‘I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not,’ Prime Minister Julia Gillard declared on 9 October 2012 in a speech excoriating Tony Abbott, then leader of the Opposition. Gillard made international headlines with her ‘misogyny’ speech, which criticised Abbott for the apparent hypocrisy of his attacks on the disgraced Speaker of the House, Peter Slipper. ‘And the Government will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man,’ she continued. ‘Not now, not ever.’
On the same day, largely unnoticed by political commentators, the Social Security Legislation Amendment (Fair Incentives to Work) Act 2012 was passed. The Act ensured that as of 1 January 2013 recipients of the Parenting Payment would cease to be eligible for the payment once their youngest child turned six years old, in the case of partnered parents, or eight, in the case of single parents. Most of these parents would instead be moved onto Newstart, the general jobseekers allowance.
It was the Howard government’s Welfare to Work legislation in 2006 that originally pushed Parenting Payment recipients onto Newstart—but under Welfare to Work, those receiving Parenting Payment before 1 July 2006 were ‘grandfathered’ from the changes, and were allowed to remain on the payment until their youngest child turned sixteen. Labor’s 2012 amendment removed this protection from roughly 163,000 single parents, saving the government $700 million.1
‘I don’t know if it was an accident or if it was deliberate,’ says Nicole Brooks (not her real name), on the timing of the 2012 amendment. Either way, she believes, media focus on Gillard’s speech meant that the government’s move against single parents went unheeded. ‘The focus was on Julia Gillard and what an amazing feminist she was, but on the same day she’s hurting the most vulnerable women. That was particularly difficult to go through.’
Brooks is a single parent. She and her daughter live in a one-bedroom garden flat in Sydney’s inner west. Their landlords, an elderly and ailing couple, live in a house immediately behind them. Mould and rising damp are rife in the flat where they have lived for seven years, but Sydney’s increasingly expensive and competitive rental market makes it difficult, if not impossible, for Brooks and her daughter to move elsewhere. Having to share a bedroom with her eight-year-old child means, Brooks says, ‘I have absolutely no privacy, and neither does she.’
I first meet Brooks in the summer of 2014. She tells me something of her story as we sit in my kitchen drinking tea, and then more some weeks later when we meet at a local café. She has the competent demeanour common to many parents, but particularly to mothers—a practised efficiency, slightly harassed at the edges, borne of having too many things to do and never enough hours in which to do them. She too was raised by a single mother, who worked as a nurse. ‘My mother always worked, and we were raised with a very good work ethic,’ she says. ‘But the downside of that is that we were latchkey children, left to our own devices, and that led to a few problems, particularly in the teenage years.’
Brooks escaped an abusive relationship in 2007 when her daughter was a year old, and represented herself in the Family Court on top of work, study and her parenting responsibilities. She has taught herself a great deal about welfare policy over the years, partly as means of restoring her self-confidence. ‘My ex had beaten me down so much, and told me that I was useless for so long,’ she says. ‘The way I dealt with it was to know my rights and to research policy, so that I could empower myself, and even then the injustices I was reading about made me angry. I got through it by becoming informed, so I knew early on about John Howard’s Welfare to Work measures, which [were] the first stage of changes, not ever thinking it would happen to me.’ She remains steadily indignant at the treatment of single parents by the two major political parties and the mainstream media, and has been a member of the Single Parent Action Group, ‘a loose collection of people’, as she describes it, who have protested against welfare policy changes.
The Gillard government’s Fair Incentives to Work Act was not without contention. At the request of the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) and fourteen other signatories, the parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights held a public hearing into the legislative changes in June of 2012, and tabled an interim report three months later. Committee members were not yet convinced, they wrote, ‘that the affected single parents would be able to maintain access to appropriate levels of social security support if placed onto Newstart’, and that it would be ‘premature for the government to introduce these measures’ before the completion of a separate inquiry into the adequacy of Newstart.2 The findings of the Newstart Inquiry were not tabled until November 2012—nevertheless, against the recommendations of the Committee on Human Rights’ interim report, the Gillard government pressed ahead with the amendment in October that year.
