In Parliament

2011 In Parliament

2011 NOV 23 – Carbon Pricing


November 23, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (12:29): I fear that the Latrobe Valley is about to pay a very heavy price for the Labor Party’s deal with the Greens to deliver a carbon tax that will not change the temperature of the planet but will cost jobs and drive up the cost of living, particularly in regional communities. I have spoken many times in this place about the issues confronting the Latrobe Valley, which I believe to be one of the adversely affected parts of the nation, particularly with its dependence on jobs in the power generation industry along with manufacturing, small business in many forms, and the agricultural sector. I have highlighted my concerns in this place, and until recently my concerns appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Finally, some senior ministers are engaging with my community.

We have had the Minister for Regional Australia, Regional Development and Local Government; the Minister for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency; and the Minister for Resources and Energy visiting the Latrobe Valley in recent weeks. I am heartened by their interest but we are still waiting for some concrete results. In reading their comments in the media and looking through the transcripts of speeches that they have made, it is apparent to me that this government does not have a firm plan for the future of the Latrobe Valley or for the management of the risks associated with the introduction of a carbon tax. The people of the Latrobe Valley deserve more than rhetoric and motherhood statements. It is this government’s policy, which is being driven by the Greens, which will undermine the regional economy of Gippsland and the Latrobe Valley. This government has a responsibility to invest in my region to minimise the impacts of its carbon tax. Quite frankly, as it stands today, the government is all over the place in terms of its response to the Latrobe Valley and the public comments that have been made by ministers. Just last week Minister Ferguson either backed away from the government’s plans to shut down 2,000 megawatts of coal-fired power or he simply tried to talk down the asking price. This is what he told the Latrobe Valley Express newspaper:

There is no open cheque-book or bottomless pit. We have a bundle of money that is known to me, my department and the government and if people think they are going to push us over the edge financially, then it’s not on. The we are not handing out like lollies.

He claimed the much-touted government commitment to remove 2,000 megawatts of coal-fired electricity generation by 2020 was not an ironclad guarantee but was instead an ambition to reach up to. That will be news to the Australian Greens, who have pushed this government into this position where it wants to retire these power generating assets.

In any case, it is simply illogical to shut down a viable power station asset like Hazelwood when Victoria needs the base load supply which will not come from wind energy or household solar panels. We are going to be faced with the situation where taxpayers are going to be hit three times under this government’s scheme: they will pay for the power station to close; they will pay for the increased cost of electricity; and they will pay with their jobs in the Latrobe Valley. There are 580 direct jobs in the Hazelwood power station at risk. You may be able to compensate the power station owners for their assets, but no compensation will be adequate for a Latrobe Valley worker who is forced out of work and may be forced to leave our region to get another job.

Time is against me when it comes to running through all the other inconsistencies in this government’s approach to Latrobe Valley, but the bottom line is that this government does not have a plan and is talking a lot without committing any funding to the region. In terms of the promised $200 million structural adjustment package, which is to be spread right throughout regional Australia, there is no guarantee whatsoever that the Latrobe Valley will receive a major portion of these funds. All we have been told so far is to make submissions and you can compete with the other regions.

You will have to excuse my cynicism, but we did not have any success whatsoever with that process under the first round of the RDA program. On the one hand we have Minister Ferguson and others saying we need to diversify into other areas such as the growing aeronautic industry in the Latrobe Valley, but on the other hand the federal government refused to provide a single cent to help upgrade the Latrobe Valley aerodrome, which is home to GippsAero, Australia’s only manufacturer of commercial aircraft. This is a project that has enjoyed bipartisan support in the sense that the local Labor Party hierarchy is backing it. The Latrobe City Council has committed funding to it and so has the Victorian state coalition.

As I have said right throughout this debate in relation to the carbon tax, the Latrobe Valley is at the pointy end of this issue. For my community it is about jobs; it is about our children’s futures; and it is about the key industries, like power generation and manufacturing and small business and the agricultural sector. This government has failed to deliver a plan to assist the Latrobe Valley and it has failed to even undertake the most basic modelling to measure the social and economic impacts of the policy. We have already seen a drop in confidence in the community as a result of the government uncertainty and the pressure being placed on it by the Australian Greens. Right now it is even harder for the small business sector and Apprenticeships Group Australia to find placements for young apprentices seeking training opportunities in my region.

I would like to end on a more positive note. Minister Crean has given the best indication that he understands that there is going to need to be a whole-of-government approach and to take in a whole range of issues in terms of health needs, education needs, transport and other issues. I do encourage the minister to take that holistic approach to the issues facing the Latrobe Valley. I understand he is working with his state counterpart, Minister Peter Ryan, and I am optimistic that between the two of them they will be able to come up with a plan that benefits our region. It is incumbent upon this government to recognise that it is its policies which are causing the damage in the Latrobe Valley and it has a responsibility to deliver on the ground.

(Time expired)

2011 NOV 22 – Mobile Phone Coverage


November 22, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (16:13): I rise to raise my concerns on behalf of several small communities in my electorate which do not have access to reliable mobile phone coverage. In doing so, I call on the government to reintroduce a mobile phone black spot program to assist telecommunication providers to expand their reach into some of our smaller regional centres throughout Australia. The government currently has no plans to improve mobile phone coverage, which is in contrast to the policy of the Liberal-National Party coalition of providing $30 million to target mobile phone black spots. That was a policy that the coalition took to the 2010 election, and I urge the government to adopt our position in the interests of regional growth and community safety.

It is the issue of safety, in particular, that I want to focus on today. I want to refer to an email I received this month from a constituent of mine, Mr Alex Gray, who lives in Combienbar. I do not expect other members to know where that is. It is quite a remote part of the East Gippsland area. It is an area which is difficult to service and which has no mobile phone coverage whatsoever. Recently the landline service also failed, and my constituent had to travel about 50 kilometres to Cann River, at his own expense, for the privilege of reporting the service breakdown to Telstra. I would like to quote from Alex’s email to me:

The safety implications of not having a reliable communication service are obvious. Only a couple of months back an overseer on a nearby property had a near fatal accident on a four wheeler and had to be airlifted to hospital. If this had have happened in the past few days, when there was no phone service available, he may not have survived. There is also the major concern in our area of bushfires. The need for a reliable communication service is obvious.

