Speaking Out Against the Coalition's Super Changes

It is a great pleasure to speak after the member for Lilley on this matter. 


He is a man whose passion and, I argue, whose expertise in the areas of superannuation, which this bill goes to, knows no bounds. When this genus of a bill first burst upon the scene after the 2013 election, it was referred to as the red-tape repeal day bill. When I saw the bill on the Notice Paper, I thought that, perhaps, the change in name—the fact that they had dropped the reference to red tape—had led to a change of heart by the government. Then I went to the subject matter of the bill and it became patently clear that nothing could be further from the case.

When it comes to the government, they do not know the difference between red tape and a guardrail. The government see every instance of protection and regulation which has a public good and a public purpose at its core as a target for watering down and redressing. That is exactly what we see in the bill before the House today. The government are completely lost on economic policy. They are talking about a big game but delivering precisely nothing. In these dying days of the 44th Parliament, we thought that we would see bills that went to the heart of economic management. Nothing could be further from the case. They are completely lost on tax. It now appears that they are going to introduce some vanilla form of the Labor policies announced by the Leader of the Opposition, Bill Shorten, but they are not going nearly far enough. They are simply adrift. They cannot get their story straight.

I want to talk about the amendments to the superannuation laws because there is a serious and growing problem in Australia with the nonpayment of superannuation. The Australian National Audit Office has found that up to 20 per cent of employers are not compliant with their superannuation obligations. According to experts, it is absolutely endemic. CBUS warns that Australians are losing somewhere in the vicinity of $2.6 billion a year on superannuation; that is right: $2.6 billion is being lost to workers because of the nonpayment of entitlements. Instead of addressing this issue that affects hardworking Australians, the government is this very day instead introducing a bill which will actually make the problem worse.

Schedule 1 of the bill is the main culprit. It strips down the firm penalties in place for employers who do not comply with their superannuation obligations. The situation is this: where employers do not pay their adequate superannuation guarantee contributions on time, they are liable for a charge that includes an interest component and an administration fee, and rightly so. But the bill makes it easier for those who are seeking to dodge their responsibilities under Australia's widely respected superannuation scheme. It lowers the base of the calculation of the shortfall charge, decreases the period over which the interest is calculated and removes the administration fee.

For those who work for an employer doing the right thing—and this is the overwhelming majority—these changes will not mean much at all, but, unfortunately, it is those workers who need the protection of this legislation who are going to be most affected. Unfortunately, almost 700,000 Australians—that is right: 700,000 Australians—are being dudded of superannuation that they are owed.

That is why the member for Rankin, who has seized upon the weaknesses in this bill, has moved a sensible amendment to remove the component from the bill which makes it easier for employers to flout their obligations. This amendment should be supported by all right-thinking members of this House, and we encourage members of the government to support the amendment moved in the name of the member for Rankin.

The bill dares employers to dodge their superannuation obligations, effectively. The Assistant Treasurer has said publicly that she is focused on making sure that every employee gets the super they deserve. But, like so much that the Assistant Treasurer does, it is all talk and no action. What is worse is that she has failed to read her own government's talking points, again—either that or she is simply unable to tell the truth on this. She has claimed that the changes in the bill are specific to the period in which the penalty interest is charged, but that is not actually right. The bill not only changes the interest calculation, as she has stated, but also decreases the base of the penalty calculation and entirely repeals the additional admin charge.

We feel very strongly about this—very strongly indeed—because it was the Australian Labor Party, in partnership with great leaders like the former secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Bill Kelty, who introduced occupational superannuation into this country, to ensure that the benefits of a dignified retirement, the benefits of superannuation, were spread beyond those who had previously enjoyed it. Government employees, defence employees, managers in white-collar employment and salaried employees had traditionally enjoyed occupational superannuation. It was not always as good as it looked on paper, but they enjoyed the capacity to get some occupational superannuation. But the vast majority of the Australian workforce and the overwhelming majority of women did not enjoy this benefit.

We feel very strongly about it. We are the architects of superannuation, and it has been Australian Labor governments that have sought, whenever in office, to advance the provisions of occupational superannuation, and it has been the coalition partners who have stood in the way of increases in occupational superannuation, every single time. Every single time that Labor has moved to increase the statutory requirements for occupational superannuation, it has been the coalition members who have voted against it, opposed it and done their darnedest, whenever in office, to ensure that those provisions did not succeed.

So we are proud of our strong record. In fact, in the last term of government, not only did we move to increase the statutory requirement for superannuation; we sought to make it easier for small businesses to comply with their obligations. We set up the Small Business Superannuation Clearing House which was, as you would know, Mr Deputy Speaker Goodenough, a one-stop facility to pay their superannuation. That is what we are about: ensuring that the rights are there and that it is easier for employers—particularly small businesses—to meet their obligations. Not only that, we want to make sure that we have a fair and sustainable superannuation system—one that provides for all Australians, including low- and middle-income earners. That is why we put in place measures that would ensure that low-paid workers received a rebate.

One of the first actions, paradoxically, of this government—and it shows their values when it comes to superannuation—was to remove the rebate of the low income superannuation offset and, in the very next breath, to give a tax cut to people who had superannuation balances of over $1.5 million. Nothing says more about the priorities of this government and who they stand for than that act—one of their very first acts—of removing the rebate from low-income workers and giving a rebate to high-income superannuants. Nothing says more about the priorities of the government than that one act.

So we are opposed to those provisions of this bill, and we are opposed to them for good reasons. We on this side of the House know the difference between red tape and a guard rail. Provisions such as this are a guard rail, put in place to ensure that employees have access to their superannuation entitlements as and when they fall due. We know the problems that beset employees when a company goes bust: they are pushed down a level when it comes to prioritised creditors, although the tax office does have some advantages in this area over other creditors. But we know how hard it is for those workers to chase their superannuation entitlements and their other entitlements when an employer has ceased to pay. Ceasing to pay super is one of the early signs. It is like a canary in a coalmine. You know a business is starting to falter when it is starting to fall behind in paying its superannuation entitlements. It sends up a red flag. Workers are often three months or six months out of pocket before any action, and many workers I have spoken to say it can take up to 12 months to get the Australian tax office—which is struggling, because of a lack of resources and a lack of priority from this government to resource this function—to act. Workers can be out of pocket and can struggle to ever regain their lost entitlements.

So we understand what it means. We understand that this is a guard rail, not red tape, and that is why we oppose the proposition put forward by the Assistant Treasurer and the government and why we support the sensible amendments which were moved in the name of the member for Rankin.