Remote indigenous Australians are having a poor experience in getting their superannuation entitlements. Tom Garcia, chief executive of the Australian Institute Of Superannuation Trustees, calls on superannuation funds to make a difference.

There was plenty of discussion around the opening up of China’s equity markets, finding value in emerging markets and whether another “Lehman” moment is heading our way at our recent Australian Super Investment (ASI) conference in Alice Springs.

But for many delegates, being in the centre of our country and having the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding about remote Aboriginal communities proved to be the conference high point.

For some time now, various super industry working groups have been working with ASIC to look at ways the industry as a whole can improve superannuation outcomes for indigenous Australians, including the estimated 20 per cent who live in remote communities.

A lot of this discussion has occurred in the corporate environment of Melbourne and Sydney where many funds are located.  Being on the ground in Alice Springs allowed delegates to hear first-hand from financial counsellors and members of remote communities about the many challenges they face in regards to superannuation.

And these challenges are significant. In the time it takes to process a super payout for members of some remote communities, you could almost walk from Alice Springs to Melbourne. The journey would be certainly less frustrating.

On the second day of the conference, Carolyn Cartwright, took a break from her “day job” of visiting the Anangu communities in the APY Lands, located five to six hundred kilometres from Alice Springs, to speak to delegates about the ongoing struggle that remote Aboriginal communities experience in accessing superannuation, including consolidating lost super.

As the manager of the Aboriginal financial educational program – MoneyMob Talkabout, she described how  processing a single payout typically involves the use of interpreters (English is a second, if not third or fourth tongue in many remote communities); appointments with specialist doctors; requests for clinical records from hospitals; searching births, deaths and marriage records, and getting police to sign documents.  One Anangu woman faced a 450k journey and a $300 bus fare to personally authorise the transfer of clinical records from Alice Springs hospital to Adelaide just to satisfy her fund’s requirement for a birth record.

Financial literacy is also a problem. In the APY Lands there are no banks, insurance companies, car yards, post-offices, travel agents, stock markets nearby which Anangu can regularly access to acquire and use a range of financial vocabulary, knowledge and skills. Most of these financial concepts do not have original language equivalents – so explaining the concept of superannuation  – which as we know is difficult for many non-indigenous Australians to grasp – is also very challenging.

As Carolyn explained, furnishing and verification of ID is difficult for Aboriginal people, especially those living in remote areas. Many older Aboriginal people do not have birth documents and were born in the bush. Many Aboriginal names and birthdates were recorded wrongly, further complicating the process of identification for the purposes of accessing super.

Moreover, Aboriginal kinships do not neatly fit into western conceptions of family relationships, which can complicate the process for nomination of beneficiaries and distribution of death benefits.

And death benefit and TPD claims are particularly important for remote Aboriginal communities.

In a separate presentation from health worker, Sarah Brown, and Aboriginal elder, Marlene Spencer Nampitjinpam,  delegates heard that life expectancies on remote communities are significantly lower than average and that there is a high incidence of chronic illness, particularly renal failure.

Sarah founded the Western Desert Dialysis Project and overcame all sorts of obstacles and opposition to bring dialysis services to remote communities so that patients could stay with their families.  Like Carolyn she is aware of the enormous struggle faced by members of remote communities in accessing super and agrees there is an urgent need for an industry-wide solution.

So what might this solution be? While the financial counsellors we met during our stay in Alice Springs were generally appreciative of the work that many super funds are doing to help process claims or consolidate super from members of remote communities, a shared frustration was that each fund takes a different approach, particularly around identification requirements. So while one fund might require a statutory declaration to verify a birth record, another requires something different.

The answer may lie in moving to a system involving universal ID criteria. Given the issues around English as a second language a greater focus on visual communication in superannuation may also help. Notwithstanding the difficulties that some remote communities face with internet access, it’s also possible identification technology could provide a solution.

This year’s ASI left trustee directors and fund staff with a much deeper understanding of some of the problems facing indigenous Australians.  Just as a group of health workers had to think ‘outside the box’ to bring life-prolonging dialysis to remote communities, our industry needs a new approach to improve superannuation outcomes.

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