Senate debates

Wednesday, 11 August 2021

Regulations and Determinations

Social Security (Parenting payment participation requirements - class of persons) Instrument 2021; Disallowance

4:00 pm

Photo of Anne UrquhartAnne Urquhart (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

At the request of Senator Dodson, I move:

That sections 4 and 6 of the Social Security (Parenting payment participation requirements - class of persons) Instrument 2021, made under the Social Security Act 1991, be disallowed.

I indicate that Senator Dodson will speak remotely.

3:59 pm

Photo of Patrick DodsonPatrick Dodson (WA, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Reconciliation) Share this | | Hansard source

[by video link] There are times when we, as parliamentarians, are called upon to stand up for those most vulnerable in our society, those who are continuously subjected to bad policy but who have the least resources to challenge it. This is one such occasion. I'm proud to have this disallowance motion in my name on behalf of Labor. If successful, it will have the effect of ending a harmful compulsory requirement for parents of young children to participate in the government's broken ParentsNext program. Under this instrument, the program is currently mandatory for parenting payment recipients who have children under the age of six and meet certain criteria, like age and period of unemployment. It has the worthy goal of helping parents gain the skills needed for employment by the time their youngest child reaches school age. However, as with so many of this government's programs, it has failed grossly in its implementation. Two years after it was rolled out nationally on the back of a very questionable internal evaluation, it has become clear that the ParentsNext program is failing parents, and not only that; it's failing and causing great harm to their children.

I originally moved the motion in my capacity as a member of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights. That committee has just undertaken a thorough and damning inquiry into the instrument that is the subject of this disallowance motion and the ParentsNext program generally. I urge all my colleagues in the chamber to read the bipartisan and unanimous report that the committee tabled last week. I consider my membership of the human rights committee as one of my most important roles in the parliament. At its best, it operates in a bipartisan way, clearly undertaking its technical task and providing considered, measured advice to the parliament about the compatibility of all bills and legislative instruments with human rights. Only rarely, and where the most serious concerns are raised, does the committee undertake the kind of in-depth inquiry it has with the ParentsNext program. The report tabled last week demonstrates the serious flaws in the program and the concerns from across the political divide that it is causing harm to vulnerable parents and their children.

The committee's unanimous findings are that there is a considerable risk that the compulsory participation in the ParentsNext program impermissibly limits human rights, including the rights of the child, and that the program's financial sanctions mean that a considerable portion of parents are unable to meet their basic needs and those of their children. They are strong findings that cannot be ignored. The committee's unanimous recommendation was that the ParentsNext program be made voluntary for parents of children under the age of six. In seeking to disallow this instrument, Labor is giving effect to this bipartisan recommendation.

Several critical pieces of evidence influenced the committee's findings. I would like to speak to each one. First, the committee heard the program is not effective at achieving its stated objective. Importantly, there has been no independent evaluation of the ParentsNext program. In fact, the department brazenly confirmed that there is no intention to conduct one. But the evidence speaks for itself. Of the more than 150,000 parents who participated in ParentsNext between 1 July 2018 and 31 December 2020 just 4,500—three per cent—exited the program as a result of finding stable employment. Multiple witnesses reported parents being required to engage in superfluous or unsuitable activities, such as going to the gym or participating in programs they were already attending. Concerningly, some witnesses even gave evidence of parents who had cause to drop out of self-initiated tertiary or other education due to the onerous requirements imposed by the ParentsNext program. Even more concerningly, the committee report expressed the serious concern that participants are being pushed into jobs that are predominantly low paid, casual or insecure. How is that effective in breaking cycles of disadvantage?

Second, there was considerable evidence that the program is doing serious harm to parents and their children. One-third of participants in the ParentsNext program have had their parenting payments suspended under the program's compliance framework for an average of five days—that's five days without income. With approximately half of parenting payment recipients living in financial hardship, many parents whose payments are suspended will be unable to meet their own basic needs and those of their children. Despite this, the government provides no evidence that either a formal or informal assessment of a person's capacity to meet their basic needs or those of their children is undertaken before these parenting payments are suspended, reduced or cancelled. In fact, the picture painted through the committee's inquiry was of a rigid, inflexible bureaucracy imposing punitive sanctions with devastating impacts on families and children.

Anyone with a skerrick of empathy could imagine the panic on the face of a parent when they have their meagre income cut off suddenly and have to see through five days of rent and meals without a cent or a penny and have to explain to their kids that there's no money for food or other basics. Many of the committee witnesses gave evidence of the crisis families were thrown into when suspension occurred. Ms Terese Edwards, CEO of the National Council for Single Mothers and their Children, told a harrowing story of a young Indigenous woman from Toowoomba. She said:

She needed a letter from the hospital to give an exemption for how unwell her child is. The letter was three or four days late coming, because of the nature of a local hospital. In the interim her income was suspended. She had no money for food, and petrol was limited. I asked her to phone the service … that service only had an answering machine as an option; it was a fly-in, fly-out type of service …

Luckily the council managed to get her some emergency funding to help her through and to get the suspension lifted. What kind of program cuts payments to a mother of a sick child?

Finally, the committee also examined the disproportionality and discriminatory impact of the program on women and First Nations parents. Ninety-five per cent of program participants are women—most of them single mothers—and 18 per cent are First Nations parents. Concerningly, First Nations parents also make up 31 per cent of participants who receive a demerit under the compliance scheme. Parents experiencing domestic violence are at particular risk if their payments are cut off under the scheme. Mrs Cavanagh-Knez of Zoe Support Australia said:

I have a young client who was experiencing family violence and had to flee her home and became homeless and, as a result of that, financially was not able to keep up her payments to her phone plan, so her phone was disconnected. Then, because she wasn't answering the phone calls on the ParentsNext program, her payments were suspended.

