Wednesday, 17 June 2020
Treasury Laws Amendment (Your Superannuation, Your Choice) Bill 2019; Second Reading
I am pleased to follow Senator O'Neill because she raises some very important points about this bill, the Treasury Laws Amendment (Your Superannuation, Your Choice) Bill 2019, and about the government's attitude towards superannuation. I want to add my voice to that debate today.
I've heard or seen comments from the government that Labor senators, or members opposite, are trying to waste the Senate's time by contributing to this debate today, and that couldn't be further from the truth because I think it's important to understand what the government is doing as part of this broader debate around superannuation. I know that it's very clever of the government to call this bill 'Your Superannuation, Your Choice', because it gives them an opportunity to get up here and talk about choice in super and beat their ideological drum about what they have planned for superannuation in this country. But it does concern me greatly that this is another opportunity for the government to talk about their plans to raid Australians' superannuation.
We know that this bill is limited in its scope. It is talking about the small number of workers who, at the moment, are covered by an enterprise agreement that directs the superannuation fund that they use, and the amendments to this bill seek to make sure that people are able to collectively bargain in their workplace while also supporting the principles behind the bill around choice. But we know that this is part of an ideological debate that the Liberals are waging against superannuation.
The Liberal and National parties opposed compulsory superannuation when Labor introduced it in 1992, and they have been fighting this war ever since. But they really have taken it up a notch lately, haven't they? They've really taken up the memes. They're even writing books about it. They're getting op-eds written in the paper about just what they're going to do to superannuation and to Australian workers' superannuation. They've said in this place that superannuation should be voluntary—and they've said that many times; that is not a one-off gaffe from one member of the Liberal Party; we've had many members in this place say that superannuation should be voluntary. Obviously, that is deeply concerning because we know that, for many Australian workers, superannuation is the only way that they will be able to afford a dignified retirement, and we know particularly that there are many women in this country at the moment who did not have access to superannuation or who worked in part-time positions for many years raising their children and who have severely depleted superannuation funds at this moment, compared to the men who were working at the same time as them. So I am deeply concerned about any attacks on compulsory superannuation that would stop Australian workers who desperately need to have money for their retirement saved for that purpose.
What the government is trying to do is to pretend that they care about the wages of low-income earners. We know that that is nonsense, because the Liberal-National coalition has never stood up for the working conditions of Australia's lowest-paid workers, and they never will. The coalition has opposed the advancement of superannuation every step of the way. They opposed it when we introduced it, and they've sought to undermine it ever since.
Compulsory superannuation is a national achievement created by Labor, and it stands alongside the NDIS and Medicare as a system which makes our country fairer and stronger. But I want to talk about one aspect of this debate, and that is the proposals from members of the government around extending early access of superannuation payments, because it's one of these ideological fronts on which the Liberals have been waging war. They've said that the coronavirus pandemic has actually shown that more people should have access to their super for more reasons. For example, Liberal John Alexander has floated the idea of using super to buy a home, and I'll talk further about that proposal a little bit later.
But I want to make this clear: the primary purpose of superannuation is to provide a dignified retirement for every Australian. That is the primary purpose of superannuation. That is why, right now, there are provisions that allow for early access to superannuation but only in very limited circumstances. These circumstances include compassionate grounds; severe financial hardship; and a terminal medical condition, which is very difficult. I know there are people who find themselves in that situation—getting that very difficult news about being terminally ill—and they know that they have their super there to count on in those very difficult times. Temporary incapacity and permanent incapacity are the other times when people are able to access their super. We know that super accounts have been used as a way to save for a home, by making voluntary payments.
