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Big Super bad egg?

"Dedicated to the workers of Australia."

So begins Senator Andrew Bragg's latest book 'How to fix super: Bad Egg', a 120-page monograph, launched just a few weeks ago in June, that has lit a fire under Australia's superannuation establishment.

That a short book written by a first-term backbencher, albeit one as highly credentialed as a former Liberal Party national director, policy adviser to the Financial Services Council and the Business Council of Australia, who already is a chair of a parliamentary committee, has had this impact speaks volumes to how vulnerable is the superannuation sector right now.

Yet who could blame it for feeling under pressure. It's had a tumultuous year defending fund members from the challenges of COVID-19, dealing with massive regulatory reforms and then it had to administer the Early Release of Superannuation (ERS) scheme that has so far seen $33 billion in hardship payments go out to about one-quarter of the workforce.

What has arguably worn them down more, however, is that some of the sector's most fundamental tenets of faith are being openly re-contested. The legislated timetable for rises in the Superannuation Guarantee rate are likely to again be slowed and the Government has redefined superannuation's purpose so it isn't just for retirement but it can be called on in times of national emergencies.

The sustained nature of some of the criticisms heaped on the superannuation sector has led a few of its advocates to counterattack the senator personally notwithstanding he can be a stirrer in his own right who is also an experienced media performer able to defend himself. Former prime ministers Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd even held a joint media conference to defend current superannuation policy, denounce its critics, and rip into him.

Before I turn to the substance of the book, it must be said Senator Bragg isn't easy to tag. Yes he's an economic dry but he's also surprisingly progressive. In 2017, as national Liberal Party director he led their Yes campaign in the Marriage Equality postal plebiscite campaign, he campaigns actively in support of indigenous Australians and during the 2019-20 NSW bushfire emergency was one of few politicians speaking sense and using the power of their office to get resources to desperate people who needed urgent help.

But why is the book is getting so much attention? My take is simple - the superannuation sector is not used to being attacked on the left by someone from the right.

This line of attack happens across a few fronts. First, by labelling anyone from large industry funds or their associations as Big Super bunches them together with their retail rivals, undermining the clean bill of health they got from the recent Royal Commission.

Second, it uses the superannuation sector's own words to pincer it on efficiency, effectiveness, fairness and gender equality.

Thirdly, it argues that compulsory superannuation is one of Australia's biggest ever economic initiatives yet is poorly understood and not properly benchmarked.

Does this mean the senator is trying to tear superannuation down? In my view, no. But he definitely wants it reformed, but so too do most people who work in the sector.

Which is why he's asking some very direct, simple questions of the superannuation sector that are proving surprisingly difficult to definitively answer.

For example, if people in superannuation are going to infer you need almost $1 million in superannuation to retire comfortably, the fact that only 7% of people achieve this milestone means the system isn't working.

If superannuation is meant to get people off the age pension, is it working when despite having $3 trillion in superannuation savings Australia still has two-thirds of retirees on the age pension with two-thirds of them on the full rate?

The superannuation system costs $80 billion a year to run, made up of $40 billion in tax subsidies most of which goes to high income earners, $30 billion in fees and $10 billion in insurance premiums. What's the evidence it delivers more than it costs?

Is it fair to force young people and low-income people, many of whom are women, to save 9.5% of their wages in superannuation if they can't afford to buy their own home meaning they'll likely retire into poverty? The book meanwhile argues that even if SG was 12% it would still be inadequate.

Sure the book contains some simplistic analyses. But to dismiss it because you don't like its author is a reform opportunity missed. Doing that will just vindicate why this book needed to be written.

1 comment so far

2/3 of current retirees probably haven't had long or large enough SG contributions to have the assets in super to reduce eligibility for the full Age Pension.

No good diverting cashflow into housing for low income earners - this will only inflate the land price - therefore tax reform is required to mitigate this risk.

NICK ROSSETTO  |  22 SEP 2020   1.03PM
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