Unfortunately, in this case it took several days to repair the landline service. As we approach the summer bushfire season events like this highlight what an unsatisfactory risk is posed to my community if we do not improve our mobile phone services. I urge the community of Gippsland to prepare early for this year’s bushfire season. Nothing takes the place of extensive preparation and development of your own bushfire survival plan to protect your family and property.

I also hasten to add that members of a community should not rely on the emergency alert system that the government has rolled out across Australia at a cost of about $26 million. I am not condemning that system in any way whatsoever; I am simply making the point that you should not depend on it completely. Also, do not expect to receive timely advice in an emergency situation, because some of the most bushfire prone areas in my electorate are those that have the worst mobile phone coverage and the emergency alert text system that has been rolled out will not reach many people in the Gippsland area.

As the system is developed further—and there are plans that messages will be able to be sent based on the location of the mobile phone—it will be critical that mobile phone black spots are eliminated in many of these regional areas I have talked about. From some of the national parks around the Latrobe Valley, to the Grampians in the high country and to some of the more remote coastal areas in Gippsland, the areas with the worst mobile phone coverage are the most likely to be affected by bushfires this summer. It would be illogical to keep spending money on expanding and improving the emergency alert system without also investing in infrastructure to fix the mobile phone black spots in regional areas like Gippsland.

On a completely unrelated point it has come to my attention that one of our attendants, Amy Constable, will be leaving us in a couple of days. Amy was just in the chamber a few moments ago. She is going to study in Leeds for six months. We wish her well. She has been a great asset to the parliament.

(Time expired)

2011 NOV 21 – Private MembersÕ Business: White Ribbon Day


Monday, November 21, 2011

Debate resumed on the motion by Mr Hayes:

That this House:

(1) notes that 25 November 2011 marks White Ribbon Day, the symbol of the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women;

(2) recognises that White Ribbon day aims to prevent violence against women by increasing public awareness and education by challenging attitudes and behaviours that allow violence to continue;

(3) asks all Australian men to challenge these attitudes and behaviours by joining ‘My Oath Campaign‘ and taking the oath ‘I swear never to commit, excuse or remain silent about violence against women‘;

(4) notes with concern that one in three women will experience physical violence, and one in five will experience sexual violence over their lifetime;

(5) understands that domestic and family violence are primary causes of homelessness;

(6) acknowledges the community cost of violence against women and their children to the Australian economy was estimated to be $13.6 billion in 2008-09, and that if we take no action to shine a light on this violence, that cost will hit an estimated $15.6 billion in 2021-22; and

(7) asks all Members to show that they are challenging violence against women by wearing a white ribbon or wristband on White Ribbon Day.

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (13:04): On two previous occasions I have spoken in this place about the importance of White Ribbon Day and to condemn violence against women in our community. In speaking today in support of the motion by the member for Fowler, I commend the House for its level of bipartisanship on this issue and seek to highlight the challenge that still confronts us. I think it is worth noting that all eight speakers on this motion today are men. I think that sends an important message to women throughout Australia that at least in this place it is a key issue of concern and that the men in this place are determined to do their bit to raise awareness of domestic violence affecting women.

It should be self-evident that violence against women cannot be tolerated in any circumstances, but we continue to experience a disturbingly high level of family violence in my community and throughout Australia. In fact, the Latrobe Valley Police Service Area is reported to have the highest incidence of family violence in the state of Victoria, and other parts of Gippsland are also infamous for the rate of crime against the person.

Family violence often carries the tag of ‘domestic violence’, which I think in some way sanitises the crime. Crimes in the home, particularly physical and sexual assaults, are often hidden, and because they occur in a domestic setting there is some reluctance in our community to intervene. I fear that the old saying that what happens behind closed doors should remain behind closed doors has provided a protective armour for the criminals who prey on children and women in the home environment. It is up to us in this place to pull down that shield and not shy away from the difficult and often confronting issues associated with family violence.

We do need to shine a light in the dark places where these crimes occur and protect some of our most vulnerable citizens from harm. We need to send a message to the thugs who will commit these crimes that they have no right to privacy in their homes if they are using those walls to hide their violent crimes from scrutiny. Such violence is often hidden by the victim’s feelings of shame and guilt, along with an overriding fear of the perpetrator. We need to send a message to the victims that they are not alone. If these crimes were committed on the street there would be community outrage, but because they are often hidden in the home they too often escape attention.

It is with this in mind that I am greatly heartened by the comments of the new Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police, Ken Lay, who was reported in the Weekend Australian as demanding a renewed focus on domestic violence in Victoria. In the article Mr Lay calls for a new public awareness campaign to prevent women and children from being assaulted in their homes:

The interesting thing for me is understanding that a woman or child is more likely to get assaulted in their home than they are on the street. That just underlines the fact that it is an issue that is important, it’s an issue that, as a community, I don’t think we have got on top of.

White Ribbon Day is an occasion for us all to refocus our efforts as a nation and as community leaders that it is never okay to strike a woman or to intimidate, bully, harass or sexually assault another person. Today I appeal again to all the men in my electorate, the electorate of Gippsland, to join me in denouncing violence against women and to join me in being a positive role model for our sons, our nephews and our brothers. By our actions, we need to show all men and boys the right way to behave—to respect, nurture and care for women in our society and to treat them as equals.

I commend the member for Fowler for bringing this motion to the House, and I commend all the members who have spoken on this issue and who will speak in a moment’s time. I believe that White Ribbon Day is an important occasion but that it should not be viewed in isolation or seen as a single day for raising these issues. We must remain committed to raising these issues on the other 364 days of the year. We need to remain eternally vigilant and be willing to take action when we suspect that violence is occurring in the home. Staying silent is not an option for us. Too many of our mothers, our sisters and our female friends are experiencing violence at the hands of men they know, often in their own homes. We must do more to remove violence or the threat of violence from their lives. I commend the motion and commend the member of Fowler for bringing it to the House.

