Social Services Legislation Amendment Bill 2018

Like the member for Grey, I am very pleased to be speaking on the Social Services Legislation Amendment (14-month Regional Independence Criteria) Bill 2018, particularly as it’s to do with independent youth allowance. The member for Grey and I and a number of our colleagues have worked tirelessly on this issue, virtually since we were elected to this place. This bill is directly aimed at assisting more rural and regional students—the young people who live in my and the member for Grey’s electorates—to achieve their higher education.

Ever since I was elected, I’ve pursued equity of access to higher education for rural and regional students, who have no choice but to leave home to study. These young people have no choice. So I was absolutely horrified when the then Labor government changed the independence criteria and physically excluded students from areas defined as ‘inner regional’. These were my students. Labor was diverting funds from disadvantaged regional Australian families and students and delivering the funds to outer-metropolitan seats, which were Labor-held seats. This change meant that the majority of young people in my electorate were ineligible to even apply for independent youth allowance.

These are the young people who live three to four hours from Perth, where they had to go to pursue their higher education studies. I remember only too well the numbers of families and young people who came to me in absolute desperation—and it was desperation. For many, this meant they had no choice but to give up their dreams, their goals and their plans to attend university. It was just dreadful to see. It changed some of those young people’s lives forever, because they took a different path at that time—different to what they would have taken had they gone on to university.

I submitted a private members’ motion in 2010. It called on the then Labor government to reverse this decision that discriminated against inner-regional students. The motion was supported by the majority of members in this House at the time, and was the first defeat on the floor for an incumbent government for a long time, and well it should have been. It was a disgraceful, discriminatory decision. But, unfortunately for our rural and regional students, the process of removing the funding from them and their families and redirecting it to Labor-held seats is actually Labor’s standard operating procedure. It’s what Labor governments do.

We’re seeing a very similar approach to education from the WA state Labor government, with announcements of $64 million of education cuts, mostly in regional and rural areas. There were cuts to the five Schools of the Air and to the gifted and talented programs in Northam Residential College. It took concerted public pressure for these particular cuts to be reversed.

More recently, the CWA actually marched on state parliament to protest against the remaining $41 million of sweeping cuts to regional education. The closure of the Moora Residential College demonstrates that regional students and regional families do not matter to Labor. However, one of the most blatant and ill conceived cash grabs is taking 20 per cent of the funds from the Agricultural Education Provisions Trust. This takes money from our agricultural colleges and the Esperance Farm Training Centre in WA. These AEPT funds are earned and generated by the colleges themselves from selling their own produce. The Harvey ag school in my electorate will lose at least $50,000 a year. These are the funds the ag school uses for farm machinery, for developing their farms, for repairing and replacing fences and for the constant recurrent costs they have to meet. Labor is cutting hundreds of thousands of dollars from these regional ag schools.
here is no doubt that agricultural is critical to the WA and Australian economies. It is worth $8.2 million to the WA economy alone. I’m unashamedly a farmer. Our future farmers—our young people—need the best possible education with the most current innovations and training technologies: the machinery, the tools and the trades equipment. The Harvey ag school’s trades training centre is exceptional. The students currently have access to very well-equipped workshops. They are training on the machinery and tools currently being used in the relevant industries: automotive, construction, furnishing, metals and engineering. They also offer ATAR and general academic pathways for students. The ag school is an economic contributor to our local economy, providing employment and sourcing inputs from local businesses. Over 600 students attend these colleges.

Unfortunately, this is a pattern of behaviour from Labor governments, whether federal or state. We saw it at the federal level with the changes to youth allowance. It was devastating—directly and deliberately removing funding from rural and regional students and redistributing it into the cities. In contrast, the Turnbull government has made a number of improvements and changes to youth allowance to assist more of our students in rural and regional areas.

We know how important the changes have been. We know that students from regional areas are significantly underrepresented in tertiary education. A far greater percentage of metro students go on with their tertiary education, compared to our young people from rural and regional areas. One of the major barriers is the extra cost, which is around $25,000 a year. Accommodation is one of those costs.

Regional students can’t just go home to mum and dad for the night. They also need to have a car to get to the city from where they live in the country. They need to fund their daily living expenses while they’re away from home. There are far greater costs for tertiary education for our kids and families.
Some students I’ve met, as the member for Grey rightly said, have made conscious decisions to not aspire to attend university in Perth or elsewhere, because they know their families simply can’t afford it. What a tragedy this is! And it was a tragedy back in 2010 as well when Labor changed the rules and excluded those great young people. Some parents in my area have two jobs to support their children’s higher education. These are the reasons I and my colleagues will continue to do everything we can to help our great young people get the education and training they need to pursue their talents, their ambitions and their dreams.

