‘Punitive’ work program for vulnerable parents to be axed, support promised

Parents with young children will no longer risk losing support under a punitive program to be scrapped in Tuesday’s federal budget, but the government has ruled out some changes that would further enhance women’s workforce participation.

Minister for Finance and Women Katy Gallagher said the government would announce several measures to encourage more women to work, but this budget could not accommodate all the measures for change that have been requested.

Minister for Women and Finance Katy Gallagher said, “You can’t do everything in one budget, in one term.”

Alex Ellinghausen

“The work around how we address equality for women and economic equality for women is ongoing. You can’t do everything in one budget, in one term,” she said.

“You will be hard-pressed to find a government that’s done as much in 12 months as we’re going to do to try and shift the dial and lift women, and give them the opportunities that we all deserve.”

Among the big-ticket items the government’s hand-picked Women’s Economic Equality Taskforce has called for is an end to the childcare activity test, which calculates the number of subsidised hours of care families are entitled to each fortnight based on their hours of activity, such as work or volunteering.

Gallagher said any changes to the childcare activity test had been shelved while the Productivity Commission and the early years strategy examined the early childcare and education system.

“We think that needs to be considered in light of those pieces of work, so you won’t see it in this budget,” she said.

But she confirmed the controversial ParentsNext program – designed to get vulnerable parents with children aged under six into work – would end on July 1 next year. In the interim, families on the program would not lose support payments for failing to meet targets.

A report last year on domestic violence and poverty by Professor Anne Summers noted examples of parents on the program being forced to attend activities, such as swimming lessons, library story times and playgroups, or do further education despite already holding qualifications.

“The administration of the program is criticised for being capricious, unrealistic and often insensitive,” the Summers report said.

Gallagher said the “very punitive program” would be replaced by one supporting vulnerable young parents.

“We’re not walking away from this cohort, but we don’t want it linked to you losing money,” she said.

Treasury secretary Steven Kennedy told the government last month that tax disincentives were also holding women back – some are losing up to 80 per cent of an extra day’s work to income tax, reduced family benefit payments and childcare fees.

In a speech, Kennedy revealed the government’s employment white paper, due in the second half of the year, would probably explore options to reduce the financial penalties faced by women and people on welfare who wanted to pick up additional days of work.

Gallagher said there would be funding in the budget to support women facing hurdles to work and study but work in that space was ongoing.

“We haven’t been able to do everything everybody wants,” she said.

Next week’s budget will feature a women’s budget paper, and Gallagher said people should expect to see measures throughout the government portfolios.

“There’s huge opportunities in particular sectors in the economy for growth, and I think part of the challenge is to make sure that women are getting a fair slice of that as well,” she said.

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