(Time expired)

2011 NOV 21 – Private MembersÕ Business: Crime and Incarceration Rates


Monday, November 21, 2011

Dr LEIGH (Fraser) (11:01): I move:

That this House:

(1) recognises that:
   (a) the Australian incarceration rate has risen from 117 prisoners per 100,000 adults in 1991 to 172 prisoners per 100,000 adults in 2010;
   (b) since the Indigenous Deaths in Custody Report was released in 1991, the Indigenous incarceration rate has risen from 1739 prisoners per 100,000 adults to 2303 prisoners per 100,000 adults; and
   (c) an increasing number of Australian children have a parent behind bars; and

(2) encourages governments at all levels to pursue innovative policies to reduce crime and incarceration rates, including: 
   (a) investing in early intervention programs to deter young people from crime;
  (b) where appropriate, considering alternatives to incarceration such as weekend detention, periodic detention, restorative justice and drug courts;
   (c) employing smart policing strategies, such as using real-time crime statistics to identify and target crime hotspots;
   (d) establishing in-prison education, training and rehabilitation programs aimed at reducing recidivism and improving family relationships for prisoners with children; and
   (e) implementing randomised policy trials (akin to the 1999 NSW Drug Court randomised trial) to rigorously evaluate the impact of criminal justice interventions.

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (11:37): In debating the motion before the House I want to direct my comments towards one of the key points raised by the member for Fraser—that is, the issue of investing in early intervention programs to deter young people from crime. As I am sure the member would acknowledge, the motion itself is very broad and is worthy of perhaps a much longer debate in this place. I do commend the member for bringing these issues to the attention of the House and I also acknowledge the previous speaker, who raised some of the complex issues in relation to education, substance abuse and mental health. It is a very complex problem that we are talking about and it would do the House well to revisit it in the weeks and months ahead.

When it comes to crime, obviously prevention is much better than cure, and our efforts to tackle incarceration rates must start before the crime has been committed. Before we even start worrying about some of those other issues in relation to the alternatives to incarceration, we need to do better at preventing the crime from occurring in the first place. Many times in the past I have stood in this place and talked about the issue of street violence and antisocial behaviour and the need for a national approach and more resources to combat the problem.

While policing is primarily a state based issue, we do have a national epidemic of violence and drunkenness which demands a national approach. Across every jurisdiction in Australia there are different regulations around issues such as liquor licensing, different policing methods to combat crime and different penalties for offenders. While I am not standing here advocating a one-size-fits-all approach, I am supportive of a more national strategy to combat the emerging culture of disrespect and the lack of empathy which allows some people—and, I stress, a minority of people—to attack others without any thought of the potentially fatal consequences.

It seems almost fashionable these days to find someone else to blame, but the answer, I believe, to many of the crime problems we face can be found in the home environment. I believe that, as parents, we must take more responsibility for the example we set our children and the boundaries we impose on them. It is very hard for an adult to have a serious conversation with your son or daughter about the responsible consumption of alcohol if suffering from a hangover yourself. Like many people, I enjoy a drink, but we need to break this culture of excessive consumption of alcohol, which I believe is the root cause of the violence, the road trauma and the antisocial behaviour which has become such a blight on our community.

Change is needed in our homes, as I have mentioned, but also at our sporting clubs and at community functions, where we need to demonstrate to young people that you can have a good time without getting rolling drunk. Programs that have been very successful at a local level include the Good Sports initiative, which focuses on responsible consumption of alcohol in a team sport environment, and I think they are very worthy of continued funding support by both state and federal governments. I am a huge supporter of sporting clubs, and I believe that they really do provide the opportunity to help shape our young people through active participation in organised activities such as our surf lifesaving movement, football, netball, basketball, tennis and cricket.

Where this motion talks about investing in early intervention programs to deter young people from crime, my first thought was to encourage more young people through their involvement in community life through sport and other organised activities. An old friend of mine who passed away a few years ago was a senior sergeant of police in Lakes Entrance: a fellow by the name of Adrian Lalor. He once remarked to me that he had never had any trouble from and never had to arrest any of the kids from the surf lifesaving club. Apart from the fact that the kids, having spent all day volunteering on patrol, were probably too tired to get up to any trouble on the weekend, it also reinforced the point that these young people are being taught how to be part of the community—how they fit in, how they could play a responsible role in community life and how they belong to something which is much bigger than just themselves. I think it is an interesting point in terms of the opportunities for adults in the community, through a sporting club or other community organisation, to provide that mentoring and leadership role to young people and to give them the opportunity to develop their self-esteem, develop their skills and become a responsible part of the community.

Finally, one other point I would like to make in relation to this motion is on the issue of prevention. I want to highlight again the government’s failure to fund more of the closed circuit television cameras in high-risk areas, particularly in my electorate. There have been plenty of applications put forward by communities in my electorate, particularly by the Traralgon community, through the central business district there, which has a high incidence of community crime and antisocial behaviour. The funding applications have been unsuccessful at this stage. Our police do a tremendous job but they cannot be everywhere at once. Although I acknowledge nothing will replace an officer on the beat in terms of that strong visual presence, the closed circuit television cameras can assist in preventing antisocial behaviour and they can also provide strong evidence to assist in securing a conviction when crimes do occur.

I have repeatedly urged the government to provide additional funding for supporting community-based anticrime initiatives and to improve the safety on our streets. I believe that at a local community level we need to work together to encourage people to get actively involved in a range of worthwhile pursuits so they can develop a respect for others and also recognise the importance of taking responsibility for their actions. There is no doubt that the government has an important time to play in building that respect—

(Time expired)

2011 NOV 3 – Heart Morass


November 3, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (11:26): I rise to commend a wetland rehabilitation project that is underway in my community at the Heart Morass near Sale. I recently had the opportunity to inspect the Heart Morass project at the invitation of the West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority. This is an outstanding example of practical environmental work involving a vast array of community organisations, including the West Gippsland CMA; Field and Game Australia, through its WET Trust; the Hugh DT Williamson Foundation and its Bug Blitz program; and also Watermark, which is a group of concerned local residents that was formed about 10 to 15 years ago and which is interested in protecting and enhancing the Gippsland Lakes catchment.

