Centrelink is changing its policy on how couples are defined under social security law for payments such as the Parenting Payment, in what advocates described as a "real paradigm shift" for the recognition and treatment of domestic violence and abuse.
From Monday, the Department of Social Services (DSS) Social Security Guide (the Guide) will explicitly say that Centrelink decision-makers should take into account the presence of family and domestic violence when making assessments about whether a person is a "member of a couple".
Economic Justice Australia has been advocating for change, but the group's executive officer Leanne Ho said the case for change began over 12 years ago with an Australian Law Reform Commission a report into family violence.
Social Services Minister Amanda Rishworth has confirmed the changes, saying the Albanese government appreciates the very important work Economic Justice Australia is performing on behalf of people who have experienced family and domestic violence.
"We've worked with EJA to address their concerns and as such my department - the Department of Social Services - is amending relevant Social Security Guide pages to better address the issue of family and domestic violence," the minister said in a statement.
Ms Ho said the social security system has had too many barriers and has been tying women in abusing relationships to their abusers.
"It's a real paradigm shift," she told The Canberra Times.
"And it's a move towards understanding that the reason that we look at members of a couple in the social security system is because we expect members of couples to pool their resources and share them equally."
"And it's a real recognition and more sophisticated understanding of social security as being about the pooling of resources. So that when those resources are being shared, it's not the social security system's main focus to be concerned with whether people are in a couple or not."
It is understood that the guide states that the presence of family violence within a relationship may indicate that two people should not be defined as being a "member of a couple" under section 4 the Social Security Act.
Family and domestic violence may also be used as a special reason for a Centrelink decision-maker to use their discretion to treat someone as not being a member of a couple under section 24 of the Social Security Act, even when they technically meet the definition under section 4.
Ms Ho said, up to now, the rules have not been clear and have often been used to the detriment of the victim-survivors.
"What we now understand as being domestic violence or financial abuse has actually been used as evidence that the person is still a member of a couple," she said.
"For example, where a violent partner might be controlling bank accounts, or sharing the credit card, using it without her permission, or where the violent partner is going towards all the doctor appointments and all the Centrelink appointments with their partner who they're controlling and abusing.
"Centrelink has actually, in some cases that we've seen been using that as evidence that they're still a member of a couple, where now it's going to be really explicit that that kind of behaviour, that kind of evidence is actually evidence of abuse and should really trigger a decision maker to think this person is not a member of a couple."
Women have also been threatened with being dobbed in to Centrelink as well as coercive behaviour that can include withholding money or lying on income tests to affect the women's payments.
"Along with states and territories, the commonwealth is committed to ending violence against women and children within a generation. Our National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-2032 is the blueprint to realising that goal," Ms Rishworth said.
"For those that experience family and domestic violence and access the social security system, these amendments to the guide will assist."
Economic Justice Australia is now pushing for legislative reform to amend the "special circumstances waiver" provision in the Social Security Act, to protect victim-survivors from being pursued for debt that was caused by an abusive partner.
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