Union membership may be at historical lows, but the movement has more power than ever by controlling an important economic resource, writes Des Houghton.
Union membership may be at historical lows, but the movement has more power than ever by controlling an important economic resource, writes Des Houghton.

'The real reason unions don’t want you raiding your super'


Paul Keating is starting to annoy me all over again.

The former prime minister - known in the Canberra press gallery as The Mortician - fronted the television cameras last week to chastise workers for dipping into their superannuation nest eggs.

Labor leaders such as Keating love nothing better than telling you what you can and can't do with your own money.

And they don't miss an opportunity to grab more of it when they're in power.

Keating said workers would not have enough set aside for retirement if they raided the pot now.

Many have no choice.

The Mortician forgets the coronavirus has created the worst economic crisis in this country since World War II, with a catastrophic impact on businesses and individuals. And we're told it will get worse.

There are a thousand good reasons why people may be forced to withdraw funds early - and frankly, Paul, it's none of your business.

A single mother with a seriously ill infant had to take $20,000 of her super to buy a car to visit doctors when her old one broke down.

It might be churlish of me to say so, but former prime ministers who get generous retirement packages and swan around in taxpayer-funded chauffeur-driven cars will never experience the penury facing working families whose incomes have evaporated.

I'm not against superannuation, but I question whether it should be compulsory.

Don't feel guilty about grabbing $20,000 or more if you have to.

As one commentator said, a sharemarket crash could wipe that from your nest egg anyway.


ACTU secretary Bill Kelty (front) with treasurer Paul Keating in 1986
ACTU secretary Bill Kelty (front) with treasurer Paul Keating in 1986


And there are valid reasons why the Federal Government should extend the period of withdrawals beyond the September 24 cut-off date.

There is an astonishing $3.7 trillion tied up in superannuation in this country, and it is a profitable business for unions as well as banks.

The superannuation guarantee is due to rise incrementally from 9.5 per cent to 12 per cent between 2012 and 2025 under laws enacted by the former Labor government.

Increasing compulsory super to 12 per cent of wages will cost Australian workers $20bn a year in take-home pay.

Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe says such a rise will suppress wages and cost jobs.

Meanwhile, it is not widely understood that superannuation has become a milch cow for the union movement.

We can thank Liberal senator Andrew Bragg for pointing this out in his new book, Bad Egg: How to Fix Super (Connor Court Publishing).

Bragg traces the amounts paid to union industry super funds in the form of board fees, sponsorships, marketing deals and various other fees for service.

Three years ago, The Australian reported on the front page that millions in mysterious "dark payments" did not seem to have been properly accounted for.

Bragg tapped Australian Electoral Commission data showing industry funds paid $10.45 million to unions in 2017, up from $3.22 million in 2006.

This is money siphoned straight from workers' wages. He suggests superannuation is an indulgence that does not work.

Imagine the windfall in new money for Labor and the unions if the superannuation levy does jump to 12 per cent, or 15 per cent as demanded by Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.

The levy is a kind of business tax, and several groups, including federal Treasury officials, warn that would lead to workers taking home lower wages.

Coalitionists are working behind the scenes to block the proposed rise, or limit it to 10 per cent.


Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg
Prime Minister Scott Morrison (left) with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg


The ACTU is on the record as saying that the $1.4 trillion accumulated in industry super funds is workers' money that the union movement will use as an industrial relations "weapon" to force companies to raise wages and conditions.

ACTU president Michele O'Neil told a superannuation conference last year that Australia's business elite was afraid of the collective power of members.

So they should be. With their memberships in decline, unions see superannuation as a source of revenue to mount campaigns against the conservatives.

Keating and then-ACTU secretary Bill Kelty developed the idea of government-enforced compulsory super around four decades ago.

Superannuation has become a sharp arrow in the union quiver. Control of super gives the union movement an unjustified influence over business, even as union membership declines.

I suspect the conservatives failed to recognise that unions today have a more dominant role in the Australian economy than they did in the late 1940s, when union membership was 65 per cent of the workforce.

The superannuation industry collects $32 billion in annual fees. On top of that there are tax concessions worth $36 billion for members.

There is not nearly enough scrutiny of the superannuation industry, although Scott Morrison did flag moves to increase the powers of the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority to crack down on the unscrupulous use of members' funds.

Master Builders Australia chief executive Denita Wawn made a valuable contribution to the debate this week.

She urged Treasurer Josh Frydenberg to crack open superannuation, allowing first-home buyers early access to $50,000 from their retirement savings to build or buy a home.

The economic stimulus would be massive. No doubt the industry super funds will find a reason to oppose it.


Not so super?

THERE is a massive business story unfolding in Queensland that will affect hundreds of thousands of workers, especially nurses, police, teachers and other public servants.

The merger of QSuper with SunSuper is set to proceed despite the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

I'm told the new entity will become Australia's largest superannuation firm, eclipsing AustralianSuper, which manages around $180bn in assets.

Pushing the merger is SunSuper chairman Andrew Fraser, a treasurer in the Bligh government. Naysayers at the big end of town say it will be privatisation by stealth.

Fraser is understood to have the support of union chiefs who sit on both boards. On SunSuper's board are Michael Clifford (Queensland Council of Unions), Ros McLennan (Queensland Council of Unions) and Ben Swan (AWU). QSuper's board includes Kate Ruttiman (Queensland Teachers' Union) and Beth Mohle (Queensland Nurses and Midwives' Union).

Expect a cull of middle managers and others, not dissimilar to the jettisoning of public servants under the Newman government.






Des Houghton is a media consultant and a former editor of The Courier-Mail and The Sunday Mail







Originally published as The real reason unions don't want you raiding your super