The Newstart Inquiry, conducted in 2012 by the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Reference Committee, questioned whether Newstart provided recipients with ‘a standard of living that is acceptable in the Australian context for anything but the shortest period of time’, while noting that more than 62 per cent of Newstart recipients at the time of the inquiry had been receiving the payment for longer than twelve months. The committee expressed ‘particular concern’ at the loss of income experienced by single parents moving from Parenting Payment (Single) to Newstart, but fell short of recommending that Newstart be increased.3
In its submission to the Newstart Inquiry, the Australian Council of Trade Unions provided data which showed that the real value of Newstart has remained almost constant since the payment was introduced in 1991, when it replaced the old Job Seekers’ Allowance. Adjusted for CPI (consumer price index), Newstart was worth $233.80 a week in 1991, and just $244.85 more than two decades later in 2012. Moreover, as ACOSS stated in its own submission, Newstart has fallen from 92 per cent to 72 per cent of the poverty line, and in 2012 it represented a meagre 21 per cent of the full-time median wage.
While the real value of Newstart has hardly budged, ACOSS also noted that Newstart’s purchasing power has fallen by $8 a week since 1991, because the cost of rent and utilities has risen faster than the CPI. Indexing Newstart payments to CPI—an initiative of the Howard government—rather than to average male earnings, as aged and disability pensions are indexed, means that Newstart payments fall further behind pensions and average wages every year. Even with the addition of Rent Assistance, which the majority of Newstart recipients are eligible for, Australia has one of the lowest rates of unemployment benefit in the developed world. The United States—not otherwise noted for its generous welfare safety net—has an unemployment benefit that is set at 47 per cent of the average wage, while in European countries such as Germany and France unemployment benefit is 64 per cent of average earnings.4
The ‘mutual obligation’ requirements at the heart of the Welfare to Work reforms in 2006 have meant that all recipients of Parenting Payment, partnered or single, must meet an activity test when their youngest child turns six: a minimum fifteen hours a week of work, study or training. This activity test does not change when single parents are shifted onto Newstart, and the Gillard government’s own research, prior to the Fair Incentives to Work Act, indicated that single parents were already meeting their activity requirements at a significantly higher rate than any other group of welfare recipients. Around 60 per cent of Parenting Payment (Single) recipients were already working when the legislation took effect.
Before her daughter’s birth, Nicole Brooks had worked as a project manager in events and marketing. She holds a postgraduate diploma in communications and has also completed a Certificate III in Business Administration. Since becoming a single parent she has juggled a number of part-time and casual jobs: one barrier to full-time employment has been her daughter’s chronic tonsillitis, exacerbated, she believes, by the damp conditions in their flat. Brooks has no family in Sydney who can assist her with childcare, and not all employers have proved understanding when she has had to take time off to look after her sick daughter. Unsympathetic employers are a common obstacle for single parents, who simply cannot commit to lengthy work schedules and must, almost inevitably, take time off to care for their child or children, without a partner or family member to step in for them.
Brooks began receiving Parenting Payment (Single) in early 2007. It was at this time that she managed to leave her partner, who was both physically violent and financially abusive, controlling the family’s income. ‘We simply didn’t have enough to eat,’ Brooks recalls. ‘The rent wasn’t being paid. I was doing everything: looking after our child, doing all the housework, and working part-time.’ She took out credit cards to pay the household bills, while her partner refused to let the family seek any assistance from Centrelink. ‘He said, “Only losers go to Centrelink.” Meanwhile I was racking up debt in my name.’ When Brooks finally managed to visit Centrelink on her own, she discovered that she could have been claiming both Parenting Payment and Rent Assistance. ‘They backdated Rent Assistance for a year, and with that chunk of money I was able to flee,’ she says. ‘If I hadn’t been given that money, we would have ended up in a refuge.’
