Former Liberal Party federal director and Business Council executive Andrew Bragg 

Big business has lost the superannuation war. The exit of most of the big banks from wealth management and financial planning, the banking royal commission and the Productivity Commission’s finding that industry super funds outperform retail super funds have capped off a steady decline in retail super’s fortunes since the Abbott government failed to repeal Labor’s Future of Financial Advice reforms. 

But having lost, it appears big business wants to wreck superannuation entirely. Andrew Bragg, a Business Council of Australia executive director is — like so many BCA staff — a Liberal Party apparatchik, as well as a former executive of the retail super fund lobby group Financial Services Council. Bragg has been running a campaign against industry super in conjunction with Kelly O’Dwyer, Michaelia Cash and News Corp writers like Simon Benson and Miranda Devine. Since it’s no longer credible to claim that funds run by the big banks are competitive with industry super, Bragg claims that industry funds — which are jointly run by employer associations like Australian Industry Group, and trade unions — are in league with the Labor Party and feeding cash to unions.

This conspiracy theory relies on portraying fees to trade union-appointed fund directors as a sinister flow of cash to the labour movement. Of course, the same payments are made to an equal number of employer-nominated directors, but that isn’t a flow of funds to big employer lobby groups that side with the Liberals. Bragg also portrays advertising fees paid to unions by funds as political in nature, as if funds shouldn’t try to advertise to attract new members; similar payments to employer groups, or industry super’s TV advertising budget, go unmentioned. Employer and union-controlled industry super is no more channelling money into the labour movement that it’s channelling money into the media via advertising campaigns.

Given Bragg is peddling this Trump-style theory while working as an Executive Director of the Business Council, Industry Super Australia’s chair Peter Collins — that’s the union operative who was NSW Liberal leader back in the day — recently wrote to BCA members pointing out Bragg’s claims and providing a detailed rebuttal. 

The association of the Business Council of Australia with the publication of such political, misleading and inaccurate material attacking industry super funds is a matter of considerable concern. It is akin to party political propaganda. We would appreciate your assurance that it will not continue. We would be happy to meet with you to discuss further.

This was immediately misrepresented by business lobbyists as an attempt to censor Bragg, rather than for the Business Council to disssociate itself with false claims made by its Executive Director. And misrepresented with hysteria. “I can’t believe there is an attack on him. Free speech is vital to a democracy, you can say anything you like,” Liberal supporter and former BCA chair Tony Shepherd said. Shepherd also decided that Collins’ call for the BCA to dissociate itself reflected “a decline in moral and ethical standards in the West.”

Well, that escalated quickly.

But Shepherd then went radically further, claiming “but [industry funds] are the backers of the Labor Party. They provide cash and resources for elections.”

This is utterly false. And it appears designed to undermine the entire superannuation system. Shepherd is telling workers their retirement savings are part of a giant scam designed to deliver power to Labor. At a time when banks have trashed the wealth management and financial advice industries and when community trust in the financial industry is seriously damaged, one of the doyens of Australian business is telling Australians they can’t trust the retirement savings system either.

The broader context here is a push to nationalise superannuation. This is the mutually assured destruction option for the right and big business now they have lost the super war. Future Fund chair Peter Costello recently called for nationalisation by making the Future Fund the default super fund for every worker — although his own CEO kyboshed the idea (there’s the problem that the Future Fund underperforms many super funds). Kelly O’Dwyer has been an enthusiastic backer of the idea and has tried to spin the Productivity Commission’s draft report as showing the entire system is broken, rather than problems being concentrated in retail super. “The system right now is broken for millions of Australians and it has cost them millions upon millions of dollars in retirement savings,” O’Dwyer has said.

The government and big business appear to be thinking on parallel tracks: if they can’t win on superannuation, they’ll wreck the entire system.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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