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Mutual obligation as human rights abuse

By Peter Saunders - posted Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS) has written to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights drawing attention to what it believes is a serious breach of international human rights laws right here in Australia.

Has the civilian population come under bombardment from government-backed militia, like it is in Syria? Has the opposition leader been arrested and tortured, as in Ukraine? Has a woman had her 7-month-old foetus forcibly aborted in a state hospital after refusing to pay a fine for breaching the one-child policy, as it happened this week in China?

Not quite. ACOSS is outraged that single parents with children older than 8 and have been claiming Parenting Payment for many years are now being told to look for work. If they fail to find a job, they will have their fingernails pulled out with pliers and ... er, sorry, no, they will be switched to a different welfare payment, Newstart Allowance, which is less generous than Parenting Payment. This, according to the ACOSS letter, constitutes ‘a violation of human rights, as defined by the core United Nations treaties.’


It’s important to be clear what the government is exactly proposing. In 2006, new rules were introduced requiring recipients of Parenting Payment to look for employment once their youngest child turned 8 (before that, single parents had the right to stay on welfare until their youngest child reached school-leaving age, by which time most parents had lost any skills and motivation they may once have had and become almost unemployable). The new rule only applied to fresh applicants, however. Those who were already claiming Parenting Payment were exempt. It is this exemption that the government now wishes to withdraw and save taxpayers about $685 million over the next four years.

In other words, we are talking about people whose children are at least 8 years old and who have been living on welfare benefits without a break for at least the last six years. ACOSS believes there could be as many as 100,000 of them. The government thinks it would sensible to require these people to look for work, just like all other parents do. But ACOSS thinks this breaches some inviolable human right for single parents to stay on parenting welfare payments until their child turns 16 as they would have been able to do if the government had not acted.

This ACOSS letter is ill-advised for so many reasons:

  • It is probably wrong as a matter of law (if ACOSS seriously doubts this, let them try running it past the judges at the Human Rights Court in The Hague);
  • It debases the language of human rights and is insulting to people around the world who are suffering from real ‘human rights abuses’;
  • It tries to subvert the democratic process by getting judges to overrule a decision taken by an elected government rather than campaigning politically to win over public opinion;
  • It ignores the ‘rights’ of taxpayers to have their hard-earned money redirected only to people who really need it;
  • It shows no regard for the long-term interests of welfare parents themselves, who will live more worthwhile lives (and will bequeath their children a better future) if they are encouraged to support themselves rather than relying on benefits for years;
  • It offers no good rationale for why people who started claiming Parenting Payment before 2006 should continue to be treated differently to more recent claimants; and
  • It is insufferably pompous.

The ACOSS letter is signed by 15 welfare and human rights activists and organisations with a long track record of opposing almost any welfare reform with the most breathtaking hyperbole. They include:

  • the feminist academic, Elspeth McInnes, who thinks asking single parents with school-age children to look for part-time work leads to ‘homelessness and starvation for infants and mothers and more beggars in the street';
  • the executive director of Catholic Social Services, whose predecessor (Joe Caddy) said that requiring single parents of school-age children to look for part-time work is ‘staggering in its harshness’;
  • John Falzon of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, who thinks welfare-to-work schemes force people to ‘participate in the very structures that produce their poverty.’

ACOSS is Australia's leading social policy pressure group. It should not allow itself to be used in this way.

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About the Author

Peter Saunders is a distinguished fellow of the Centre for Independent Studies, now living in England. After nine years living and working in Australia, Peter Saunders returned to the UK in June 2008 to work as a freelance researcher and independent writer of fiction and non-fiction.He is author of Poverty in Australia: Beyond the Rhetoric and Australia's Welfare Habit, and how to kick it. Peter Saunder's website is here.

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