The WET Trust and the Williamson foundation contributed the bulk of the $1.1 million used to purchase private land in 2006, which was the first stage of the restoration project. The project was formally launched in 2007. As I said, this is a great example of a community driven initiative. This was not government funding; the main funds came from philanthropic sources and also through a user group, Field and Game Australia. They were able to purchase some previously degraded farmland on the shores of the La Trobe River near the mouth of Lake Wellington and rehabilitate that to become a thriving wetland. The weather gods, I must confess, have been very kind. In the ensuing four years we have had a return to more normal seasons in the Gippsland area, so with the addition of some environmental flows of fresh water into the new wetland system the growth over the four-year period has been quite spectacular. We have seen bird species return to the Heart Morass, and there is a great sense of energy, enthusiasm and passion for the future amongst the groups that are involved in this outstanding project.

As I indicated, the partners in the project have come from quite diverse backgrounds, which reflects the opportunity for multiple use of environmental assets such as this outstanding natural asset. To really value a wetland like this you need to give people the opportunity to get out there and enjoy it, to walk in it, you should not just lock it up and leave it. There are hunters who are very interested in a sustainable and conservation based approach to the wetlands to make sure that their sport can continue into the future. They are very committed environmentalists in their own right and they obviously have a vested interest in ensuring that their sport has a future for future generations. There are also bird watchers and bushwalkers who are interested in enjoying those natural environs and appreciating the great natural beauty of the La Trobe River and the wetland area as it meanders its way down towards the Gippsland Lakes. Of course, there are also the natural resource managers, the West Gippsland CMA, who see real value in the capacity of the wetland to strip away some of the nutrients that would otherwise have ended up in the Gippsland Lakes system and be a source of future algal blooms.

This is a great example of a wetland project that has rehabilitated land that was very marginal at best and that is being actively managed. The community is really engaged in the project and understands how viable and vibrant a wetland can be. The classic example of how the community has engaged in this project is that from the day the contracts to purchase the land were signed they were able to get large earthmoving equipment on the site free of charge from people who were interested in the project. About $1½ million worth of earthmoving equipment was there on the first day of the project to start the process.

In terms of the project’s future, what we have seen in the past few years has been outstanding, but there is a lot more work to be done. I believe there are opportunities here for governments to partner with community organisations. The community has shown the way by purchasing this marginal agricultural land and rehabilitating it, but there are opportunities for state and federal governments to take part in future land buybacks. I have written to both state and federal ministers in the past about opportunities to look at some of this degraded land, which is marginal at best. There are landholders down there who understand it is salt-affected land which probably should not have been drained in the first place and may have no real future as viable agricultural land. They are interested in buybacks and ways they can retire from the land in a dignified way. When I wrote to the ministers in 2009, the former environment minister indicated that the Caring for our Country program does consider land purchases. I intend to work with my community, to work with the groups which already have runs on the board on this project, to look at ways the federal government can make a contribution in the future. As I said, these groups have runs on the board and are already doing an outstanding job in the Gippsland community. I encourage both state and federal ministers, if they are in Gippsland, to take the time to come down to Heart Morass to see what my community has been doing. It is a project of national significance which is happening at a very local scale and has great potential to be expanded to other parts of our region. This is now an outstanding national asset which will benefit the entire community and also will help to restore the Gippsland Lakes and biodiversity which we value so highly.

There are educational opportunities with this project. The Williamson Foundation, with its Bug Blitz program, has been involved with bringing hundreds of school children together to learn in an outdoor classroom, to get a better appreciation of wetlands and how it all fits together in that package. So I commend the Heart Morass wetland project. It is a model of community partnerships and practical environmental work. I commend all the individuals and organisations involved.

(Time expired)

2011 NOV 2 – Presentation of Petition: Supply of PBS Medicines


November 2, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (13:48): I rise to present a petition which has been found to be in order by the House of Representatives Petitions Committee.

The petition read as follows—

To the Honourable The Speaker and Members of the House of Representatives

This petition of pharmacy customers draws the following to the attention of the House:

The Federal Government established a Community Service Obligation (CSO) to ensure that all Australians have timely access to the PBS medicines they require, regardless of the cost of the medicines, or where they live.

Under exclusive PBS supply arrangements established by pharmaceutical manufacturers, eligible CSO Distributors are excluded from supplying PBS medicines within 24 hours under the CSO and pharmacists have their supply options for PBS medicines reduced to a single supplier.

We therefore ask the House to take immediate action and introduce an amendment to the National Health Act 1953 that prohibits exclusive supply of PBS medicines by manufacturers and suppliers to community pharmacies.

from 17,461 citizens

Petition received.

Mr CHESTER: This petition has been signed by more than 50,000 people and highlights their concerns about access to the timely delivery of medicines. Time is against me today to go into the full details of the issue but, given the high level of community interest in the topic, I urge the minister to consider closely the concerns that have been raised by the petitioners. In a nutshell there is concern among many pharmacists throughout Australia, but particularly in our regional communities, that the direct distribution system adopted by the drug company Pfizer is disadvantaging their customers. Pharmacists who have contacted me have expressed their concern that they have experienced a deterioration in the timely and reliable supply of medicines since Pfizer began distributing its own products in February.

For the record, I have met with a Pfizer representative who has acknowledged teething problems in the distribution of its medicines but the company claims its new distribution model is an important part of securing its viability in the changing marketplace and ensuring Australians have access to its medicines. As I said, it is a complex issue but the level of concern among pharmacy customers, as evidenced by this petition, warrants further consideration by the minister and the government.

As a member of the Petitions Committee I am aware of a public inquiry later this year and I will be endeavouring to have the principal petitioner, Mr Tim Shelton, attend that inquiry and explain the process of achieving this petition and his concerns with the issue.

I commend Mr Shelton and his colleagues for their time, effort and commitment in bringing these concerns to the attention of the House through this petition and also through their direct contact with members. This is a major issue and I fear that regional consumers will be the worst affected in the future.

(Time expired)

2011 NOV 2 – Boolarra South Landcare Group


November 2, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (19:59): In the brief time that is available to me I would like to congratulate the Boolarra South Landcare Group for the extraordinary work that they have been doing in the rehabilitation of the old mill site at Boolarra. The Boolarra community was badly affected by the bushfires in 2009 and it is a great effort by the landcare volunteers to work together on this. They have been constructing walking tracks by hand and also developing an arboretum and a rotunda area at the Boolarra old mill site. It will be a great asset for the Boolarra district community for many years to come. I would also like to thank the Boolarra South Landcare Group for their hospitality during my recent visit. The members gathered for a working bee and also put together a barbecue, which was most appreciated by all volunteers present.

