Tuesday, 11 February 2020
Treasury Laws Amendment (Your Superannuation, Your Choice) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I rise to make a few brief comments about this bill, the Treasury Laws Amendment (Your Superannuation, Your Choice) Bill 2019. If there's one thing that the WorkChoices experience in Australia tells us, it's that when the Liberals put the word 'choice' into the title of a bill you better look at it twice, because under WorkChoices we saw people's wages and conditions attacked, job insecurity start to skyrocket and the balance tilt away from everyday working people, making it harder for people to have any real control over their lives, limiting the amount of money that was in their pocket and, in the process, taking away other choices that they might have, like what to do with an increased pay packet or what to do with increased spare time.
One of the things that the government doesn't seem to understand is that in the workplace a lot of workers and employees would find it pretty difficult to stand up to their employer themselves. That's not because the employer is necessarily malevolent or unscrupulous. It's just because the employer has the power. They have the power to decide what shifts you're going to have, how much pay you're going to get and, in some instances, whether you have a job at all. That's why, generally in this country, people come together in the workplace to negotiate with their employer. They bargain collectively. And those collective bargains are done because workers know that there's strength in numbers and that if you come together you might be able to negotiate things that you couldn't necessarily negotiate individually. In other words, by coming together, you can get yourself a better deal.
That applies across the board to what is in enterprise agreements, and it covers things like wages and it covers things like overtime, but it also can cover things like superannuation. What that has meant over time is that a number of funds that have been cooperatively run between half-half employers and employees have managed to—in part because of enterprise agreements and collective agreements that have been negotiated—build up funds where they deliver pretty good returns for their members. In fact, they deliver better returns than the funds run by the banks.
This idea of people collectively choosing to do something seems to be anathema to the government. Notwithstanding the fact that it might be because people have come together to bargain in a situation that gives them more power, might actually deliver them better outcomes and deliver more money in their retirement, the government comes and wants to attack it. Why does the government want to attack it, dressing it up by talking about choice in the same way that WorkChoices was supposedly about choice but actually took away people's control over their own lives? Why do they want to attack it? There's a very simple answer. The government wants to allow banks to get their hands on people's retirement savings. The government wants to allow banks to have more access to the several billions or trillions of dollars that are sitting in superannuation funds in Australia at the moment. In part, because superannuation is compulsory, it provides an ongoing stream of income into retirement savings, and as there is a growing pool of money, which should be used to make sure that people can have a good retirement and could also be used to invest in Australia's future, the government sees money that instead should be going to the banks. This comes as no surprise. The government takes a lot of donations from the big banks. The big banks give money to this government, and the government delivers for them in return. The government had to be dragged kicking and screaming into having a banking royal commission, in a process that—it's worth remembering—was led by the Greens. The Greens began the process of calling for a banking royal commission. We moved motions in the Senate that found their way down to this place. Senator Whish-Wilson moved a bill to establish a parliamentary commission of inquiry. Then, when the government finally realised the writing was on the wall and that it was about to lose a vote in this House, it decided to call a royal commission. But the government had to be dragged kicking and screaming into taking any action on the banks, when everyone across the country could see that there is a problem with the banks.
The problem with the banks is that in their wealth-creation arms—where they're trying to make money out of products that they sell to people—the banks have got a conflict of interest. These are the kind of products that, when you go and make an inquiry about your bank balance or go in and visit someone in a bank branch, you always try to get onsold—'Have you thought about your mortgage?' or 'Have you thought about life insurance?' The problem with the banks selling you these kinds of products—including super products—is that the banks' goal is to make money for themselves. That's just business; they're a profit-making company. That's what they're there for. The banks' goal is to make some money for themselves. So they're going to sell you a retirement product or a super product that'll be dressed up with lots of bells and whistles, but at the end of the day, the person selling it to you or the executive sitting above them would probably get the sack if it didn't make some money for the bank. That is the whole point of them. Whereas the industry funds—the subject that people negotiate about—are not there to make a profit. They're there to put all the money back in. They're effectively not-for-profit. They're there to put the money back in to increase members' returns.
The government can see this big pile of money sitting there. The banks can see this big pile of money, and they want to get their hands on it so that they can make some money out of people's retirement savings. And one of the things that's standing in the way at the moment is that in some places workers have negotiated collectively, through strength in numbers, to say, 'No, actually—here are the funds that we want. If the employer's got to be compulsorily forced to pay some money into super, here's the fund that we want it to go into.' That then goes into that fund for the worker. Of course, if the worker leaves that job and goes to another job, you can roll your super over. You're not stuck with it for life. But for so long as you're in that job, if it's covered by one of these agreements, then that's where your money goes into, because your fellow employees have come together and negotiated something that is going to work out better in the long run—in the same way that negotiating the rate of pay works out better for you if you do it collectively than if you do it one by one.
But the government—because it takes money from the big banks, and the big banks have said, 'We'd like to get our hands on all of this cash that's sitting there in people's retirement savings and the steady stream of super—has said, 'Well, what can we do to help?' And so the government comes up with this bill that says that even if you in your workplace have all negotiated collectively to come up with a deal that works for you, you are not allowed to negotiate about that. You are not allowed to. And here's the ultimate hypocrisy of this government. The government—in this bill that it says is about choice—is basically saying that you can negotiate and bargain about what you like, as long as it's approved by us, the government. As long as the government has ticked off and said that these are the things that you can negotiate about—sure, you can negotiate. But if you negotiate and choose to do something different to what the government wants, you're not allowed to do it—what utter hypocrisy. If people working in a particular workplace decide that they think it's in their best interests to come together and negotiate something, they should be allowed to do it. Who's the government to step in and say, 'No—you can't do that'?
If we're saying that you can't do it with respect to super—what's next? Is the government going to step in and say, 'You all might have negotiated in this workplace that you're going to get time and a half if you have to work after 6 pm, but we think there should be the right to opt out of that. You're not allowed to negotiate that in your collective agreement'? Is it going to say, 'There's a minimum rate of pay—but no, you should be able to opt out of that as well. There should be nothing compulsory about that, because that's forcing someone to do something'? Well—no. What people have learnt from bitter experience over many, many years is that if you want real freedom in your life, if you want the ability to make choices about things like buying a house, being able to spend time to go on holidays with your family, to have good amounts of time off, you've got to negotiate some of those things and put some walls around it. Otherwise, if you don't put walls around it to protect it, someone will come and try and take those off you. That's what businesses do: they want an edge over the next business. Unless you have a pretty strong level playing field and a strong floor underneath it all, one business will try to take something away to get an advantage over the business next to them. That is just the way that business works.
That's why the debate has got to be about what is the right floor to put in place and what are the right walls to put around it to make sure people get protected. This government, and this bill, is about taking away one of those forms of protection. This bill is about saying that in people's retirement we want to make it easier for the banks to get their hands on your retirement savings and turn it into a product that is not about looking after you on a not-for-profit basis in your long-term interest, but one that is about making money for the banks and for the big retail funds.
So there's a big, big problem with this bill. It's not going to do what the title says, just like Work Choices didn't give people more choice; it actually took away their choice. This bill is going to do the same. It has some real problems. We can't accept the government's rhetoric on this bill. We can't accept their claim that it's going to improve people's lives, because there is a very real prospect that it is going to make people's lives worse. The sad thing about it is that you will find out about it when retirement time comes. You will find out about it when you realise that fees and charges have been taken out of your account over the last 20 or 30 years so that someone—a bank—can make a profit. That's when it will hit. That's why it is important to ensure that the proper protections that we have at the moment remain.