Australian Financial Review
24 May 2019
John Kehoe and Phillip Coorey
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg will commission a review of the retirement income system, including the interaction of superannuation, government pensions and, potentially, taxation.
In an interview with AFR Weekend, Mr Frydenberg said he would consult with cabinet colleagues and Treasury to act on the Productivity Commission’s recommendation to conduct a review of retirement incomes.
“My intention would be to establish that review,” Mr Frydenberg said.
“I am positively disposed to a review of the retirement income system as recommended by the Productivity Commission.”
Mr Frydenberg also signalled that the Morrison government was likely to rekindle its campaign to force a dilution of union and employer group representatives on the boards of industry superannuation funds.
“There are a number of superannuation reforms that remain outstanding from the last term of government,” Mr Frydenberg said.
Mr Frydenberg said it was “clear” from both the Productivity Commission and the Royal Commission findings “that there is a strong case for reform to strengthen accountability and governance, improve member outcomes and the overall efficiency of the system”.
Recommendations from the mooted retirement income system review could give the re-elected Morrison government, which faces criticisms for having a light policy agenda beyond cutting income taxes, foundations for a reform package to take to the next election.
An examination of retirement incomes could trigger anxiety among seniors and the superannuation industry, who have endured ongoing changes over several years to super tax breaks, pension payments and Labor’s failed plan to end cash refunds of dividend franking credits.
Superannuation a policy agenda
The Productivity Commission’s review of the efficiency and competitiveness of superannuation, released in December, recommended to the Morrison government that it initiate a broader review of the retirement income system, including super, pensions and taxation.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison during the election pledged not to change the taxation of superannuation.
Federal budget savings from paying lower pensions will only exceed the cost of superannuation tax concessions by 2060, or 2100 including the accumulated debt the system is racking up now, according to the Grattan Institute think tank, using Treasury’s long-term projections.
The Productivity Commission wanted an independent assessment of whether the compulsory superannuation system set up 27 years ago was achieving its original stated objective of raising national savings – by increasing private savings and taking pressure off the government budget.
The commission wanted an inquiry to explore if any reduction in reliance on the government pension helps the federal budget, given that higher-income earners receive big superannuation tax breaks.
The commission also wanted to see if compelling workers to forgo a portion of their salary in favour of deferred superannuation savings benefits the poor and wealthy fairly.
Low-income earners make a relatively large immediate sacrifice of forgone income they could spend today, while the wealthy receive big superannuation tax concessions.
The PC said the inquiry should be conducted before compulsory super is increased from 9.5 per cent of wages to 12 per cent, due to be phased in between 2021 and 2025.
Mr Frydenberg said the government had “no plans” to change the superannuation guarantee (SG) rise.
The Abbott government delayed the scheduled compulsory compulsory superannuation increase employers pay employees.
Higher super contributions are paid for through lower wage increases, according to numerous economists, including former Treasury secretary Ken Henry’s tax review and the independent Parliamentary Budget Office.
Increasing compulsory superannuation to 12 per cent of wages will cost Australian workers $20 billion a year in take-home pay and exacerbate sluggish wage growth, according to Grattan Institute analysis.
Grattan Institute fellow Brendan Coates said a retirement income system review was needed.
“We still haven’t worked out what the purpose of the system is and how the different parts of it work together,” Mr Coates said.
“We need to work out the target for an adequate retirement income and what the trade-off should be between living standards while working versus in retirement.
“We are still providing such large super tax breaks too.”
Before the planned longer-term review reports, more immediately Mr Frydenberg said the government will implement the banking royal commission’s recommendation to “staple” a single default superannuation account to new employees entering the workforce to save consumers millions of dollars in fees from unintended multiple super accounts.
He would also “move quickly as possible” on making life insurance inside superannuation opt-in, rather than default – a move resisted by the industry.
Dilute union influence
Mr Frydenberg indicated the government would revisit plans to dilute the influence of unions and employer groups on the boards of industry super funds.
After being unable to secure enough Senate support, the government, in August last year, shelved plans to mandate one-third of independent directors for all super fund boards.
Currently the boards are comprised of an even mix of union and employer group representatives.
As well as not having enough Senate support, the politics of chasing industry super became toxic after the sector emerged from the banking royal commission with a clean bill of health whereas the retail finds were hammered.
The Coalition government also needs to figure out if and how the default superannuation system is removed from the industrial relations system – as recommended by the Productivity Commission and resisted by Labor and trade unions.
The last national savings inquiry was concluded in 1993 by economist Vince FitzGerald and a team of Treasury officials for the Keating government.
Phillip Coorey is The Australian Financial Review’s Political Editor based in Canberra. He is a two-time winner of the Paul Lyneham award for press gallery excellence. Connect with Phillip on Facebook and Twitter. Email Phillip at firstname.lastname@example.org