(Time expired)

2011 NOV 2 – Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2011


November 2, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (13:21): I am pleased to join the debate on the Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2011. In doing so, I want to direct my comments towards the need to encourage more students from regional areas to secure a quality education, whether it be at secondary school or at a tertiary level. I acknowledge the government’s 40 per cent aspirational target for Australians to complete a degree that will train them for the future. I reflect on the member for Aston’s comments that it is all very well to have these targets, but the implementation of them is going to be the real challenge for the government. I would also like to refer to the comments of the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth in his second reading speech where he claimed that:

The bill reflects the government’s commitment to growing Australia’s higher education sector and to expanding opportunities for Australians to obtain a high-quality higher education.

I agree with those comments of the minister. I have spoken many times in this place about the poor participation rates at tertiary level of students from regional backgrounds. In my community of Gippsland, we have one of the lowest year 12 retention rates in the state of Victoria, second only to the Wimmera-Mallee area. It has a very poor participation rate at the year 12 level, which is the foundation stone for students to go on to participate at a tertiary level. There are issues in my community relating to aspiration and to the economic barriers to students going on to participate at a higher level. I am not one of those who believe university education is everything, that it is the be-all and end-all, but I do believe that young students who have the potential to go on and achieve at a higher level should be given that opportunity and not robbed of that opportunity by way of economic barriers or aspirational barriers that we put in place in regional communities.

I am afraid to say that in some parts of my community education is not as highly valued as it is in other parts of my community, particularly by people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. There is an attitude among some sections of my community that, ‘A year 9 or a year 10 pass was good enough for me and it will be good enough for you,’ and it is not necessarily instilled in young people at that time in their life that they can go on to achieve even more in the future. I am a very strong supporter of trades, apprenticeships and those types of training for young people, but those young people who are more academically minded should have the opportunity to go and achieve their absolute best at university level. There are issues not only with aspiration but also with economic barriers that are put in front of regional students as they pursue their academic dreams.

I have had the opportunity in this place many times in the last few years to talk about those economic barriers as we have dealt with student income support. I take the opportunity here today to highlight once again the need to overhaul the system of student income support and make sure that all students who are forced to relocate from a regional area to attend university are given that opportunity. We need to look very seriously at the implementation of a tertiary access allowance to make that happen. The government has only so far tinkered around the edges of student income support. We need to completely revisit the system and look at overhauling the system to provide more support for regional students in particular.

I note the minister has joined us in the chamber and I also note that in his speech he referred to the 2011-12 budget providing $500 million for the regional priorities round of the Education Investment Fund. I urge the government to make sure it does everything in its power to ensure that it receives value for money for taxpayers with that fund. It is in the context of value for money, and with some leeway from the chair, that I want to refer to an education program that the minister would be interested in. It is an education program that is operating in Victoria which I believe does deliver a great deal of value for money and has the potential to assist this government in its aim to increase participation in higher education. I give credit where it is due and it was a former Labor government in Victoria which implemented the program I will talk about.

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Snowy River campus of the School for Student Leadership at Marlo in East Gippsland. I do not believe many members here would be aware of the program, so I will provide a little bit of background for the minister’s interest. The Snowy River campus at Marlo is the second of the Victorian state Department of Education and Early Childhood Development year 9 residential leadership programs. It is based on a successful model which was developed at the Alpine School about 10 years ago. There has also been a third campus developed in western Victoria. More than $3 million was put into this program to establish it and to construct accommodation for 45 students in a state-of-the-art centre on the Marlo aerodrome site.

To understand the School for Student Leadership, it is best to visit the campus. I encourage the minister, if he has ever got the opportunity when he is in Victoria, to go and have a look at the school. It is quite extraordinary. The minister would benefit and the students would benefit from an opportunity to have him at that campus. The Marlo location itself is quite magnificent. It is on the shores of the iconic Snowy River. It is where the Snowy River meets the sea and it also has some great coastal environs around it. The campus offers students quite remarkable opportunities for outdoor learning. They may go caving at Buchan, canoeing on the river and estuary system at Marlo itself, surfing at Cape Conran, mountain bike riding or on overnight hikes, but I hasten to add it is not just a glorified school camp—it is much more than that. It is a residential campus where the year 9 students are drawn from state schools right throughout Victoria and live together on that campus for nine weeks, a whole term. To fully appreciate what is going on there you really need to visit. They have students from metropolitan and country areas thrown together. It is quite a cosmopolitan mix. There might be four or five students from each school, adding up to 45 or so kids for the whole term. The students are encouraged to really learn about the environment but also to learn a lot more about themselves. I refer to the school website, which probably sums it up quite nicely. It says:

School for Student Leadership is a Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development initiative offering a unique residential education experience for year nine students. The curriculum focuses on personal development and team learning projects sourced from students’ home regions.

The team-learning projects themselves are quite fascinating. They require students to work together on a project while they are away from home which they then have to deliver back in their home community. Some of the projects the students come up with are quite extraordinary, whether they be school based projects where they try to develop new infrastructure for the school or community type projects that provide these 14- and 15-year-olds with an opportunity to make a great contribution to their home community.

I recently visited the campus—it is not the first time I have been there. I met with the students and spoke to them about their hopes and aspirations for the future. I do have an interest in the program particularly this term because my young daughter is attending the school at the moment. I noticed some changes in my own daughter in just two weeks of being away from home. The students are required to take on some extra responsibilities and they mature rapidly in this hothouse environment. They certainly learn a lot of new skills and they are encouraged to develop their leadership ability and to take more responsibility around the campus. They seem to thrive on the opportunities that are available to them. When I spoke to the students I emphasised the fact that they should make the most of this opportunity. It will be a life-changing experience for many of them and they will grow enormously as young people.

I had the opportunity during that visit to speak to the principal, Mark Reeves, who was instrumental in setting up the first campus at Dinner Plain and has been involved for the past decade. The previous speaker spoke about increasing the professionalism of our teaching community and investing in training. Mark is an example of a passionate educator. He is absolutely dedicated to his role and has been instrumental in helping so many young people throughout Victoria in his role with the outdoor learning program at the School for Student Leadership. He is a very passionate man. He is also justifiably proud of his students and what they have been able to achieve at the School for Student Leadership. He handed me a letter he had received only a matter of days ago from a young lady who had attended the Alpine School many years ago. The young lady, Teagan, said in her letter to him:

I cannot put into words, the level of development, confidence and self awareness the school gave me. What a brilliant program to provide young adults, who are stuck half way between childhood and adulthood, and give them the skills and motivation to strive into the future and aim for exceptional results.

