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Valuing all our families: Labors new deal: address : National Council of Single Mothers and their Children Biennial Conference, Adelaide, 3 November 2000

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Valuing All Our Families: Labor's New Deal Wayne Swan - Shadow Minister for Family and Community Services

Address - National Council Of Single Mothers And Their Children Biennial Conference - Adelaide - 3 November 2000

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Check Against Delivery


A couple of weeks ago I received a letter from Julie, a mother of two from rural Victoria.

Julie shares the care of her two daughters aged 8 and 15. She receives a total of $451 in Newstart and family payments each fortnight but her expenses are more than $500.

Centrelink raised an overpayment of $228 against Julie for failing to declare some casual work she undertook. Julie claims the verbal advice she received was that she could earn up to $140 a fortnight without penalty and she was averaging just $90.

That advice was wrong and Julie was duly punished. As well as repaying the $228 she was not supposed to receive, she was also fined heavily - having her fortnightly payments cut by $68 for the next 6 months. Now let's stack that up against Peter - a Government Minister who 'broke the rules.'

His error of judgement totalled $47,000. Yet Peter Reith, unlike Julie, is not paying a penalty on top of his error. If the same standard applied, his penalty would have totalled $188,000 bringing his total liability to $235,000.

On top of that, no-one gave Julie a presumption of innocence; Julie didn't get 14 months to pay after the authorities said she had to; and presumably Peter Reith isn't going to have a problem paying his next electricity, gas and telephone bills.

Oh, and another thing: if the Telecard story had not been made public by the Canberra Times hands up who thinks Peter Reith would have paid even one cent of the cheque he handed over this week?

I don't recall any Centrelink policy which says "we let you off as long as you don't make the front page". The real point is that Peter Reith's penalty is not proportionally the same as Julie's - and hers is far more devastating for her and her two daughters - but she doesn't get a millionth of the forbearing and understanding this government is prepared to lavish on one foolish Minister.

This is an extremely important distinction because it goes to the heart of the double standard being applied by this Government in relation to mutual obligations and it sounds a warning

about where we are heading in the area of welfare reform.

Breaches and breaching

What we now know is that the standard of mutual obligation applied to people on welfare with few resources is far tougher than for a Government Minister receiving close to $190,000 a year.

Under the Government's shoot first, ask questions later breaching policy there has been a massive 175% increase in the number of breach penalties applied to jobseekers by Centrelink in the last year.

Yet of the nearly 475,000 breaches imposed on jobseekers, 172,000 of these were overturned on appeal.

So nearly 40% of all breaches applied by Centrelink are now overturned after being investigated - after the money has come out of person's income support, after all the paperwork and appeals have happened.

That's what I mean by shoot first.

This week a horde of Government backbenchers appeared on television blaming poor administration for Peter Reith's troubles. If only they could get a little hot under the collar about the massive waste and hurt caused by a 40% mistake rate when it comes to breaching.

The Government's trigger happy approach to punishing jobseekers has meant more innocent victims are calling on agencies like St Vincent De Paul for financial assistance - assistance everyone knows cannot bridge the gap created by Government cost cutting.

The extension of mutual obligation - Welfare reform?

By now, it will be clear to many of you that the government wants to use the welfare reform process simply to give itself the outcome it wanted all along - an extension of mutual obligation aimed solely at cutting expenditure rather than making an investment in our future.

Government cuts have left too many Australians in a room with no doors - many unemployed without access to job training; Disability Support Pensioners without in-work support; and sole parents unable to access programs like the JET (Jobs Education and Training).

JET is a good program, but it is a also a good example of the Government's refusal to invest in people so they can stand on their own two feet.

Every year the limited money allocated by this government to pre-vocational training under JET is made available to only a few. Last financial year for example, 10% of pre-vocational training money went unspent. The year before the figure was 50%. This money is not rolled over or used to boost other programs for single parents- it is straight savings.

But what the Government refuses to acknowledge is that for every dollar of services they have cut and for every dollar they save by restricting access to programs, future Governments will end up having to spend a lot more in welfare payments down the track.

That is why we are starting to see, during a time of economic growth, a blowout in the number of people on Disability Support Pensions and a growing number on the Sole Parent Pension.

In 1996 there were 342,000 single parents on benefits. By 1999 the numbers had swelled to 385,000 - an increase of 12.6%. In contrast, over the same period of the economic cycle in the late 80's the number of sole parents on benefits decreased by around 5% from 251,000 in 1986 to 239,000 in 1989.

These figures demonstrate that it was Labor's preparedness to invest in people that made the difference.

