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The Mothers’ Resistance

May 28, 2019 • 14m40s

Since its introduction, ParentsNext has been a controversial welfare program – but there is a mothers’ resistance mounting against it.

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The Mothers’ Resistance

02 • May 28, 2019

The Mothers’ Resistance

[Theme Music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

ELIZABETH:

The ParentsNext program was meant to help disadvantaged parents get back into work. In practice, it’s meant instability and stress for thousands, mostly single mothers, as they try to meet the program’s many requirements. Clementine Ford on the women fighting back against ParentsNext.

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

So, Clementine, can you tell me the story of the person that we're going to call Florence?

CLEMENTINE:

Sure. I started writing this story and one of the many women who got in touch with me was a woman named Florence.

ELIZABETH:

Clementine Ford is a writer. She reported on the ParentsNext program for The Saturday Paper.

CLEMENTINE:

Florence is the sole mother of two children under 10 and she also is a carer for her mother who's 88 years old and a cancer survivor. She was originally on the parenting pension. But when she was told that she would be switched to this new program, she was forced to resign her job because she had no care for her children. She couldn't afford care for her children. So now, she's in the position where she's not only struggling financially, she's, you know, living in poverty with three dependents, but also she's unable to work. And she's finding that even just the day to day dealings with providers and with the system is sucking a lot of time and energy and increasing her stress.

ELIZABETH:

So Florence is working, she's on a single parent payment. She gets a notification that she's going to be pushed on to this new government program. What is that program?

CLEMENTINE:

The program's called ParentsNext. And it was introduced by the LNP. It was introduced by Kelly O’Dwyer's department.

[Music]

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Unidentified woman

"Without parents next I don’t think I’d have as much confidence to even apply for the jobs, you feel like you’ve got that opportunity and you feel like you’ve got that boost."

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Unidentified man

"ParentsNext is working … "

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Unidentified woman

"ParentsNext just showed me what steps needed to be taken to get where I wanted to go."

[Music ends]

CLEMENTINE:

It's described as a pre-employment program and the technical idea behind it is that parents who are receiving the parenting pension will be assisted by providers that are linked with Centrelink to engage in programs that will better enable them to enter the workforce. That's the technical idea behind it. Actually in practice, it requires parents who are on the program to prove their parenting to the system. So parents, and it's mainly mothers, in order to draw their pension, which is now known as the ParentsNext. They need to prove that they've taken their children to library hour or to swimming lessons. They need to prove that they've been engaged as active parents and that they've been seeking work. So they need to spend at least 10 hours a week either volunteering or seeking employment. One of of the obvious issues with that, is that no-one else has to prove their parenting. And you know, I keep saying parent but let’s be real, the vast majority – over 95% of people on this program, are single and sole mothers.

ELIZABETH:

Okay, so the idea is that this program is going to take parents who have small children and ready them for the world of work before their children go into the next phase of childhood, go to school. What is the history of this as a kind of a piece of policy? What is the history of it as a program?

CLEMENTINE:

The program was initially trialled, it began in April of 2016, and it was a 26-month long trial and it was initially rolled out in ten specific areas in Australia that were chosen for their low socio-economic disadvantage. So, after this 26-month trial was completed, it was rolled out nationally in July 2018. A lot of people who were informed that they were going to be shifted onto the program weren't even really aware of what the program was.

ELIZABETH:

So let's turn now to the reality of the program, what ParentsNext actually looked like when it was rolled out because we've heard kind of what it was intended to be, but the reality is, it's quite different in the lives of people like Florence who are being forced to reckon with it. What happens in her experience with ParentsNext? She gets onto the program, and what is it that she goes through?

CLEMENTINE:

Florence’s story is quite typical of many and certainly many women who contacted me – the red tape that she has to kind of grapple with on this program seems totally counterintuitive to what the program is insisting that parents do. So, one of Florence's experiences is that sense of being watched over and the idea of having surveillance on you, you know, so it's not just about whether or not you're taking your child to swimming lessons or to library time. The intense scrutiny of the number of hours that you’re putting into seeking work, the kind of work you're seeking, whether or not you're turning up to your appointments with your providers.