My journey since Alpine School has built upon the skills that were fostered all those years ago. I am proud of what I have achieved but also humbled in the knowledge that my time at A. S helped me to achieve these successes.

… I just wanted to drop you a line to say thank you, and to let you know that the program run by Alpine School has insurmountable value to its students.

I acknowledge, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have strayed somewhat from the bill before the House, but there is a link back to what we are talking about.

Many of us come into this place and talk a lot about helping young people achieve their full potential, and this Higher Education Support Amendment Bill (No. 2) is part of the government’s effort to assist students in achieving their university dreams. But, as I am sure most members would acknowledge, the university dream does not start in year 12; it is a long education journey, right through from the primary school sector, and one of the milestone years is in year 9. It is a year when some young people find it very difficult to see how school is relevant to them anymore. It does not seem to be that important, or relevant to their own future, and many young people at that year-9 level tend to run off the rails. The private school sector has recognised this in the past and been very active in this space for a long time, organising opportunities for outdoor learning and residential learning experiences for many years. But the students in the state school system have not had the same opportunities, and that brings me back to the Victorian model I have been talking about.

I believe if we are serious about helping young people take advantage of the Commonwealth supported places referred to in the bill, projects like the School for Student Leadership in Victoria warrant further investment right throughout our nation. I congratulate, as I did at the outset, the former Labor government for its role in establishing the campuses in Victoria. I also encourage the current coalition government to continue to maintain these campuses and look for opportunities to expand them in the future. We need to expand the opportunities for more students from the state school system to participate in a program such as this. From an education perspective it is a clear winner. In terms of investing in our future leaders it is a clear winner. From a regional development and economic perspective it is also a clear winner.

I thank the House for the opportunity to speak about this program, which I believe has great potential to be expanded throughout Australia in the years ahead. I will be writing formally to the minister and inviting him to come down to Marlo and experience everything the School for Student Leadership has to offer. And I encourage the minister, if he takes up that opportunity, to appreciate what a great investment this is in our greatest asset, and that is our young men and women of Australia.

(Time expired)

2011 OCT 31 – Private Members’ Business: Occasional Childcare Services Funding


October 31, 2011

Debate resumed on motion by Ms Ley:

That this House:

(1) notes that:
   (a) in the 2010 11 Budget, the Gillard Government has not considered the implications of removing Commonwealth funding for Occasional Care Child Care; and
   (b) the consequence of ceasing this funding has caused Australian families real hardship as they struggle to find alternative sources of child care;

(2) acknowledges that:
   (a) there are no other Commonwealth funded forms of child care to fill this void; and
   (b) withdrawal of this funding has resulted in job losses in the industry; and

(3) calls on the Government to reinstate Commonwealth funding for Occasional Care Child Care.

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (20:25): I commend the motion put forward by the member for Farrer. It is an issue that I have spoken about several times on behalf of the people of Gippsland, who have raised very real concerns about the future of the Take a Break funding as it applies to neighbourhood houses in my own electorate. I would urge those opposite who say we are trying to score political points or grandstand on this issue to start listening to the people who are writing to us—and we are forwarding those representations on to the minister—to understand just how serious the situation is. If they are trying to understand why they are languishing with a primary vote in the opinion polls under 30 per cent, it could be because they have turned a deaf ear to the complaints of people in regional Australia. This very issue highlights the hypocrisy of this government. It claims to care about regional families and then cuts funding to a program that, in many cases, provides the only form of child care in small country towns in electorates such as mine of Gippsland.

This program that we are referring to in the motion used to be funded by the federal government in the order of 70 per cent with the state government of Victoria providing 30 per cent of the funding for the Take a Break program. It is a very aptly named program because it provides a little bit of respite, particularly for mums in regional communities. It is support for mums who may then have the opportunity to take on some part-time work or just simply do the grocery shopping or have a little bit of time to themselves while their children are in a good care environment.

The federal government’s budget for this program was $12.6 million over four years. We are talking about a miserable $12.6 million over four years, and this program was doing enormous good throughout regional communities. It is a highly efficient program, and the member for Farrer referred to that. It really is a community asset right across Victoria. It really should not be this hard for us to provide occasional care in these communities.

I would like to refer to some comments made in relation to this issue by the Victorian Neighbourhood House Network and Angela Savage, the executive officer, who described the Take a Break program, or TAB, as follows:

TAB funding is critical to the continued provision of affordable occasional childcare for communities serviced by Neighbourhood Houses, particularly those in rural and regional areas. The cessation of TAB funding will have an impact on over 9,000 children and their families , many of whom already experience some form of disadvantage, causing a decrease in childcare services and/or an increase in childcare costs …

These impacts will be most acute where there are no other childcare services at all, and also in areas where there is no alternative occasional childcare service.

As I said, I have written to the minister in relation to this issue. I also tabled a petition with more than 1,000 signatures which were collected in Gippsland. It came from towns like Swifts Creek, a small town in my electorate, Paynesville, Heyfield, Gormandale and Mallacoota. These all have very well-run occasional care programs. The very real threat is that by the end of this year none of these programs will exist in my community.

I remind this government that it is not what you say but what you do that really matters. In this House in May this year the minister said:

The Australian government recognises that child care is an essential enabler of workforce participation, most particularly for Australian women.

At a time when employers are crying out for workers then it is essential that we are supporting parents who want to return to work to be able to participate confidently.

We had a program that worked and now this federal government and this minister are refusing to listen to the people of regional Victoria who just want the funding to be guaranteed for the future so that they have the security of being able to have a little bit of respite or to take on a bit of work to assist the family budget. This government really must follow up the type of rhetoric that the minister has espoused here in this chamber. She must follow up this hollow rhetoric with action. She should reinstate the funding and restore confidence in regional communities that someone in Canberra is actually listening to them.