Put another way, our current cost cutting Government is out there creating more Julie's.

And as a result, Australia is becoming a divided society in which increasingly it is families and pensioners who are finding themselves caught on the wrong side of the tracks.

A recent NATSEM research paper highlights just how real the divide is. It showed over 100,000 more children living in poverty since the election of the Howard Government.

Despite a sustained reduction in child poverty during the thirteen years of Labor Government, the study reveals the Coalition has achieved the seemingly impossible - an escalation in child poverty during a period of strong economic growth.

This confirms the suspicion of many parents that the benefits of economic growth are not being shared with them or their children.

And things are set to get worse if the Government has its way on child support.

Any deterioration in the financial position of custodial parents is a great cause of concern. This has clear implications for the welfare of their children. Whilst their may be merit in providing financial relief to non-custodial parents with fairly substantial caring responsibilities it should not come at the expense of custodial parents. This is Labor's bottom line.

The need for real reform

When Labor activated the welfare system in 1989 it sought to prevent division; to give everyone opportunities. It did this by linking welfare to training, education, childcare and opportunity at that time.

What has really produced the welfare revolution in the progressive parts of the United States - apart from a booming job market - has been a similar serious investment up front in people to help them move from welfare to work.

The Government has ignored these progressive policies, preferring to dwell on the savings that can be gained by handpicking the draconian aspect of US welfare reform - the time limiting of benefits - and implementing it under the guise of mutual obligation.

In taking its cues solely from conservative US academics like Lawrence Mead, the Government is signalling its prejudices.

Take this gem from the current Minister for Family and Community Services, Jocelyn

Newman who told Radio National listeners last year that, and I am quoting:

the 32% of the mothers with children between the ages of 10 and 14 [who don't work] are either quite wealthy or they have no skills to offer and no confidence to try to be like all other women.


Talk about scapegoating.

Her would-be successor, Tony Abbott, well known for his slurrs on the unemployed is even more passionate in his scapegoating of single parents.

Prejudices of the kind carried by some of the Howard Government's Ministers have no place in the welfare reform debate - they have no place in this country at all.

But this central issue is obscured by the stereotypes peddled by people with prejudices. They bear no relationship to reality.

For instance, the average single parent in Australia, is about 33 years old, has one child and has been married.

Less than 3% of Sole Parent Pensioners are teenagers and this figure is declining rapidly. In other words the calls of the Newt Gingrich's of this world to stop 'children having children' by cutting welfare have no basis in fact here.

And the common perception of women having baby after baby just to get welfare is also unsupported by the facts. Just over half of all sole parents in Australia have only one child, and a further third have two. In fact on average, sole parents have fewer children than do couple parents.

The authors of a recent paper entitled the Social Economy of Sole Parenting make this point well when they say that:

Creating artificial divisions, indulging victim blaming, and public scapegoating lessen us all both individually and collectively, and go no way towards creating a civil society.


Fortunately, the McClure Report recognises the importance of putting these divisions behind us.

We had some positive things to say about the McClure report when it was released in August because it recognises the importance of a civil society and the social security system's place in making a contribution.

The McClure Report accords with our view that we need to be building people's capacities rather than stripping them of their dignity.

However we are concerned that the report's extension of mutual obligation to Sole Parent and Disability Support Pensioners could become a blank cheque for the Howard Government to force people to work for their pension.

Labor supports generally the proposal for sole parents to have a compulsory annual interview as long as participation in subsequent programs is kept voluntary.

We are very concerned, however, that this proposal may open the way to cutting payments to sole parents of children aged 13 to 16 and about the effect this would have on their children.

We have drawn a line in the sand on this - that is that no-one should be made worse off as a result of reform. Too many families are already going backwards, the last thing they need is a pension cut.

It remains to be seen whether the Government will attempt real reform. We want that. But we won't be supporting an exercise that simply extends the penal colony approach that has driven welfare policy during the last four years.

Family values

Linked to its welfare prejudices is the other weapon in this Government's search for votes: moral positioning that camouflages their social policy vandalism.

Three weeks ago on the subject of Australian families, Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson warned of a "spreading western disease that emphasises rights over responsibilities" and that "people have come to expect too much from government."

Then on Sunday the Government announced it will empower marriage celebrants to refuse to marry couples they deem not ready to wed.

These approaches were justified on the basis that they would promote 'family values.'

When it comes to family values, this government only proposes symbolic 'solutions' such as marriage voucher trials and celebrants with policing powers; to hide its inaction and prejudicial judgements about individuals.