Another barrier for some students has been the requirement to wait for 18 months after leaving school to qualify for independent youth allowance. We, on this side, have worked consistently to change this requirement. In practical terms it has meant that students have had to take two years away from their study, working to earn the amount required to demonstrate their independence so they can qualify for youth allowance. Parents and students have repeatedly sought this change. I’ve heard about it over and over. Effectively, it will mean that students finishing high school at the end of 2018 will be able to qualify for youth allowance and start uni in 2020 instead of having to wait till 2021, as they would have previously. So, instead of taking two gap years, they will only have to take one. This bill actually helps 300 students who have not been able to take advantage of the reduced 14-month period: those that remained in the transition under the old 18-month rule. This reduction in time was an election commitment that we made and that we’re very proud of, member for Grey. You called us—
Mr Ramsey: The rural education rump.
Ms MARINO: the rural education rump. It is a very appropriate description of us, because we have been absolutely committed to this and we have been absolutely persistent. We have made several changes to improve the access for rural and regional students, but as I, the member for Grey and my colleagues know there is more work to be done.

I have worked consistently and persistently—I think they’re the two words we would use, member for Grey—with my regional colleagues on this issue. The Minister for Education and Training, Senator Simon Birmingham, responded to what we knew needed to be done by asking Professor John Halsey to conduct an independent review into regional, rural and remote education. These are the fresh eyes that we’ve believed for some time were needed to look at what is the appropriate way to assist our young people in their education challenges. The review considered key ideas in the challenges and the barriers that affect students’ learning outcomes. I’ve been pushing for and am very keen to see a fresh approach. It’s what we’ve been seeking, and it’s what the minister has responded to, through Professor Halsey. It would be a fresh approach that actually supports better access and better achievement for rural, regional and remote students. We want to see the transition to further study, training and work. These are all issues we’ve been working on for some time.

The review is actually going to investigate the gap in educational achievement between rural, regional and remote students and metropolitan students; the key barriers and challenges that I’ve talked about; the appropriateness and effectiveness of current modes of education delivered to regional, rural and remote students, including the use of information and communication technology; and the effectiveness of public policies and programs. This is where, I think, we’re looking for that fresh approach to bridge the gaps and opportunities to help students successfully move from school to further study, training and employment. It will also critically look at new approaches—something we’ve sought for some time. It will look at a new approach that actually supports regional, rural and remote students to succeed in school and in their transition to further study, training and employment.

There have been a lot of consultations. As members on my side will know, I certainly insisted that Professor Halsey come to my electorate to hear firsthand the issues facing students, parents and educators in my electorate. As the member for Grey has said, Professor Halsey came to Bunbury. His focus on leadership and teacher quality is a key part of what we will see out of the Halsey report, in my view. Again, leadership in rural and regional areas is critically important. We have some amazing leaders in our schools, and they face additional challenges in rural, regional and even remote areas. As we on this side have said repeatedly, we understand directly how, unfortunately, the changes made by a Labor government many years ago have created an ongoing problem. We have made a number of changes that have improved the access for rural, regional and remote students. But there is more work to be done. With the persistence and the focus that my colleagues and I have on this matter, along with the support of the minister, I’m very sure there will be much we can use from what Professor Halsey delivers to make sure our students get fairer access, access that they need, to be able to pursue their higher education.

I deal with a number of families on a regular basis who find it incredibly challenging to meet the additional costs of sending students away to university. It is significant. It is very difficult for a couple who may be on an income just above the means tested level of $150,000. During the time that Labor had made the changes, I remember a woman came to see me and said, ‘I’ve had to make a dreadful choice.’ I said, ‘What was your choice?’ She said: ‘I have five wonderful kids. They are all capable and are achieving wonderful ATAR scores, and all five want to train to be GPs.’ We have a shortage of GPs in regional areas. She said, ‘I have to make a choice as to which one of those is able to go to university.’ That concerns me greatly. These families live and work and contribute so significantly to the economics and the prosperity that comes out of our region, which supports much of Australia, especially when you look at our exports. I am very pleased to support this bill and every measure ahead that we will take to improve access for rural and regional students. I thank and commend all of my colleagues who stayed with us in this whole process to make sure we reverse some of those changes made by Labor and look at new opportunities ahead for our rural and regional students.