Radio interview – ABC Perth Mornings with Nadia Mitsopoulos

22 May 2024

Subjects: Financial abuse; Federal parliamentary inquiry into financial abuse; Family and domestic violence; Elder abuse

Note: this interview references, describes and discusses acts of family and domestic violence. Support is available:

NADIA MITSOPOULOS, HOST: Now Shanene is now living in WA and she had been with her partner for about a year when she noticed something. Money would go missing – a little bit here, a little bit there, a bit more, then a lot more. When she questioned it, the beating started. And continued. Until it almost killed her. So her partner beat her, strangled her, and then stomped on her head and he went to jail for that. Shanene, lay in an induced coma for nine months and woke with a traumatic brain injury. And this is why a federal parliamentary inquiry into financial abuse is underway to look at the effectiveness of existing laws and what more banks can do to identify and prevent the problem. Now, earlier this morning I spoke to Zaneta Mascarenhas – she's a Labor MP for Swan. She pushed for this inquiry and is on that committee.

ZANETA MASCARENHAS: Good morning, Nadia.

MITSOPOULOS: You proposed this inquiry. Why do we need one?

MASCARENHAS: We need one because I wanted to spark a national conversation. There are a lot of people out there that don't understand what financial abuse is and so I want to make sure that we can identify it and stop it. But we also need to make sure that our financial institutions are being proactive. And they are ensuring that their products aren't being used to be weaponised against people, particularly in domestic violence relationships.

MITSOPOULOS: So, what will this inquiry specifically look at? What it looks like, but also the banks’ roles in all this?

MASCARENHAS: Yes, correct. So, we're going to look at the prevalence, we're going to look at existing legislation, but we're also going to look at what reforms can be done to ensure that we stop, prevent and actively ensure that this doesn't happen.

MITSOPOULOS: Will there be hearings in Perth?

MASCARENHAS: Yes. In fact, there will be a hearing in Perth on the 12th of July and we don't often get hearings over here in WA, but I think that WA's been doing quite a lot of work in this space.

MITSOPOULOS: Who are you wanting to hear from?

MASCARENHAS: So, I'd say that we do want to hear from financial institutions, but we also want to hear from people with lived experience, but also the NGO sector that's often at the forefront of dealing with people that are experiencing financial abuse. And I'd also say that financial abuse does not discriminate based on race, age or even income bracket, and it can happen in intimate relationships, but it can also be seen as elder abuse as well, and I've seen some people refer to it as inheritance impatience.

MITSOPOULOS: Zaneta, talk to me about some of the people that you've seen that have the lived experience.

MASCARENHAS: For this particular issue, it's something that I saw was coming up in the community time and time again, and one of the incredible stories that I learned about is a woman called Shanene whose relationship started off like honeymoon period. But then it devolved into financial abuse, borrowing credit cards, borrowing the work vehicle –

MITSOPOULOS: Taking things that she wasn't aware of, a little bit of money goes a little bit more money goes missing…

MASCARENHAS: Yeah, and it escalated over a period of time and it escalated so much so that Shanene ended up in a nine month coma. So quite confronting. And I also remember visiting Cannington Police Station where the police officer said that he wished that this particular perpetrator understood – or this particular victim understood – what the beginning of a domestic violent relationship can look like. And it started with financial abuse and ended up with this woman being black and blue.

MITSOPOULOS: With Shanene, that as you said there, it started with financial abuse and her partner taking a bit of money and then it escalates to taking more. Then it becomes physical violence. How did it end? I mean, how bad was the physical abuse?

MASCARENHAS: It was so bad that she ended up waking up in hospital. She ended up in a nine-month coma. She had to learn how to walk again, and she now has a traumatic brain injury. And she's an advocate for people with TBI and works with an organisation called Connectivity. And it's something that she's really passionate about. But it started with financial abuse. It ended with her having to learn how to walk again.

MITSOPOULOS: So, in a lot of cases, this is how it starts. It starts with financial abuse. It ends with physical abuse.

MASCARENHAS: They say that 85% of women who experience domestic violence have experienced financial abuse. So often, financial abuse is, like I see it as an entry level from an abuse perspective. But the thing that's very scary about financial abuse is that even once you leave the relationship, the financial abuse can continue, particularly if there's children involved.

MITSOPOULOS: What's the banks’ role here? I mean, how would they know what's going on?

