By Dr John Falzon
Last week we witnessed one of the most powerful articulations of gender equality by any prime minister. It was heartening that so many women felt the prime minister was giving voice to their experience of gender-based oppression and discrimination. And it was significant that we have reached a stage in our evolution as a nation where feminist analysis is not marginalised even though the reality of sexism is still with us.
But it was saddening that on the same day the Government and Opposition pushed through legislation to force more than 140,000 sole parents onto a Newstart Allowance that has seen no real increase since 1994.
There was no articulation of gender equality in this action. Rather, there was an expression of a warped political consensus that these households, predominantly headed by women, are fair game; that it is alright to put the boot into these families because they are purportedly outside the moral boundaries of the sacred labour market.
No one is questioning the logic of employment participation as a policy objective. Indeed, around 50 per cent of the affected sole parents are already in some form of paid work. We do, however, need to note the inaccuracy of describing these parents as ‘jobless’ or ‘workless’. This assumption bespeaks a real lack of understanding of the value of caring as a social good that goes way beyond the bounds of commodification.
The fundamental flaw of this legislation is that, though it will result in a saving of $728 million over four years, it will do nothing to assist sole parents into employment. It will result in a decline in the availability of some of the supports that might have been available on the Parenting Payment, and a weekly cut of between $65 and $115.
You don’t help people into jobs by forcing them into poverty. You don’t build people up by putting them down.
We can only hope that this cut does not result in homelessness for some of these families. A weekly cut of $100 could easily mean the difference between paying the rent and having to sleep in a car.
The Parliament’s own Human Rights Committee was unconvinced by the Government’s assurance that these families were not going to be pushed into poverty. In a worrying sign of the Government’s lack of respect for the Committee’s recommendations it pressed ahead with the legislation, employing the rhetoric that this was a measure designed to lift women out of poverty by moving them into paid work. If only that were true!
In an excellent analysis of that day of contradictions, writer Stephanie Convery declares that ‘standing up for women’s rights is not just about calling sexism for what it is’:
It’s about agitating for specific change. It’s about making concrete demands of society and of the government … I don’t care how many sharp speeches [Gillard] makes: her government is making life for some of the most vulnerable women in Australia even harder than it already is, and I want no part in it … If we want to stand up for women, let’s start by standing up for these women.
It is time to reject the consensus that it is okay to make people experiencing poverty bear the brunt of fiscal austerity; that a chunk of the surplus should be skimmed from the pockets of single mums and their children. It is time to lift the Newstart Allowance, and it is time to stop blaming people for being left out or pushed out.
As the groundbreaking 1996 Australian Bishops’ Social Justice Statement declared: ‘In the main, people are poor not because they are lazy or lacking in ability or because they are unlucky. They are poor because of the way society, including its economic system, is organised.’
Anti-Poverty Week (14–20 October) exists so that more of us will be impelled by solidarity and compassion to make poverty eradication a reality, by addressing its structural and historical causes; so that the mainstreaming of gender analysis will go hand-in-hand with the acknowledgement of the necessity of class analysis, and so that none of us become silent about the fact that poverty is caused by bad policy, not bad behaviour.
Dr John Falzon is the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council Chief Executive and a member of the Australian Social Inclusion Board. This article was first published on the Eureka Street news website during Anti-Poverty Week 2012.