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Issue #1596      June 5, 2013

Stop the income management trials!

A group of protesters gathered recently in front of the electorate office of federal Labor MP Nick Champion in the northern Adelaide suburb of Munno Para. Their banners and chants drew a lot of attention and support from locals, many of whom had stories of hardship to tell. One of the main speakers at the event was Sheeree Clay of the Single Parents Action Group which, along with the Stop Income Management on Playford (SIMPla) group and others, has been campaigning against the increased levels of official harassment of welfare recipients over recent years. Her (slightly abridged) speech is reproduced below.

We are here today to ask that Nick Champion, federal member for Wakefield, call for an end to the income management trials and teen mums trials in Playford; to stand up for single parents and back the $50 raise to Newstart.

(Photo: Bob Briton)

Many of you may be interested to know that Nick’s electorate of Wakefield is the second largest electorate of single parents in Australia.

When the people of the Wakefield elected Mr Champion into office they did so in good faith. We, the people of Wakefield, gave him our trust to stand up for us and protect us; to make the right decisions and do the right thing by us as a community. He has broken that trust by lobbying the federal government to bring the income management trials to Playford, for supporting the discriminatory and sexist teen mums trial, by not sticking up for single parents in parliament and by refusing to back the $50 raise to Newstart.

His reason for not backing the Newstart raise was that “the best form of welfare is a job”. A large percentage of his electorate, struggling families and the unemployed, desperately need that $50 raise to Newstart. The government’s discriminatory cuts have made it impossible for people to manage and many are ending up homeless or struggling to meet electricity and other essentials’ high prices.

Newstart is 77 percent below the poverty line; 77 percent! That is straight out disgusting and shameful. It’s an embarrassment for us as a country, which claims to be one of the strongest economies in the world, to have one of the smallest unemployment benefits in the OECD. How is anyone supposed to live on such a measly and inadequate amount of income, let alone a single parent with dependent children?

It’s true that Newstart is inadequate. It is so inadequate, in fact, that children are suffering and having to go without life’s essentials – sports, school excursions, birthday parties – the list of sacrifices our children are making is endless. They are suffering and missing out because of corporate and elite greed. The cuts to single parents are a result of corporate and elite pressure on the government in the wake of a global financial crisis. Single parents in poverty, forced out of studies and into low paid dead end jobs, this not only generates income in taxes but it keeps the corporate elites’ shareholders happy.

When did it become acceptable in this country to victimise, discriminate and smash with a fiscal fist our most vulnerable people, our most vulnerable women and children? Real men protect and stand up for vulnerable women and children, if Nick Champion is a real man then he will march back to parliament house and stand up for our vulnerable women and children; protecting the most vulnerable in his community instead of contributing to vilifying them into a life sentence of poverty by backing the fiscal policies punishing so many in our community.

As Christine Milne stated in her budget reply “that’s dumb and mean”.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights and the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women expressed serious concerns that cuts to payments to single parents may be a violation of Australia’s international human rights obligations. In response to an urgent complaint co-signed by the Human Rights Law Centre and other welfare groups in October 2012, the UN experts requested that the Australian government explain its decision to shift tens of thousands of single parents – 90 percent of whom are women – off parenting payments and onto Newstart, representing a decrease in weekly payments of up to $110.

According to the UN experts, this legislation represents potential violations of Australia’s human rights obligations, including the rights to social security, the right to an adequate standard of living, the prohibition of non-discrimination in the enjoyment of these rights and a number of obligations contained in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The Australian federal government have never replied to this letter.

When Terese Edwards, CEO of The National Council Of Single Mothers And Their Children and deputy vice president of ACOSS and I met with Mr Champion, we raised the issue of the letter sent by the UN and asked why Labor have not responded to the letter yet. Mr Champion laughed in our faces and told us that that no one responds to the United Nations, no one takes the United Nations seriously and that they are a joke. During this meeting we also stated that the cuts were discriminatory toward women seeing that 90 percent of single parent are women. He refused to acknowledge it as a gender issue or discrimination. When we raised the issue of human rights, Mr Champion said that human rights are an excuse used to avoid social and employment obligations.