MASCARENHAS: There are lots of different things that banks can do. There's a new banking code of conduct. Which looks at family and domestic violence and also looks at financial abuse. One of the things that Australia has been leading in is looking at financial transactions to stop abusive messages. So before, one of the things that we're seeing perpetrators do was effectively send abusive transaction messages to their partners when they owed them money. And so there could be like 1 cent transactions and abusive messages like “you're not worth living,” “I want you to die.” And so now there's algorithms that basically look for those messages and block them.

MITSOPOULOS: There are red flags that the banks can look at?

MASCARENHAS: Yes, correct. But there's also when someone is leaving a violent relationship, sometimes banking products can be weaponized to basically disable women that are trying to flee. But the banks can actually play a role in actually helping women leave in a safe way, particularly if someone's going through a messy divorce. Often, you'll hear cases of how mortgage payments are treated and offset accounts, and banks can play a role in basically understanding what someone is going through and also trying to make sure whether like an example is – whether a loan is an interest-only loan or not –  And often the perpetrator needs to give sign off on changing those types of things to reduce mortgage payments. And banks have been like, no, we're not going to change anything without getting your perpetrators permission. That can be really debilitating when you're just trying to keep afloat.

MITSOPOULOS: And my guest this morning is Zaneta Mascarenhas. She's of course the Labor MP for Swan and part of this inquiry that is looking at financial abuse. So on that point, I'm sure there'll be people listening who go, OK, but couldn't this be reversed? This situation where a woman might use this against her partner. She's trying to leave, you know, being able to get the banks to assist when it comes to joint accounts and things like that.

MASCARENHAS: What I would say is that the banks need to do their due diligence and I'd say that the majority of domestic violent relationships it is women who are the victims. And what we need to make sure is that we're making sensible decisions so we can help families still have functional relationships, even as they're separating. I think it's important that everyone has a role to play, whether it's me as the local member, whether it's banking institutions, whether that's male colleagues having conversations with each other. And so, I think that everyone has a role to play and we can ensure that our systems are being proactive at stopping and preventing financial abuse.

MITSOPOULOS: The Australian Banking Association says banks are onto this. They are training staff to spot red flags. They're referring customers to specialised support. Clearly, given what you've just said, there is a lot more that they can do. Can you force banks to do more?

MASCARENHAS: One of the things the inquiry will look at is the existing legislation that we have enacted at this moment in time. I think that there are some banks that are leading the way, but I'd say that it's not the whole banking sector that's doing this. I also want to see other financial products such as superannuation, insurance and I'd actually say the banking sector is doing a lot more compared to the insurance industry. The insurance industry has not been as proactive at helping people that are fleeing domestic violence relationships.

MITSOPOULOS: So then when we talk about those agencies, what else can they do?

MASCARENHAS: For example, let's say home and contents insurance – let's say a perpetrator goes on a violent rage and breaks a whole bunch of electronics in a house, I think that there's only maybe one insurance product that will cover replacement of those items. I think most of the insurers are kind of like, “that's your fault.” That expensive computer that your child needs to complete their schooling – it's not covered. So, I think that insurers can play a role in ensuring that households are safe and what's covered during those types of events.

MITSOPOULOS: So, have specific cover for these violent incidents?

MASCARENHAS: What would be ideal is if it's a standard part of a policy, or alternatively, it’s very explicit whether it’s covered or not covered.

MITSOPOULOS: What about superannuation? 

MASCARENHAS: From a superannuation perspective, I think the way that I see that being weaponised is it's often from when people are going through a separation, the woman is often the caregiver and often ends up being the person who stays at home. We often see disparity of the amount of superannuation that women get paid rather than men. So, I think that when cases are being settled, what is the fair split when couples are going through a separation? But I think that the superannuation industry has a role to play in this as well.

MITSOPOULOS: That was Zaneta Mascarenhas, she's the Labor MP for Swan. She's on that committee that is now looking at financial abuse and in particular, what role the banks can play here in assisting victims. Interestingly too, Finance Minister Katy Gallagher is actually in Perth today, holding a forum on this very issue. Now the terms of reference for this inquiry are available to the public. Written submissions are being taken until the 14th of June. All you need to do is visit Financial Services Regulatory Framework in Relation to Financial Abuse, or if you just go to Zaneta Mascarenhas’s web page all the information is there, or if you just Google actually, Federal Inquiry into Financial Abuse that comes up. There will be a hearing as you heard here in Perth. So, there will be an opportunity for people to make a submission face-to-face. I think that’s a good thing, because often – given we’re so far away from Canberra, we don’t often get federal parliamentary inquiries holding hearings here. It's really important when they do.