Thursday, 5 August 2021
Human Rights Committee; Report
On behalf of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, I present two reports as listed at item 15 of today's order of business, together with the accompanying documents: the Human rights scrutiny report: report No. 9 of 2021 and the ParentsNext: examination of Social Security (Parenting payment participation requirements-class of persons) Instrument 2021.
I rise to speak to the reports tabled by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights on its inquiry into the ParentsNext social security instrument. The instrument sets out who is required to fulfil certain participation requirements to receive the ParentsNext support payments. If people don't comply with the requirements, they risk suspension of their income payments or even cancellation altogether. During the inquiry we heard from so many women because it is overwhelmingly women who participate in this program and the support services that advocate with them. I thank them all for sharing their heartfelt stories and real stories of struggle.
The evidence we heard was overwhelming. It is not necessary to make participation in this program compulsory. In fact, it is counterproductive and often harmful. There are so many circumstances that can contribute to someone not being able to participate in the required activities. In the current system, a participant has to worry about failing to comply with program requirements or else she might not be able to meet the basic needs of her family, like putting food on the table, having a roof over their heads, paying the bills, transport or children's activities. That all goes. Once Mum's payments are taken, kids go hungry. Theoretically the system allows for exemptions in cases of family violence, but realistically there will be other priorities to address first such as ensuring the family's safety.
Dealing with the bureaucracy of social services is not another complication women need on top of what they're dealing with. Unfortunately, these cases happen all too often, with some providers stating that up to 80 per cent of their participants are affected by domestic violence. Imagine the pressure on single parents. My heart goes out to all those single mothers out there. Having been one and having the same struggles, I know what that's like and I send my love and heartfelt feelings to you. Know that I've been there, but also know that, when I speak here in this chamber, I'm speaking from experience. I hope that we try to get some kind of justice for you all out there. I know how hard it is and how much hard work it is as a single mum to have the bureaucracy and the government come down on you in this way. You don't need the government to put more pressure on when you already give everything you can.
As I said earlier, it is almost entirely women who are affected by this program—First Nations women disproportionately so. The kinship systems of our families and our women are different. Our women are burdened with more complex responsibilities and caring obligations that, unfortunately, are not understood by the bureaucratic systems that we have to deal with.
My people have to deal with sexism and racism on a regular basis. So many don't know what it's like to have the incredible burden that we carry as black women. I appear before you today as a senator because I benefited from a job employment training program 30 years ago—through Centrelink—and that set me an employment path. That program was voluntary and helped me in a very difficult time in my life to be able to rebuild my life at 17 with a three-month-old baby. It enabled me to educate myself and get further training and find a job. And what do you know? I became a Centrelink manager. I wanted to participate in the program and make the most of it, but there were also times when that would have been difficult for me.
Most women in ParentsNext want to get back into the job market or want to continue their education, but they also want to look after their children. These women know best how to deal with their individual situations and have their own educational and career objectives and aspirations. It should be up to them to choose to participate in a program and what activities are most useful to achieve those objectives. Surely that makes sense to everybody listening. The government obviously don't get it because they're so privileged in their bubble. This is what self-determination means. It means allowing people, particularly our people, to be in the driver's seat, to make our own decisions about our own lives and to be able to control our own destiny, regardless of whether we are on income support or not.
I'm very happy today that the committee's first and foremost recommendation is to abolish the targeted compliance framework and make ParentsNext participation voluntary. This could provide the support parents need and want, while at the same time ensuring participants stay motivated and, most importantly, safe. I hope that the government will hear the voices in this report and act on these recommendations. It's time to abolish the compulsory requirements of ParentsNext.
I just want to reiterate that, unless you have been there, unless you have struggled, unless you have had a mob of kids who are screaming for your attention and who sometimes get sick and you have to care for them, unless you've been in that situation, then you don't know. When Centrelink cut your payments off and you have to feed your children and you have to get your kids to their sports and all the other things your kids want to do, and you've got no money, and you have to keep your children happy at the same time as keeping your landlord happy by paying rent, how do you do that when your payments have been cut off because you couldn't get to an appointment or the ParentsNext provider rang once and you didn't answer?
I just want to say to all of those single mums, particularly, out there who have experienced this and who gave their time and their energy to bring their personal stories to this inquiry: thank you. Thank you for standing up and thank you for speaking for so many other single mums out there—and dads, because this happens to them too, but we know that women, especially black women, are most affected. I want to thank you all for participating. I hope that the government sees this as an important change to ensure that more of our people on this kind of income support get better opportunities in a way that suits them best.
[by video link] I too would like to take note of this important report, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights report on ParentsNext and the instrument that extends and changes ParentsNext. This is an issue that I have raised repeatedly in the Senate. I'm really pleased to see the recommendation that this program be made voluntary. This is a very familiar recommendation to me given that it's basically the same one that I made for the Australian Greens in our additional comments to the Senate Community Affairs References Committee inquiry into the program, which I referred and chaired in 2018. I urge the government to read this report and to implement this recommendation. Rather than being supported to raise their children, women are being subjected to a mandatory program that is resulting in adverse outcomes such as having to give up work days and study to meet program requirements or losing their payment because their children's medical appointments conflict with appointments with providers.
This program is an ideological program that impacts on people on income support. It's heartbreaking to read the submissions and the points that were raised by the people that submitted to the inquiry, who, as Senator Thorpe has just outlined, are single mothers, which this program predominantly affects. It feels like deja vu, because the issues that were raised in this inquiry are the same issues that were raised, or very similar issues that were raised, during the Senate Community Affairs Committee's inquiry into this program. The issues raised in this inquiry were grouped into categories that included:
3.4 Submitters and witnesses primarily submitted that the ParentsNext program should either cease, or if it were to continue that the Targeted Compliance Framework should no longer be applied to it, and participation should be voluntary.
This program takes choice and control from women. If the government seeks to control women through this program, receiving social security in the form of a parenting payment should not call into question the quality of a recipient's parenting. This program views mothers of young children as unemployed workers, when, in fact, they are working long hours raising the next generation. Parents particularly see it—single parents should not be forced into employment.
One of the key flaws and sources of distress for sole parents is the constant threat that a payment will be suspended or cancelled and, then, how do they support their family. Studies show that people who have been subjected to harsh compliance policies experience very high levels of psychological distress which interferes with their capacity for long-term planning and effective engagement with employment. And we've heard that loud and clear through the submissions to this inquiry as well as to the Community Affairs Committee's inquiry in 2018. Children are living in poverty because this government is cutting off their parents' access to income. When a parent's payment is suspended or cancelled it is their children who face the consequences. The government shouldn't be trying at every turn to police people's lives or cut them off from their payments that are vital to their wellbeing and particularly, and most importantly, to their families' wellbeing.
This program is a dud, it hurts people and it should be cancelled. Then, the government, if the government is genuine in supporting parents that want to engage voluntarily, should develop a program in consultation with those that are being affected to find the best ways of supporting any pre-employment programs or support programs for the people that the government claims they're aiming to support. ParentsNext is a failure, it hurts people and should cease. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.
Leave granted; debate adjourned.