Before I go on to talk about teen mums I would also like to mention my opinion on forcing people to work for free, work for the dole, work experience, job placements and forced volunteering. There is only one correct name for these things and that name is slavery; forcing people to work for free is slavery, and slavery is a universal crime. You cannot count Newstart as a payment for such activities as it is welfare and welfare is a right given universally as stated in the declaration of human rights. The government must pay these people a wage or end such programs immediately. It is slavery, it is fascism and it is a crime!

In regards to teenage mothers in Playford, Nick Champion fully supports the Gillard Labor government stripping teenage mothers in disadvantaged communities such as Playford of welfare payments for failing to comply with compulsory “participation” obligations once their babies are just six months old. This attack on one of the most vulnerable groups in society is part of a raft of measures announced in Prime Minister Gillard’s first budget aimed at forcing the disabled, the long-term unemployed and single mothers off welfare and into the workforce where they will become a new source of cheap labour. At present one in three teen mums in Playford are being cut from their payments for refusing to part from their young babies.

These measures mark a new stage in the decades-long assault on the social security safety net which was fought for by the working class in the post-war period. Sole parent benefits were, in 1973, the last form of welfare payments introduced, following student, unemployment and disability benefits. They are now being targeted as one of the first to be eliminated as the corporate elite demands a social reversal in the wake of the global financial crisis.

The program affects teen parents in Playford, predominantly mothers, aged 19 or under who receive the Parenting Payment. When their baby turns six months old, they are required to attend so-called support and engagement interviews at the government’s Centrelink agency. They will be forced to develop a “participation plan” which will include compulsory activities designed to ready them for the workforce, including placing their one-year-old infants in childcare while they finish secondary school, or engage in other training or paid work.

Attendance at regular interviews will be mandatory until the parent completes Year 12 or its equivalent, or their child turns six years old, when they will then be obliged to look for work. If the parents do not undertake any of these activities without a providing a “reasonable excuse”, they will be “breached”, resulting in their already inadequate payments being suspended, leaving them and their children without income for basic necessities. Only once they “re-engage” with Centrelink will they be back-paid their entitlements? In order to satisfy these requirements, young parents face substantial costs, particularly for childcare.

A mere $47 million has been allocated over four years to provide childcare rebates and to fund outsourced case management assistance for those enrolling in and attending school, TAFE or other training, parenting classes and mentoring and support groups.

The Gillard government claims that these programs will provide teenage parents with the support they need to “go on and get a good job” to enable them to better provide for their children. This is a complete sham. One need only examine the abysmal social conditions in the areas chosen for the trials to understand the difficulties these young parents confront. In truth, the government’s trial is designed to ensure that teen parents have the basic skill level demanded by employers for the low-paid, casual and dead-end retail and services jobs which are all that are on offer.

Young mothers are now forced to place their own babies in childcare regardless of whether either of them is emotionally or psychologically ready for such a separation, or whether they are satisfied with the quality of childcare available. In addition, young parents in such situations face practical challenges due to their restricted financial circumstances, such as limited access to computers and internet, textbooks and supplies, and suitable housing arrangements.

In order get their children to childcare and attend training, they have to use expensive, unreliable public transport services. Even a minor calamity causing them to miss a mandatory activity can trigger a payment suspension. The rationale driving the government’s stated goal of “breaking the cycle of welfare-dependency” is not that of helping the impoverished, but of eliminating the basic right to welfare altogether.

It is up to us, the people, to stand up for our rights and to stand up for the rights of those who can’t stand up for themselves. We must demand change and better government leadership as the current government are not leaders. They are dictators, fascists and oppressors. Once again, thank you all for being here, and thank you for listening.   

Next article – Protection for land and sea

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