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Thursday, 13 February 2020
Page: 999


Senator CICCONE (VictoriaDeputy Opposition Whip in the Senate) (13:15): For too long, and as a number of my colleagues on this side of the chamber have articulated, the coalition has had a very long history of walking away from working Australians. The bill that's before the Senate, the Treasury Laws Amendment (Recovering Unpaid Superannuation) Bill 2019, is little more than their most recent step on that walk. This bill should be amended or it should be opposed. This bill, as it stands in its current form, is a terrible joke waiting to be played out on unsuspecting workers, who are relying on us to ensure that employers can't continue to steal their wages and their superannuation.

The recovering unpaid superannuation bill will offer employers a 12-month amnesty in which to come forward and own up to theft of super from their own workers. Put another way, this bill will give the bosses an opportunity to get away with breaking the law and facing absolutely no consequences. This is an offence against the very foundations of our society. If you break the law, you should face the consequences. We don't offer amnesties to workers, we don't offer them to any other Australians, but somehow it's okay if you are an employer. Our community functions because we have confidence in the rule of law, and yet here we have an extraordinary piece of legislation that will allow a certain section of our community to break the law, to steal superannuation and to get off scot-free. Not that I can say that I'm surprised. Every step of the way, the coalition has opposed, in principle if not in practice, the reforms that have delivered Australians a superannuation system that is the envy of the world, but here we are.

Super theft is an enormous problem. It's as heinous an offence as wage theft and directly impacts the savings of millions of Australians right across our nation. Unfortunately, for those nearly three million Australians whose super is stolen annually, unpaid super is a double whammy. Not only is it direct theft from a worker's pay packet, it also denies workers the compounding interest opportunity that they would have received if the super had been paid into their account and not stolen from them.

When you add this into other contexts—wage stagnation, cuts to penalty rates, voluntary savings and home ownership—you start to paint a picture for a number of workers, including those that I formerly represented at the SDA and in the retail sector. It's a picture that looks quite grim for many people, and we maybe start to understand why our economy isn't growing nearly as fast or as high as we would like. Time and time again, the coalition are hell-bent on ensuring that those who aren't earning a lot of money—in fact, most people in our nation—don't have the dignity of receiving what is legally their own entitlement. But, instead of penalising employers who break the law, this bill would mean that employers will not face penalties for super theft if they pay it back during the amnesty. And, as my colleague Senator Bilyk mentioned earlier, they would also receive tax deductibility. When employees steal from a business, they face the full force of the law. So why do employers who steal from their employees get special breaks from this government?

This proposed amnesty may not even work. During the inquiry into the bill during the last parliament, Industry Super Australia estimated that the annual superannuation guarantee gap is around $5.9 billion. The Australian Taxation Office estimates an annual gap of around $2.8 billion. Treasury confirmed that they expected $230 million to come to light during this amnesty; when one compares this figure to the annual estimated amounts of stolen superannuation, one has to wonder why. And what happens after the 12-month amnesty? What reforms are this government offering to finally end the scourge of wage theft and superannuation theft? There is no reform in this bill. Are we going to come back here in 12 months time with another amnesty, another bandaid? This is third-term government with no agenda. But there is no plan to tackle wage theft. There is no plan to stop employers from underpaying superannuation.

Those of us in this place are fortunate enough to get our super paid every time we get our pay packet. But millions of Australians out in the real world have to wait every quarter—and they then have to hope that their employer has done the right thing in passing on their superannuation and that they don't have to chase up the ATO. If this government were serious about ending wage and super theft, they would offer a suite of reforms that would deter employers from stealing workers entitlements. They would not allow them to get away with breaking the law.

In my first speech in this place, I called for increased penalties for wage theft and measures to make it easier where employers do not pay superannuation or where super has been underpaid. Labor's amendments to this bill create a pathway that will make it easier for workers to pursue employers for unpaid and underpaid superannuation. Currently, unpaid superannuation is a debt to the ATO, not to the worker whose super has been stolen. This means workers have to wait for the ATO to pursue the stolen funds. And there have been countless examples in Senate inquiries where we know it can take months to recoup stolen or underpaid superannuation. In 2017, there was a Senate inquiry that looked at the non-payment of super. In particular, the National Foundation for Australian Women noted that women are over-represented among lower-paid, part-time and casual employees and they were the group most impacted when it came to the underpayment and nonpayment of superannuation.

Labor's amendment, as has been flagged, would add another schedule to this bill. It would amend the Fair Work Act. It would enshrine the superannuation guarantee levy in the National Employment Standards. This would make superannuation a right for each and every worker. It would better allow workers to pursue underpaid super, providing them with the opportunity to pursue employers for super theft through the Fair Work Commission or the Federal Court, an opportunity that is currently denied to them.

If there is a choice between supporting Australian workers or kicking a worker, sadly, you can always expect those opposite to kick them. But, unlike this seven-year Liberal-National government, the Labor Party will not walk away from the rights of workers to be paid a fair day's wage for a fair day's work. The Labor Party is committed to ensuring that Australians who spend their lives working hard can enjoy a comfortable and fulfilling retirement. We are committed to tackling wage theft and superannuation theft head on. We've done that over many, many years. Labor always has been and always will be committed to ensuring that workers get what they rightly and lawfully are entitled to.