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Lee condemns Labor's betrayal of students

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 1 Oct 2014

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (09:32): I follow my colleague Senator Siewert, who has led for the Greens on these bills, setting out our clear opposition and why that opposition needs to be loud and very clear.

These bills would bring in structural change to our social system that would result in a much more divisive society, a society where effectively people are excluded from opportunities. I am committed to—and I hope all senators would be committed to—ensuring that people are not disadvantaged because of where they live, because of economic issues or because of their level of ability in our society. This is very cruel, very mean legislation that warrants the widest opposition. I believe that, when the history of the Abbott government is written, this will be an example of the extreme aspects of this government that have set it apart; it is ruthless in how it approaches our economy, our social structure and the very nature of our democratic society.

The harshest cuts in this budget hit the most vulnerable. They are widespread—and I will come to aspects that hit people who want to undertake tertiary education—but the essence of these bills, if they become law, is that they go after the most vulnerable. This legislation deserves to be universally rejected. The Greens take that very strong position because we have had a longstanding policy of a commitment for guaranteed adequate income for all. It is a policy that we are all very proud of, because it recognises that people have different circumstances in their lives and that at all stages people should have a guaranteed adequate income so that there is common decency for all.

People should not be put in the position of having to sleep rough, of having to think twice about whether they can afford to buy medicine; where their children have no opportunity to gain a decent education; where they may not be able to send their young children on excursions. That guaranteed adequate income has been Greens policy for a long time. So when we approach legislation like this, we see the great harm that it would do, because it effectively removes this safety net that is so important.

This legislation really does contain some the cruellest welfare cuts in this budget. It is about ripping out millions of dollars; it is the theme that we have seen through the whole budget where the government has targeted the disadvantaged to make its savings. My colleague Rachel Siewert has set out very clearly the detailed problems with this legislation.

I would like to go into how this legislation hits students who wish to undertake higher education. This is where we do see a slash and burn approach with the government looking to save at least $300 million. The big change is in relocation scholarships. Students whose parents live in a major city would not be able to relocate to another major city and receive the relocation assistance—and the relocation assistance really makes a huge difference. I know many students who have received that relocation scholarship and they tell me that it made all the difference in their being able to proceed with the course that they had their heart on and to go to the university where that course was provided. One example is a young man who was living in the lower Blue Mountains and was able to go to Sydney University. I heard of a person in Brisbane who wanted to go to Sydney University to study vet science, and that opportunity was there because of the relocation assistance. It is not a huge amount of money; it adds up to about $7,000 through the course of an undergraduate student's life. It starts at a bit over $4,000 per year. That money is essential for all those basic costs—like the huge burden of rent which, you would all agree, can make life very tough when you hit Sydney. For basic living costs such as food and rent, that relocation assistance has been all-important.

Now we have these very cruel measures that, looked at individually, people might think, 'It's no big deal.' But for a single person undertaking their studies, they can really make life hard. The major cities include the capital cities, Newcastle, Wollongong, Central Coast and Gold Coast. If you wanted to move from one to the other, because your parents live in one of those areas, that would no longer be possible. I really would argue that it will further disadvantage and prevent many people being able to proceed with the education that they have worked so hard to undertake.

We also need to remember, when we are looking at this aspect of the legislation—which is about how students study and how they are going to live—that it further undermines the argument that we so often hear from the Minister for Education, that it is critical to the future of higher education that we make it competitive, that that will sort out the problems, solve the government's funding problems, give students all the choice—all those things that we hear ad nauseam from the minister. But when you look at what is going on here, with regard to the relocation scholarships, you see how this competition argument falls down, because Australia's vast geography is clearly a limiting factor. It does put a shadow on how people make their decisions, and the relocation scholarship has brought some balance to it. There can be no competition if you cannot afford to move cities to access a course. You might have your heart set on a specific course at a university in a capital city and want to move from one capital city to another. That would now be removed. If the government is successful with this legislation we will end up with a situation where it will be limited to the wealthy who would have the ability to assist their children to shop around, while low-income students from disadvantaged families, from working class families, would have no choice other than to study at the university that is closest to them. That is not competition. That is creating a very divided society—limiting opportunities for people and limiting Australia's potential—because, without ensuring that education is freely and widely available to all, we clearly limit our own innovative potential.

With regard to the relocation scholarships, I want to share with senators some very useful comments that came from the Australian Technology Network. The Australian Technology Network comprises five leading Australian universities. They teach well over 200,000 students. They do this at universities across the country and I think they have some centres overseas as well. When you look at the ATN's work you will see that they have put a great deal of effort into the issues of access and equity with regard to the ability of students being able to access their universities. They have made some comments on different aspects of how the government is trying to change the higher education system. On what we are addressing here now, the relocation scholarship, they said:

It may force some students to undertake longer hours of paid work; withdraw from their course; or reduce their study load.

They went on to say that they anticipate that taking away the scholarships could simply lead to recipients moving on to other social welfare payments like the Newstart allowance. They are very useful comments from the ATN. They identify the pressure that students are under when they undertake their studies and that removing the relocation scholarship could put them under more financial pressure—how they would cope with that. If you have to study for longer hours, a point comes when you cannot do your studies properly or you cut back on the level of your involvement in study, and that is not healthy. They also make the very valid point that people not able to allocate their relocation scholarship could well end up on another form of social welfare payment, such as Newstart allowance. So, by approaching it in the way that the government has by trying to save money—which I think has caught up with their elitist approach, but let's just talk about it in the context of saving money—would they save money if so many of those young people end up on the Newstart allowance? Again, it underlines the very narrow approach that we see—the sectional approach to higher education that the government is undertaking.

There are some more aspects to the way the government is planning on saving money in this bill when it comes to higher education and those are to do with the student support payment and the Income Bank. The student support payment is a form of youth allowance. It currently rises according to average male weekly earnings. Under this legislation the government wants to change that to the CPI, the consumer price index. Why does the government want to do that? Because the CPI rises at a much lower rate than the average male weekly earnings. So, clearly, over time they would save money. The government saves money, but, with the already small amount of money that students try to live on, it means less money for students to pay for rent and food—their living expenses. That means that the level of hardship will increase over time as the cost of living rises, but the amount of money that students receive from their student support payment rises more slowly. When the minister was getting advice on this, they might have said, 'It's really only a small amount.' When you are already on such a small amount of money—with which you need to try to pay your rent, catch transport and buy food—having your weekly allowance reduced by a small amount is very significant and can really make a difference to how you live and do your studies. Surely we should be working to improve the living conditions of students so that they are not under even extra pressure when they undertake their studies.

Another way the government plans to cut students' income is through changes to how the Income Bank operates. At present, students can earn a certain amount of money without loosing their student support payment. That is obviously fair. As a student's income rises above a certain amount, their student support payment is reduced. Again, that is part of the current system. The cut-off point rises according to the CPI. Again, I would say that was fair. Clearly, the amount that one could earn would not stay static. But now it will not be increased, which means that over time the amount students can earn without losing money from the student support payment will effectively be reduced. I guess the minister was advised, 'It's very insignificant; it'll only be a small amount,' but, over time, this becomes very significant. If the amount at which your payments start to be reduced becomes lower and lower, over time that brings more hardship.

These bills are another example of how cruel this government is. It has come up with a set of measures in these bills for people on welfare, people on virtually any form of government payment that is to assist those who are doing it tough—single parents, elderly people, the unemployed, students trying to gain a higher education. The government is pulling money off them left, right and centre. This is legislation that should never even have been drafted, it is insidious and it represents the very ugly side of neoliberalism that this government is now determined to bring in, and it should be defeated and defeated soundly.

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