That is, so long as these 'claytons' solutions don't cost real money and they don't draw attention to the impact of the government's real agenda - its blessed trilogy of anti-family policies - the consumption tax, radical industrial reform and an increasingly mean system of welfare.

One commentator summed this up well when he noted that the Government makes a virtue of ducking its traditional responsibilities but has an almost puritanical tendency to stick its bib into our private affairs.

Looking at the current debate on the role of the family it's easy for the Deputy Prime Minister or Senator Jocelyn Newman to hark back to the days of white picket fences, back to the 50s, when families were real families, and say "we should go back there."

That's nostalgia; not policy.

No one person, creed or family type owns a patent on family values.

Single parent families suffer the same discrimination as two parent families - if you concentrate on looking after kids as a full time job, you know that it's not valued enough by our community at the end of the day.

It's about time the people carrying the prejudices acknowledged that parents, including single parents, are doing a vital job for all of us.

There is a "values" debate worth having, and it's this one:

In years gone by, the family represented a shelter from the outside world. Morals were

reinforced and formed in the family. Family values were wholesome, reverent, promoted order.

And those values were different to the values in the marketplace.

Steadily, the rules of the market economy have encroached on family life. In the market people learned self-interest.

How often do we hear people say that the trouble with kids today is that they have no values?

The thing is, they do. But more often than not, they have the values of the market economy. Little wonder that it takes just a few short years for a toddler to unlearn the innocent first rule of play and social interaction: how to share!

Too often, the very political conservatives who talk about 'traditional' family values have radical economic policies, which only push the market further into family lives.

And, of course, single parent families tend to become the scapegoats for the harsh outcomes of rabid market policies.

Well, I'd like to give some of these people a bit of a social history lesson:

Working mothers and single parenthood is not a new phenomenon. In the United States for example, the number of married women in the workforce doubled from 1930 to 1980, but quadrupled between 1900 and 1904.

Likewise, single parent households doubled in the last 3 decades but tripled between 1900 and 1950. The increases in Australia are consistent with this.

And I'd say this to those who like to blame the rights movements of the 60s for the demise of family values.

The liberations of the 60s happened against an economic as well as social backdrop. Things might seem to have been better in the 50s because market values too were different then.

Corporations and industries stuck with their local communities in those days. They provided secure lifetime jobs, which provided security for families.

Today, things are different. Australian towns, regional centres and even major cities are riddled with the potholes left by the desertion of many businesses and corporations.

Ultimately the debate about who or what is to blame for change divert us from the bigger debate about the plight of average families, many of whom are struggling to stay afloat and support their children in a society that is changing quickly around them.

For example when you talk to sole parents the real issue is a work and family one, not mutual obligation or anything else. And it is borne out in the figures.

75% of single parents spend less than five years on benefits and only four out of ten single parents earn no private income.

The difficulty for children with one parent is both economic and social - they experience the squeeze of parental time and money more than others. Single parent families are no less

deserving of support than two parent families, many just have to work twice as hard.

It takes a very committed government in these difficult times to really make a difference for average families.

The problem with our current Prime Minister is that despite all his rhetoric to the contrary, he puts market values ahead of family values when what we need is a government prepared to join battle on the side of average families.

Government family policy - Stronger families or just strong rhetoric?

The government's family strategy, like the rest of its 'family policies' consists of an almost unending series of trials and pilots. These pilots might offer a handful of struggling families a marriage education voucher or a volunteer program today, but they provide no guarantee of much needed resources into the future.

And they cannot replace the $5 billion in family and community services that have been removed by this Government during the last four years.

To give you an idea of just how tokenistic the Howard Government's families commitment is consider these two facts.

The first year funding of just $2.6 million for early intervention and relationship services nationally amounts to an average of just 20 cents worth of services per week for each child born over the coming year.

And over the 4 year timeframe of the families strategy, the NSW Government alone will spend $7 million more on early assistance services ($54.2 m) within its own borders than the Howard Government has promised to spend across the entire nation ($47.3 m).

The small amount that has been allocated drops significantly if you take out all the money the Government is spending on propaganda.

For example, this financial year will see over 30% more money spent on expensive advertising for the family strategy ($3.5 m) than new spending for its early intervention and relationship support services ($2.6 m).

Spending money simply to try and convince families they are not going backwards ignores the reality of the absence of support for families and issues such as the pressure of work and its impact on family life.

Labor has turned its mind to this issue and would bring the resources of government to bear, to ensure the foundations of families are strong.

The task as we see it is a bit like a modern day Snowy Mountains scheme.

