ParentsNext: The ‘choice’ you have when there’s no choice

Grandstanding about women’s issues has become a cynical political strategy for politicians and the business elite. Pin on a white ribbon, trumpet the corporate feminism “women can do anything” line and denounce violence against women while you cut penalty rates and single parent payments and take a sledgehammer to funding for life-saving health and social services that women rely on.

Or just vomit up inane clichés like this one from prime minister Scott Morrison last week in the wake of Liberal front-bencher Kelly O’Dwyer’s resignation:

“I support her choice. I support all women’s choices. I want women to have more choices and all the independence that comes with that.”

It seems someone at the Department of Jobs and Small Business missed this memo from Scott about choices and independence for “all women” when designing the new welfare program, ParentsNext. 

Over the last month, sickening stories have emerged about poor and working class women with children under the age of six being forced to hand over sensitive medical and personal information to private agencies or risk having their payments cut off under the ParentsNext scheme. Women have also been penalised for failing to attend designated activities. 

Take your kids to swimming lessons or have you parenting payments slashed by a ParentsNext private case manager. Hand over medical records about your mental health or the payments get the chop. Miss a compulsory session of story time at the library because you’re sick and you’ll rack up demerit points in an Orwellian system of punishment that’s got about as much to do with choice and independence as being hit by lightning.

In a series of media exposes recently, scores of women have reported being forced to detail traumatising experiences of domestic violence first to Centrelink and then to outsourced ParentsNext providers in front of their children, or sign over access to their medical records against their will, or participate in employment and study programs when they have sick or disabled kids to look after.

And while the government spruiks the program as optional, many women have no choice. Early school leavers and those deemed to be “highly disadvantaged” by the government can be forced to take part. An entire “intensive stream” is aimed at dragooning Indigenous women into this punitive program. Here’s what the Department of Jobs and Small Business website says about parents forced to participate in ParentsNext:

“The Intensive Stream operates in the existing 10 locations and 20 new locations with a high proportion of Parenting Payment recipients who are Indigenous.”

How’s that for choices and independence for “all women”! If you’re an Aboriginal parent or child, you do not get to choose whether or not you participate in the government’s program of social engineering. 

As in all things that governments and big business do to force people to acquiesce to a deeply unjust, anti-human and class-divided system, we are told that participating in welfare regimes like ParentsNext is in our best interests and will afford us more opportunities in life. 

The reality is the opposite. It’s nothing but lies and spin forced on poor and working class women by the likes of Kelly O’Dwyer in her role as Industrial Relations minister, or Julie Bishop and Michaelia Cash as former defenders of corporate criminals and now highly paid representatives for big business. 

Choices and independence exist in bountiful supply if you’re a woman on the very small and very rich side of the class divide, or one of their male counterparts like Scott Morrison spruiking the lie that all women are equal. 

In a world where Julie Bishop is given a $25,000 pair of Jimmy Choo shoes by a corporate mate while on the same day an Aboriginal woman has her below-subsistence parenting payment cut for not taking her kids to story time, there’s no such thing as choice and independence for “all women”.