Local, Independant and Effective

Regional students big winners with changes to student payments

Posted March 24, 2017


Ms McGOWAN (Indi) (18:08): Good evening, Deputy Speaker, and thank you for this opportunity to address the Social Services Legislation Amendment (Simplifying Student Payments) Bill 2016. There are three main points I would like to make in my speech tonight: first, to give my support for the bill and the process involving it; second, to talk a little bit about Indi—my electorate—and some of the wonderful things that are happening there with young people; and third, to put the call out for a much stronger approach and recognition from this House to support young people, and particularly young people in rural and regional Australia. Clearly, I have some ideas that I would like to share with the House about how we might do that.

I am proud to support this legislation. Regional students must have support to go to university and access higher education, and this bill goes some way towards addressing this. As we have heard, the legislation will align means-testing rules for student payments with other welfare payments; the automatic issue of healthcare cards to recipients of student payments, removing the requirement for separate application; and the automatic update of the geographical classification, which is used to assess eligibility for independent rates of youth allowance. I welcome these amendments and I am really pleased that we have got this far.

One of the reasons we have got this far—and I would like to take a minute to acknowledge it—is the work of Senator Bridget McKenzie from the other place. Senator Bridget McKenzie has taken a lead role in understanding the problems we have with rural and regional Australia and going out to the community, doing the listening and then coming back with this legislation. In 2015 Senator McKenzie hosted a series of regional higher education forums across country. The forums were an opportunity to discuss the barriers to accessing higher education for regional and remote students and how to overcome them. She has clearly listened, and the results are in this legislation tonight.

These changes are a win for young people and their families across regional Australia, but they are particularly of benefit to the people in my electorate. I would like to take a moment to share with the House some of the amazing things that are happening with and through the young people in my electorate and to talk about why it is really important—and that we need legislation—to look at the problems young people are experiencing in their ability to participate in our society. For us to play a role in getting rid of those problems and barriers, we need to go the next step. But first I would like to talk about some of the wonderful things that are happening in my electorate.

Next week, as members of parliament will probably know, is National Youth Week. Local governments across north-east Victoria are delivering the 2017 Youth Politics Camp. This camp gives young people an opportunity to learn more about our political system—to come to understand why politics is important and how it works, how young people can participate and have their say, and how they can build their networks and discuss issues with other people who care about politics.

I would particularly like to acknowledge the work of local governments in my electorate: Amanda Aldous from Benalla Rural City Council; Tom Arnold from Wangaratta City Council; Jenny Corser from Alpine Shire Council; Sal Kimber from Indigo Shire Council; Inga Hamilton from Strathbogie Shire Council; Jodie Bell from Mansfield Shire; and Rachael Habgood and Anthony Nicholson from the City of Wodonga. They have come together as local councils to run the Youth Politics Camp, which is in the first week of April. It is going to be a most amazing experience, and I am really looking forward to being there. These people, as youth coordinators, have engaged, mentored, supported—and they really respect—the young people of my electorate. So, for that, I want to say, 'Thank you, team'.

Other activities that are having an amazing impact are the leadership development programs that are happening in Indi. One particular one, in its ninth year, is the Wodonga Youth Leadership Program. It provides opportunities for young people with a desire to strengthen their 'inner leader'. The program allows young people to develop their skills in decision making, project management, conflict resolution and communication. These people, together with the RED Carpet Youth Awards and the Eagle Award in Wodonga, get recognition for the projects they undertake in our community to make it a stronger place. So the Wodonga Youth Leadership Program has been a great success and has been identified by other local governments across the state as something they want to use in their own areas.

I would like to talk about one particular graduate. In 2016 Liam Shay, who is currently working at Wodonga TAFE, never thought he would take on the responsibilities of a social worker, until he participated in the program. Liam describes the program as one that was challenging and that exposed him to people and opportunities he never would have experienced otherwise. Clearly, Liam and his friends are going to go from strength to strength in leadership.

I know that rural and regional communities like mine will thrive when organisations, groups, communities and people gain the skills and confidence to seek their own solutions, to make plans and take effective action to get results. We will be even better when we, as adults, include processes in our organisations where we open our arms to young people and say to them: 'We want you to come on board. We want you to be involved. We want to hear what you have to say. But, most of all, we want to walk side by side with you in our communities.'

One of the things that I do as a member of parliament to support young people in my electorate is give community members from across my electorate the opportunity to volunteer in my Canberra office every sitting week here in Canberra. These volunteers have become a really important part of the infrastructure in enabling me to represent my community. They understand local issues, they help me stay connected with the community and they bring joy and fun into our office.

While this is not specifically a young person's program or a student program, this year I have had the pleasure of welcoming four young people as volunteers—Billy Munro, Tahlia Biggs, Claudia Weatherall and Corey McKibbin. They have been joined by Sean O'Neill, who is one of my permanent staff. Sean comes from Wangaratta. He is studying in Canberra and works in my office two days a week. They have also been joined by Jamon Shay—coincidentally, the brother of aforementioned Liam Shay. Jamon is in my office as part of the Australian National University Parliamentary Internship Program. As part of his internship, he will be looking at the engagement of young people in political processes, which is a fantastic thing for me, for Indi and, of course, for his degree. I would like to acknowledge two young people in the gallery tonight. Claudia and Jamon, thanks for turning up.