The reason Labor have always argued to keep these reasons limited is that we don't want super to fix the policy mistakes of this government. We don't want people to not have super in their retirement or in those very limited circumstances, such as when they're very ill and they're given the absolute worst news—that they need to tie up their affairs. You may have had a friend who went through that. I've got a friend who has been given that news recently, and they've had to rely on their super. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to not have had that superannuation to depend on in those circumstances. Expanding the circumstances where super can be withdrawn will reduce the super balances of thousands of Australians. It'll increase the demand on age pensions, which will have an impact on the budget bottom line—that's what the government is always talking about—but also leave Australians with less money to use when they really need it.
Here's the other thing. Talking about allowing Australians to withdraw their super to fix a problem of the government's own making should ring alarm bells with people in the electorate, because, when we're talking about withdrawing super because housing has become so unaffordable, what does the government do? Do they build more social housing? Do they talk about how they're going to make housing more affordable? Do they make a plan to build better cities, to make them more connective, or to build better transport so people don't have to travel so far to their workplaces? No, they don't do that. They say, 'You can use your retirement savings for this instead.' Senator Bragg has even said:
The reality is a first home is much more important than super.
No-one is saying that a first home is not important. But what you're saying is that people don't deserve both—that they don't deserve a home and a dignified retirement. That's what you're saying to people like nurses and teachers who are out there working and saving. You're saying that the government doesn't want to do the hard work to make housing more affordable. What it wants to do is raid people's retirement savings. We know that Australian workers need those retirement savings later on in life. They will be relying on them. But instead of doing something to make housing more affordable, instead of trying to fix that problem, the government just wants to come in and raid superannuation savings.
It's lazy, it's pompous, it shows that you've got no idea what workers go through, it shows that you have no appreciation of how difficult it is for people to save for their retirement and it shows that you're completely out of touch with the purpose of superannuation in the first place, which is to provide a dignified retirement for Australian workers. I want Australians out there to be very careful when they hear this rhetoric from the Liberal-National government. When the government is saying to Australians that it wants to open up early access to super payments for other purposes, I want Australians to consider why that is and what policy failure by this government has created that problem in the first place.
We've seen the same thing happen with young workers during this pandemic. Instead of relying on government support, instead of being included in JobKeeper, many young Australians have had to rely on their superannuation to support themselves through this pandemic. This is a government which is setting up millions of younger Australians to be in a weaker position in their retirement. Already, we have seen that 500,000 young workers under the age of 30 have dipped into their super early. This makes up one-third of all early super applicants. In many cases, young workers have been left with no choice other than to empty all of their retirement savings. All of their retirement savings are gone, and that might not mean much if you're 25 years old and you consider that you've got a long time before your retirement but, again, what it points to is that this government isn't prepared to do the work to build the policies, to give the support to young people; instead, they have said, 'You can use your superannuation because we're not going to give you the support that you need.'
In the short term, this scheme is expected to cost the budget $1.1 billion in lost revenue. We know that this will have an impact on the budget. In the long term, it means fewer Australians will be able to support their retirement and that will mean more people demanding the pension system. We also know that this hasn't happened in a vacuum. Industry super analysis shows that in North Queensland alone 65,000 workers have been short-changed super and that government offered an amnesty to businesses that have systematically underpaid their workers. So not only do we have workers being asked to rely on their super during the most difficult economic time in their lives but it's off the back of years of underpayment of superannuation.
The coalition has used every opportunity to undermine super, including this pandemic, and that is completely disgraceful. We should be strengthening the systems that support people during this pandemic, not making them weaker. We even know that the government's incompetence has opened the door to widespread fraud in the early access super scheme. I was listening to triple j's Hack last night. Some people said the government just made it so easy to get this money that we've seen fraud as a result of this government's incompetence.
At the end of the day, superannuation is there for one reason: to provide Australians with a dignified retirement. Every time that the government come in here and try to reduce that access to a dignified retirement, Labor will come in here and show them out. We will stand in here and explain to people exactly what the government are up to. You can create your shiny memes, you can write your books and do your op-eds, but, at the end of the day, workers understand that superannuation is there for their retirement. We know that this government won't be supporting workers in their retirement; they will have to do it on their own.