Our modern Snowy Mountains challenge is of a 'human' rather than a 'bricks and mortar' kind.

We need a root and branch reappraisal of services for children and families and we have to make sure young families get all the services they need to be good families.

That means changing the way all levels of government plan and fund child and family services.

Because we are sitting on 40 of years of research on child development that says unequivocally - every dollar invested today can save many more down the track.

Research that suggests if you get the platform of child and family services right you have fewer adults who cannot read, fewer spending time in prison and fewer without work.

The Labor Party wants all parents to have access to parenting education that is available before a child arrives and continues as long as a parent needs assistance to get on top of things.

We also want to see home visiting available to more families. Currently only some families get home visits when their child is born.

Like parenting education, home visiting is part of an early assistance philosophy of 'invest now or we will pay later.'

Childcare is the single biggest issue cited by parents when it comes to the task of balancing work and family. It is essential to the modern balance between work and family life, and to providing opportunities for children's development.

Labor will invest in childcare - in the name of not only higher living standards for struggling families; but also a better educational start for children in life - the second building block of what Labor calls the "Knowledge Nation".

Workplace pressures

And importantly and uniquely, Labor has a simple four point plan for industrial reforms that will improve families' ability to balance work and family life.

Over time, the workplace has come to encroach more and more on family life.

A recent Australian study found the majority of fathers considered that working conditions (such as long and inflexible working hours) prevented them from being the kind of father they wanted to be, 33% conceded to finding it hard to take time off work to care for family matters.

Australian Bureau of Statistics figures last year showed that more than two thirds of working mothers from two parent families stated that they always or often felt rushed, compared to 56% of fathers and 52% of women with no dependent children.

I imagine if you combined both these sets of figures, you start to come close to what most single parents are feeling.

This is why the Government's welfare agenda - to place new work obligations on single parent families and not other families - avoids the real problem.

While no single parent like Julie wants to remain on a near poverty level pension, like most other families they also don't want latch-key kids. And they don't want to be punished for trying to work.

But without opportunities to train and study, without childcare and workplace flexibility - for too many the only choice is to remain on benefits. This is the reality the Government's tough mutual obligation talk seeks to hide.

So the real problem for single parent families is the lack of balance between work and family life. And it poses the same question for all families - how do I combine work that wards off poverty and my responsibilities as a parent?

There are 2.8 million working parents with kids in Australia. If we could give each one of them just one more hour a week with their kids, that would be nearly 150 million hours a year invested in happier kids; stronger families; better values. What a great investment in the future of our nation.

We want to help families find some space in their lives for those that matter most to them -their children while at the same time acknowledging the importance of work.

The first element of our four-step plan to address the work and family balance will be the creation of a database of 'family friendly' clauses for work awards and agreements.

The second element is to restore the power of the Industrial Relations Commission - the workplace umpire - to deal with all subject matters of industrial disputes.

A third point is to get Australian judicial bodies with an interest in industrial issues to work more closely together. There is real value in having the Industrial Relations Commission work hand in hand with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to advance the family-friendly agenda in Australian workplaces.

The final element of our industrial reform proposals is to extend anti-discrimination legislation to ensure that workers are protected from the extremes of workplace abuse.

Another important element of any plan to make families stronger is a commitment of increased financial resources when children are young.

This is why we are examining concepts like a family account which would give parents the option to draw forward some of their future family payment entitlement so they can afford to spend time out of the workforce caring for a young child.


The Deputy Prime Minister was quoted a couple of weeks ago as saying in relation to family policy that politicians have promised too much and "we have almost made government a false god".

Labor sees this for what it is. A failure of government will before one of the most critical issues facing our nation's future.

The foundation of family prosperity - putting family values before market values - has been ignored in our political debate for too long -- caught in a debate for and against different moral propositions.

This debate is important, but it should not be allowed to be a substitute for Government action to support and strengthen families - action that reflects basic and uncontested values

and demonstrates that families are a priority.

When the family debate is exclusively about moral propositions, political conservatives who don't want to spend money on education; healthcare; families; and communities - are let off the hook.

And they are allowed to get away with the fiction that sole parent families are somehow different from other families

Single parent families are real families, they are a source of real values and they help us as a nation. Put simply, their concerns and aspirations are the same as those of other families.

We need to take up the battle - for the elevation of family values above market values, and for all families rather than just some families. We have become a society that devalues and undercuts parents. We need a new deal for people like Julie, for all parents and for all our 5.5 million families.

Authorised by Geoff Walsh, 19 National Circuit, Barton ACT 2600.