discover what the truth of that matter is. The member for Sturt has committed your votes, in writing, to this proposition.
We all know the difficulty of this place. Those opposite are all experts who think they can run the government from the opposition benches. We know the game. On the one hand, you say the education spending that we are engaging in is a waste; on the other hand, in another part of the chamber, they say that we need to spend far more. There is a bit of a dichotomy in perspective here. This government has almost doubled the amount of money spent on universities, so it is hard to say that we have not spent enough and it is certainly very difficult to say that money is wasted—but it is suggested across the benches that we should spend more.
We are saying that this legislation is about investment in our university system for the future of our country. We are very proud of it. We also say, though, that there is not a bottomless pit that we can just keep digging and pouring money into. We have made very strategic investments and we are—
Senator Mason, you say you agree with that, so we are both signed up to the proposition that these measures have to be paid for. We cannot sustain the view that we just tip more money in and fix the problem. That is the position that you have agreed to. We are saying our priorities are right, and I look forward to the discussion of the amendments in detail. I commend the bill to the chamber.
Question agreed to.
Bill read a second time.