Could Australia’s Labor government lose crucial votes for its desired seat on the UN Security Council because of its failure to consider the human rights of sole parents?

Despite advice from its Human Rights Committee to delay the legislation, the government intends to introduce a bill to cut some sole parent payments quite drastically. This action has prompted a coalition of agencies campaigning to stop proposed cuts to sole parent payments to appeal to some UN mechanisms to help stop the changes. If other UN member states became aware of Australia’s possible human rights breach, this could affect their vote in the General Assembly.

The government’s intention is to start the cuts from January. But this rapid introduction goes against the recommendations of the first significant report of its newly established Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights. The committee asked the government to delay the bill until another inquiry into the adequacy of Newstart reports later this year so the adequacy of the payment could be determined.

The proposed delay is for two main reasons: the possibility that the lower Newstart payments are so inadequate they potentially risk violating human rights under article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights; and the lack of clear evidence that cutting income had been a useful incentive for the 40,000 sole parents already pushed onto the lower payment under previous cuts.

The committee also noted that, if the intention was to create equity between the two sole parent groups, those grandfathered and the newer sole parents on the lower payment, this could be done by putting the latter group onto the higher payment.

The problem is the legislation will substantially reduce the welfare payments of more than 140,000 sole parents, putting them below the poverty line. The cuts are substantial, from $60 to $100 per week less than already inadequate incomes. The government claims the change may force welfare recipients into more effective job hunting, but the committee found no evidence this was happening.

Human rights advocates, women and welfare groups are particularly concerned about the government’s failure to take this report from its brand-new human rights mechanism seriously. The establishment of this joint committee was the sop offered instead of a Human Rights Act, when that was seen as too difficult. The promise was the joint parliamentary mechanism would be taken seriously as it was set up to review legislation and report on whether it conformed to our international and local obligations. Now the government is undermining its commitment and apparent good intentions by failing to take the committee’s clear advice.

The Australian Council of Social Service and other leading Australian community welfare groups and human rights experts are campaigning to stop the legislation, sending an urgent appeal to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights to prevent the government from pressing ahead. A press release dispatched on Friday said:

“Australian Council of Social Service; Human Rights Law Centre, National Welfare Rights Network, St Vincent de Paul Society, National Council for Single Mothers and their Children, Women’s Legal Services NSW … and the Human Rights Law Centre today sent an urgent communication to UN Special Rapporteur Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmon over the Federal Government’s decision to bring on legislation in the Senate next week, against the advice of two separate Parliamentary Committees.”

Some women’s groups, who have joined the campaign, are discussing whether to go further. One option would be to contact some missions and delegates to the UN General Assembly. Publicising potential Australian human rights breaches may not benefit Australia’s image with UN members, particularly at this juncture when the Labor government has spent millions trying to convince countries to vote us onto the Security Council. Women’s rights have been a big plus for Australia in the past so making delegates aware of this issue raises questions of how such policies would sit with Australia’s commitment to the UN.

Peter Fray

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