The absolute waste of people's time whilst forcing them to feel insecure and paranoid about how closely they're being monitored, about whether or not they're fulfilling the requirements of the program, when they're trying everything they can to do that. But coming up against constant brick walls.

ELIZABETH:

So Florence is reckoning with this huge demand on a time both to account for her time and then also to report it … what happens next for her?

CLEMENTINE:

Florence is a single mother but she's actually been working for the last seven years. It was only for a period of the last six months that she was drawing the parenting pension – and now she's forced to jump through all of these hoops in order to draw that pension, and they’re hoops that really assumes that she has no idea what she's doing.

[Music]

CLEMENTINE:

Her experience of the program was that her very first appointment, her nine year old had whooping cough, they insisted that she couldn't postpone despite the fact that her child was sick, so she needed to turn up with her sick child.

[Music continues]

CLEMENTINE:

Her second appointment then followed in January. She was given some incorrect information by two of the workers at Centrelink that day, she was told that she wouldn't be able to be given any assistance with TAFE fees to study for a diploma. She found out that was incorrect.

[Music continues]

CLEMENTINE:

At her third appointment which was in February. That was at the point 88 year old mother would be able to take care of her kids if she wanted to work and she said that this was an impossibility.

[Music end]

CLEMENTINE:

Probably the most challenging thing that happened to Florence when she was forced onto the ParentsNext program was that myGov reporting conditions changed.

ARCHIVED TAP – Centrelink prerecorded woman's voice

"The new rules mean if you don’t meet your requirements, you could get demerits, and you may lose some, or all of your payment. If you don’t meet your requirements and get five demerits in six months, you will move to financial penalties."

CLEMENTINE:

The myGov site is confusing at the best of times. It's especially confusing if they don't inform you, that the way that you need to report your work activity or your parenting activity has suddenly changed. So, this is what happened to Florence. Her parenting payments were cut off for one month, which is extraordinarily oppressive. She wanted to do the right thing, she tried to contact Centrelink.

ARCHIVED TAP – Centrelink prerecorded woman's voice

"Hi, welcome to the department of human services costumer complaint line ... ”

CLEMENTINE:

So, she has three phone calls before she actually manages to speak to someone physical at Centrelink, who then tells her that she needs to come into the office in order to have the payment reinstated, which she does. And she sits there and waits for two hours. So, at this stage she said she spent 10 hours just trying to sort out a problem — and this is the same 10 hours that is required of parents on ParentsNext to say — volunteer or seek work, and she's done that just trying to contact someone at Centrelink. This is one of the major problems with ParentsNext as well as that it was designed, trialled, and then rolled out with basically no consultation with the people for whom the program was going to be targeting.

[Music starts]

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Unidentified woman

"I have my plan, I don’t need government telling me a plan based on what they think I should be doing."

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Unidentified woman

"It’s really frustrating, because now, my stresses on top of already being a parent are that I have to make sure I’m completing this plan or I cannot feed my kids."

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Unidentified woman

"Recovery from trauma for a single parent family is actually the only full time occupation that most single mums can handle."

CLEMENTINE:

Once the program is rolled out nationally, and its lack of suitability for the people required to be on the program is made immediately clear. This is when the resistance begins, and this is when the organisation starts, and I don't know that the government really expected it.

ELIZABETH: We’ll be right back.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Florence and many other people get put on to ParentsNext, often against their will. Their lived experience of the program is completely different to the version that's been formulated by government. What does the resistance that springs up against the program look like?

CLEMENTINE:

Probably the most visible and proactive member of the resistance movement against ParentsNext, is a sole mother named Ella Buckland.

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Ella Buckland

"The best thing is I’ve managed to empower all these other women who are going into their appointments and going ‘no here’s the section in the guidelines. I’ve printed it out and you have to do this."

