Chris Bowen made his first substantial speech as Minister for Superannuation yesterday and there was no doubting his message: more reform is coming.

Much of the industry isn’t going to like it but Bowen has flagged major changes that will have fiscal and equity impacts for generations. He also made it clear this Government sees superannuation as a core Labor issue.

Bowen is having no truck with the argument — pushed by Peter Costello at the same event yesterday — that superannuation needs to be left in peace. In effect Costello argued that because the Howard Government had repeatedly tinkered with super, Labor should leave it alone.

“I do think we need a period of policy stability for super,” Bowen said, which probably made some industry ears prick up in hope. “And these reviews [the Henry tax review and Jeremy Cooper’s review of the superannuation industry], once completed and worked through, are the best way to get it.”

Part of the reason is that Costello’s tinkering has given us a tax system that costs us — even after some reversals in this year’s Budget — over $20b a year in lost tax revenue in superannuation concessions.

And pretty much all of that goes to high income earners. As Bowen pointed out yesterday, low income earners get lost in the superannuation debate, but they are the ones whose dependence or otherwise on the age pension will affect the national budget the most in decades to come.

The other key factor in that equation is the rate of compulsory superannuation. Bowen appeared to go out of his way to not endorse Treasury’s view — and that of Ken Henry’s tax review — that a 9% compulsory contribution rate would afford an “adequate” retirement income. “I believe that adequacy should be the minimum objective for retirement incomes,” Bowen said.

Treasury’s view is undoubtedly influenced by the fact that an increase in the compulsory rate would further increase the amount of tax revenue lost to superannuation.

But that circle can be squared, as a number of observers have noted, but reducing the level of commissions charged by planners and advisers, or eliminating them altogether, which on one industry estimate would yield an additional $80,000 in retirement income for your average worker.

Major industry bodies like the Investment and Financial Services Association and the Financial Planning Association have already tried to anticipate regulation of commissions by promising to move to a self-regulated non-commission remuneration model in coming years.

But as several submissions to the current Parliamentary inquiry into the Storm debacle demonstrate, there are plenty in the industry who will defend commissions to the last dollar.

The Association of Financial Advisers argues that banning commissions hurts consumers by taking away their right to choose. Red Oak Financial believes customers prefer paying commissions. Andy Penn of AXA believes a ban on commissions would have the inevitable “unintended consequences”. Guardian Financial Planning believes trail commissions are “an efficient form of remuneration”.

Such views are beginning to look dinosaur-like even in the financial planning industry. And there is no comeback to the basic argument that commissions are reducing workers’ retirement incomes and increasing their dependence on the age pension.

Bowen made another thing clear in his speech. He kicked it off with an attack on Peter Costello, whom he said had outright opposed compulsory superannuation when introduced by Paul Keating. Indeed, Bowen namechecked Keating several times. He made it clear he regards superannuation as one of the great Labor reforms, and one that can be wielded effectively against the Coalition.

“I’m not suggesting that those who now claim to be the protectors of superannuation were absent at its creation,” said Bowen, referring to the Coalition. “On the contrary. They were there, front and centre, as warriors against its creation.”

At the moment, Chris Pearce remains the shadow superannuation spokesman. Pearce (who tends to run whatever line IFSA puts in a press release) is leaving at the next election, but a Coalition reshuffle is too fraught for Malcolm Turnbull at the moment. In effect it has been left to Peter Costello, who is knocking off even sooner than Pearce, to defend the Coalition on super. Bowen in effect has the field to himself. He’s not the sort of bloke to miss an opportunity like that.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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