Wednesday, 6 March 2019

What one woman from Australia intends to tell the United Nations about the Morrison Government's war on low income women with young children

“We know that poverty is unpleasant; in fact, since it is so remote, we rather enjoy harrowing ourselves with the thought of its unpleasantness, but don't expect us to do anything about it. We are sorry for you lower classes, just as we are sorry for a cat with the mange, but we will fight like devils against any improvement of your condition. We feel that you are much safer as you are. [George Orwell, 1933, “Down and Out inParis and London”]

If ever Australia’s captains of industry and, those elected members of the two conservative political parties they support. ever knew a period of poverty it is now so long ago that an abundance of personal income has driven all thought of it from their memories.

Thus it takes a lone woman to bring to the notice of the United Nations some of the economic and human rights injustices perpetrated by Prime Minister Scott Morrison & Co on single mothers with young children. 

Imagine having to get someone else to provide proof you aren’t shagging anyone on a regular basis and that even if you are, you aren't getting financial support. Your own word isn't good enough any more.

That’s what happens to single mothers in Australia if they want to be eligible for welfare.

There’s a lot that goes wrong for single mums in Australia. They already have difficult lives, managing kids, jobs and life on their own. And on top of all that, there are a whole range of compliance tasks in order to get benefits, from signing endless forms to applying for a ridiculous number of jobs, a huge task all on its own.

It's a miserable life for a single mother on welfare in Australia, so hard that one woman, Juanita McLaren, has decided to take her complaint all the way to the United Nations. She says the way Australia treats single mums breaches human rights and now, the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, will be hearing from her directly at a UN Women’s conference in New York next week.

In fact, he will be presenting by her side. Huge honour and some of us might have put that on our credit cards. She had to crowdfund to get there.

McLaren, who has also had to get proof she’s not in a financially-bound relationship in order to be eligible for Newstart, worked full-time when her kids were little. Then her husband, who was the primary carer, left the family and now lives overseas.

“I just hit a wall and headed into casual work because there was always something happening with the kids.”

She had to ditch her part-time studies because she couldn’t manage financially on Newstart even though her studies were a pathway to getting better work.

Benefits were erratic and in one case, took eight weeks to arrive – finally some money arrived on Christmas Eve. She entered the wrong year on a form (who else has mixed up their birth year with the current year?) and was told it couldn’t be corrected over the phone.

It was all the little things on top of the poverty that motivated her to make a complaint.

In some respects, McLaren is fortunate. She’s had steady part-time work for a couple of years now, which is slightly seasonal. She remains registered for Newstart because of the off-season.

But it’s the constant battle with Centrelink, with managing her family and money, with being forced to apply for hopeless work she doesn’t want, that forced McLaren to turn to the UN. So far, it’s the Australian government and the UN in a deadlock about what’s harmful to single mothers.

For years now, Terese Edwards, the CEO of the National Council for Single Mothers, has campaigned for better financial support for her members. Edwards helped McLaren write her complaint, which was the first individual complaint using the optional protocol of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women; and will be at her side when she speaks at the conference…..

Cassandra Goldie, the CEO of the Australian Council of Social Services, says single mothers are easy to target and easy to vilify.

She says it’s not just impoverishment that has been relentless, it is the way in which both autonomy and agency have been removed from single mothers in direct contrast to what’s happening in the aged care sector. And she’s not just talking about the ridiculous requirement to get someone else to guarantee your relationship status.

Here’s some shocking news: One in three sole parents and their children are living in poverty according to the latest ACOSS-UNSW Poverty report. In just two years, the rate of poverty amongst unemployed single parents rose from 35 per cent to 59 per cent.

Hopefully, the United Nations will also examine the Morrison Coalition Government's punitive ParentsNext policy.

Canberra Times, 3 March 2019:

“I don’t know how you do it!” we say to them, and in the next breath: “Here, let me make it harder for you.”