This is not the kind of country we are. We can do better than this. In fact, we must do better than this for the many single mothers who are raising future generations without financial support. It doesn't have to be this way.

Crucially, the committee's report found that after making the program compulsory there were only marginal benefits compared with the two different times when participation was voluntary, including during the pandemic lockdowns last year. The committee concluded:

… if participation in ParentsNext were voluntary this could promote a range of human rights and no human rights would be limited.

This is exactly what the disallowance will achieve. The government will no doubt try to argue that it would be dangerous and disruptive, but it's their responsibility to fix up their own broken program. Only an incompetent, arrogant government would ignore the carefully considered views of their own backbench to retain this program in its current form. I urge all my colleagues in the chamber to support this disallowance.

4:11 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise to speak on the disallowance of sections 4 and 6 of the Social Security (Parenting payment participation requirements - class of persons) Instrument 2021 and indicate that we will be supporting this disallowance.

ParentsNext is a degrading, punitive and coercive program, and it has to go. In fact, I tried to disallow this program back in 2018, and it's devastating to think of the harm that this program has caused since then. I hope this time this disallowance will be successful. Unfortunately, the program has had three years to run, and we have seen the harm that it has caused. This program disrespects women and has negative impacts on children. This motion today would abolish certain classes of compulsory ParentsNext participants. It provides us with an opportunity to listen to the community and make ParentsNext voluntary, and I urge the government to do so. Throw away your ideological obsession with mutual obligations and support this disallowance.

ParentsNext devalues the role of parenting and unpaid caring responsibilities. It overlooks the gender division of labour and the amount of labour single mothers do day in, day out. It punishes and stigmatises single mothers. It should never have been mandatory in the first place. Some ParentsNext participants are especially vulnerable. Women affected by domestic violence, those who experience mental ill health and First Nations mothers are deeply affected by this program. Women describe feeling insulted and degraded and having the joy drained out of activities that were previously meaningful to them. They describe the weight and burden of having onerous mutual obligation requirements to meet.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights found, as Senator Dodson just outlined, that compulsory participation in ParentsNext does limit human rights. This is particularly the case for people who have had their parenting payment reduced, suspended or cancelled. If ParentsNext is made voluntary then the government won't be limiting peoples' human rights. We can invest in supportive programs. The constant threat of having their payment suspended can have devastating impacts on parents' mental health. I can only imagine the impact that this then has on children, particularly when seeing their parents so distressed. People who are most likely to face payment suspension include people with intellectual disability, people with mental ill health, people experiencing homelessness or domestic violence and parents of children with high-care needs. The evidence presented to the latest inquiry, and throughout other inquiries that have been done into this program, is clear: the benefits do not outweigh the immediate and long-term harms caused by the ParentsNext program.

The women who have been subjected to this punitive program know best, and it's time to listen to them—properly listen. Interviews undertaken by Dr Elise Klein provide insight into the punitive and harmful nature of ParentsNext. One mother told Dr Klein:

… "The conditionality is like a new violent relationship – financial and psychologically abusive" …

Another woman, with a high-needs daughter, said:

It's not that I'm sitting at home watching telly on my bum. Not happening. I'll welcome you to come and watch me, see how busy a single mums life gets with no family support because it's very different to having family here where you can leave the kids with the grandma and then go or have a partner you can safely co-parent with. That's not the case.

Another woman, living regionally, talked about the stigma she'd experienced:

It is an echo chamber, but that's what happens a lot when you're a single mum … You're stigmatised into the, it's a harsh word, but the useless pile. You're never going to amount to anything, because you've ruined your whole life by not having a husband … We're societal lepers.

ParentsNext has done enough damage. The only people who are perhaps calling for this program to be compulsory are the providers, who know there is money to be made from these enforced requirements—money to be made out of participants in the program, out of single mothers. On a fundamental level, ParentsNext does not address the most significant barriers parenting payment recipients face: a payment that is below the poverty line, a lack of access to child care to facilitate work and study, and high effective marginal tax rates that provide a disincentive to re-enter the workforce by taking on part-time paid work.

The government must act now to make ParentsNext voluntary: no more punitive requirements and no more payment suspensions. I ask—in fact, I beg—the crossbench to support this motion. Parents need to be supported to raise the next generation. Parenting is so important, and this government, which, I understand, values the role of parents, undermines that with this program. Government, vote with the opposition, with the Greens, who have campaigned on this since this program began, and, hopefully, with the crossbench and make this program voluntary so it can actually do what you claim it is designed to do, which is to help parents and particularly—as the parents in this program are predominantly women—to help women. You are harming them with this program. We will be supporting this disallowance.

4:17 pm

Photo of Jonathon DuniamJonathon Duniam (Tasmania, Liberal Party, Assistant Minister for Forestry and Fisheries) Share this | | Hansard source

The Morrison government is committed to ensuring that parents receive the assistance that they need to prepare for employment by the time their children reach school age. We understand that, for many people, particularly women, becoming a parent can involve more time spent caring for children and less time in the paid workforce. ParentsNext is ensuring the best opportunity for parents to reach their education and employment goals, well placing them to be job ready by the time their children start school. Since 2018, ParentsNext has assisted over 161,000 parents, with more than 74,000 parents commencing education and almost 40,000 parents commencing employment. The proposed disallowance will fundamentally undermine this program.

Photo of James McGrathJames McGrath (Queensland, Liberal National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The question is that the disallowance motion, in the name of Senator Dodson, on sections 4 and 6 of the Social Security (Parenting payment participation requirements—class of persons) Instrument 2021 be agreed to.