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Thursday, 13 February 2020
Page: 1001

Senator PRATT (Western Australia) (13:26): This afternoon, as we debate the Treasury Laws Amendment (Recovering Unpaid Superannuation) Bill 2019, I am reminded of a great many interactions with constituents, with friends and with people in the community, all of whom have been affected by this terrible issue. It not only leaves them financially worse off but leaves them with a very bitter taste in their mouth in terms of their relationship with their employers and can be extremely personally distressing.

I was talking to a friend of mine just last week who rang me to say that she'd been working as a personal trainer and her boss had told her that she was a contractor. Now, we know in these laws that contracting may or may not put you in the category of needing to have your superannuation paid. It was very clear that she was deemed an employee for the purposes of superannuation and, despite numerous attempts to have her superannuation paid, it had not, to date, been paid.

I find this bill quite concerning in terms of whether it's really going to be effective for the people that I know that have been impacted by this issue. We know it sets out to give businesses that are unlawfully underpaying their employees' superannuation a free pass through its 12-month superannuation guarantee amnesty. But it does not provide the ability to recover the lost superannuation that has been stolen from one in three Australians. It could, indeed, exacerbate some of the kinds of problems that we've seen in the existing system—and the problems are rife. Just this morning I met with the superannuation peak body. They were telling me about how the ATO has been historically underfunded in terms of gathering up and being responsible for lost superannuation.

The thing about the government's motivation here is it makes the ATO responsible for pursuing unpaid superannuation at the same time as it is pursuing people with tax debts. There's a big difference between bringing in money that suits the government's bottom line and recovering tax debts, and the ATO has been pretty motivated by governments to do that over time. But, if you look at the record of unpaid superannuation and the resources the government has given to it historically, it in no way matches the effort that's gone into catching tax dodgers.

Treasury estimated the amnesty period would result in $230 million worth of superannuation paid back to employees, as opposed to the $5.6 billion of super the ATO estimates that 2.4 million workers are losing every year. That's $2,000 every year that should be going towards their retirement savings. The predicted amount does not even come close to making up for the superannuation lost within the last year alone. How can it be expected that this pittance would make up for the last 25 years that the government wants this amnesty to cover? It's patently ridiculous that that is the case.

Frankly, superannuation theft is just as bad as wage theft. The dodgy examples of it that I have seen are extraordinary, right down to people essentially given false payslips—payslips that show superannuation has been paid into their superannuation account when a business hasn't even lodged the paperwork or gone into the portals of superannuation companies when an employee has provided them that information. It's not that they are making the most of the three- or four-month period they've got to pay that; it's frankly that they have been out and out lying to their employees in some cases about whether that entitlement was paid at all.

I'd like to encourage individual people, when you start work, to download the apps that go with your superannuation account and make sure your superannuation is going into your account. And if your employer is not paying it straight away, find out what's going on. As a peak body representative for super told me this morning, hopefully these problems will get better with a one-touch payroll system. But it also means that these shouldn't be complicated things to resolve, and businesses that aren't doing it are, frankly, ripping off their employees.

We don't want to see bosses get away with stealing superannuation entitlements from their employees; but, frankly, that is what the government is proposing. Normally when an employer does not meet their superannuation guarantee entitlements they are liable for penalties and charges. Some of these penalties are up to 200 per cent of the amount owed but, under the amnesty proposal, this will not be enacted. So what we need, frankly, are stronger measures and a firmer hand if we want to protect Australians' livelihoods in their retirement. I find it somewhat ironic that this bill is called 'recovering unpaid superannuation' when what it will leave is a legacy of unpaid superannuation over more than two decades. We need to ensure a right to superannuation within the national employment standards. It's terrific to see amendments on the table in relation to that.

Employees should have the right to seek out and recoup their unpaid super. We don't want to waste time on what is largely an ineffective amnesty, an amnesty for companies that, frankly, have done the wrong thing. The government has put itself in quite a bind—advertising an amnesty, collecting information from businesses and promising them that amnesty. The businesses that have put their hands up to be a part of that amnesty should be paying the superannuation that is owed to their employees, but that's not what the government has promised them.

I know that workers across the country whose employer has either underpaid their superannuation or not paid it at all won't be calling for this government to let their employer off the hook. When you talk to people about their experiences with unpaid superannuation, it's really distressing. The government is papering over terrible workplace relations practices and papering over wage theft by legitimising employers' nonpayment of superannuation through this amnesty. Workers at the Commonwealth Bank, Bunnings or any of George Calombaris's restaurants are not asking for amnesty. They're asking for their super. We don't want to send to dodgy employers—most businesses, absolutely, do the right thing; they have wonderful, loyal employees and they treat their employees properly in terms of paying their superannuation in a timely way. Statistically, the number of people who are being paid their superannuation payroll to payroll is increasing. That's because it is much easier, technically, to do now. That means that the excuses for people not paying superannuation become dodgier and dodgier.

What we have here is a government that has fundamentally failed to address the issue of rampant unpaid and underpaid superannuation in our nation. Instead, we've seen government senators in this place so ideologically opposed to the very notion of superannuation and to ensuring hardworking Australians live with dignity in their retirement. Those senators have got just the bill they were after here. It is a bill that give the bosses a free ride—a free pass—and does nothing for employees who are still owed their superannuation. This is happening at a time when our country is in the grip of flat wages growth and we continue to have rampant underpayment of wages and superannuation.

Instead of having an amnesty, why not put some thought into a strategy to tackle this issue? The government has really put the cart before the horse with this bill. There is a wage and superannuation theft inquiry going on in this parliament now, so it seems ridiculous to me that it would do something that panders to employers in relation to this issue. Should this bill go through in its current form, we will be giving businesses who have committed super theft for the past 25 years an out, with absolutely no consequences bar paying employees the money they have rightfully earned. This inspires not a culture of honesty but, instead, a system of comfort—comfort in the knowledge that, no matter how poorly a business decides to treat its workers, it has in government a party that is able to turn around and absolve them of any meaningful consequences from these actions. Why would they not think that, given that, not only will these employers face a fraction of the final debt they owe, there isn't even a plan to increase penalties for those that commit superannuation theft? Why you would let them of the hook in this regard?

How about businesses out there that have been operating with openness and honesty—businesses that have abided by Australian law and paid the required amount of super to their employees, doing the right thing while competing with other businesses not doing the right thing? You know, it's practices like this that undermine local manufacturing and people who want to offer quality goods and services that are Australian made or Australian produced, because they're undercut by businesses that are unlawfully cutting their costs. How is it fair that, while they've had to compete with an unfair disadvantage, the businesses ripping off workers will be rewarded and, frankly, coddled for these actions. We have a government that has decided that it will give shonky operators and bosses a free ride—employers that have demonstrated a lack of integrity when it comes to paying their workers what they are owed.

Importantly, in our nation it is unions that go in to bat for workers so very often, fighting tooth and nail just to recover the superannuation that their members are entitled to. But what we see here is that, instead of going after employers, this government's gone after unions with its Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment (Ensuring Integrity) Bill. It's double standards and an absolute ideological obsession on their part. We've got dodgy companies not facing the consequences for their actions, but the negligible charge that they have been asked to pay will become tax deductible for the employers. How is that fair? (Time expired)