Because Brooks didn’t begin receiving Parenting Payment until 2007, she was not one of the group of parents ring-fenced from the Howard government’s original Welfare to Work legislation. But, she says, ‘I hadn’t planned on being affected by these changes. Having been a professional person, used to going to work, it never entered my mind that I would end up on Newstart, affected by these changes.’
When her daughter turned eight years old in February this year Brooks was moved from Parenting Payment (Single) to Newstart. The difference in maximum rate between the two payments meant an immediate reduction in income of just over $100 per fortnight. In the weeks leading up to her daughter’s eighth birthday Brooks rang Centrelink on three separate occasions to check whether the transition from Parenting Payment to Newstart would be automatic. She was told that it would be. It wasn’t—Brooks was required to reapply for Newstart. ‘I called them three times, and three times they got it wrong,’ she says, ‘so if I hadn’t called the fourth time, I’d have been sitting there waiting, not being able to pay the rent or buy food.’ Brooks’s last part-time work contract ended in May 2013, and since then she been unable to find steady work. The $100 difference between Newstart and Parenting Payment might not sound like a lot to some—perhaps it doesn’t sound like a lot to the politicians who have successively signed off on these legislative changes—but for those single parents already living below the poverty line, the loss is sharply felt. It might mean the difference between paying and not paying the rent, and in a city like Sydney, where average rental prices have recently hit a historic high of $500 per week, there is little leniency for tenants who fall into arrears. For low-income earners like Brooks, housing stress can become acute. She is considering leaving Sydney, where she has lived for twenty-five years and where her friends and social network—not to mention her daughter’s friends and school—are, because, as she tells me, ‘I cannot risk becoming homeless. I will not expose my child to that, ever.’
Katrina Rae lives in the Blue Mountains with her four children: two daughters aged eighteen and fifteen, and twins, one boy and one girl, aged fourteen. It is early autumn when I visit the family, and already a chill is in the air. Winter temperatures here can drop to zero degrees Celsius in the evenings and, typical of most rental properties in the region, Rae’s house has no inbuilt heating. The family share a single, second-hand electric heater, given to them by a friend.
The family house is a twenty-minute walk from the nearest train station, down a long, hilly street that branches off from the main highway. My walk brings with it a mingled sense of affection and dislike—I grew up in the Blue Mountains. The region is undeniably beautiful, but it is isolated, and the isolation brings with it boredom, loneliness and, for some, entrenched disadvantage. Although 2001 census data show that the percentage of single-parent households in the Blue Mountains is close to the NSW average, at 10.9 per cent, a more recent Housing NSW report reveals that 53 per cent of low- and moderate-income renters in the region experience housing stress—the highest proportion in outer western Sydney.5
Rae and her children have lived there for four years, in a four-bedroom house which they lease for $360 per week. That might sound cheap by city standards, but average rent in the mountains has increased markedly over the past six years, as housing prices in metropolitan Sydney continue to skyrocket, pushing more renters to the city’s geographic boundaries and beyond. The house, like Nicole Brooks’s garden flat in Sydney, is beset by damp, and Rae keeps a running list of other structural problems, which the real estate agent is slow, at best, to attend to. Rae does not have her own bedroom, but sleeps in a shared living area.
Rae was one of those parents ‘grandfathered’ from welfare changes in 2006—she began receiving Parenting Payment in 2001, when the family were living in Tasmania. Her ex-partner was abusive: he was charged with assaulting her, and tried to kidnap the two eldest children, then aged five and two, in retaliation for her leaving him. Her children still suffer nightmares as a result. Outside observers, Rae notes, might wonder why she had four children with an abusive partner ‘if it was clearly that bad’. Perhaps, she says, such people fail to understand ‘the cycle of violence, and what happens to a woman when she’s in the violence—and then getting out, which is the most dangerous part’.
