Senator HANSON-YOUNG (South Australia)
I rise today to contribute to this important debate. I must say, I have never seen an issue become so hotly debated in the community so quickly. The budget was handed down on the Tuesday night and by Friday morning my inbox was full and the phones in my electorate office were running hot. I received phone calls from concerned parents, teachers, students and grandparents. These were people who had contacted their local member of parliament and who had definitely never thought of picking up the phone and speaking to their Greens senator. It is an issue which has galvanised the community. The concern is not coming from those people who know that they should not have been twisting the rules to get that money. The government keeps referring to those families on $200,000 to 300,000 a year receiving Youth Allowance and staying at home, but it is not coming from those people; it is coming from people who are halfway through working to earn the required amount of money.
I want to bring the debate back to why this is an issue. The fundamental flaw, despite a whole raft of changes that the government has announced in relation to Youth Allowance—many of which, I must put on the public record, the Greens support—is that there was absolutely no investment in student income support in this budget. There was no extra investment at a time when we know young people are going to have to gain further skills because of job shortages around the country, when the cost of living for students around the country is rising and when, as we know, the rate of Youth Allowance has not risen for the last five or six years. The fundamental problem is that the government has set up a scheme that pays more people but with the same amount of money. It is the same pie; it is just cut differently. Of course, when you do that, people miss out.
The changes that the government announced to the workplace participation criteria have removed the two fundamental ways that young people could meet those independence criteria so that they could get the maximum amount—that is, $371.40 a fortnight. They have removed that option halfway through. Because they are talking about bringing it in on 1 January 2010, those people who are already working to meet the independence criteria are being caught short. Therefore, the legislation, when it comes to the Senate, will effectively be retrospective, which is not a good way to manage public policy. If there was ever a clear example of where politicians did not accept this, it was in 2004 when politician superannuation rates were discussed. The rates for those senators who entered in 2004 were different to those who were here beforehand. There was no argument that the laws for those senators should be retrospective or different from the senators sitting in the chambers here today. It is a classic example of one rule for some and another rule for other people.
The issue facing young people who want to access education is a huge one. I could talk about this issue for a long time, particularly about young people in rural Australia accessing opportunities for higher education.
We know that young people in rural and regional Australia have to move and have leave home when they finish their high school certificates if they are to go to university, because there is no university down the street or in the next suburb. The government talks about these changes being targeted to those people most in need. As I have said, there are a number of changes that we do support. I support the idea of bringing the age of independence down. I think it should be coming down to 18, frankly. If you need to move out of home, if you have moved out of home and if you are standing on your own two feet then you should be considered independent.
The government is not introducing that independence rate drop straightaway; it is phasing it in over three or four years. Yet the fundamental change that rips money out of the pockets of students who have earned it and are working desperately towards earning it—and the government’s own figures are that 30,700 students are going to be affected by this—is proposed to happen from 1 January 2010.
The students who are contacting all of us—and I am sure you have all had the same emails, the same letters and the same phone calls from grandparents—are saying, ‘We’re doing this based on the advice that we were given from the government.’ Centrelink went into schools and advised students in year 12 that the best way for them to support themselves when going to university was to take a gap year, earn the $19½ thousand and get the youth allowance. This is young people’s first experience of dealing with a government that has not taken their considerations on board.
I understand the need to target the youth allowance to those in need, but the government has missed the mark. For those who are most in need in terms of income support, absolutely, let us deal with the parental income levels; let us deal with bringing the independence rate down. Let us also not forget the extra disadvantage that young people from rural and regional Australia face if they are to attend university. That is an extra burden that they have to bear.
The government talk about the fact that, because the parental income levels are proposed to be changed, most of these kids are going to be okay. They cannot tell us, however, how many students will get what.
They say they have consulted with regional communities but cannot tell us how many students take the gap year in order to qualify for youth allowance. They tell us that they have consulted regional communities, yet they say they do not understand their concerns. They talk about misinformation and miscommunication of the message. I can say that the worst communication of these changes has come from the government themselves— from the minister’s office and from the department.
Even the naming of their scholarships does not make sense—an annual scholarship that is called a ‘start-up’ scholarship? The basic misinformation and miscommunication have come from the government themselves.
We can debate all of the other changes, but it is about what we want to prioritise and how much value we think student income support deserves. I think it deserves a whole lot more, which is why I was pushing, before the budget, to see an increase in that pool of money instead of having to spread it more thinly, which is what the government have done. We can debate those things, and obviously the different parties in this chamber will have different opinions about that, but the one part that is indefensible is the retrospective nature of the removal of the workplace participation criteria. It is absolutely indefensible. You do not change the rules halfway, with no consultation, no compromise and absolutely no guarantees that those students will now be able to fund their time at university.
The government talk about a relocation scholarship that will be available to those students who have to move from the country to the city or from, say, Adelaide to Melbourne if they get accepted at Melbourne university for medicine instead of at Flinders. But they cannot tell us what the criteria for that relocation scholarship are. While they say it is available, they cannot tell us who it is available to. I have asked those questions directly of the minister. I have asked the minister’s office. I asked the department during estimates.
No-one can tell us what those criteria will be. There is no guarantee for any of these 30,700 students of what level of income support they will get come 1 January 2010.
Before I finish, I want to welcome the strong stance that the coalition have taken in jumping on board and supporting the Greens in moving amendments to this legislation when the legislation comes to the Senate. I am thankful that the coalition have moved beyond their original position of only amending the private healthcare rebate measure, because this measure is just as important. This measure must be amended. It is absolutely indefensible to bring in legislation that is effectively retrospective, with no consultation and an absolute lack of information and advice as to how it is going to affect people for whom you are moving the goalposts halfway through.