Employment participation is a mantra that the Rudd government inherited from Howard. With labour shortages possibly fuelling wage demands, increasing the participation rate for paid workers seems like a good idea.

So Minister O’Connor on July 1 sets up a task force with a seven week time frame. “The Taskforce will provide advice to Government on the barriers to greater participation in the work force, particularly for parents and mature-age job seekers,” says the Minister’s media release but this fails to make clear that the target is not generally those not in paid work but only hard-to-employ, seriously disadvantaged Welfare to Work target groups: mainly sole parents and those on Newstart over 55. The same people who were unfairly affected by the last government’s punitive assumptions that they needed income cuts and penalties to pressure them into paid work.

However, the prognosis for this oddly short term task force is dubious as the membership excludes the participation of anyone who has experience and expertise on those most affected by the program. A collection of mainly upper income males from business and some NGOs, with some similarly elite female members is supposed to fix a mess. It also has limited time, inadequate terms of reference and no-one to explain the needs of the target groups! While I know and have respect for most members of the Taskforce, they are being set up to fail as the problems lie in faulty program assumptions, not defective regulations.

The basic assumption that needs to be questioned is that exclusion from paid work is the main disadvantage people suffer and therefore a job will fix it. The problem for sole parents who are being targeted, and incidentally some older potential workers, is that the government fails to understand balancing paid work, care and family responsibilities.

Most sole parents in the two surveys (click here for one of them) we have done are willing to take on paid jobs, if they can also respond to their children’s needs, as often the sole parent involved. This means they are less likely than coupled families to be able to do the balancing act, so pushing them into jobs is both hard and risky for their children. A non-coercive model would work better, if it could offer the support many need to make parenting and paid work a feasible mix. This could be read into the media release — “In particular the Taskforce will consider whether there are better ways of balancing the increased participation of parents with their family and community” but the terms of reference and time limits make major changes unlikely.

So why just target these sole parents? The government claimed it is addressing the labour shortages that employers identify. This sounds logical until you realise that this is not about all mothers but just those who were receiving income support.

The policy is perverse as the bulk of mothers not in paid work are actually encouraged to stay out by payment of Family Tax benefit B of up to about $50 pw if they have no paid work, which is reduced once they earn $90 a week. Where is the logic of paying public money to keep some mother out and others in paid work?

The taskforce has three scheduled meetings. The Sydney one, which I attended on Friday, gave most people less than 24 hours notice and lasted for 90 minutes. The Seniors representative had flown from Brisbane and was angry when he found most problems facing older people seeking employment were not on the agenda, only those on Newstart.

There were multiple employer representatives because the government sees them as the problem: why won’t they employ solo mothers who need time off for child needs, who haven’t worked for many years and/or have to deal with a range of physical and emotional problems? ACCI and the other industry people were terse about being used to test job searcher compliance with job hunting requirements rather than recruiting against their needs.

It is puzzling why Minister O’Connor did not take the opportunity to seriously review one area of Howard errors. In a week where there has been a public commitment to a national child protection program, some recognition that removing extra pressure from some vulnerable families would have seemed appropriate.

There is ample evidence of stress and distress of the Welfare to Work sole parent cohort and their representatives deserve to be part of the Taskforce, rather than being excluded and just allowed to put their case.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.