From the handful of details that Rae shares with me of her experiences—I do not push for more—it is obvious that the trauma of domestic violence still affects her and her children. She lacks confidence and self-esteem. ‘The day I married an abusive guy, that was the day my life ended, pretty much,’ she tells me, as we sit in her living room. Yet her tone is far from self-pitying: she and her children laugh frequently, sharing jokes and ribbing each other. They are close-knit, but they have to be. There is not enough money for any of them to pursue independent hobbies or leisure time; their entertainment is each other, and the rabbits they keep as pets and enter from time to time in local agricultural shows. The animals’ upkeep amounts to $25 a week—a family friend wears the cost, and Rae tries when she can to pay the debt back. Her children enjoy going to church, but there is frequently not enough money to pay for the cost of petrol, or even the bus fare, to get there. Still, the mood is convivial. ‘We have conversations that other parents don’t have with their kids,’ Rae says. ‘I don’t understand it when other parents don’t talk to their kids—but it’s always been just us.’
As many as 63,000 parents in Howard’s ‘grandfathered’ group were immediately affected when Labor’s Fair Incentives to Work amendment commenced on 1 January 2013, and Rae was one of them. She was working full-time then—and still is—but her low income made her eligible for government support. When she was switched from Parenting Payment onto Newstart, she found herself working the same hours for less take-home pay—an absurdity not lost upon her.
The single most pernicious effect of Newstart on single parents is the income tapering rate, or ‘income free area’, which is the amount of money that a single parent can earn through work before their government payment is affected. When Fair Incentives to Work became law, Parenting Payment (Single) had an ‘income free area’ of $176.60 per fortnight, plus $24.60 for each additional child, before payment was reduced by forty cents for every dollar earned above this. Newstart, on the other hand, had an income-free area of just $62 a fortnight before payment was also reduced by 40 cents in the dollar. Earlier this year the threshold was increased to $100 per fortnight—the result of a last-minute salve by the Labor Party before they lost the 2013 federal election.
For Rae, this tapering means an immediate reduction in her income of $188.40 per fortnight. Rae is technically exempt from Centrelink’s activity requirements because she has four children, but a maximum rate of Newstart per fortnight would not even cover the rent, let alone living expenses for five people. Her full-time job in insurance administration, paying just above the minimum wage, is not enough to keep her family out of poverty, even with the top-up that she receives from Newstart—and the income tapering rate has only reduced her pay packet. Given the rhetoric of both major parties on employment as the cure-all for poverty, it’s worth asking why those who stand to lose the most income from recent welfare changes are people already working.
Rae feels fortunate that her current job is local. Previously she worked full-time in Sydney, as many Blue Mountains residents do, and faced a daily commute of five hours on public transport. Between full-time work, housework, commuting and trying to raise four children on her own, including one with several learning disabilities, ‘I was just like a walking zombie,’ she says. Her own mother is in a nursing home in Cessnock, four hours drive away, and though she has friends at a local mountains church and Bible study group, ‘It’s a lot to ask someone to look after four kids.’ Her three younger children are enrolled in a local Christian high school, while her eldest daughter is at Lithgow TAFE, studying for her HSC, and plans to start university next year.
Each fortnight, after paying the rent, putting aside money for bills and groceries, and paying off a portion of her car loan (a car is a near necessity in the Blue Mountains, where trains run only once an hour), Rae is left with little to no disposable income. She would love to earn enough to have no need of government benefits. ‘I don’t even like being on welfare—there’s such a stigma,’ she says. ‘The things that people say on websites and news articles about single parents—to them we’re all sixteen and popping out seven kids. It doesn’t always happen like that … most of us are just people who unfortunately found themselves in a really bad situation.’