I would like to talk a little more about these volunteers. When they come and work in Canberra you get to know them better. Tahlia, from Wodonga, who is now living in Melbourne, is a mentor and facilitator for young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from all around Victoria and in some cases nationally. She helps young people engage in areas of education, voting, health and well-being. I am delighted to see Linda Burney in the chamber. Linda took the opportunity speak with them and inspire them and give them the courage. When young people come to Canberra and they get the opportunity to meet members of parliament, they can get to know us as individuals, and they can see, 'Well, I could be like that when I grow up.' And I know, Linda, that that is exactly what you provided to Tahlia.

Billy is a young musician from Wodonga. He works as a structured workplace learning team member at North East Local Learning and Employment Network. He leads our young people in music industry projects. Corey, from Yackandandah, is now studying a double degree at Deakin University. He is studying a bachelor of law and a bachelor of international studies. In 2014 Corey was part of the Wodonga Council Youth Leadership Program. He volunteered in my office and he just loved being part of the hurly-burly and the bustle. I know that he spread the warmth and the love of parliament—which I think people so rarely see—back to his educational environment and back to his community of Yackandandah.

Claudia, who is with us tonight, is from Wodonga and is now living in Melbourne. She graduated with a bachelor of arts from the University of Melbourne. Following her completion of the Victorian parliament intern program, she came to my office. This week while she has been up here, she has been the person to guide and help the people from my community who are visiting, as happens in the offices of many members of parliament. This week we have had the Alpine Valley's leadership program doing leadership development work, and Claudia has been able to sit in on their program for the two days. She has also provided great insight and help in our office. So thank you, Claudia. I really appreciate having you here.

One of the things that makes what happens in Indi so important, and what Bridget McKenzie and the minister have been able to do with this legislation, is to say, 'We've got to go and listen to young people and we've got to get rid of the barriers that stop them participating.' There are so many barriers and challenges that young people who live in rural and regional areas face. So, while it is of course really good that we have begun working with these problems around youth allowance and we have sorted out some of the obvious inconsistencies, there is so much more to do.

One of the most critical periods for students is the transition period from December to March when they leave school and work out what they are going to do next. There many factors that affect students during that period. Many country kids take the opportunity to have a gap year, and they want to go and earn money rather than going straight on to university—which is often a good thing; I am not against it. But we have found that the statistics show that the number of students going on to study after the gap year is really low. It is a matter of getting the money, getting yourself to university, leaving home and doing all the really hard yards that go with it. The statistics show that the number of young people from rural and regional areas studying in university is shamefully low. As Senator McKenzie has said, 'A postcode should not determine whether a young person can secure a university degree'—but, sadly, for us it does. We have to do a whole lot more work on getting our young people into study. I am told that, while only 10 per cent of Australians live in rural and remote areas, the evidence suggests that there are a lot fewer of us that actually take on study. Regional students make up only 18.8 per cent of domestic undergraduate students at university compared with 26.4 per cent of the population. That is really shameful and we have to do a lot more work to correct that.

But I will not talk more about the problems, because that is not what tonight is about. What I would really like to do is talk about what we as a parliament can do, and I want to focus on some of the work that I would like to put out there. One of the most important things that I think that we could do as a parliament is have a minister for youth affairs. I am not talking about a minister like we have a minister for age affairs or for health, but a really special colleague—one of us who is a networker, a facilitator and a community development person, who can work within the government and with the opposition in a bipartisan way to make sure that all of our policies actually take account of young people. The youth affairs minister's job would be to ensure that every single piece of legislation that comes before the parliament has considered the impact on young people and, where appropriate, the youth affairs minister would then be able to go and work with, for example, local government in my electorate, with the leadership programs in my electorate, and say, 'Okay, we're doing this fantastic work now on legislation that we passed yesterday around rural health and we are looking at pathways to get more doctors into rural health.'

So the youth minister's job would be to work with young people and help them understand where the jobs are and where the barriers are and then they would come back to parliament and work with the government and say, 'Here's the plan of how we need to do it. Let's work together in a bipartisan way to really support the legislation that we passed yesterday about getting more doctors to the country. So how can we work with young people to make sure that they can get the training that they need in the communities that they live in, if that is appropriate, and not have to go to Melbourne or Sydney?'—which is often one of the disincentives.

Next week, on Monday, my colleague from Mayo and I are going to be moving a private member's motion in which we will be calling for the introduction of discussion around a young person's minister. And I really ask my colleagues in the parliament tonight to think about how we would do this, because young people are so special, and the way they work is so different—the digital natives in particular—to how we work. Our solutions are not going to be their solutions, so we need a really clever—and I am sure we can do it—way of working with young people, not only the scheme I am doing, with volunteering, and not only the internship program that is being offered now with Canberra University, but around how we can get the ordinary community leaders, the kids in our schools and the kids who run our community groups so well, interested in parliament and how it works and get their voices heard in this place.

So, the member for Mayo and I are hoping we can start a discussion with our colleagues on both sides of parliament, and then perhaps after the budget comes down we can spend some more time in the winter and spring sessions bringing up for next year a private member's bill that hopefully gets the support of both sides of parliament and that gives us a young people's minister who will really help us do the work and give us that step up. With young people's involvement, this country really could reach its potential. The Prime Minister is always asking us to be innovative. The way to do it is to get our young people into parliament.

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