This attitude is stitched into the heart of a welfare program called ParentsNext, which can require some single parents on the parenting payment to report to the state that they have taken their children to improving activities, such as swimming lessons or story time at the local library.

If they don’t comply, they can have their payments cut off, often with no notice, and no clear line of appeal. The arbiter of complaints is also the provider, the company privately contracted by the government to administer the program.

Some mothers have reported being asked to provide photographs as proof they have attended the child-focused activities. Others report the provider phoning the library, or the local pool, to verify their attendance.

Librarians as monitors, swimming instructors as social police: it’s a level of surveillance and control that would make Orwell twitch.

The program has faced a barrage of criticism from welfare groups, and was the subject of a Senate inquiry last week.

Peter Davidson, senior adviser to the Australian Council of Social Service, says the program was previously "less heavy handed”.

I spoke to one single mother-of-three this week, 32-year-old Sarah, who had a positive experience of the program in its previous incarnation. She had a good case worker who helped her into a small business course, assisting her to set up her own florist’s business. Now she is earning some income and intends to get off the parenting payment as soon as possible.

But in July 2018, the Coalition government (then led by Malcolm Turnbull) extended the program from a smaller pilot to about 70,000 single parents, 95 per cent of them women. In its expanded form, the “targeted compliance framework”, which applies to other payments such as Newstart, was imposed on ParentsNext. It is language that would make Orwell’s fingers itch.

Davidson says about a fifth of single parents on the program have had their payments suspended.

Parents are put on participation plans, ranging from vocational training to taking their children to a playgroup or "story time". This muddies the waters between the practical objective of helping women back into work after the child-rearing and the insidious policing of their parenting.

The result is bureaucrats invigilating parents from a moral, child-welfare stance, making payments dependent on proof that parenting is being done correctly.

This is a qualitative difference from other “mutual obligation” welfare requirements, because it is not about getting people off taxpayer money. It is predicated on the assumption that parents (read: mothers) on welfare must not be as “good” as other parents.

These measures assume that the poor have different social standards than the middle class, who know the correct way to nurture children, with story time and swimming classes.

They are also cruelly detached from the chaotic reality of raising small children, where leaving the house with everyone fed and clothed is itself an achievement, but one that almost never runs to time. Some days, the bad days, it doesn’t happen at all.

This kind of compliance-and-penalty system stems from the belief that the poor are not just unlucky, but they are fundamentally different from other people; that they lack the correct values, and the rectitude to pull themselves up. This is not so far from the Victorian-era belief that Orwell upturned with his memoir: that poverty is a moral failing.

This attitude can exist only when you wilfully ignore the fact that the majority of Australians will rely on government support at some stage in their lives, with millions of us slipping in and out of the safety net as our circumstances change.....

Australian Parliament, Senate Community Affairs References Committee, Inquiry into ParentsNext, including its trial and subsequent broader rollout, public hearing, Melbourne, 27 February 2019, excerpts:

Ms Edwards [Chief Executive Officer, National Council of Single Mothers and their Children]: It is unfettered power. It is shown up in a lot of ways, even as to participants' knowledge about signing a participation plan. The participation plan is like the blueprint for the engagement. You have your goals on your participation plan and then, from that, you have the flow of your activities that are meant to support those participation goals. In theory, you're allowed 10 thinking days after meeting and developing your participation plan. What we discovered in our survey which supported what women were telling us was that they would sign it in that meeting, and they would sign it because they were so compliant because the person they were sitting in front of had the power to affect their life, in terms of their payment but also in terms of their commitments. What is not well known by participants is: there is no minimum weekly activity requirement, like mutual obligations. But, because women are so aware of those mutual obligations, they start thinking that they have a similar sort of level that they must do, and they won't upset the provider because the provider can determine the activities; they can breach them—and, as Jenny said, in the blink of an eye they can breach. If the participant disagrees with the breach, the person who umpires that is the provider—they decide whether they have operated appropriately or not. There is not one independent body that manages or oversees that process. So that is why women are compliant—they're in this, and it's like they've gone down this slippery slope into hell and the only way they can come out is if they sign and do what's required. They won't upset a provider.