Stereotypes of single motherhood remain strong in this country, particularly in the media, where single mothers are often depicted as lazy and manipulative—out to get what they can from welfare. ‘The mothers are given to junk food, daytime TV and no-good boyfriends, who might develop designs on an adolescent daughter,’ wrote conservative commentator John Hirst in a column for Melbourne’s Age newspaper shortly after Fair Incentives to Work came into effect. ‘The worst mothers are addicted to drugs and alcohol and under their influence neglect and abuse their children.’6
Hirst’s claims are strident, but not altogether unusual—single mothers are frequently conflated with addiction, child abuse and sexual immorality. There is a cultural expectation that the children of single mothers will grow into feckless, misbehaving teenagers and then adults, and that daughters in particular will repeat the supposedly bad example of their parent, having children young and perpetuating the cycle of single motherhood. And yet, according to 2001 Australian census data, only 3.1 per cent of single mothers are aged 15 to 24, while more than 25 per cent are aged 35 to 54. According to the same 2001 census data, 63.4 per cent of single parents—by far the majority—are separated or divorced. Despite these statistics, single mothers bear the brunt of social anxiety around changing family structures and women’s increased independence.
If the children of single mothers misbehave we blame bad parenting, and if they don’t we regard them as an exception. Either way we fail to credit these children—or their mothers—with the resilience they have too often forged out of grief, trauma and persistent disadvantage. Every mother I spoke to was sensitive to the stereotypes surrounding them; aware of the fact that their parenting was in some sense public property, attracting frequent disapproval. ‘We’re being socially denigrated, and the media is just running with it,’ observed Nicole Brooks. ‘Not only are we sole parents, but we’re surviving domestic violence, trying to do the best that we can, and this ridiculous single-mother, dole-bludging stereotype is being exploited by the government and the media to give us a hard time.’
The denigration is worst of all for Aboriginal mothers, who face a long history of both racial prejudice and government interference. One NSW women’s refuge worker, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, described the fear and reluctance among Aboriginal mothers to engage with housing services or shelters run by Christian agencies—which are increasingly the norm—due to the historical involvement of church missions in separating Aboriginal children from their parents. These separations are not just a matter of history: one-third of children in the NSW foster care system are Aboriginal, despite comprising just 4 per cent of the state’s child population.7 The prospect of losing children to the foster care system is a real and present threat for any woman whose living circumstances bring her under the scrutiny of Centrelink and other social services—every mother I spoke to was genuinely terrified of this prospect—but Aboriginal women are particularly afraid. This presents a terrible dilemma for women attempting to leave abusive partners or other situations in which their safety is at risk, when they are also unwilling to come into contact with government agencies or their privatised proxies.
In addition, the inadequacy of Newstart as a living income for mothers who may, in fleeing domestic violence, be forced to leave whatever employment and social support they have, is, according to the same refuge worker, a huge factor in women’s decision-making. It pushes the threshold higher, she told me, with regard to the violence an abused woman will continue to live with, if the alternative is to expose herself and her children to the risk of homelessness. The current overhaul of NSW government funding to homelessness services—which will end direct funding to smaller, specialised women’s refuges and instead force these services to compete with larger agencies for tenders—combined with Sydney’s overpriced housing market and the paucity of welfare payments have created a perfect storm for single mothers who do not have any family or financial safety net to fall back upon.
The parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, delivering its final report on Labor’s Fair Incentives to Work amendment in 2013, noted that 91 per cent of Parenting Payment (Partnered) recipients were paid to the women in these partnerships, and 95 per cent of recipients of Parenting Payment (Single) are also women. ‘In response to a complaint by ACOSS and other welfare groups,’ reads the report, ‘the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights and the UN Working Group on the Issue of Discrimination against Women in Law and Practice wrote to the government asking for an explanation for the decision to transfer individuals from parenting payments to Newstart.’8
The Working Group’s letter to the Gillard government—dated 12 October 2012, three days after the Fair Incentives to Work legislation was passed—asked, among other questions, whether the government had carefully considered alternatives to the legislation, and whether those affected by the changes had been in any way consulted. It expressed the UN’s concern that the legislation would ‘provide an institutional obstacle to the full enjoyment of human rights for people living in extreme poverty and increase discrimination against sole parents, the majority of whom are single mothers.’9
‘The government’, reported the Joint Committee on Human Rights six months later, ‘does not appear to have responded to the UN’s concerns to date.’ The Labor government never did respond to the UN’s concern over Fair Incentives to Work, but one question can be answered: the government did not consult those affected by the changes before the legislation was passed. Most parents who stood to be affected first found out through their own research—Centrelink only began official notifications roughly five weeks before the changes took effect on 1 January 2013.
