Our superannuation system is intended to serve all Australian workers. However, I know there is a segment of the Australian working population that is being let down by the current structures and processes that allow us to access our benefits. This past month AIST has put the spotlight on how our super system meets the needs of our First Australians.
With an Indigenous super summit attended by government agencies, Indigenous financial counsellors and industry representatives followed by an outreach visit to East Arnhem Land I have a renewed focus on closing the gap that exists between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
At the Summit we heard of the difficulties financial counsellors faced on the front lines, helping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people access their super accounts. Travelling to East Arnhem Land two weeks later really drove home those challenges and made me feel deeply – a mixture of anger, frustration and disappointment – at how we were letting down a large group of people when it comes to accessing their own savings.
The outreach visit I embarked on was the Big Super Day Out organised by First Nations Foundation. We visited Gapuwiyak, Galiwinku, Milingimbi and Ramingining in far remote Australia and helped nearly 400 people find their super, consolidate multiple accounts, adjust their insurance arrangements, nominate beneficiaries and track down death benefits from loved ones who have passed.
Unlike the financial counsellors who do this work for their clients every day and typically struggle to deal with the more complex cases that present all sorts of hurdles, we had the Department of Human Services, the Australian Taxation Office and representatives from a number of super funds to help those who patiently waited for hours to see us.
Culturally, when a death occurs in an East Arnhem Land community, people with the same name as the deceased change their name. This may happen more than once in someone’s life time. The name can also not be spoken for a year. So, when you consider a long-term product such as superannuation, proof of identity and making a claim becomes tricky. Add to that the limited identification documents people have, the lack of access to photocopiers, internet or people to certify documents and you can begin to understand why we wanted to resolve every community member’s query then and there while we were in town.
The Big Day Out volunteers spent hours with local community members and made countless calls to super fund call centres for assistance. Overwhelmingly we found the call centre staff helpful. But we did experience lots of frustrations. Call centre staff with the right member-centred attitude and good training did everything they could to assist. But others were less willing to be patient and helpful.
The inconsistency of forms from one fund to the next slows things down. The inability to download all the forms you might need from a fund website was another added challenge. In some cases, a form couldn’t even be emailed to us on the same day.
But for those people wanting to claim a death benefit, the task was even harder. If the death occurred within the past year, the name cannot be spoken. Working with this challenge is easier when you meet people face-to-face than over the phone, but it the process is still sensitive and hard. Familial relationships are not always clear and traditional kinship structures are not recognised under Australian law. So, what option does this leave the bereaved relatives? An application for Letters of Administration and advertisements in the newspaper. All at a cost of thousands of dollars the family don’t have.
I left East Arnhem Land thinking there must be a better way. As an industry there are things we can do. We can better equip our call centre staff. We can change our language to make it more accessible. We can work towards standardised forms. We can reconsider the documentation we require and how that documentation is distributed? And we can look to law reform so that kinship structures have their proper recognition and expensive, bureaucratic and unnecessary obstacles are removed.
A bit more empathy, a bit more patience, a risk adjusted approach that is not one-size-fits-all and a commitment to outreach visits in partnership with government agencies would be a huge leap forward.