PMC Gender Equality Consultation

Terina HegartyGeneral

Economic Justice Australia is the peak organisation for community legal centres providing specialist advice to people on social security issues and rights. Our members across Australia have provided people with free and independent advice, education and representation on social security for over 30 years.

Economic Justice Australia supports the social security-related recommendations foreshadowed by the Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce, namely:

  1. Restoration of single parent payment for parents of children over eight years old

Prior to July 2006, single parents with a child under 16 could qualify for Parenting Payment Single with no activity testing. Payment was made at the higher pension rate, and subject to the pensions income and assets test.

Since the Welfare Reform changes of 2006, eligibility for Parenting Payment Single has ceased once the person’s youngest child reaches eight years; and mandatory activity testing has been gradually extended. A recipient may currently be required to participate in ParentsNext, subject to mutual obligations and the Targeted Compliance Framework, involving suspensions and penalties for non-compliance, if their youngest child is a baby of 9 months and they haven’t worked in the last 6 months.

Under the current parenting payment single legislation, single parents – the vast majority of whom are women – receive Parenting Payment Single only until their youngest child turns eight. They are then generally moved onto JobSeeker, which is about $176 less a fortnight, carries more onerous mutual obligation requirements, and is subject to harsher income testing. 

The erosion of the social security pension framework for single parents unfairly undervalues single parents’ unpaid work caring for their children, particularly women – the main single parent cohort.

Economic Justice Australia’s member community legal centres have seen first hand the financial devastation caused by the sudden drop in income support and imposition of a punitive and onerous approach, with single parent mothers facing payment suspensions and cancellations – depriving parents of vital income support which they need to feed, clothe and care for their children.

  1. Raise the rate of Commonwealth Rent Assistance along with Parenting Payment and other working age payments

Economic Justice Australia also calls on the government to address social security system-induced financial dependency of women.

Social security system-induced financial dependency makes many women, particularly those with caring responsibilities for children, vulnerable to family and domestic violence. Barriers to accessing adequate income support can prevent women from escaping abusive situations, and find safety. This vulnerability enables perpetrators to use the system as a weapon of abuse.

Forced financial dependency not only creates barriers to leaving and staying safe, but also leads to injustice for victims/survivors at risk of Centrelink debts and potential prosecution for overpayments which are not their fault and for which they derived no benefit. Importantly, this punishment can occur after a victim/survivor has left the violent relationship, and is attempting to rebuild a life that is independent from the abuser.

Many Centrelink debts incurred by women experiencing domestic violence are the result of Centrelink assessing them to be a ‘member of a couple’. The single rate of payment is more than half the couple rate, based on the idea that the cost of living is lower for two people living as a couple than it is for two single people, and that the income and assets of both members of a couple should therefore be taken into account when working out how much they are entitled to receive. Where a person is assessed to be a member of a couple and Centrelink considers that they failed to advise Centrelink of commencing the relationship, a debt will be raised. The debt could be the difference between the single and couple rate, or if their alleged partner has significant income or assets, the debt could be for the full amount the person received, which can amount to tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The presumption that families operate as ‘financial communities’, pooling financial resources for the collective use of the household, fails to recognise power imbalances in relationships when abuse is present. Evidence of shared financial resources may ignore circumstances of economic abuse, which obviate a person’s consent to their partner’s use of their income and/or assets.

Economic Justice Australia was pleased to see social security income support included in the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Their Children and upcoming changes to the social security policy set out in the Guide to Social Security Law making a first step towards addressing some of these issues. We are now calling for the first action plan of the National Plan to include concrete steps to enshrine these protections into law by amending the provisions of the Social Security Act as set out in our legislative brief: