Treasury Laws Amendment (More Flexible Superannuation) Bill 2020

August 27, 2020

I am speaking on the Treasury Laws Amendment (More Flexible Superannuation) Bill 2020 and the second reading amendment moved by the member for Whitlam—and I am doing so virtually, from my electorate office in Sunnybank. Labor supports this bill, which brings forward the rule for non-concessional superannuation contributions to those aged 65 years and 66 years. It is currently allowed only until the age of 64. As a rule, Labor will always support legislation that improves this nation's universal superannuation scheme. What Labor will never support is the slow disintegration of Australia's superannuation system by stealth, neglect and a thousand sly cuts.

Australia's current superannuation arrangements bespeak significant social and financial infrastructure. The Keating government's brave reforms of 1992 introducing the compulsory employer contribution scheme will continue to have life-changing impacts on Australians as they age and enter retirement. There is no doubt that we're an ageing population. In 2019, Australians aged over 65 accounted for almost 16 per cent of the population. However, it's estimated that by 2057 there will be nearly nine million Australians aged over 65, accounting for 22 per cent of the Australian population. That will have an enormous impact on our economy. The foresight of the Hawke-Keating Labor governments will see many more Australians retiring comfortably, funded through their own superannuation, funded by their sweat, with employer co-contributions.

All older Australians deserve a dignified and comfortable retirement. In the coming decades, it will be more important than ever that Australians can, for the most part, fund their own retirement. If they can't do this it will be left to governments to pay unfunded pension liabilities, and, with an ageing population, this burden will continue to grow. It is a challenge that no sensible government can ignore. It is a burden that, in large part, will be borne by our children and grandchildren—and, since Treasurer Frydenberg took the reins, perhaps even by our great-grandchildren.

In two weeks the coalition government will commence their eighth year in office. Australia's gross debt was $280.3 billion when they took office after the election on 7 December 2013. That debt was largely due to stimulus measures put in place by Labor during the global financial crisis—measures that were largely supported by the Liberals. Those measures were integral in cushioning the financial blow for households during that very challenging time. But by January this year, well before Australia had confirmed its first case of coronavirus, gross debt had doubled to $568.1 billion.

Much worse is expected to come in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The independent Parliamentary Budget Office this week provided an update to its medium-term fiscal scenario showing that, even under the most optimistic scenario, a decade of deficits and higher debt is expected. The PBO expects net debt to be $800 billion higher, and receipts to be $400 billion lower, over the coming decade.

Serious budget repair can only begin once the economy starts to recover. The Morrison government can't afford to get this recovery wrong. We know that if Australians don't have enough in their own superannuation funds they will only be living off the age pension in retirement—and that is not something that all people should aspire to. It is incredibly hard to make ends meet living on the age pension; all politicians know this from the phone calls that they receive. I know, from calls to my office, that pensioners are already panicking that there will be no pension increase this year. They're already finding it tough and are worried there will be no increase in the pension for them this year or perhaps for a long time. The pension indexation rules are clear—the pension can't fall, but because CPI did not rise this year there will be no corresponding rise in the pension. CPI has gone backwards under the Morrison government, so the age pension won't increase this year as would normally be the case.

We all know that pensioners are frugal and that they budget around the indexation increase. Pensioners understand this, and they're very worried at the moment. The Morrison government could do something now to alleviate this added burden for pensioners, but so far Prime Minister Morrison hasn't announced anything. He hasn't eased the worry of pensioners in this time of pandemic and he hasn't committed to easing the financial burden for pensioners either. If the government is finding it difficult to properly fund age pensions today, it will find it much more difficult with the debt burden that will be a fixture of federal budgets for decades ahead.

Universal superannuation is more important now than it has ever been. Over 80 per cent of Australians aged between 25 and 54 hold a superannuation account. That's a great thing—a great Labor legacy. The superannuation system collectively manages nearly $3 trillion in assets; that's worth more than 140 per cent of Australian GDP. That $3 trillion, owned collectively by working Australians, grows our economy and ensures that Australian workers own more of the wealth our country produces. By 2040 it is estimated that the superannuation system will collectively manage $10 trillion in assets. Superannuation contributes twice as much to retirement income as the age pension. It is a system that we need to foster and protect. So why is the Morrison government—and some of the backbenchers, in particular—hell-bent on destroying it?

So far, the financial heavy lifting in COVID-19 stimulus recovery has been borne by young Australians, not the federal government. The government hasn't turned to the Treasury coffers during the pandemic. Instead the Morrison government's early access super scheme will leave young Australians more than $44 billion worse off when they retire. Worse, it has exposed their retirement savings to frauds and scams and shonky operators. The amount withdrawn from super funds through the early access scheme has already outstripped the stimulus measures provided by the Morrison government. Income support in response to the COVID-19 economic crisis is being propped up in large part by the most vulnerable and lowest paid workers in the country. That is short-sighted and unfair.

