SPEECH – Assistance for Isolated Families

8 November 2016

Before I deliver my speech, which I intend to read in part so as not to conflict with the standing orders, I need to recognise the fact that this speech was written by a young intern in my office, the granddaughter of a family in the Barcaldine and Longreach district who were very well respected graziers in the sixties and the seventies. I put a challenge to her that I wanted her to write a speech acknowledging the importance of education for our isolated children. She interviewed me, and this is the result of her work. Her name is Zoe. Zoe starts by saying: Henry Lawson wrote it best when he said women are the backbone of the Australian bush. Lawson wrote that women were the backbone and the heart of rural Australia, keeping their farms going, their families together and their communities alive.

From my travels around rural Australia, engaging with agricultural communities, I have been fortunate to share company with countless of these tough and resilient rural women. These mothers, wives, business operators and community leaders face a daily battle to keep the family unit progressing, often against significant hurdles. Never are these difficulties more apparent than when families struggle to provide their children with an appropriate and continuous education.

To give some perspective of the difficulties these bush women confront, I want to tell the story of one of the many women who I have been able to meet as a senator. She is a mother residing in the small Western Queensland community of Stonehenge. For those who have not been to this corner of my state, Stonehenge is the very definition of a one-horse town—a very proud one-horse town, I might say. There is little more than a school, a pub, an information centre and a general store. The township has a population of about 30 people.

On the day that I met this mother, she told me that the drought had stripped the family of their savings and earnings, forcing her husband to accept work interstate, which left her to continue operating the family property alone. They could also no longer afford to send their children to boarding school either, and so they had been forced to bring them back to the property. Now, on a daily basis, this mother is forced to make impossible decisions that no city dweller can truly comprehend. Simply to ensure her children receive an education, she is forced to drive a round trip of 300 kilometres five days a week from the family farm to the Stonehenge primary school. With no school bus run in the district, each school morning she leaves the family beef property and drives 150 kilometres with her children to the tiny school in Stonehenge. Once she reaches the school, she then decides whether to wait in town all day or drive the 150 kilometres back to the property. With her husband working interstate and the couple unable to afford to employ a stockman or farm labourer, the family property is placed under increasing pressure as they struggle to keep their heads above water.

It is important to reiterate that this family is just one of the many living in rural and remote Australia that are being forced to make the tough decision to split up the family, remove children from boarding schools or entirely relocate to town in order to access education for their children. These are all drastic measures to reduce educational expenses, not to mention the negative impacts on the family unit and the wider rural community.

Even with the breaking of the drought across much of my state of Queensland following unprecedented winter rainfall, we still confront families that have almost completely destocked only to find they now have bountiful feed on the ground but cannot afford to restock their properties. Without a reliable income, many rural families are still facing difficulty affording the necessities of life, including a decent education for their children. Every Australian child has a right to education. Our future generation, our future leaders of this country, need to have access to appropriate educational services. Families residing in geographically isolated areas of Australia all have an equal right to access appropriate education as their urban cousins. Governments have an obligation to make sure that the right to a comprehensive, easily accessible education service is available to all Australian children, parents and families, regardless of where they might live. Rural and remote families are not second-class citizens and they do not deserve a second-class education.

When I speak about the resilient rural women who keep our bush communities alive, there is perhaps none stronger than those in the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association. The ICPA has represented families living in rural and remote regions of Australia since 1971 and is dedicated to ensuring that all students from these areas have equity of access to a continuing and appropriate education. The ICPA understands the need for rural and remote families to be able to provide an education for their children while continuing to reside and work in rural and remote regions. The ICPA Federal Council was hard at work once again last sitting conducting meetings with members and senators in this building. This group of women have worked hard to gain the respect of many of my colleagues in parliament and it is allowing us to work together to deliver sound public policy for rural families.

One of the most challenging issues the ICPA has confronted for many years has been the amount of financial assistance they receive compared with the cost of boarding school education. With the drought having delivered a devastating impact on the finances of these communities, governments need to clearly understand that rural families have been left struggling. Combined boarding and tuition fees in my home state of Queensland are approximately $30,000 per student, and this cost increases at a rate of six to seven per cent per annum. Unfortunately, in the past the assistance allowance has not increased at the same rate as the boarding fees. From my very first meeting as a senator with the ICPA council, the growing disparity between government financial assistance for isolated children and the actual cost of boarding schools across Australia was identified as a real concern. I am pleased to report that the government has taken some very strong measures in this space.

During the election campaign the Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, stood before the National Press Club and announced that $44.7 million would be provided to increase assistance for isolated children. This will provide immediate financial relief for 1,150 of the most financially vulnerable children and their families. The federal government is now also working closely with groups such as ICPA to determine where the remaining funding allocation could best assist the 4,572 students living in rural and remote Australia who currently receive the Isolated Children Scheme boarding allowance. Combined with an independent review into the policy settings for rural and remote education, it is clear the government has taken real steps towards building positive change in the educational opportunities delivered for these young Australians. While some of my opponents may label me as an old-fashioned agrarian socialist—I did not know she put that in there—I pledge to continue to take action against any economic and social disparity that weakens rural Australia. I will continue to make clear my intention to support public policy that ensures rural communities are given equal opportunity to city electorates, particularly with regard to fundamental issues such as education.

No Australian family should be forced to travel 300 kilometres per day to take their children to school, nor should families be split or relocated just so that children can access proper education services. I will continue to be a staunch advocate for the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association to ensure that we continue to address the funding gap between government assistance and school boarding costs. I will continue to promote education equality alongside the Isolated Children’s Parents’ Association to ensure the educational development of rural students is not disadvantaged and that their educational opportunities are not compromised.