December 6, 2022

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Single mothers hope Anthony Albanese’s upbringing might spur change | Australian election 2022

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It’s late on Saturday night and a jubilant Anthony Albanese is on stage at an RSL club in Sydney’s inner west with a message for families like Leilani Sinclair’s.

“It says a lot about our great country that a son of a single mum who was a disability pensioner, who grew up in public housing down the road in Camperdown, can stand before you tonight as Australia’s prime minister,” he says, emotion etched on his face.

Meanwhile, Sinclair is in Canberra with her two boys, settling into a new home on the outskirts of the capital, about 20 minutes’ drive from parliament house.

Like Maryanne Albanese, Sinclair is a single mother. Her sons are 12 and eight. She moved into public housing in Canberra this month after two years in crisis accomodation and four long years on the waiting list.

Sinclair hopes her boys will have options: something lacking in her life on the jobseeker payment, paid at the sub-poverty-line base rate of $46 a day – a benefit the new government has not committed to raising.

“All I want for my kids is that they get an education,” she says.

“I don’t care if they want to become street cleaners, as long as they have the ability to do whatever they want.”

In one context, the challenges young Anthony Albanese and his mother faced in their council housing in Camperdown in the 1960s and 70s were far greater than what they would face today.

While there is still stigma, it’s milder than what existed in the 1960s and 1970s, when Maryanne was raising a future prime minister who had been told his very-much-alive father had died.

But just as society was different, so was the Australian welfare state.

Albanese grew up in the same home where Maryanne had been born in 1936. He has spoken of his first campaign against a push to sell off his home. He was still a boy; the campaign was a success.

Anthony Albanese outside his childhood home in Camperdown, Sydney in 2020. Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

If they had been evicted, it is likely the family would not have faced the long waits that are common for those seeking social housing today.

Sinclair and her two boys waited four years for access to public housing, while research suggests some wait as many as 10 years, if not much longer.

The University of New South Wales housing research and policy professor Hal Pawson says that even in the 1970s, when the situation did start to change, the term “waiting list was a valid one”.

“If you qualified you were put in a simple queue … nowadays we still talk about waiting lists but most allocations are given to people who are given priority.”

That’s a reflection of the fact the “relationship between supply and demand is so much more squeezed now”.

“There’s been a reduction of over 40% in the real capacity of the social housing system [since the 1990s],” he says. “That has consequences for your single parent.”

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Maryanne Albanese received the invalid pension, now called the disability support pension.

“My mum, because she wasn’t diagnosed [rheumatoid arthritis] and didn’t get the assistance that she needed for her health … had to come down the steps every day, every morning, on her bum, because she couldn’t walk down the steps,” Albanese said in one of his most moving performances of the federal election campaign.

Prof Peter Whiteford, a social security expert at the Australian National University, says the disability pension is worth much more in real terms than it was in the 1970s.

While it is more generous, it is still below the Henderson poverty line. And, as Whiteford adds: “It’s a lot harder to get the disability support pension than it was back then.”

The Whitlam government introduced a version of parenting payment known as the “supporting parents benefit”, but in the Howard and Gillard years there was a push to move single mothers into work by cutting their benefits earlier.

Sinclair was on the parenting payment but was pushed onto jobseeker when her youngest turned eight last year, cutting her income by $189.20 a fortnight.

“It doesn’t reflect the realities of having children at all, having two boys, they eat like bulldozers anyway,” she says, genuinely with no pun intended.

“Just because he turns eight doesn’t mean he costs me less. He costs me more.”

Whiteford points out that, in real terms, jobseeker payments are not that much more generous than at the end of the Whitlam government, though there have been increases to family payments for those with children that have made some difference.

Terese Edwards, the chief executive of the National Council of Single Mothers and Their Children, is even more scathing of the system, saying: “It’s bleaker now than what it was in 1973.”

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Sinclair works casually as an administrative assistant, but her hours fluctuate. She can’t work full time after suffering a brain aneurysm about a decade ago that saps her energy.

“That sort of led to the breakdown of my marriage and my job and all that kind of stuff,” she says. “And then I ended up moving out of the house I had, a mortgaged house.

“I moved into my dad’s place, I was there for about three years, and I applied for housing and, silly me being naive … when I handed my paperwork in I didn’t get a stamp or a receipt. So it got lost.

“About 12 months later I did it again. My dad needed his house back, and I had nowhere to go.”

Sinclair ended up at Canberra’s Mackillop House, a Catholic refuge for women and children.

“It was only supposed to be for three months, but I ended up being there for almost two years. Now, I’ve finally got out.”

Leilani Sinclair outside her public housing home in Canberra
Leilani Sinclair outside the home in Canberra she moved into recently after four years on the public housing waiting list. Photograph: The Guardian

The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia Survey shows sole parents face higher poverty levels than any other household type, twice that of those in couple-parent families. About 30% of single-parent families in Australia live in poverty.

Since her benefits were cut significantly last year, Sinclair says she can no longer afford to buy meat like lamb or steak for dinner, and the kids no longer get lunch orders at school.

“Fresh fruit and meat are usually the killers,” she says, “[It’s been] more canned things and frozen veggies and stuff like that.”

Her car broke down recently, so she’s been borrowing her father’s to take the children to school while she awaits a no-interest loan from a charity. She had already cut down on travel due to petrol prices.

Now that she’s finally in stable housing, it’s the base rate of the jobseeker payment that really frustrates her.

“It’s people living in poverty, but beyond that, we have no choice,” she says. “It’s just too low.”

Sinclair speaks of a cyclical nature to her mental wellbeing that is tied to her fortnightly pay cycle. Towards the ends of the two weeks, “I get pretty down, pretty flat, which affects the kids I guess”.

“They see it and feel it from me.”

But Sinclair is resilient, as are her boys.

“Ultimately they’ve just been helping me,” she says. “Now they’ve got a place, they’re happy.

“My kids aren’t going without, they’ve got everything they need. I don’t have the money to buy them special shoes, but they’re not dirty or feral kids. I don’t care if I have to sleep in the gutter, as long as they don’t have to.”

Sinclair was one of the respondents to a survey of 300 single mothers created by Edwards, who has spent years campaigning for a better deal for Australia’s single mothers and their children.

In the survey, which Edwards plans to send to the new prime minister, some mothers plead with the government to increase welfare support, describing skipping meals so they can feed their children, using Afterpay to pay for groceries, experiences of family violence and the fear of a return to homelessness.

Edwards believes Albanese’s upbringing might spur him to make a difference.

“Throughout the campaign, but particularly in the victory speech, I felt those words,” she says. “They went to my soul.”

While Edwards believes the symbolism of Albanese’s rise is important, she adds: “When you skip meals, or you know you’re not feeding your kids the most nutritional food, or when you can’t sleep because you’ve got bills you don’t want to open, action is incredibly important.”

She calls for an increase to unemployment benefits, a reversal of the rule pushing single parents onto the dole when their child turns eight, the abolition of the ParentsNext program and action on the evasion of child support payments (currently worth $1bn).

Labor has so far been non-committal at best on questions on welfare payments, but Edwards is pleased about the government’s commitments to build 20,000 social housing units and 10,000 affordable homes and to scrap the cashless debit card.

As Albanese concluded his speech on Saturday, he turned back to families like Sinclair’s.

“I hope there are families in public housing watching this tonight,” he said. “Because I want every parent to be able to tell their child, ‘No matter where you live or where you come from, in Australia the doors of opportunity are open to us all.’”

Sinclair says she does have a bit of hope now, “having a PM that does have a bit of knowledge, a bit of understanding”.

“But ultimately, it feels like this constant uphill battle and we keep getting kicked back down. We get support, and then we don’t. We think things are going to get better, but then they don’t.”

Sinclair heard the new prime minister’s message loud and clear.

She will soon learn if Albanese has heard hers.



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