Putting mothers last: The economic injustice of ParentsNext
Earlier this month, the Senate Inquiry into ParentsNext, including its trial and subsequent national rollout published its first round of submissions. This follows months of public scrutiny after the program’s national rollout in July 2018. Monique Hurley (@monique_hurley) and Adrianne Walters (@AdrianneHRLC) summarise the joint submission of SNAICC – National Voice for our Children (@SNAICC), the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum (@NationalFVPLS) and the Human Rights Law Centre (@rightsagenda), to the Inquiry, which recommends that the program be scrapped. The full joint submission can be viewed here, while submissions made to the Senate Inquiry by other organisations can be viewed here.
ParentsNext is a punitive parenting program that makes life harder for mums with babies as young as six months old. Not only do the very foundations of the program discriminate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, it devalues the huge amount of unpaid care work undertaken by women from all walks of life around Australia – work that is critical to our national prosperity and which the Federal Government appears willfully blind to.
ParentsNext forces parents with young children to participate in “activities” to receive the Parenting Payment. If a parent does not report compliance with these activities, they are exposed to a system of harsh financial sanctions called the Targeted Compliance Framework. The program is mandatory for women who have received Parenting Payment for the last six months, have not been employed during that period, have a child aged under six and meet one high risk/high priority criteria.
Of 75,259 participants as at 31 December 2018, 95 per cent are women and 19 percent are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents. 21 per cent of parents had their payments suspended between 1 July and 31 December 2018. Some providers have reported that up to 80 per cent of participants are experiencing family violence.
There are two streams – a targeted stream and an intensive stream. The intensive stream imposes more onerous obligations on parents and targets locations with high numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents on the parenting payment. In only six months, more than one quarter of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents have had their payments suspended.
ParentsNext is discriminatory
The government concedes that ParentsNext indirectly and directly discriminates against women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in its Statement of Compatibility with Human Rights.
Article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) protects the right to social security. Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that, if a state adopts social security legislation, it must do so in a non-discriminatory manner. As ParentsNext can likely be viewed as a “retrogressive measure” that limits existing levels of enjoyment of the right to social security, the government bears the burden of proving that it was introduced after careful consideration of all alternatives and is duly justified.
For the reasons set out below, ParentsNext is not a reasonable or proportionate restriction on the rights of affected parents.
ParentsNext is punitive. The Targeted Compliance Framework attached to the program is a harsh largely-automated system of financial sanctions. It has left struggling parents without money for food and its operation is having disproportionate impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents. Early data shows that those in the intensive stream are having their payments suspended more often.
Concerns have been raised by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights about the harshness of the compliance framework, which does not allow wavier of financial penalties – regardless of how difficult a parent’s financial circumstances. The Committee has previously considered this to be incompatible with the right to social security, because people may be left unable to meet basic necessities for survival during a non-payment penalty period.
Financial sanctions do not work. ParentsNext operates on the assumption that financial sanctions lead to greater engagement with service providers and positive employment outcomes. Robust research from the United Kingdom demonstrates that sanctions applied to social security payments are generally counter-productive. Instead, programs like ParentsNext that target “lone parents” routinely trigger profoundly negative personal, financial, health and behavioural outcomes. These findings are consistent with research by Good Shepherd on Australia’s “Welfare to Work” reforms.
ParentsNext devalues the unpaid care work primarily undertaken by women and fails to address structural barriers to safe and secure work. It is trite to say that the division of labour in Australia remains deeply gendered, with women shouldering the bulk of the unpaid care labour that is critical to our nation’s prosperity, but rendered largely invisible by the economic policies of successive governments.
For women trying to enter or re-enter the workforce after having children, significant obstacles loom, like a lack of affordable childcare and an increasingly insecure and casualised workforce. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women also have to contend with racial discrimination and culturally unsafe work options. Many women are also dealing with the impacts of family violence.
ParentsNext fails to address these obstacles while systematically entrenching the perception of paid employment as the only valuable form of work.
Research from the United Kingdom highlights that the most common experience for parents targeted by programs like ParentsNext is being pushed between one short-term, low-paid, insecure job to another and social security payments.
Parenting is hard and complex work, especially in the 0-5 years. It is well known that these early years are the most critical for a child’s long-term health and development. The Government should recognise this work in the development of social and economic policies and reward it as an invaluable form of labour. In particular, and in light of the incalculable damage wrought by child removal policies, the Government should respect the critical importance and benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children being raised by their families and communities.
ParentsNext fails to offer culturally competent service provision. Aboriginal early childhood providers have reported that parents have been required to undertake activities that are not culturally safe, nor helped them find paid work. The Government should be working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to ascertain what services are needed to support families and help parents with young children overcome the structural barriers to safe and secure work.
ParentsNext is likely to have detrimental impacts on children. The Convention of the Rights of the Child requires Australia to ensure that children have the opportunity to develop healthily and that families have access to social security where needed. While the government said that ParentsNext will “not include any activities or services that would compromise their ability to parent”, this is not the experience of Aboriginal parents who have encountered challenges finding childcare for their children so as to comply with ParentsNext activities. Further, financial sanctions will likely increase emotional and financial stress in families and leave parents without money for essentials like food, necessary for positive child health and development.
Lastly, ParentsNext intrudes on private family life. Taking a child to swimming lessons or story time at a local library – private parenting decisions – have become tools for surveillance. Further, there are reports that women have been pressured to sign privacy waivers, allowing non-government service providers to collect “sensitive information”, including medical information.
ParentsNext should be scrapped
The ParentsNext program should be abandoned. By the government’s own admission, it discriminates against women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents. As set out above, its justifications for this discrimination do not stack up. Rather than punishing women, the government should be thanking them for hours of unpaid care work bringing up the next generation and take meaningful steps to address the gendered division of labour.
Critically, instead of imposing mandatory programs on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents, the government should be working in genuine partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to create sustainable, community-led programs and institutions that break down structural barriers to employment and promote self-determination.