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Thursday, 13 February 2020
Page: 1003


Senator AYRES (New South Wales) (13:42): No matter what moderate, reasonable language this is couched in, no matter how it's dressed up, an amnesty for superannuation theft is a terrible idea. It will reward bad employer behaviour. It will disincentivise employers who've got good governance and good compliance records, and in fact put many of them at a competitive disadvantage. It will cover barely a fraction of the superannuation stolen and will, I believe, send a very clear message to employers and to workers about whose side the coalition government is really on.

The coalition government aren't on the side of ordinary working Australians. They're not on the side of businesses—small, medium and large—who do the right thing, who work with their employees and with unions and demonstrate good compliance and good governance structures. This is a government that is on the side of the charlatans and the shonks: the criminals in the construction industry and the people who find noncompliance and underpayment is their business model. Their friends in the press are out there defending people who steal money from ordinary working people who are in vulnerable positions. Those are the characters who that side of politics back up every single time when it counts. It's always couched in the minister's reasonable language and moderate propositions, but that's because it's an act of deception, trying to encourage ordinary Australians to think that these people are on their side when in fact what they are really about is enabling corporate crime, enabling underpayments and encouraging bad employer behaviour. Their ultimate objective is to wreck the superannuation system itself. The Liberals have never understood superannuation.

Senator Hume: I worked in it.

Senator AYRES: I'll take the interjection. For a person who's worked in the sector, you've never understood the value of the superannuation system. No matter how much the minister protests, the government's core objective is undermining universality, undermining the scale of the system and wrecking the value that it's created for ordinary workers and their families and the Australian economy.

Senator Hume interjecting

Senator AYRES: You can shake your head, but you are a chief enabler of wrecking one of the great achievements in the Australian economy. It's a Labor achievement. I know you lot hate it. I know you lot hate the ordinary, decent trade union officials and members who established the system. It is a Labor achievement. It is a union achievement. It's an achievement that's been delivered in cooperation and great partnership with a generation of employers and employer representatives. It's delivered good things for the Australian economy and ordinary working people. At every little step of the way, at every opportunity to undermine it and to pander to some of the most extremist elements that have attached themselves to your once-great political party, you've done anything to wreck the system. What we actually need is a fair dinkum commitment to superannuation, a fair dinkum commitment to dealing with the inequities that present themselves, and we need a government that's actually on the side of decent Australians—that's actually on the side of good employers, not on the side of ratbags and crooks and shonks.

Industry Super Australia estimates that $5.9 billion worth of superannuation is stolen every year. The tax office estimates about half that: $2.8 billion of superannuation is stolen every year. This amnesty, which goes back an extraordinary 26 years, will only recover, the estimates say, $230 million.

Senator Hume: That's an awful lot for workers.

Senator AYRES: Well, it's actually not very much over 26 years. It's a very poor return for what's going to send a very clear message supporting noncompliance, supporting crook behaviour, undermining decent superannuation funds and undermining compliance right across Australia's industry. I can't imagine a situation where anybody would think that if, as an ordinary Australian, they didn't pay their tax, if they didn't pay the debts that were due, this government would run out with a 26-year amnesty. It's an extraordinary immoral and improper proposition perpetrated by a government that doesn't know what it's doing, that's lost its purpose, that doesn't have a plan for the economy and that couldn't fight its way out of a wet paper bag.

The system of universal superannuation is regarded as one of the most successful schemes in the modern world. It's a great social democratic achievement. The Laurie Carmichaels, the Bill Keltys, the Tom McDonalds and, dare I say it, the Doug Camerons delivered industry superannuation for ordinary Australians. After more than 25 years, we're seeing the transformative effect it's having not just on the lives of working Australians but on the broader national economy. We now have an entire generation that stands to retire with the benefit of decades of compulsory superannuation, delivering dignity that was unimaginable to their parents, helping to ease the burden on the age pension and mitigating, to some extent, the great inequalities that exist in our society in terms of people's wealth. The idea that average workers might be able to retire with a few hundred thousand dollars in their superannuation account, I know, causes great offence to members opposite, but it's a profound achievement, and we should be celebrating it.

