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Friday, 12 June 2020
Page: 4074


Mr SHORTEN (Maribyrnong) (10:33): I acknowledge a rare burst of telepathy from the member for New England about what I'm going to say. The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority Amendment (APRA Industry Funding) Bill 2020 makes some sensible reforms, including changing the way the regulator is funded. The bill also provides an opportunity to speak about Labor's decades-long crusade for the national nest egg and what superannuation does for our nation and also, in particular, to sound a warning about the dangers in rating it as an easy out for tough times. Of course, the government's providing of access to superannuation in the pandemic gets couched in the language of individual choice and freedom. But it really is a form of immature financial vandalism.

There was a time in Western politics when the conservative parties were conservative, when they were considered in the metaphor of responsible adults who did responsible things like long-term planning, fighting against reckless change, keeping what is good and saving for a rainy day. But this has all changed with the arrival of the neo-cons, the slash-and-burn happy cultural warriors who would happily lay waste to over-the-horizon policies, from the higher education sector to future funds, if they did not suit their immediate needs. These neo-cons have a shaman-like faith in the invisible hand, and that's not going to save us if we spend the future retirement funds of millions of Australians now. This leaves social democratic parties of labour to have to be the conservative in the room, the adult in the room, not arguing in favour of change for change's sake, being the ones, in fact, who have to issue the warnings and the counsel about storing stocks for coming winters, about not eating the seed corn, and we see this most clearly in the time of the coronavirus. In a global emergency, timely action is vital, but panic is dangerous. Telling Australians who are doing it tough to dig into their superannuation risks inflicting damage on individuals and families and the economy that will ricochet down the decades after the COVID-19 danger has passed.

Labor were cooperative and constructive in the parliament in March. We voted for government stimulus not because we thought every measure was exactly right but because we didn't want to hold it up and wait for wiser measures, and we knew that it was not a time for delay or for national disunity. Indeed, in this parliamentary chamber in the pandemic, there were no apostles of small government; we were all social democrats. But also, as a conscientious opposition, we have a responsibility to be candid with the public and to try and protect Australians from bad decisions of government. In amongst the welter of rushed stimulus, there were mistakes made by the government. Government forcing workers to sell their superannuation at the bottom of a global market crash is indeed the grandaddy of all bad decisions.

This raid on retirement savings is not being presented to people as a fallback measure or a last resort. Instead, workers who have lost their job or taken a cut in pay and hours are being told they can take up to $20,000 from their super to supplement their income now. We're not talking about a small group of people here, either. So far, 1.8 million Australians have accessed $3.5 billion out of their plans, with a further 160,000 Australians set to increase that figure further. This is more than $3½ billion out of the national savings pool.

One of the strategies of the government is, sadly, seeing working people paying for their own safety net twice. What I mean by that is that, first of all, working people get their regular pay and then they see their superannuation dollars put aside for their retirement. This is the future safety net. Secondly, working people get their regular pay; they've seen their dollars taken out in tax and given to the government for, amongst other things, the maintaining of an emergency national safety net. This is how workers pay for their immediate safety net. But, now that we're in an emergency, the government is saying, 'We don't want to fully support you out of your tax contribution for the current safety net; you need to rob your future safety net, your future super savings—the safety net for retirement.' The government is asking you to rob your future to pay for the present.

Further, leave aside government's obligation to support its taxpayers in an emergency. The early access to super scheme is very easy to satisfy; there will be people doing so who are not in dire financial hardship. Where has some of the early access super money gone to? A recent sample of 13,000 people who accessed their super under the early release scheme shows 64 per cent of spending went on discretionary items—clothing, restaurant food, gambling and alcohol. So we are cracking open the national nest egg and throwing away the yolk. I listened very carefully to the member for New England, who said that his critique of some of the 2009 stimulus measures is that it wasn't building the long term but was just individual stimulus for the short term. Well, consistent with that critique, this early access measure, unfortunately, meets the same test that the member for New England set for the 2009 measures.

This raiding of the superannuation is not only bad for individual Aussies, it puts a strain on the liquidity of super funds and it causes new pain for the Australian companies that they invest in. In the short term the policy will be counterproductive. In the long term the damage will actually be far worse. Smashing open the nation's superannuation is a decision that will compound every year. For example, taking $20,000 of your super as a 30-year-old will leave you around $100,000 worse off by the time you hit 65—$100,000 worse off! Albert Einstein once called compound interest a miracle. The benefit of investing now is that you get the benefit of compound interest and your savings increase. But if you withdraw that money now you can't get the benefit and the miracle of Einstein's compound interest.

Let us pause and reflect on what it was like before there was compulsory superannuation. Millions of Australians worked hard all their life, only to fall into poverty upon retirement. We shouldn't treat superannuation as a luxury—something which only the well-off are entitled to and something to be sacrificed and thrown away when times are tough for the bulk. Telling Australian workers struggling to make ends meet that the government can only look after them if they dip into their own superannuation, as if it's just a matter of giving up an additional pay TV channel or cutting back on Uber food, is beyond risky; it is downright negligent and reckless.

We understand that the economic climate is tough and we understand that it is getting worse. I know that a lot of very good Australians—businesses, people on the land, people in the regions, people in the cities—are coming under terrible pressure, and increasingly so in the coming weeks and months, when the hammer falls in late September and the government abandons the safety net. But the government of Australia should not be telling Australians to steal from their own future to survive their present. You should never have to steal from your own future to survive the present. If you've lost your job, you shouldn't be forced to raid your retirement savings to provide for your family.

This is a time for cooperation, but it's a time for clear heads. We know that some in the conservative ranks of politics regard superannuation as a Labor and union conspiracy, and so they dislike it. But the great Australian safety net—superannuation and Medicare—contributed to by Labor and social democratic values, needs to be defended. This government needs to make peace with the fact that Australians like superannuation. They like it because it gives them a sense of control over their future, not just a means for their current survival. Instead of taking the easy option of raiding superannuation, the government should spend more time listening to experts. In years to come we will look back with bemusement and we will shake our heads at the panic buying which gripped our supermarkets—the images of adult Australians fighting over toilet paper. But if this government repeatedly encourages people to panic-sell their superannuation, our whole country will live for decades with the regret of this government's panic buying. The thing about robbing the future is that the future still arrives, and it has a way of demanding that its debt is settled. I commend the legislation.