Assistant Superannuation Minister Jane Hume (Image: AAP/Lukas Coch)

We should know by now that when the government goes after industry superannuation funds, the victims are likely to be ordinary Australians and the rival retail super funds sector — once upon a time controlled by the big banks, until the banking royal commission forced them to flee the wealth management sector in disgrace.

Its most recent attack was via early access to superannuation for — ostensibly — people affected by the lockdown, designed to disproportionately harm industry super funds with a greater weight in illiquid assets like infrastructure.

That was an advantage during the 2008 financial crisis, when employer and union-run funds performed significantly better than retail funds, but now intended to be used against them as members were encouraged to raid their super accounts for money to tide them over pandemic-induced financial difficulties.

Part of that narrative was that industry funds would be slow to pay members who applied for early access.

Such funds would be “named and shamed”, according to an Australian article, which identified industry funds Hostplus and REST as possible culprits.

Long-time retail fund advocate and Liberal Senator Andrew “virus guy” Bragg linked industry criticism of the early access scheme with fund illiquidity. Assistant Superannuation Minister Jane Hume, who has repeatedly described industry funds as “unholy”, accused the sector of seeking to delay early access payments by several months.

You can probably guess what happened next. With the scheme having run for over a month, it turns out the worst laggards for paying members under the early access scheme are … retail super funds.

According to the most recent Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) data, which covers April 20 to May 24, 1.6 million people have claimed a total of $12.2 billion under the scheme, with 94% of applications paid within APRA’s guideline of five working days — indeed, the average time to pay out an application has been 3.3 working days.

To give some sense of scale — and show how this really isn’t the major drama all sides portray it as — $12.2 billion in around five weeks compares to a quarterly inflow of contributions in the December 2019 quarter — pre-COVID, of course — of $29.3 billion.

According to APRA’s data, Westpac-owned BT Funds Management’s ASGARD Independence Plan Division Two had paid out nearly 7000 applications totalling $57 million — but only 46.2% were paid within five working days.

Diversa Trustee’s Future Super Fund paid out $12 million with 46.3% paid within five days. Its ING Super Fund paid out $49 million with 65% within five days (in fact, there are six Diversa funds that managed less than 90%, but it also had a couple of >98% performers).

OnePath Custodians’ Retirement Portfolio Service — until last year owned by ANZ, who sold it to Zurich — managed 78% for its $396 million. NAB’s MLC Super Fund achieved 89% for its $425 million.

Some major retail funds have performed well. Funds run by scandal-plagued AMP, which is perhaps desperate to avoid any more bad headlines, all managed over 98% while paying out nearly half a billion dollars.

Colonial First State, in which the Commonwealth recently sold a majority stake, managed over 96% for all its funds.

The worst-performing industry fund was Queensland hospitality industry fund Intrust, which paid out $112 million at just 55% within five days.

Media Super ($45 million) managed 75.7%. The corporate in-house fund of neoliberal darling Qantas managed just 61.3% in shelling out $42 million.

But most industry funds performed well. The meat industry fund managed 100% in paying out $22 million. Queensland giant Sunsuper achieved 99.9% in paying out a mammoth $1.25 billion. And Hostplus, identified by The Australian as a laggard? $1.2 billion at 95.9%. REST also managed 95.9% in paying out $1.1 billion.

Oops, that wasn’t in the narrative. Strangely, it’s mostly been left to finance industry publications to point out who is performing or not performing.

What was also missing from the government’s plan was for the scheme to be abused by identity thieves, who have stolen tens of thousands of dollars, and potentially much more, from unknowing account holders.

It was industry super’s warning to government about exactly that security risk, and the need for tighter checks, that Hume initially portrayed as trying to slow down the early access scheme.

Asked by the ABC’s 7.30 last night if she regretted ignoring those warnings, Hume doubled down and repeated her accusation that industry funds were trying to slow the process down, though at least she refrained from describing them as “unholy”.

It’s also clear that a significant proportion of those accessing their funds had experienced no loss of income, or were using it for discretionary spending, not essentials — again reflecting Hume’s poor scheme design, with the ATO not requiring applicants to verify that they’ve lost their job or suffered a major income fall.

The prime minister yesterday waved away any problem with people blowing their retirement nest egg on gambling or alcohol.

“It’s their money. I don’t go around telling people how to spend their own money.” A peculiar thing to say about a compulsory superannuation scheme, but then the Liberals don’t believe in that anyway.

Peter Fray

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