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The story of the PM's mum must be a catalyst for change

23 August 2022 at 3:21 pm
Margaret Ambrose
What can we do all do to claw back the security and dignity of single mothers to ensure their children can succeed in whatever field they choose? Margaret Ambrose explains.

Margaret Ambrose | 23 August 2022 at 3:21 pm


The story of the PM's mum must be a catalyst for change
23 August 2022 at 3:21 pm

What can we do all do to claw back the security and dignity of single mothers to ensure their children can succeed in whatever field they choose? Margaret Ambrose explains. 

It was a rags-to-riches story that titillated the Australian public and through a long, drawn-out election campaign was re-told on high rotation by a Prime Ministerial candidate keen to address the concerns of the voting public who claimed they didn’t know who he was. 

Australia’s new Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, is the son of a single mother on the “invalid support pension” who grew up in public housing.

It’s a cause for celebration for generations of single mothers who know from experience that growing up in a single mother family is no barrier to achieving dreams. Could the tide finally now be turning for the largest cohort of Australian families living in poverty? And what can we do as businesses and community to ensure it is?

The past decade has been a dark time for single mothers. In 2012, the Gillard Government’s completion of a move begun by the Howard government in 2006 to lower the cut-off age for all recipients of the Parenting Payment Single to when the youngest child turns eight and move them to Newstart, saw thousands of families – already trying to support their families on an unlivable pension – see their income drop by up to $172 per fortnight.

Those decisions have led to 37 per cent of single mother families now living in poverty.

This callous treatment of single mother families was a leap backwards in the story of how Australia treats single mothers, and to understand it, we need to step back in time to 1962, when two women, pregnant and unmarried, were about to change Australian history.

As a young woman, Maryanne Albanese had dreams. She wanted to travel the world and have adventures, and working as an usher at a city theatre saved all she could to make those dreams come true.

In March 1962 Maryanne, along with her brother, boarded the Fairsky for a four-week ocean voyage from Sydney to Southampton. Also on board was a steward named Carlo Albanese and Maryanne and Carlo began a romance that continued when they arrived in England.

After seven months overseas, Maryanne arrived back in Sydney pregnant, with Carlos having told her he would not marry her because his intention was to marry a woman from his village in Italy in accordance with family expectations.

Unwed, pregnant and back home living with her parents, Maryanne set about concocting an elaborate story. She and Carlos Albanese had married overseas, but sadly the marriage was cut short when Carlos was killed in a car accident.

Maryanne presented to all who knew her as a grieving widow. She called herself Maryanne Albanese, despite never having legally changed her name, and even wore a wedding ring.

At the same time Maryanne was rewriting her personal history, another woman, 21-year-old Rosemary Hanson, a student at Melbourne University, also found herself pregnant and unmarried. 

Rosemary and her partner Bill had decided to marry but tragically, on his way to speak to her parents, Bill was killed in a car accident. 

At the time, many unwed mothers were being coerced into giving their children up for adoption, but like Maryanne Albanese, Rosemary refused.

A few years later and working as a journalist, Rosemary wrote an article for The Bulletin called Unmarried Mothers. It caught the eye of Parents without Partners, a support group for single parents who had lost their spouses, who began forwarding to her letters and enquiries from unwed mothers. Rosemary responded with information and support, eventually organising meetings. 

That’s how the Council of Single Mothers and their Children (CSMC), the organisation for which I work, was born.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider the courage of Rosemary and Maryanne in deciding to keep their babies and build a secure, happy life for them.

At the time there was a strong stigma attached to single parenting, a stigma that was transferred to their children, who would go on to endure social scorn and discrimination throughout their lives.

Children born outside wedlock were called illegitimate, a legal term that excluded them from many of the rights afforded other children.

Stigma also had financial implications. Although widows received a pension, there were none for unmarried mothers. Single mothers weren’t entitled to subsidised childcare, which would enable them to provide for their children. 

Women who were coerced into relinquishing their children were told keeping their children would condemn them to a life of poverty, and with lack of government support, few organisations providing resources or relief, and facing widespread social condemnation, sadly it was true.

Suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, which meant she couldn’t work, Maryanne Albanese was able to receive the “invalid pension” and was eventually able to move from her parents’ house into a social housing unit, which to a young Albo, became home.

It was a tough road for Maryanne, struggling to survive on a small pension and living with significant health issues.

During the 1970s and 80s, positive change started trickling through, including welfare payments extending to “never married single mothers” (once the baby was six months old), on a near equal basis with widows, as well as the abolition of illegitimacy.

Thanks to strong advocacy from CSMC’s founders and those who followed, single mothers and their children have many more rights than Rosemary and Maryanne. These days, single mothers are eligible for Centrelink payments, and subsidised childcare, and any business looking to discriminate against a single mother had better have their lawyer on speed dial. 

Yet, in the past decades there has been little work done on the issue of single mother families and poverty and there have been great leaps backwards, such as the Howard and Gillard governments parenting payment decisions.

While more financial supports are in place for single mothers, they remain essentially unlivable. Since the Whitlam Government introduced the Supporting Mother’s Benefit in 1973 (at that time, equivalent to a pension despite its different name), the cost of living has continued to rise but the rate of Centrelink has not kept up. 

In addition, single mothers are now burdened with punitive ‘mutual obligation’ requirements which come with additional expense such as traveling to meetings, make finding employment difficult, and which serve little purpose other than to torment and humiliate women. 

The systemic humiliation of single mothers today is reminiscent of the early days of the parenting payment, when single mothers would receive visits from Department of Social Security officers checking for evidence of a man having been in the home and coercing them into saying they were in a relationship by telling them that women who had sex without a relationship were sluts or prostitutes.

These days, too, while it’s unlawful to deny mothers employment on the basis of their marital status, the lack of employment opportunities that accommodate the needs of single mothers, pretty much does the same job.

Similarly, while the number of people requiring social housing has increased, the number of dwellings has not. Today there are nearly 30,000 children among the 100,000 Victorians on the public housing waiting list who are missing out on the security that affordable housing affords.

Children of one in three single mother families are now growing up in poverty. There’s a mountain of research that tells us that poverty in early life leads to social isolation, diminished education and employment opportunities, and poor health outcomes, and can set the course for a lifetime of disadvantage.

What the stories of Maryanne Albanese and Rosemary Hanson (now West) tell us perhaps, is that single mothers and their children can be and are as remarkable as any others. What the facts tell us is that the likelihood of ever reaching their potential diminishes with poverty.

So, the question now is, what can we do all do to claw back the security and dignity of single mothers to ensure their children can succeed in whatever field they choose?

While advocates for single mothers will continue to address the poverty forced upon single mother families today, including advocating for single mothers to remain on Parenting Payment Single until their youngest child turns 16, and increasing the stock of public housing, we need support.

For businesses, that means recognising the value of single mothers in the workforce and implementing models of work that accommodate parenting responsibilities. 

For the community, it requires that we see the difficulties faced by single mothers and their children now as a continuation of old stigmas and moral judgements and call for parliamentarians to work together to give every parent and every child a fair chance.

Margaret Ambrose  |  @ProBonoNews

Margaret Ambrose is a journalist and communications specialist, and digital communications coordinator with the Council of Single Mothers and their Children.

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