Sole Parents Deserve Better


On the day that the most passionate interchanges on sexism became part of the Peter Slipper saga, the Government and the Opposition jointly voted to increase the poverty of a large group of vulnerable sole parents. Before the dramatic events that culminated in the Slipper resignation, there were already some political moves to distract attention from the Senate passage of the social security bill (the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Fair Incentives to Work) Bill 2012). This now-enacted legislation will screw around 100,000 sole parents out of at least $55 per week.

The Government tried to distract feminists by being quite vocal about another bill on the same day. That bill will start funding the first tranche of a 10-year implementation of wage increases arising out of the ASU equal pay case. This payment will benefit some low income female workers — slowly — and had been approved some time ago. Its implementation was hardly news. Yet it was promoted by the Government and featured in the following day’s media releases. There has been no formal mention of sole parent changes that will affect many more low income women adversely.

I have no doubt this distraction strategy was planned. Making two unconnected issues part of the same debate is a classic response to "women’s issues". The government can then claim "We are taking care of one category of poor women so we can’t afford the other". The tendency to connect two separate issues, both about women, illustrates a much deeper political sexism than the legitimate anger about sexist tweets and commentaries.

The case of sole parents is a good example. There has been a gradual, and now total diminution, of support for the value of their parenting once their child reaches the age of six. This is the point at which parents were supposed to become job seekers under the 2006 Howard changes of eligibility for parenting payments. Sole parents were then to be moved off parenting payments when their youngest child turned eight to be moved to the considerably lower Newstart payment.

The justification was a deliberate distortion of feminist rhetoric about "encouraging" workforce participation by financial and bureaucratic coercion. No one, then or later, has offered any evidence that reducing the weekly income of sole parents and increasing the taper rate if they found paid work or increased their hours, made them more likely to find paid jobs.

The changes were applied only to new applicants and older recipients were left on the parenting payment until their child turned 16 — but they were still expected to find at least 15 hours per week paid work. Now Labor is bringing these nearly 150,000 "grandfathered" sole parents onto the lower income regime and making claims about equity with the 40,000 sole parents already on the new system.

They have made some adjustments to the taper rate to allow more earnings but overall these sole parents will lose from $60 to $100 plus from their weekly incomes. As their incomes are already low, these changes will really hurt. And more importantly, the changes make it much harder to do both their potential jobs, parent and paid worker, effectively.

I was involved with compiling a major survey of sole parent attitudes over a decade ago. What it showed was that almost all sole parents were happy to combine parenting with paid work — but the parenting needs of their children had to take priority. Finding jobs that fit into school hours, even with after care, if available, is not easy. Kids get sick and sole parents have to take time off — so bosses are also suspicious.

Some have not worked for years because of children’s health needs. These might be recurring colds, asthma or other problems that are not major disabilities but take time. Some live in areas that have cheap rents, little transport and few jobs. Others have their own health problems, lack work experience, may have language difficulties and myriad other disadvantages which make competing for the limited part time work very hard. All of those who are being transferred now will have been on the payment for at least six years and many are well into their fifties. So many of those transferring already have tried to find paid work, had use of various forms of assistance and have failed to find jobs.

On the other hand, more than half are likely to already have part time jobs and they and others may also be doing a uni or TAFE course. They too will all end up worse off financially when they transfer to Newstart as they lose the education supplement and lose part of their weekly income. Some may find it all too hard and give up their jobs because of the costs these often incur. Why is this change presumed benefit them?

The Government managed to hold off a Caucus motion from Doug Cameron and Janelle Saffin to defer the cuts until after a Senate committee inquiry into Newstart had reported. The proposal to delay the Bill had very legitimate origins — this was the recommendation of the ALP majority on the brand new Joint Committee on Human Rights report on this Bill. The report proposes another way of creating equity between sole parents:

1.55 The committee considers that these are legitimate objectives. However, the committee notes that it does not follow that the measures seeking to achieve equity are justified as an alternative and ostensibly fairer approach would be to give later recipients the same benefits as earlier recipients, rather than reducing the benefits of earlier recipients. It is not apparent to the committee that the government considered any alternative options in this regard.

They concluded: The committee notes, but is not convinced by, the department’s assertion that this measure is fair and would promote workforce participation.
ACOSS CEO, Dr Cassandra Goldie in a media release welcomed the report, which has since been ignored. She wrote:

"This was an historic finding in Australia, which recognises the human right to social security and an adequate standard of living. It was also the Human Rights Committee’s first ever recommendation. The Government’s decision to press on regardless is simply unacceptable and brings into questions its own Human Rights Framework, of which the new Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights was to be a primary protective mechanism."

The community sector and a group of feminist organisations are backing a request by ACOSS and other major welfare agencies to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights to intervene and discourage the Commonwealth Government from pressing ahead with such damaging cuts to the parenting payments.

In at least one feminist group there has been the start of campaign to inform members of the UN general assembly about this complaint so they can consider whether Australia merits a seat on the Security Council. These discussions reveal the high levels of anger from these groups about these unfair and deeply sexist legislative changes, backed by Government and Opposition.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.