• Emily Coogan

The government’s domestic violence scheme wasn’t just misguided, it was sexist

Last week, the government announced a plan to allow victims of domestic and family violence to prematurely withdraw $10,000 from their superannuation to help them flee harm. On face value, the plan seems sound. At second glance, it’s nothing short of inflammatory and has the potential to further endanger already vulnerable women.

The measures were first proposed in 2018 and have been in the works since. Ironically, the plan was officially announced by Minister for Superannuation, Financial Services and the Digital Economy Jane Hume, just one day after the country saw thousands rally to denounce the government’s inaction on sexual violence at the March 4 Justice.

Family violence organisations cautioned against the plan, advising that it will likely do more harm than good for victims, particularly women. What the government is forgetting is that women’s economic stability is already threatened by virtue of patriarchy and the existing gender wage gap. The policy, which is now under review, has the potential to exacerbate that instability.

Domestic violence disproportionately affects women, with one in six women experiencing physical or sexual violence at the hands of their partner. The plan falls short on a number of fronts, most notably being that one in three women don’t have money sitting in a superannuation fund. On top of the third of women already left behind by the scheme, 36 per cent of women with disabilities affecting their employability experience domestic violence. The inequalities of the labour market are but one issue, as non-working victims, those on parental leave, and migrant women are forgotten. The proposal is also futile for the 30% of mothers who stay at home and cannot make regular super contributions. Many victims attempting to flee cannot afford to do so, and don’t have super to tap into in the first place.

Women who are fortunate enough to earn super acquire 40% less than men on average.

In lieu of more constructive measures, such as legislating paid domestic violence leave and decreasing the threshold under which superannuation isn’t payable, the latest plan erodes the very premise of super. The long term impacts of such attrition increase the risk of poverty in retirement. The fastest growing group of homeless people is women over 55, and single women in retirement are more likely to live in poverty than single men of the same age bracket. In an area that is already failing female victims, allowing those affected by family violence to withdraw money from super would mean they retire with even less.

Requiring victims to ransack their super instead of providing genuine social safety nets works to shift the burden onto victims. Women should not need to use their super as an emergency bank account, and they certainly should not go into poverty to escape violence. The superficial policy is proof of the government’s refusal to commit to understanding the true impact of the structural disadvantages that women face.

Although presented as a “last resort”, the government failed to recognise and provide appropriate steps between fleeing violent relationships and raiding your super. Asking women to fund their own escape is lazy and does not address real social mechanisms that disparage victims of domestic violence. By ignoring the economic and social realities of women, the plan has the potential to entrench disadvantage.

Backlash to the prospective policy was amplified by the current wave of allegations of sexual violence emerging from parliamentary offices around the country. Minister for Superannuation, Jane Hume, stated that if safeguards could not be incorporated to alleviate concerns, the policy would be discarded.

Thankfully, during Senate estimates on Monday Marise Payne, the Minister for Women, confirmed the government had cancelled plans to progress the policy following feedback from superannuation funds, legal groups and family violence experts.

Payne provided significant commentary on the axing of the prospective policy, "We absolutely had no intention in 2018, when the matter was raised and advanced, of worsening outcomes which we are committed to improving."

While the result is pleasing and has been relatively swift, a series of questions reverberate throughout the ordeal. How did the individuals in our highest offices fail to identify the blatant and disproportionate impacts of this policy on survivors? Why should those fleeing circumstances of physical, emotional, psychological and financial vulnerability bear the onus of achieving their emancipation by sourcing their own means of escape? The lack of critical insight and exposure to the lived experiences of survivors is apparent, and speaks volumes of the diversity and perspectives we have elected to our most powerful roles.