ParentsNext is to be the subject of a Senate inquiry, with submissions closing on February 1.
The program has been widely criticised for making parents’ lives more difficult and for unfairly stopping payments.
But that wasn’t how it began, and it wasn’t what was trialled.
The program trialled from April 2016 provided intensive job-readiness training (and parenting programs) for single parents “at risk”, often Indigenous, to help prepare them to enter the workforce when their youngest was ready for school.
An announcement in the 2017 budget declared the trial a success and said that from July 2018 it would be expanded to an extra 20 locations with “a significant Indigenous population”, and to the entire country, less intensively.
The expanded program would place participation requirements on parents such as reporting to a service provider and would lead to loss of benefits for non-compliance. This was supported by a new so-called Targeted Compliance Framework also introduced last year.
The ParentsNext that was implemented from July 1 made parenting payments and other benefits conditional on taking part in the program for targeted groups of vulnerable parents.
Parents have had their parenting payments docked for failing to attend “story time sessions”, and domestic violence survivors have been retraumatised by being made to retell their stories (sometimes in front of their children) in order to keep receiving payments.
Even ParentsNext providers are unhappy
ParentsNext service providers’ representative, Jobs Australia, has begged Jobs Minister Kelly O’Dwyer to disentangle ParentsNext from the compliance requirements, saying it is doing the opposite of what was intended.
It said that the compliance aspects of the program are adding to parents’ stress and financial hardship.
Examples of problems include: rural parents without smart phones or enough data are being suspended for not reporting if they can’t travel to providers in other towns to report. Parents are being referred to emergency relief on a Friday to buy food because payment suspensions can’t be lifted until Monday. A pregnant woman had payments suspended after she was rushed to hospital for a premature birth and was unable to report.
A key consideration for the Senate inquiry ought to be whether this violates human rights.
It threatens human rights
Australia is signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights which establishes social security as a human right.
Social security is an entitlement provided by a society to members who are in need due to circumstances such as illness, disability, unemployment, old age and caring responsibilities.
That right, as with others in the International Covenant, must be “exercised without discrimination”, including on the basis of sex, race, language and national or social origin.
And leads to discrimination
Since a disproportionate number of people automatically enrolled in ParentsNext and facing payment cuts are Indigenous, the program appears to discriminate on the basis of race.
It might also discriminate against disadvantaged parents who are new to Australia and face language and cultural barriers making compliance a challenge.
Almost all of the participants - 96% - are women, meaning conditions attached to their social security payments could lead to gender discrimination in their access to social security rights. Selected mothers are being punished for undertaking the unpaid care work necessary to raise children, in a context where affordable child care and appropriate employment is often not available.
It might also discriminate against children on the basis of their family type. Children in disadvantaged sole parent families face discrimination as a result of the withdrawal of payments - which is less likely to affect children in families with lower vulnerability.
The United Nations is watching
Conditionality itself may be at odds with Australia’s obligations.
One interpretation of international human rights says that, to the greatest extent possible, states should refrain from imposing co-responsibilities or conditionalities on receipt of social protection, and instead should channel financial and human resources into improving the level of benefits provided and the quality and accessibility of social services available.
Withholding entitlements cannot be a correct response to structural challenges such as lack of jobs and childcare.
The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights has already expressed concern about the effect of cuts to the payments available to single parents.
These cuts, together with the compliance requirements attached to ParentsNext, raise questions about Australia’s stated commitments to its international human rights obligations.
When Australia joined the International Covenant in 1976 it promised to use its social security system to promote rather than chip away at human rights. The Senate committee provides an opportunity to ensure this does not continue.