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Terese Edwards – CEO, National Council of Single Mothers & their Children

Community advocates’ hard work was starting to bear fruit when the ParentsNext Program was examined by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights on Friday 25 June 2021. The cross-party committee found that the ParentsNext program impinges on human rights, and presented a much welcomed recommendation to remove ‘compulsory participation’ from the program[i].

Possibilities continued to unfold on 11 August 2021, when Senator Dodson brought a motion to Parliament to reverse the legislation that makes the program compulsory, saying.

“This is not the kind of country we are. We can do better than this. In fact, we must do better.” [ii] [iii]

Alas, the motion failed by one vote.       

The Department of Education, Skills and Employment

Personnel representing the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) appeared before the cross-party Committee, presenting concerning statistics that indicate systemic issues affecting ParentsNext participants experiencing disadvantage: 

  • One third of participants (55,000+ parents) had been subject to 159,000 payment suspensions, lasting and average of five days
  • 1,223 participants had had their payments cancelled for failing to reengage with the program within 28 days (after having been suspended during that time)[iv]

DESE advised the Committee that providers are paid $626.40 every six months for each participant in the intensive stream, and there is also an amount credited to the Participation Fund.

Reimagining ParentsNext

NCSMC’s position has been that the ParentsNext program is in need of a major overhaul.  We reimagine a service that helps women in their quest to steer towards a more financially secure future, where assistance and support are built on trust rather than compulsion, and women are believed rather than forced to provide proof of reasons why they could not attend an appointment. Moreover, women would decide whom they share deeply personal information with, and when – a superior approach rather than retelling and then begging for the level of understanding that could possibly result in an exemption from mutual obligation requirements. 

NCSMC’s recommendations

  • The ParentsNext program should immediately cease in its current form and all funds should be redirected into a brokerage style service.
  • Participation in any revised program should be voluntary, and participants should be provided with quality career advice building towards a brighter and more financially secure future.
  • The revised program would locate and/or provide the support that is required for continuation or commencement of further education, and/or support to engage in job ready options.
  • Where requested by women, program providers would facilitate warm referrals to specialist support services. 
  • The revised, voluntary program should be designed by single mothers, for single mothers.

Flawed beginnings

The rollout of the ParentsNext program commenced from a flawed position and NCSMC’s consistent voice is captured on the record – as told at every Inquiry, including the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry.  Attempts to tweak, to window dress or to justify the program have in no way addressed the fundamental wrongs or mitigated our concerns. Emphatically, the program should not continue in its current form; it is not compatible with Australia’s human rights commitments.  

What we know

When introduced in March 2020, the $550 a fortnight Coronavirus Supplement temporary measure enabled job preparation and job ready outcomes.  It provided enhanced financial capacity throughout its six-month rollout, and we saw firsthand the purchasing of employment requirements such as necessary certificates and industry licences, workwear, and much more – illustrating that it is financial capacity that is missing from the current paradigm, rather than a willingness to seek out a more financially secure future. 

The power and control that is inherent within the ParentsNext system is harmful. There is no place within our Social Security system for income support being conditional on engagement with a ‘pre-employment program’, or a ‘light touch service’, with suspensions and cancellations for non-compliance. Accessing welfare should not frighten women but fear is the inevitable result of not having control over your sole and limited income, and having others decide what is best for your family. This constitutes an agree or perish dynamic – the hallmarks of a domestic violence relationship.

The Government’s refusal to countenance a voluntary service seems to revolve around the fact that ParentsNext providers do not attract voluntary participants. A healthier solution would be to ensure that contracted providers design and offer a service that is of value to the community, with participation an exercise of choice.

Ongoing concerns

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights’ report and Senator Dodson’s motion brought the possibility of reform to make ParentsNext a voluntary program tantalisingly close. The program needs to be completely overhauled, with no-one subject to compulsory participation, but in the meantime key issues must be addressed urgently: 

  • Women with babies younger than nine (which is too young) are compelled to ‘meet’ with a provider.
  • Services Australia incorrectly ‘refers’ women to the ParentsNext providers and then steps away from the process, including to reverse misguided referrals. Instead, Services Australia informs women that it is up to the provider to exit them from the service and/or program, the provider often forcing women who have sought exit to attend the initial appointment or risk suspension. This is incorrect and Services Australia, after much lobbying, acknowledges that it has the capacity to exit women from ParentsNext at this early stage.
  • Providers are never quick to exit women even if it is known that the women should not be attending the program or should have an exemption. This suggests an issue with the incentive payment process, with the result that women attend meetings – at their cost (time and out-of-pocket expenses) – irrespective of whether they are eligible. Furthermore, women often feel ‘stuck’ trying to navigate between Services Australia and the Provider, with each agency pointing the responsibility finger at the other.  
  • Victim/survivors of gendered violence must manage their sole parenting, their trauma and now jump to another master who has capacity to control their income support. Women must continue to tell their personal story of trauma to people who are not trauma-informed or specialist domestic violence providers, and they do this with the hope that they encounter a compassionate service provider. However, it is likely that such trauma is pushed aside, and the requirement of the program is granted primacy. 
  • The Participation Fund – existence of which being the only reason why we have not called for the program to be abolished – is not fully utilised, raising a raft of questions regarding the unmet needs of women who experience disadvantage … .
  • It is stated that the Participation Plan is a negotiated and agreed Plan between participants and the provider. But real ‘negotiation’ can only occur when both parties have an equitable power relationship. While ParentsNext remains compulsory, a Plan is never freely negotiated, as agreeing to it and complying with it becomes a necessary step to retaining income support. Why would a woman seek an ambitious planning outcome for fear that it is too ambitious and would expose herself and her family to the inherent consequences? A safe outcome is to agree to a minimum of one appointment per quarter, and have a Plan with one activity.  

In the lead up to the next election and following the women’s summit, policy and practices such as ParentsNext that expose single mothers to harm should be immediately rectified. The lever for positive change is in the control of the Government. There are no excuses for ParentsNext to continue as a harmful, compulsory and controlling program.

[i] Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, ParentsNext: examination of Social Security (Parenting payment participation requirements – class of persons) Instrument 2021(Inquiry Report, 4 August 2021) <https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Joint/Human_Rights/ParentsNext/Report>

[ii] Commonwealth, Parliamentary Debates, Senate, 11 August 2021, 4733 <https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Hansard/Hansard_Display?bid=chamber/hansards/e78d842e-02cf-4847-9b9f-93d70216a0c0/&sid=011>

[iii] Marion Rae, ‘Patent program survives  vote on compulsion’, 7 News(Web Page, 11 August 2021)  <https://7news.com.au/politics/parent-program-survives-vote-on-compulsion-c-3656167

[iv] Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (n i) 149