The member for Farrer mentioned the number of letters she has received on this topic. I have one here from only a matter of days ago. It is an email that was sent to me on Friday by a lady named Traci from Heyfield. Traci describes herself as a 34-year-old mother with three children under five. I will just quote from her email. It says:

For the first time in a long time I have been able to have a couple of hours to myself once a week because of the take a break program. My youngest 18 months and my 3 year old have started going to the occasional program on Tuesdays. I cannot begin to explain what it feels like to have a couple of hours off to myself (with those couple of hours I do an exercise program run by the community resource centre then I go grocery shopping without screaming children, occasionally get my much needed hair done). This program is so important to our isolated community. My husband works away 2 weeks at a time so those couple of hours for me are so crucial for my independence and sanity. I believe a lot of other mums are in the same situation regarding children and the take a break program.

Traci goes on to say—and by the way this is the only service in the town of Heyfield:

… cutting this service will hurt us all, all us mums who are trying to find ourselves again, trying to get back on our feet. Whether it’s an education course and exercise program for trying to get into shape or an hour to ourselves, mums with very young children need this program.

Please don’t take the funding from this much needed service. It’s an amazing centre with amazing staff that truly care …

Thank you for listening.

I simply ask the question: is anyone listening on the other side of the House?

(Time expired)

2011 OCT 31 – Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011


October 31, 2011

Mr CHESTER (Gippsland) (15:39): In joining the debate on the Social Security Amendment (Student Income Support Reforms) Bill 2011 I commend the member for Parkes for his contribution and support his comments that this is a hollow victory in many ways. It is a hollow victory because over the past three years we have put regional students, their families, their teachers, their careers counsellors, their parents and even their grandparents through enormous heartache as they have struggled to understand exactly what this government has been trying to achieve in its reform of student income support.

I have been one of those who has advocated since I got in this place three years ago for the need to provide a fair and equitable system for student income support for regional students. I have argued that case very strongly on the basis that, if we are not going to provide universities in every regional town—which we all acknowledge would be impossible—then we are going to need to provide some assistance for those students to achieve their full potential.

In 2009, the current Prime Minister, who was then the education minister, announced significant changes to student income support, creating an enormous amount of uncertainty and stress throughout regional communities, for very little gain. From day one, members on this side of the House pointed out the problems with the changes being put forward by the minister, and we were ridiculed. We were ridiculed in this place and we were ridiculed publicly. We were accused of being political opportunists and we were accused of being negative, when in fact we were raising legitimate concerns on behalf of regional families.

Surely anyone with half an ounce of common sense, when they receive petitions signed by thousands of people and are inundated by emails from students, teachers and parents raising concerns about the reforms to student income support, would think: ‘Maybe we’ve got a problem here. Maybe I should start listening to members from regional communities who are raising concerns on behalf of their constituents.’ Instead, we were badgered and pilloried in this place and described as people who did not care about the education of our students.

I rejected all of those assertions at that time, and today, as I said, is bit of a hollow victory, because finally the government has recognised that it made a mistake. Finally the government has admitted that, in particular with references to the workforce participation criteria for independent youth allowance as applying to students in the so-called inner regional and outer regional boundaries, it made a mistake. This legislation aims to amend that mistake. My concern is, once again, that the changes being put forward in this bill not only are long overdue, after causing enormous angst over the years, but simply do not go far enough in addressing the fundamental concerns of equity in regional communities. This is a massive backflip by the government, but the problem has not gone away. One of the biggest issues facing regional families is the issue of supporting students when they are forced to move away from home to attend university. Members on this side have fought for a better deal for regional students over many years and on many occasions in this place.

I want to thank the many people who have supported this fight to get a better deal for regional students. In the other place, Senator Fiona Nash was at the forefront of the fight on behalf of the coalition. In this place, the member for Sturt, the member for Forrest, all of my National Party colleagues and all the Liberal regional MPs have spoken out, and I understand that many Labor regional MPs have also spoken out in their caucus, to try and make it clear to those opposite in positions of power that the changes that were made were detrimental in many aspects.

I am also one of those members who at the very outset pointed out that some of the changes that the former education minister was making in terms of the income thresholds for the dependent youth allowance were very good changes. So I do not think anyone was out there continually attacking the government in that regard. We came to this discussion in good faith and tried to make the case to the then education minister, the current Prime Minister, that, whilst some of the changes were going to benefit regional communities, those relating particularly to the independent youth allowance had been mishandled. It has taken until now, three years later, after all those years of uncertainty and confusion in regional communities, for us to get some long overdue changes.

I also want to put on the record my public thanks to the many thousands of people in the electorate of Gippsland who rallied to this cause and assisted me in my efforts to bring it to the attention of the government. Again, it was the students themselves, the teachers and careers counsellors, and, as I said before, the parents and grandparents who were concerned about the future of their young people.

I also want to thank people who made submissions to Professor Kwong Lee Dow’s review of student income support reforms. I would like to thank the professor for the work he did in helping to compile this report. I had the opportunity to have a chat with the professor when he was in Traralgon, and highlighted the particular concerns we had at that stage about the boundary classifications in regional areas. I have had the chance to read the report and I think there are some good messages in there for both government members and members on this side of the House. I will briefly quote from the section called Notes from the Chair. Professor Kwong Lee Dow said:

An underlying tension has persisted throughout the consultations and the submissions to this review. Simply put, it is how to reconcile the competing needs of those on low incomes and those from rural, regional and remote communities.

Some argue that the most fundamental issue is to adequately provide for students from low-income families. They are the ones in greatest need, and whom the Review of Australian Higher Education (the Bradley Review) and the Australian Government seek to help through the student income support reforms. The top priority is to build the numbers and the proportion of these students within the Australian higher education student mix.

Professor Kwong Lee Dow goes on to say:

Others point to this review being established primarily to consider the needs of rural and regional students. They remind us that rural students are handicapped, relative to their metropolitan counterparts, by more limited schooling opportunities, smaller cohorts of peers with whom to collaborate and to compete and less specialist teaching in the critical final years of secondary education.

He went on to say:

They remind us as well that, for regional and rural communities to survive and thrive, more professionally educated people will be called for, and it is disproportionately from young people returning back to those communities with which they identify and feel affection that the future of regional Australia can best be assured.

I commend Professor Kwong Lee Dow on this report and recommend it to other regional MPs with an interest in this issue. He makes the point that while there are budget limitations that have restricted him in his work, he has highlighted the key point of equity for rural and regional students.

