The government has been urged to immediately discontinue its signature welfare program until it is significantly overhauled after hearing it unfairly targets Indigenous Australians and single mothers.
The Senate Community Affairs References Committee recommended the ParentsNext program "not continue in its current form", and undergo a major overhaul to address the structural barriers to employment faced by participants.
It also recommends department staff undergo cultural sensitivity training and gain a better understanding of family violence.
The inquiry follows blistering criticism that the program breaches Australia's human rights obligations by unfairly targeting disadvantaged women and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, according to the Australian Human Rights Commission.
The ParentsNext welfare program was designed to prepare parents with young children to return to work.
Participants are subject to a demerit point system which incurs financial penalties for any participant that fails to meet their obligations.
One of the program’s aims is to close the gap in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ employment. Around 19 per cent of ParentsNext participants are Indigenous, with 94 per cent of those women and 69 per cent single mothers.
Antoinette Braybrook, head of Australia's peak body for Family Violence Prevention Legal Services, who gave evidence at the inquiry said the program is setting up Indigenous women to fail.
"No amount of tinkering around the edges will make a fundamentally flawed program better, especially when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations were not involved in its design or implementation,” she said.
“Instead of setting up programs that make life harder for our women, we urge the Government and Opposition to work with us to develop services that value the unpaid work our women do, and that support – not punish – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander parents."
Australian Greens Senator spokesperson on Family and Community Services, Senator Rachel Siewert, says the program must be made voluntary and its ‘punitive’ system be abolished.
“One of the key flaws and sources of distress for sole parents is the constant threat that a payment will be suspended or cancelled,” she said.
“Let’s be clear, this program takes away choice and control from women.”
The inquiry found twenty of the thirty ‘intensive stream locations’ were specifically selected for the high rate of Indigenous recipients of parenting payments, providing a basis for ‘direct discrimination on the basis of race.’
“Human rights experts do not believe that this direct discrimination, which specifically targets Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to participate in a scheme which limits their rights to social security, has a rational connection to the program's aims,” the report read.
It also addressed the issue of discrimination against women, saying “the Australian Human Rights Commission submitted that the Statement of Compatibility's explanation of why Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people had been targeted only identifies their disadvantage, but does not explain how ParentsNext will address it,” and further that, “this direct discrimination could be permitted if it constituted a 'special measure'—that is, a positive measure introduced to achieve substantive equality—but that the Australian Government had not designed ParentsNext as such.
Earlier this month, Jobs Minister Kelly O’Dwyer defended the controversial program saying it had the ‘right intentions,’ and instead would consider penalising providers who breached the rules.