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Thursday, 13 September 2018
Page: 6378

Senator SIEWERT (Western AustraliaAustralian Greens Whip) (15:44): As I was saying in speaking to this before we went into non-controversial legislation, this is about disallowing the instrument that puts into effect the eligibility and the parameters around the ParentsNext program. It's a program that hasn't received the level of scrutiny by this place and by others outside this place that I think it deserves.

What I had been talking about before we were went to non-controversial business was the impact of some of the compliance frameworks. As of 31 August this year, 84 participants had a demerit point. One participant had triggered a capability interview, having reached three demerit points in two months. This is the new process that came into effect in July. But their demerits were reset to zero, as the requirements were not suitable to their circumstances. Additionally 2,683 participants had received a payment suspension. This equates to 9.8 per cent of all participants at the time. While I acknowledge that if you're suspended then you will get back pay eventually, at the time that suspension can have a significant impact, depending on when that suspension occurs.

As the trial occurred prior to 1 July this year, trial participants were not subject to the targeted compliance framework. However, the evaluation of the trial provided to us by the government—and I will say here that I thank the minister for providing that evaluation—was not prior to the decision to extend this and this instrument being tabled being made publicly available. That was prior to the minister taking on this particular role; I will also acknowledge that. I do thank the minister for providing that evaluation sooner than they would have publicly released it otherwise. I'll speak about that in a bit more detail very shortly.

That evaluation also indicates that 9.1 per cent of participants experienced a suspension of their payment during the first 15 months of the trial and that three commenced participants had their payment cancelled after failing to engage in the program for 13 continuous weeks. Suspending or cancelling the payments of income support recipients with already low incomes would cause the parents enormous stress. To cancel the parenting payment of a parent with young children is an extremely harsh measure. While a small number were affected, this is nevertheless very concerning as young children would have been impacted as a consequence and would have been placed at increased risk. As this instrument also repeals the Social Security (Parenting payment participation requirements—classes of persons) Specification 2016 (No. 1), the instrument that specified the class of persons for the trial, if this instrument is disallowed then the trial instrument will be revived.

The Australian Greens cannot support the national expansion of this program. Assisting women into meaningful, productive employment, with a clear pathway, is welcome in principle. Our main concerns with the program are that it is discriminatory towards women, devalues the role of parenting, is top-down and provides people with no choice. The program fails to address the multiple barriers to employment that women face and does not assist in breaking down cycles of disadvantage for women. It is compulsory in nature and incorporates punitive measures. It also does not take account of significant unpaid work that women undertake while caring for their children. We think it undervalues the importance of parents having the choice to provide full-time parental care for the early development of their children, bearing in mind that for some this program comes in when their children are six months old.

The program should not be compulsory—the role of choice is very important when people are making life choices—and neither should it be punitive. While some parents may benefit from the activities, the program should be voluntary and should be focused on addressing the barriers to work that women face. It should also commence later. Parents have other focuses when their children are six months old. It should allow for more consideration to be given to children and family. Focusing on having mothers of young children re-enter the workforce at the earliest possible time fails to take into consideration the impact on the children and issues like, for example, the cost of child care for the parents.

The evaluation of the trial was provided to us by the government, as I just articulated. The evaluation covers the operational period from 4 April 2016 to 30 June 2017, but it doesn't cover the period of the final year of the trial. The evaluation itself acknowledges the program was difficult to evaluate. The evaluation used a mixed-method approach, using qualitative and quantitative analysis. In regard to the qualitative analysis, the Social Research Centre conducted qualitative research on the experiences of child participants and providers in eight of the 10 locations. They held 11 focus groups with participants, 13 in-depth interviews with providers and five interviews with DHS operational staff. We don't know how many participants were included in each focus group and therefore how representative the sample was in the context of the full number of participants at that time, bearing in mind that there were over 24,000. We also do not know what questions were asked or the statements that were put to them and how they selected the participants in the groups. We do not know how the 13 providers were chosen or what the questions and statements were. Lastly, we do not know what, if any, data was excluded from the analysis and the report. I make the specific point that we know from the ANAO report on the cashless welfare card that significant data was left out of the evaluation.

With regard to the quantitative analysis, administrative and survey data was used. We do not know what the survey questions were, whether they were in fact leading questions, or how they were framed or conducted. The main methodology for the measurement of program efficiency was cost per participant and the number of education or employment activities undertaken. The evaluation also explicitly states, 'quantifying the program effect of ParentsNext was difficult', and it acknowledges that this was more or less estimated. The evaluation indicates that only 53 per cent of surveyed participants thought the program had improved their chances of getting a job, and just over 25 per cent of participants did not indicate any specific assistance as being helpful. The evaluation says that many participants felt they did not have sufficient information about the program or what was required of them. This could cause some apprehension about the program when they were required to attend their first provider appointment, the report says.

Some participants were concerned about the compulsory participation requirements of the program, in principle, and for various reasons, including a lack of transport, some found it difficult to attend. The evaluation mentions that some providers and participants were of the view that parents should not be required to commence the program when their youngest child is six months of age, as this is too young. The evaluation says that some participants indicated that they were not actively considering or planning for future work at this stage of their child's life. A participant was quoted in the evaluation as saying, 'I think that 12 months would at least be the minimum, because it can take you that time to just get normal sleep patterns again. Depending on who your provider is, you can feel overwhelmed by what they're expecting you to do.'

The evaluation highlights that the willingness to engage in the program was affected by the compulsory nature of it and the threat of payment suspensions and penalties, particularly given that the lowest commencement rates were attributable to voluntary participants, at 74.3 per cent. The evaluation acknowledges that in some areas fewer jobs were available and that people in these areas may have to travel farther in order to find work. The evaluation makes a number of points that do not give me confidence in the way this program is being further rolled out and the nature of it—and I articulated when people were eligible.

We've reached out to a number of organisations to get their opinions on this particular program. We have also looked at other comments on this program. I'd just like to quote to you some of the feedback that some of the organisations paying attention to this have had from their members. One participant said, 'I told the ParentsNext provider I wanted to study nursing. She was pushing me to study a certificate in business.' Another said, 'I have gone to two appointments. A huge waste of time, after also studying at university full time. However, I am now exempt, after asking her if this was possible. But I didn't get exempt because of uni. I was exempted as I have four kids under 18 and at least one under six.' In other words, she was being asked to participate when she was actually doing something: she was studying. This is the problem with this. We've had other examples where people are working and/or studying, yet they still have to go through this program. People feel that they're compelled to do it and that they are being picked on because the government wants to control their lives. One said: 'I find the whole ParentsNext concept kind of insulting. Do they seriously feel that we can't manage our own lives, futures and careers without their mismanagement?' Another said, 'Not to mention the courses are EXPENSIVE.' That was in capitals. 'I am paying, not Centrelink, and I sure as hell'—excuse me; I'm quoting—'would like to do well and not have to repeat any classes.'

I'd like to table a letter that I've received from the minister, because we have been talking to the minister's office about this disallowance. Again, I acknowledge that I have received a letter from the Minister for Jobs and Industrial Relations and the Minister for Women, the Hon. Kelly O'Dwyer, and I've told her I will be tabling the letter, and I have checked with the whips. I seek leave to table that, because it explains some of the issues.

Leave granted.

Senator SIEWERT: The minister has given some acknowledgment of some of the issues that we have raised. I table the letter. I will go into more detail when I'm summing up, but I thank the minister for engaging in a very good discussion around the program. There are some clarifications that the minister has made of the operation of the program. (Time expired)