Thirty years ago, millions of Australians were retiring with little or no savings, no super and only the age pension to support them. Rewind 30 years and Australia didn't have its own source of domestic capital. As a result of our superannuation system, we no longer have the begging bowl out for foreign capital, captive to foreign bondholders, with a huge current account deficit, which is exactly where the coalition would have had us if they'd their say all the way along. Those characters opposite opposed superannuation every step of the way. Now that the system is in place, they seek to undermine it. There wasn't a moment during the 1980s when the once great political party that these characters hang around with ever supported progress in the superannuation system or ever stood up for ordinary Australian workers. They were always on the side of poorer outcomes, they were always opposed to universal superannuation and they never once struck a blow for ordinary working people. With a pool of savings that now is expected to reach around $6 trillion by 2030, our superannuation system is a key driver of growth—to the extent that's possible in the economy that the senators and the government opposite have delivered us—it's got enormous potential in terms of jobs and productivity and is increasingly improving Australia's current account by investing overseas and repatriating dividends and capital gains.

It was Labor that built the system. We just can't forget that the system was built by, and for, working people in cooperation with business and with business organisations in a way that would do the country a great amount of credit if we could return to that level of cooperation and that level of common purpose. It was unions, not the coalition, that insisted that superannuation must be portable and must be accumulating. It was union members who demanded access to the system that was previously the preserve of a privileged few, and they often went on strike to do so—sometimes at a national and an industry level in concert, in cooperation, in a way that the characters opposite have tried to stop Australian workers doing every single time. It was Australian workers and the ACTU and the great trade unions of the time who agreed to forgo productivity based wage increases to achieve the system.

The creation of industry super funds was a true innovation. They are the envy of modern governments all over the world. Their return to members has been remarkable—at least by the industry funds—and their influence has made them a critical part of the Australian economy. They continue to have lower fees and better returns than their retail counterparts.

Universal superannuation shows us what happens when Australians cooperate and develop cooperative models based on consensus, rather than ratbag ideological division. That's why the show opposite don't understand the system. That's why they are so opposed to the system. Some of them even harbour doubts about the future existence of the universal system at all. Poor old Senator Bragg's first speech to the parliament included this package of wisdom:

Compulsory superannuation is almost 30 years old. Super is now almost twice the size of the economy and the capitalisation of the securities exchange. We have the fourth-largest private pension pool in the world with only 25 million people.

Imagine that. He then goes on to say:

It remains a strange but huge experiment.

That's an odd thing to say. He went on to say:

I do not believe this system is working for Australians. Certainly the case has not been made for ever bigger super. I would change direction. Super should be made voluntary for Australians earning under $50,000 a year. Taxpayers could simply tick a box to get a refund when filing an annual tax return. I commissioned modelling from Rice Warner actuaries, which estimates a saving to government of $1.8 billion in the first year alone.

What an extraordinary proposition! This is the crank ideology that is driving some of the big thinkers in the Liberal Party today about the future of a system that is universal, that has enormous capacity for social and economic justice for ordinary Australian people and is also of enormous benefit to the Australian economy.

Senator Bragg's proposal would rob 13 million Australians of a decent retirement, and it's attracting some support. He's not the only person on the other side who harbours unusual doubts about the remarkable success of our superannuation system. There is a growing rump of backbenchers who are spreading disunity on the critical increase to our superannuation system—the legislated increase to 12 per cent. We know where that leads. The Leader of the Government in the Senate has often been at the centre of little rumps in the backbench, and we know where that leads in terms of coalition policymaking. The member for Goldstein, the hapless Mr Wilson, told Sky News that there are 'legitimate questions about whether we should continue to increase the superannuation guarantee verses the alternative of giving people the choice to opt for wage increases so they can do things like pay down debt today'. The hypocrisy and the arrogance of a bloke who will never have to struggle for his own retirement! He will never have to make the choices that ordinary Australians find themselves having to make. Getting onto the side of businesses who don't comply and getting onto the side of cutting costs and the low-wage, low-skill option—that's where he is.

The truth is many of these characters have adopted the lazy assumptions, the ordinary thinking and the shallow approach to politics—what's in the interest of the Liberal Party and businesses that don't comply with the law. That's where the backbench—the morbid, moribund, moronic backbench—of the modern Liberal Party are heading on this issue. It's an embarrassment. It's an embarrassment that the once great political party that used to stand up for decent businesses is now hanging out with people who don't comply and who have hopeless governance standards. This bill sends a message to the crooks and shonks in the construction industry, who are your friends— (Time expired)