Nine chair Peter Costello (Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

One of the myths peddled by Australian business, its media cheerleaders and political representatives is that if only unions were less militant and worked with business, everyone would be better off. Some employer groups even publicly pine for the 1980s (when industrial disputation was twenty times its current level). It’s a myth not because of this, or because it’s necessarily false, but because the people arguing it don’t believe it. 

In the one sector where union and employer cooperation has delivered massive wins for Australians — the industry super sector — the result hasn’t been applause and the lauding of industrial cooperation, but relentless vilification of trade unions. To hear the Liberals, conservative media commentators, the Financial Review and big business tell it, industry super isn’t an example of how employer and employee representatives, working together with equal power for the betterment of members, show how a less divisive industrial model can be effective, but an example of the power of corrupt trade unions.

This argument came a cropper when the banking royal commission and the Productivity Commission’s review of default super exposed how not merely how big bank and AMP-owned retail funds underperformed industry super, but how much blatant gouging was going on across the retail sector. Crikey has been pointing this out for the best part of decade, but even media outlets that once cheered against industry super, like The Australian, now run detailed articles on just how terrible retail funds are – going beyond even the PC, which thinks workers shouldn’t be told which funds are the worst performing.

Not at the Financial Review, however. Long a champion of retail funds and smiter of unions hip and thigh, the Fin has had to endure the indignities inflicted on the big banks and AMP by the royal commission. The PC report, however, presented an opportunity to renew its attack on the uppity plebeians of the unions. The PC, in response to a number of poorly performing default super funds — nearly all retail funds — made two core recommendations: underperformers of whatever stripe should be forced to merge into better-performing funds, and the current default super system should be replaced with a list of the ten best funds. The first recommendation was sound — even industry super people will tell you privately their sector needs to consolidate just like the retail sector. Of course, that would require the alleged regulators at APRA to get off their shiny bums.

The second PC recommendation, in which bureaucrats would pick a panel to select the top ten funds, was asinine and a recipe for relentless gaming. Good luck finding people prepared to wear the odium of picking a dud, or of killing the funds that make eleventh — or even third. Even sensible journalists at the Fin like Karen Maley knew the PC had disgraced themselves. Not so elsewhere there – the editors (viz. out-of-touch reactionary Michael Stutchbury) and loyal lieutenants like John Kehoe, loved the idea as a means to attack unions.

Better yet, what about getting the Future Fund, chaired by Peter Costello, involved? Surely Costello’s fund should be in the top ten? Except, over the last few years the Future Fund under Costello couldn’t even manage the top 20 compared to industry funds. If the Fin couldn’t bring itself to endorse Costello’s 2017 brain fart of nationalizing super, then at least the Future Fund could displace one of those awful “union-run” funds. And the Fin cheered when the Liberals were said to be considering having the Future Fund run the whole process.

This illustrates the profoundly problematic nature of a media company chaired by a partisan player who is also in charge of a major government body: a Liberal government could be plotting to hand a threshold power over superannuation to a former senior Liberal, and continuing partisan player, cheered on by the nation’s business publication, owned — courtesy of laws changed by the Liberals — by the company chaired by that same partisan player. Former Costello staffer Kelly O’Dwyer even had the temerity to rail at “ticket clippers” in super. The Liberal Party and their mates at the Fin have been diligently representing the interests of ticket clippers – at the big banks and AMP, in funds management, and in financial planning – for years.

But then again the Fin never gave a damn about the actual interests of ordinary workers. Like the Liberals, it sees unions as the enemy. And where Costello’s influence within Nine’s outlets stops and starts is anyone’s guess.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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