CLEMENTINE:

She began a change.org petition which demands that the government makes ParentsNext voluntary rather than compulsory. And she's also been running a Facebook page that daily collates the stories of women and their children who've been forced onto this program. Funnily enough, she actually, as someone who's been forced onto the program because of her circumstances, she actually does have a comprehensive work history and employment background. She is a former staffer for the Greens. She's a political organiser and campaigner. And she's very well-placed to be able to run a campaign against a program like this. At the time that I wrote my story, Ella's petition on change.org had attracted over 40,000 signatures. That number is almost certainly gone up by now.

ELIZBETH:

Right, so it’s not just the parents themselves who are having issues with the structure of ParentsNext, surely?

CLEMENTINE:

Yes. During the course of writing this story I was approached by someone who actually works for Centrelink who expressed to me their severe doubt about the efficacy of the program. The employee who contacted me was working in one of the teams in Centrelink that was responsible for calling parents and telling them that they'd been moved onto the program. And for, quote unquote, “testing their eligibility.” But, what this person has said is that the Department of Human Services describes the program as very different to how it actually is, and gives false information or misleading information to parents who are forced onto the program. Withholds certain information about what they're able to use the program for. The person who contacted me personally believes that the department’s being very deceptive to parents. They see there as being an indiscriminate hierarchy about who is forced onto the program. But one of the groups of people who seems to be automatically moved onto the program are indigenous parents. So, the assumption as well that indigenous parents couldn't possibly have A - work history or B- transferable skills or C- an ability to be able to re-enter the workforce without the meddling kind of influence of a system that's always been set out against them.

One of the things that's important to mention is that, it's the increase in fear that a lot of them are living with. The increase in anxiety and fear and the very real threat that their ability to financially provide for their children is going to be taken away from them and they may end up homeless.

ELIZABETH:

So there's acknowledgement from people within it and some people outside the system or implementing the system that it's not working. What has government done so far to reassess this program and its suitability?

CLEMENTINE:

There was a Senate inquiry that was co-sponsored by Labor and the Greens. And that was approved in December 2018.

ARCHIVED RECORDING – Senator Rachel Siewert

"I table this petition calling for ParentNext to be made voluntary and it’s signed by 39,305 people."

CLEMENTINE:

And the findings of that report were handed down in March. The Senate Community Affairs References Committee ultimately recommended the ParentsNext program not continue in its current form. Now the Coalition didn't commit to the findings of that report, and unfortunately, it appears that they will continue with the program as they originally designed it and will not consult with the people who have been forced onto that program.

[Music]

ELIZABETH:

And what about Florence? Where is she now? Is she still on ParentsNext?

CLEMENTINE:

For the time being, Florence's situation has not changed. She's still on ParentsNext. She's still being forced to adhere to the requirements of the program. And she is one of many thousands and thousands of Australian women around the country right now who has an uncertain financial future looming over them.

ELIZABETH:

Clementine Ford, thank you so much.

CLEMENTINE:

Thank you very much for having me.

[Music ends]

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Anthony Albanese has been elected leader of the Australian Labor Party, standing unopposed. At least four other candidates had considered standing - but as a mark of the stakes and the power of Albanese, none formally nominated. Caucus will confirm his deputy later this week. And in Melbourne, a 27-year-old man has been charged with murder, after the body of Courtney Herron was found in Royal Park, in the inner suburb of Parkville. Herron was living without a fixed address. She was 25.

This is 7am.

I’m Elizabeth Kulas.

See you Wednesday.

The ParentsNext welfare program was designed to help disadvantaged parents back into work. In practice, it has been onerous and unforgiving for the mostly single women who have been forced onto it. Clementine Ford reports on the mothers’ resistance that is trying to change the program.

Guest: Writer and author Clementine Ford.

Background reading:

ParentsNext program not helping single and sole mothers, in The Saturday Paper
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein and Ruby Schwartz with Michelle Macklem. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Equate Studio.

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02: The Mothers’ Resistance