So far, more than 606,000 Australians and counting have emptied their superannuation accounts. Of those people, 494,000 are under 35 years of age. That means those funds will miss out on 35 years of compound interest—that is, until they retire at 70. Collectively, people under 35 will be at least $51 billion worse off by the time of their retirement. Instead of receiving timely government support, young Australians have borne the brunt of this crisis and will be forced to continue to pay the costs for many years to come.

The funds in a person's superannuation account, although held by their trustees, are their money; we understand it's their money. The very design of the universal superannuation scheme is that every working Australian will have their own nest egg put away for their own retirement. Mr Morrison and others in the Liberal Party keep bleating on about 'their money', as if somebody is trying to take it. Beware the wolf in thief's clothing. Stealing from yourself can still leave you much worse off in the long run, if you miss out on compound interest.

Superannuation contributions are invested by funds into a range of assets. Some funds allow you to choose the types of assets you invest in so that you have more control over the risk and how your superannuation is building the economy—going to infrastructure, for example. The most advantageous part of the superannuation scheme is that contributions by young people today will enjoy compound interest for the life of their investment in the fund. Money invested in superannuation funds is, obviously, taxed lightly.

I know how tempted I would have been if, at 25 years of age, I was told I could take 20 grand out of a fund that I wasn't normally able to access. I would have grabbed it with both hands and probably bought a Monaro or something sensible like that! What I wouldn't have realised when I was 25, if I had bought a Monaro with that $20,000, is that it would be the most expensive Monaro I would ever purchase in my lifetime. That $20,000 car would ultimately have cost me about $120,000.

To make matters worse, from the time the early access scheme was introduced in March, the scheme was under attack from fraudsters, drawn to the honey pot of Australian money. The AFP uncovered evidence that sophisticated criminals were using the scheme to steal superannuation balances from unsuspecting Australians. It's unclear how many Australians have been the victims of this fraudulent behaviour, and it wasn't the ATO that detected the fraud but an employee of a super fund. The government has not yet revealed how many fraudulent claims have been made or if victims will be compensated. All this occurred on their watch.

Young people today deserve to have the opportunity of a dignified retirement. Their hard-earned super funds should not have been put at risk by Morrison government decisions. It's not only young people forced to make very difficult choices; in particular, women fleeing family violence have also been granted early access to their superannuation funds. Obviously, it's very important to support women fleeing from family violence, but it should never be a choice between personal safety now and poverty in retirement later, or staying in a dangerous situation and retiring with dignity. Women are already well behind when it comes to superannuation. We know the average superannuation balance is 72 per cent higher for men upon retirement than for women. We know that 23 per cent of women in the 60 to 64 age group have no superannuation at all—that's nearly one in four. We know four in 10 older, single retired women live in poverty and experience economic insecurity in retirement. We need to provide women fleeing family violence with the support they need, not force them to raid their meagre retirement savings.

Although our superannuation system is working for many, it is sadly also leaving some behind. The superannuation guarantee is currently legislated to increase to 12 per cent by 2025. For median workers the balance on retirement will rise by 20 per cent for men and 19 per cent for women. The poorest workers, those in the bottom 10 per cent of the income distribution, will retire with an additional 30 per cent in accumulated superannuation. For those workers, that will make a substantial difference to their comfort and health upon retirement.

The Liberals created the Retirement Income Review to create further delays to the legislative increase in the superannuation guarantee up to 12 per cent. The government received that review over a month ago and should release it right now. A long-promised, already legislated and overdue superannuation guarantee increase is now even more important. Unfortunately, whether it's young people or women, the Liberals' and the Nationals' plan for superannuation is basically to leave most people behind. They're using the COVID-19 crisis as cover to destroy that universal superannuation scheme. They've opposed every single cent that's gone into super. They want to make Australians work until they're beyond 70 years old. They've frozen the pension and now they want to cut super and wages. We learnt yesterday that, for the first time since compulsory superannuation was introduced three decades ago, quarterly net contributions to super accounts were actually negative.

The Morrison government's lack of a plan for jobs and recovery has already forced millions of anxious Australians to raid their hard-earned retirement savings. It's now more important than ever for Australians to rebuild their superannuation balances. Whether their superannuation funds are held in a not-for-profit fund, like an industry super fund, or in a for-profit fund or in a self-managed fund—whatever—the money Australians put in now will determine whether they retire into poverty or with dignity. It will also help the economic recovery after COVID-19.

Industry super funds account for 27 per cent of superannuation funds. Those funds alone will invest tens of billions into Australia's economic recovery after COVID-19, and they aim to create or support many thousands of sustainable jobs in the coming years. Industry super funds already collectively own $80 billion in Australian infrastructure, property and other assets, and that number's increasing—Australian assets, owned by Australian workers. Australia's universal superannuation scheme is something that Australians should be proud of. It's a scheme we should all be supporting, not trying to undermine.