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Thursday, 15 November 2018
Page: 8442


Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (19:01): I rise to speak on the ParentsNext program and the negative impact it is having on single parents, of whom we know the majority are single mothers. The ParentsNext program claims to assist parents to plan and prepare for employment by the time their children go to school. What started as a two-year trial commenced rolling out more broadly across the country to all non-remote areas on 2 July this year, affecting any single parent, mostly women, who has been receiving parenting payment for at least six months, has a child under six and has not been receiving income from employment in the last six months. In addition, parents are within scope of the intensive stream if they are an early school leaver, where their youngest child is at least six months old; are highly disadvantaged, where their youngest child is at least six months old; or they have a youngest child aged five years of age. A parent is within scope of the targeted stream if they are also an early school leaver, where their youngest child is at least one; is highly disadvantaged, where their youngest child is at least three; or is from a jobless family, where their youngest child is at least five or they have a youngest child aged five years of age. Basically, any parent receiving parenting payment for more than six months without receiving income from employment will be subject to this stream when their youngest child turns five. Many, though, will be subjected to it much earlier, with two of the three additional criteria for the intensive stream requiring parents to commence when their youngest child is six months old. Even if they have started earning—some of the parents who have contacted me are being caught up—or in fact if they are studying, they are still stuck on ParentsNext.

Once placed on the program, participation is mandatory. Parents are required to meet with their ParentsNext provider and negotiate a participation plan with a case worker, which may see them attending training courses or community groups, or undertaking volunteering. Failure to attend a meeting with your ParentsNext provider, or to attend or undertake the compulsory activities the provider requests of them, places participants at risk of payment suspension. Indeed, during the two-year trial of the program more than 3,500 participants had their payments suspended.

The Department of Jobs and Small Business website gives accounts of a number of participants who have successfully ventured through the program, undertaking volunteering activities, connecting with other parents and commencing study, all with the support of their ParentsNext providers. The Australian Greens support assisting single parents, who are primarily women, into meaningful and productive employment, if that is what is the best option for them. But the experiences of women who have approached me do not paint the rosy picture the department is trying to sell us.

In September I moved to disallow the instrument that puts into effect the eligibility and parameters around the ParentsNext program and its nationwide expansion. The Australian Greens could not support the expansion of a program that is discriminatory towards women, devalues the role of parenting and is overly bureaucratic. Just this week a mother of three young children contacted me, distressed that her payments would be cut, as she could not attend her scheduled ParentsNext provider meeting, which clashed with her son's pre-surgery medical appointment. When she explained the clash to her provider, she was reminded that she was obligated to attend anything that they scheduled or her Centrelink payments would be suspended. Not only does this dismissive and insensitive behaviour unnecessarily contribute to the stresses of being a single mother on income support; it completely undermines the unpaid work of being a mother. Any parent who is facing the stress of their young child requiring surgery should not have to worry about meeting their mandatory participation requirements under a scheme they did not choose to participate in and the threat of their main income source being suspended.

This is no way to assist women to break down barriers to employment and address unemployment. This punishes women for doing the most important work there is—being a mother. Speaking to The Guardian Australia, Terese Edwards, the chief executive of the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children, said:

It's offensive that the government believes that … women aren't trying to do what they can to increase the welfare of themselves and their child—

and that the government was now 'blaming women for undertaking unpaid care'. Following our lodgement of the disallowance motion after the expansion of the program had commenced, the government released its evaluation of the two-year trial. From this evaluation it can be gleaned that the level of engagement for participants was directly related to the compulsory nature of the program and the threat of payment suspension. According to reports, participants had been mandatorily required to attend swimming lessons, playgroup sessions and activities such as story time at their library. One woman reported to The Guardian that she had her payment suspended for failing to attend story time with her child on the day that her child was in kindergarten. This top-down paternalistic program is smothering single mothers and their ability to care for their children. These providers are demanding and unsympathetic, using the threat of a payment suspension to force compliance with a program that is causing significant emotional distress to single parents who are doing it tough.

Many of these single parents are already undertaking training or education to improve their employability yet are still required to negotiate and meet the requirements of a ParentsNext participation plan. These parents are already proactively taking steps voluntarily to become job ready but are being compelled to participate or risk losing their payment. One young mother called my office in absolute tears about the stresses of being on the program while studying law full time as a single parent. Tell me how this is helping this single parent and her children! We've also had other people contacting us about the compulsory nature of the program and having to miss important appointments, because they were unable to negotiate a changed appointment.

If the government looked at the comments on the ParentsNext Facebook page for a few minutes, they could see how this program is negatively affecting single parents. Many are already studying and working, and one noted:

I have reported income in the last 6 months. I'm working at least 20 hours a week yet I'm still being harassed about the program. I don't need it or want it and I don't fit the eligibility so why do I have to do it?

This program is hurting single parents. It seems to be more about punishing single parents than about helping them. The $350 million in funding which is being spent on this program would be better targeted at early intervention and prevention programs to support parents. This program is ill directed, punishes single parents and is more about control of single mothers—because that's the majority of single parents—than about genuinely offering support. It also significantly undermines the role of parenting.