The Australian Taxation Office says it will look at whether more needs to be done to ensure victims of family violence don’t lose their retirement savings as a consequence of abuse in the Morrison government’s early access to superannuation initiative.
After ATO officials acknowledged on Tuesday there were no specific controls to combat financial abuse, the tax commissioner Chris Jordan told Senate estimates: “We will certainly revert back and see what we can do now to find any examples and rectify that.”
The Labor senator Jenny McAllister asked a series of questions of ATO officials and cited commentary from the Financial Counselling Australia that the government’s early access to super initiative had opened the potential for financial abuse.
Earlier this week, FCA’s chief executive Fiona Guthrie said her organisation had been “getting reports of how the early release of super has opened up a frontier for people to financially abuse their partners”.
“People know you can get access to super early so they are forcing their partner to do that and use their money, it’s shocking,” she said.
The finance minister Mathias Cormann chided McAllister for running an “assertive attack” during Tuesday’s hearing and for deploying “confected outrage” to draw attention to the risks.
McAllister corrected Cormann: “I am genuinely outraged.”
ATO officials told the hearing they had worked quickly to try and give Australians access to the private retirement savings pool as one of the income support measures rolled out during the pandemic. The suggestion on Tuesday was speed had been the priority.
Officials also said it was difficult to monitor instances where an abuse victim had been forced by a partner to withdraw savings from superannuation because people applied for funds through their myGov accounts.
McAllister asked Cormann whether he was satisfied the scheme had been rolled out without specific protections for victims of family violence – people vulnerable to duress.
Cormann told the hearing government agencies were “doing the best they can to enforce the law of the land”. He said the government would “continue to review” the situation.
The finance minister told McAllister that governments accepted some trade-offs during program delivery when there’s “a need for speed”. McAllister replied: “Well, that’s some trade-off minister.”
The government opened access to superannuation in the opening months of the Covid-19 pandemic to allow cash-strapped Australians to access their retirement savings.
The program allowed people to withdraw $10,000 from their super before 30 June. People have a second opportunity to submit an application through ATO online services in myGov between 1 July 2020 and 31 December 2020. Applicants do not need to pay tax on amounts released.
As of 18 October, $34.4bn has been withdrawn under the scheme, with an average payment of more than $7,000. In the initial round, over three million Australians applied, and 1.3 million people have made a repeat request.
In May, allegations of identity theft involving 150 Australians forced the government to pause the scheme after police froze $120,000 believed to have been ripped off from retirement savings.
The ATO website carries warnings about fraud. It alerts people to guard against scammers impersonating the ATO, or super funds.
In Australia, if you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.