While I have acknowledged there are some positives to come out of the reforms before the House this afternoon, I still feel that we are tinkering around the edges of the student income support issue. I believe there needs to be a complete overhaul of the system. I take up the comments from the member for Parkes. He said in this place, that we can do better than this, that we can genuinely work together in a bipartisan way for all those members who are interested in this issue of regional education opportunity for young people right throughout Australia. He said, ‘I believe we can do better in this place in the future and provide more support for young people who are forced to move away from home to achieve university dreams.’

It is well understood that young people in regional communities face additional barriers compared to those in metropolitan areas. Some of those barriers are aspirational, I acknowledge that, but there are also economic barriers which have been referred to many times during contributions to this debate. When I visit schools in my electorate, I talk to many students about this issue of aspiration and about the need for young people in Gippsland to aim high to achieve their absolute best. It is up to all of us in this place, as leaders in our communities, to help overcome that aspirational barrier, to keep reminding young people in our community that they should never sell themselves short, that they have the opportunity in this great nation to achieve great things.

We also have to deal with that fundamental economic barrier. That is a key issue for so many of our young people in regional areas. It is young people from regional areas forced to move away—sometimes eight and 10 hours away from their family home—who have these additional costs of accommodation, and transport when travelling back and forth to home when the opportunity presents itself, and the additional stress of being away from their support network. We need to do whatever we can to give those young people a greater opportunity to succeed once they make that big decision to move away from the family home and pursue their university dreams.

This is an issue of equity. It is a point that Professor Kwong Lee Dow canvasses in his report. I quote again, this time from the executive summary on page 11. He says:

Many young people from regional and remote Australia have no choice but to relocate away from the family home if they are to access educational opportunities (generally, higher education) comparable to those available to students in metropolitan areas. Relocation poses a significant additional financial impost on families. This underpins concerns about the changes to the arrangements for accessing full assistance as an independent person. For this reason, many have argued in the consultation and submission process that just as different arrangements are in place to support students from low-income families in comparison with those from higher income families, so there should be a similar acknowledgment of the circumstances of regional students in comparison with metropolitan students. This is a major issue, perhaps the most important issue, for this review.

I stress that point. In the executive summary, Professor Kwong Lee Dow says, ‘This is a major issue, perhaps the most important issue for this review.’ He goes on to say:

… these factors support the argument on equity grounds that different support arrangements for regional young people and metropolitan young people might reasonably be made available.

I am trying to make the point that there is much more work to be done in this place on student income support.

While today we are talking about legislation, which I believe will at least provide some clarity to those ridiculous arrangements we had—with inner regional and outer regional—for the purpose of qualifying for independent youth allowance, we still have a long way to go to achieve a fair and equitable system.

In my own electorate of Gippsland there are people who live on average two to six hours away from Melbourne, so it is difficult for those people to attend university if they have to go to a suburban campus. I recently undertook a survey in my electorate to try to gauge how big an issue this is, along with a range of other issues. It alarmed me that only 22 per cent of Gippsland families said they could afford to send their child to university. That survey also found that 85 per cent of families in my electorate who responded to this survey wanted the federal government to provide additional funding to regional students, in particular, to cover the cost of relocating to study at university.

At a recent Nationals federal council meeting, here in Canberra, a motion was passed that supported the introduction of a tertiary access allowance which would support all regional students. This would replace the confusing mess we have now where students have to qualify under increasingly complex criteria, which has been the subject of much debate in this place on many occasions. The overwhelming majority of people living in my community of Gippsland do not believe they will be able to support their young people when the time comes, if they qualify to go to university. They do not believe they will be able to support them economically. I believe there is an expectation that we can do more as members of this place to support students in pursuing their tertiary studies.

When this debate began three years ago there were those opposite who accused members on this side of being opportunistic, of playing political games and of not representing the views of regional communities. The overwhelming number of people who signed petitions would surely be an indicator that they were off track on that. I have a whole host of people who have written to me on this issue to raise their concerns. I give them the opportunity to put in their own words what they think about the current system. In the Latrobe Valley Express on 12 September this year, Zara Dyke said:

I just think the whole eligibility criterion needs to be completely overhauled and changed.

The former school council chairman of the Yarram Secondary College told last year’s award ceremony:

Rural communities need to continue to get a message to all levels of government that we are at a disadvantage in sending our year 12 onto tertiary study and that if more rural people are going to be able to study at tertiary level, we need better living-away-from-home allowances and financial support for our students.

I urge those opposite to understand that this legislation we have before us today is not going to solve all the problems. I do acknowledge that it will help, but it does not solve the problems of equity and fairness which I have talked about for regional students and it does not resolve another key issue relating to the eligibility criteria. It relates to students fulfilling the expectation of the government’s regulations on achieving independence, where they go off and do the required amount of work only to be told by Centrelink that they still do not qualify for independent youth allowance because their parents’ incomes exceed the threshold.

There is a real contradiction here. We are telling young people that if they go out and earn the amount of money required—I think it is about $19½ thousand over an 18-month period—we will say they are independent but that when it comes to assessing their eligibility for independent youth allowance we are going to refer back to their parents’ income. We cannot have it both ways. We cannot be saying to these students that they are independent—they have achieved $19½ thousand—but then tell them that their parents’ income threshold will also be included. I have another email here which refers specifically to this and the confusion it is creating in the community from a young lady named Megan in Paynesville:

Currently I’ve spoken to three Centrelink personnel and have been told three different stories. I’ve been told that if I earn the required amount in my gap year then I will receive the independent allowance, where another person has told me that, despite my income, it will be means-tested against my parents’ income. I am very confused at the moment. I will meet all the criteria for the youth allowance/gap year allowance.

She goes on to say that she would be helped greatly if we could get a clear answer on this issue.

There are many sticking points still with the system of student income support and I have just highlighted a couple of them. Students right now are trying to make decisions about whether they will go to university next year or whether they will take a gap year, and they are very confused about the advice they are getting from Centrelink. We have such a long way to go and I believe that it is up to this place to commit itself to working harder to introduce a tertiary access allowance to remove the existing confusion and to make sure that regional students who are currently vastly underrepresented at our universities are given the opportunity to achieve their full potential.

(Time expired)

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