Income support for single parents has been slashed by up to $140 a fortnight as part of a new “fair incentives to work” bill adopted last year, similar to a 2006 law designed by the former John Howard government.
Insidious in nature, the new rules will move many sole parents onto Newstart once their youngest child turns eight. The federal government says this will encourage parents to find work.
But it may conflict with state-based child protection laws.
In New South Wales, the Department of Community Services (DOCS) recommends that children under 12 should not be left home alone, or that those under 18 should not be left to care for younger siblings.
DOCS and police have the power to remove children from their home or charge parents with neglect if it is believed children are left in a dangerous situation. But if single parents are being forced to fulfill work test requirements in order to be paid income support, the question is whether the government must meet a duty of care to the parents’ children.
This is just one problem sole parents may face when changes to their income at a federal level conflicts with state laws. Four working parents were charged in Queensland recently for leaving a child at home alone when the parent was either at the shops or returning from work.
A study commissioned by Oxfam as part of its “Keep Them Safe” campaign found many single mothers had no one to rely on to supervise their children. Sixty-two percent relied on grandparents or other family members to care for children in an emergency. But work commitments and having no one to help care for children were key reasons why mothers were forced to leave kids at home alone.
While these laws are ostensibly about protecting children, community organisations and campaign groups like the Single Parents Action Group (SPAG) fear they could be used against working-class families that speak out against government policies.
SPAG believes this is especially true if the Coalition is elected in September. The Social Security Legislation Amendment (Fair Incentives to Work) Bill 2012 must be reversed before the election.
How can the Australian Labor Party be holding a Royal Commission into child sex abuse or apologise to mothers whose children were stolen at birth for adoption when these laws, as read, translate into the removal of children into state care simply because their working single parent was fulfilling their work test obligations under the law.
The federal government has a duty of care to these children and their families. For many children, the safest place for them is with their families, not state care.
[A rally to defend single parents against these attacks will take place as part of the event: "Stand Against Allowing Australian Families to Live in Poverty” in Sydney on April 13 from 11am at Mawson Park, Campbelltown.]