At one point Katrina Rae was working two jobs—five days a week full time in Sydney and then weekend hours in the cash office of the Blue Mountains’ sole Kmart store, which has since closed down. The longest period she worked, she tells me, was sixteen weeks straight without a day off. Partly because of ill health—including back pain, hip pain and pneumonia—she applied for the local insurance job that she now holds. It meant a pay cut of $5 an hour compared to her city job, but her workload had been simply unsustainable.
‘Where are those jobs that let me be completely independent of any benefits, where I can have a nice life—go to the movies, get take-away, have holidays?’ she wonders aloud. ‘We can’t afford holidays, we can’t afford take-away meals—I can’t afford to buy a cup of coffee. I’d love to be able to buy a coffee.’
And yet, she says, ‘There are people who are worse off than me, I’m pretty sure.’ She has so far avoided accessing charity, even through her own church, partly because full-time work hours make it difficult to apply to charities that only operate in normal business hours, but mostly, she says, ‘I don’t want to take it when I don’t really need it, because there might be a time when I really, really need it.’
I interview Nicole Brooks and Katrina Rae before the Abbott government’s first federal budget is handed down. Even so, there is a sense of foreboding in the air. Single mothers and Aboriginal people are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine when it comes to welfare policy, in large part because so few people will stand up for them. The extension of compulsory income management in 2012—which was first applied to Aboriginal communities during the Northern Territory intervention in 2007—to five regional ‘trial sites’ in 2012, including Bankstown in Sydney and Shepparton in Victoria, is one indication of this pattern. Neither major party sees popular acclaim or votes in defending such marginalised groups.
Still, when the budget is delivered on 14 May it comes as a shock. Despite Joe Hockey’s pre-budget rumblings about an end to ‘the age of entitlement’, few people anticipated such a radical dismantling of social infrastructure—including universal free health care—that has long been established in Australia. In combination with the interim McClure Report into the welfare system, released in late June, low-income earners and welfare recipients are now bracing for the worst.
‘People are panicking,’ Nicole Brooks tells me, when we meet again in June. ‘People like me have started taking antidepressants. People feel hopeless; people are contemplating suicide. People are terrified that their children are going to get taken away from them, they’re feeling a massive amount of anxiety. The tactics of the government—it’s like scare tactics, “We’re going to do this, and this”, and then following up with “You’re all such lazy people”—with no understanding of the day-to-day pressures and barriers that people face in finding work.’
Brooks has still not been able to find work, and on top of parenting she is increasingly taking on a carer’s role for her elderly landlords—when we meet she is on her way to a local hospital to file a request for an oxygen tank. ‘I care about them, so it’s become an added stress,’ she says, adding that she often shares the meals she cooks for herself and her daughter with her landlords next door. It seems increasingly likely that one or both of the couple will be taken into aged care, and if the property is sold then Brooks and her daughter will lose the garden flat they have rented for seven years.
When we meet, Brooks has received a temporary three-month exemption from her Job Network appointments due to depression. ‘The mood is of massive anxiety and depression—and fear,’ she says, speaking not just of herself but also of the online community of single parents that she is a part of. ‘The amount of jobs out there does not equal the number of unemployed,’ she says, ‘and when you take into account the barriers that people like single parents face in gaining full-time work, then what are you supposed to do?’
The interim McClure Report provides little in the way of answers, but it does recognise Brooks’s fundamental point: that single parents face barriers to full-time employment that other jobseekers do not. ‘There are some people for whom full-time work is unlikely to be possible,’ the report states, and it identifies single parents and people aged over sixty as the two groups most disadvantaged in the labour market. The report argues that the higher rates of Parenting Payment for both single and partnered parents, when compared to Newstart, ‘protects the welfare of children by providing a higher standard of living for families with children’, but notes that single parents in receipt of Newstart once their youngest child turns eight are receiving a payment equal to only 68.1 per cent of the rate received by couples with children.10
The report also notes the important role played by Family Tax Benefit B (FTB-B) in supplementing the payments of single and partnered parents, yet FTB-B, which is currently available to single-income families beneath an earnings threshold of $150,000 per year, is one payment slated for overhaul by the May budget.
Family Tax Benefit A (FTB-A) and FTB-B are legacies of the Howard years and, as a recent article in Crikey notes, neither payment, despite the name, is really part of the tax system, rather they are ‘cash benefits paid via Centrelink.’11 Both parts are income tested, but Benefit B was designed to compensate for the fact that families with two working parents received the tax-free threshold of $18,200 per year twice over, whereas a family with only one employed parent did not. These payments have been derided as ‘middle-class welfare’, and Australia Institute senior researcher David Richardson, quoted in Crikey, said that FTB-B ‘harks back to the nostalgia of the single-earner family with the second adult staying at home and keeping the house’. That may well have been Howard’s original framework, but FTB-B has become a much needed income supplement for single parents, who can still receive the payment when they are placed onto Newstart.
FTB-B is currently paid until the youngest child in a single-income family turns sixteen, but the Abbott government expects to save $1.9 billion over five years by cutting the payment entirely once the youngest child turns six. For Nicole Brooks and Katrina Rae, this would mean a further reduction in their fortnightly income, which neither can afford. Single parents she knows, Brooks tells me, are already buying tents in anticipation of becoming homeless if they lose FTB-B. The federal budget included an additional FTB-A ‘bonus’ of $750 for single parents, but this will not cover the full amount lost if FTB-B is cut.
On top of this comes a possible loss of other income supplements, including the Schoolkids Bonus, which is currently paid out in January and July to families receiving FTB-A. The Abbott government wants to end this payment entirely; Clive Palmer has said that his Palmer United Party will vote with Labor and the Greens to block the change, but at the time of writing no-one quite knows what the outcome will be. In January this year Katrina Rae used the money to buy all her children prescription glasses. If the payment ends, her ability to purchase items like this—or school textbooks, shoes and equipment—will be in jeopardy. When I speak to her on the phone in June, she is considering taking a second job and working seven days a week again, even though it will probably make her sick. ‘It’s not really medically feasible,’ she says, ‘but if worst comes to worst that’s just what I’ll have to do.’
Rae’s oldest daughter, meanwhile, is hoping to begin study at the University of Western Sydney in 2015, even though the government’s plan to deregulate university fees is still a live possibility. The family attended a UWS open day after the budget, and though no-one could tell them exactly what might happen, the fee for each unit of study in a degree course is likely to rise by up to 50 per cent if deregulation occurs. Many people have warned the Abbott government that students from low- and middle-income families will not apply for university if fees are deregulated. Less discussed is the fact that these students, faced with a labour market in which a university degree is increasingly regarded by employers as a compulsory qualification, will have no choice but to study and so accrue debt that they will struggle to repay.
Most drastic of all are the proposed changes to Medicare, which would see all patients charged a Medicare co-payment of $7 to see their GP or to receive pathology and diagnostic imaging tests. The $7 co-payment could also be charged at public hospitals, to discourage anyone without the means to pay a GP from trying to access free medical care at the emergency department. Patients who hold a Healthcare Concession Card, as most recipients of Parenting Payment (Single) and Newstart do, would face ten $7 co-payments per calendar year before they became eligible again for bulk billing.
The Abbott government are touting this ten-visit threshold as a safety net for low-income earners, while paying little attention to the realities of week-to-week budgeting faced by welfare recipients. Nicole Brooks recalls during our June interview the times when her daughter, who has since had her tonsils removed, was constantly sick. ‘There were times when we had no car, and I had to pull out the old pram even though she was too big for it, pushing her uphill with a temperature of 40.5 degrees, in the pouring rain, with $6 in my pocket—just enough money to pay for the medicine,’ she says. ‘Some people’s answer to that is, “Oh well, you’re spending your money on grog”, and it’s simply not true, not true at all.’
‘I’m no spring chicken,’ she adds. ‘I’m worried about my health and what that means for us.’ Brooks has been treated periodically for depression and, she asks, ‘If I’m not healthy and I have no access to health care, what does that mean for my child?’
The members of federal Cabinet, Joe Hockey chief among them, insist that health and education must be converted into ‘user-pays’ systems, and that the Medicare co-payment is a necessary ‘price signal’ to discourage frivolous use of the health care system—not that anyone has been able to find much evidence of that. The language of mutual obligation, self-reliance and personal responsibility is at play here, and the same terms run through the interim McClure Report, reflecting the language common to the Labor Party and the Liberals concerning the role of welfare in the lives of Australian citizens. Neoliberal hostility to ‘big government’, combined with the insistence that each of us is a rational economic actor who will achieve material success via the correct life choices, has done much already over the past twenty years to erode the social democratic idea of the welfare state. As federal Treasurer Joe Hockey told the right-wing Sydney Institute in a post-budget address, ‘Our duty is to help Australians to get to the starting line, while accepting that some will run faster than others … it is not the role of government to use the taxation and welfare system as a tool to “level the playing field”.’12
‘It’s an ideological push,’ says Brooks—one that steamrolls any notion that an advanced industrial economy should provide a living income for all its citizens, not just those who can run the fastest through an economic steeplechase. For single mothers, an increasingly punitive conception of welfare as the last resort of the least deserving is combined with gender inequalities that are only increased, not lessened, by financial hardship. Seventy per cent of the world’s poor are women—and the question remains: how, as a society, should we recognise and compensate for the labour of child-rearing and domestic work, which has almost always gone unpaid? Is full-time wage labour the only means of measuring social contribution that we are prepared to endorse?
There is a temptation to lay blame for Australia’s welfare erosion entirely at the feet of the Coalition, which ignores the fact that the Labor Party has been equally culpable in reversing the policies it set in place. It was the Whitlam government that introduced a Single Mothers’ Pension in 1973, and the single mothers I interviewed for this essay have felt particularly betrayed by the Labor Party and the country’s first female—supposedly feminist—prime minister. ‘I mean, Julia Gillard: I wrote to her and I said, “You are just destroying the Labor Party and the Labor Party’s values,”’ says Katrina Rae. ‘I was horrified with what she did.’
For her part, Rae is tired of the prejudice surrounding single mothers, a prejudice that feeds into populist, anti-welfare policies that do nothing to help poor and vulnerable women. ‘You’re a single parent—you must be the bottom of the barrel,’ she says, putting into words a common assumption, ‘but we’re not.’
- United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, letter dated 19 October 2012.
- Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, ‘Social Security Legislation Amendment (Fair Incentives to Work) Act 2012: Final Report’, March 2013.
- Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations References Committee Report, ‘The Adequacy of the Allowance Payment System for Jobseekers and Others’, November 2012.
- Matt Wade, ‘Miserly Newstart keeps unemployed further away from jobs’, Age, 23 May 2014.
- Housing NSW, ‘Information on Blue Mountains Housing Market’, 2009.
- John Hirst, ‘Welfare underpins the regular abuse of children’, Age, 16 January 2013.
- Sam Bungey, ‘The next stolen generation’, Saturday Paper, 17 May 2014
- Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, ‘Social Security Legislation Amendment (Fair Incentives to Work) Act 2012: Final Report’, March 2013.
- United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights, letter dated 19 October 2012.
- ‘A New System for Better Employment and Social Outcomes’, Interim Report of the Reference Group on Welfare Reform to the Minister for Social Services, June 2014.
- Cathy Alexander, ‘Budget crunch time: Should Tony Abbott pay for your children?’, Crikey, 29 April 2014
- Lenore Taylor, ‘Joe Hockey says, “We can’t promise equality” as he dismisses budget critics’, Guardian, 11 June 2014.