OPINION | The ability, or inability, to leave a situation of domestic violence can literally be a matter of life or death. Advocacy group White Ribbon states that an average of one woman a week is killed in Australia by a current or former partner.
Domestic and family violence is the principal cause of homelessness for women and their children, with 1 in 4 children exposed to domestic violence at some point in their lives.
Often, physical violence is accompanied by financial abuse, ranging from the abusive partner gradually acquiring access to and assuming control over bank accounts and other financial transactions, through to threatening behaviour such as forbidding the partner from working or monitoring and controlling their spending.
The former Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse (ADFVC), now part of the Gendered Violence Research Network at the University of New South Wales, performed research in 2011 on the impact of family violence on women’s financial security.
The results of this research established that the overwhelming majority of affected women were experiencing financial hardship, and that for women who were unable to stabilise their financial situation, the consequence was a downward spiral of debt and poverty.
The ADFVC concluded that financial hardship affects the safety of victims of family violence. It affects their decisions about leaving the relationship, their capacity to take up safety measures and their ability to seek treatment. Some women spoke about returning to partners because of being unable to support themselves and their children on their own.
On December 8, 2017, the government announced Treasury would conduct a review of the rules for early release of superannuation benefits, including in circumstances where the member is experiencing domestic violence. Given the rules governing early release of superannuation benefits have not changed substantially since 1997, the government indicated it was important to ensure the arrangements remain fit for purpose.
Treasury released an issues paper for public consultation, examining the key issues related to the early release of superannuation benefits. The consultation period is now closed and Treasury will make recommendations to the government in early 2018.
In view of this consultation, it is timely to revisit the question of whether it may be appropriate for a fund member – needing to leave a violent relationship or take measures to ensure their safety – to gain early access to their superannuation.
Access to financial resources is critically important to enable people experiencing family violence to remove themselves from harmful situations.
Ideally, adequate financial support to escape such circumstances should be achieved through the social-security framework, where immediate financial aid is provided to victims. However, given some of the acknowledged issues with the social-security system, coupled with factors such as rising rents and the resultant increase in the amounts required for residential bonds, early access to superannuation may sometimes be appropriate.
Consistent with the principles espoused in the Treasury consultation paper, early access to superannuation should be confined to circumstances of genuine hardship and used only as a last resort.
In responding to the consultation, the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia has supported the inclusion of domestic violence in the provisions for early release of superannuation, while acknowledging the need to balance this against the principle of preserving super benefits to provide income in retirement.
ASFA has suggested eligibility criteria be prescribed, applications be supported by evidence the member has accessed domestic violence support services, and the amount released be restricted to that sufficient to cover short-term living costs and a bond to obtain new accommodation.
Given the shocking statistics from White Ribbon, now is the time to reconsider early access to superannuation in circumstances of domestic violence. Women’s lives may well depend on it.