Ms Davidson: They don't even know about that 10-day period. With the lack of information that people are provided, they don't know about the 10-day thinking period.

Senator WATT: The way the system is supposed to work is that people are supposed to have 10 days to have a think about the proposed plan before they commit to it.

Ms Edwards: Which implies that it's two people having a mutually equal conversation about: 'What would actually help you get to where you need to go?'

Senator WATT: Yes, but, in fact, many people feel pressured to sign there and then?

 Ms Edwards: Yes, and then what else is happening, which is where the providers are working outside of their guidelines, is that they will unilaterally change activities and times. 

Senator WATT: The providers will?

Ms Edwards: Yes. And they will do that in writing, they will do that in phone calls and they will do that in texts......

Ms Buckland [Private capacity]: I'll give you an example, and it's a complicated one, because there are many issues with it, but I was contacted by a woman who had a newborn baby—she'd had it the day before. She should be exempt from ParentsNext—

CHAIR: It's supposed to apply at the very most when the baby's six months.

Ms Buckland: Yes. So it's from 34 weeks pregnant to the child being six months that there's an exemption. She wasn't able to speak to anyone about her exemption. She was still expected to mark her attendance at an activity; she was expected to attend an appointment one-week post birth. I think that there are obviously inherent issues with that kind of system. Her payments were suspended.

CHAIR: With a newborn?

Ms Buckland: With a newborn baby......

Prof. Croucher [President, Australian Human Rights Commission]:….

The commission's submission identifies five key problems with the compliance framework of ParentsNext. I will briefly remark on two of these problems. First, the detrimental effect of punitive compliance can be unjustifiably harsh. Many of Australia's most valuable parents and children rely on the parenting payment to afford basic day-to-day essentials. This includes single mothers living on or below the poverty line. Yet, under ParentsNext, these struggling families face automatic payment suspensions. This can happen for a single instance of noncompliance with a program requirement, despite having a reasonable excuse like a sick child. In the worst cases, their parenting payment can be reduced or cancelled.

Without money to provide adequate food, clothing and shelter for your family, how can human rights be realised? How can there be human dignity? Poverty erodes the enjoyment of many human rights, such as access to education, health care and participation in public life. The current operation of ParentsNext risks further entrenching poverty and inequality in Australia. It already risks reducing a parent's resilience to the complex challenges they already face, including homelessness, domestic violence and mental illness.

The commission is also concerned that there are insufficient safeguards to prevent inappropriate compliance action. For example, some punitive financial measures are automatic. Others can be made by private commercial service providers rather than by public officials.

Secondly, the claimed success of ParentsNext is not appropriately evidence based. On the basis of the evaluation of the program to date, it is not possible to conclude that the program is achieving its aims or that it has had a positive effect which outweighs the detriment of undermining the right to social security. For example, the department's evaluation of the trial program relied heavily on a survey of participants, but it didn't disclose how many people participated in the relevant survey, and it's unclear whether the sample size was statistically significant. The design and methodology of the survey were not disclosed. The department's evaluation also draws many positive conclusions about the efficacy of the program—for example, that it increases chances of employment. However, many of these conclusions are based on the opinions of survey participants rather than on objective data.

Lastly, the commission is seriously concerned about the discriminatory impacts of the program. ParentsNext is only applied to a small and targeted proportion of people receiving the parenting payment. Women and Indigenous Australians are disproportionately affected, with women comprising approximately 96 per cent of the 68,000 participants and Aboriginal and Torres Islander people approximately 19 per cent.

The human right to social security should be enjoyed equally by all, regardless of sex, race or age. Australia's domestic legislation, such as the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 at the Commonwealth level, also protects the right to equality and nondiscrimination. It is unfair that the parents who are required to participate in ParentsNext are at risk of losing essential support, while the majority of parenting payment recipients can access their social security without meeting the additional onerous obligations of ParentsNext.....

No comments: