Tim-Wilson
Liberal MP Tim Wilson (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

In the days after June 12, journalists at The Financial Review and News Corp should keep an eye on their inboxes for email from an aph.gov.au address.

In it they’ll find a set of answers from industry super funds to a large number of questions asked by the House economics committee chairman Tim Wilson, all intended to somehow embarrass funds jointly run by employer groups and unions.

Wilson is well known for using the committee for partisan purposes — most famously his pre-election campaign against Labor’s policy to end the franking credit rort.

As Crikey has previously reported, he has also taken to using it to issue lengthy lists of questions targeted at industry super funds designed to waste their time and, if possible, embarrass them. Due to what can only be mysteriously poor security in Wilson’s office, the answers then make their way to News Corp and AFR journalists to write up as industry fund hatchet jobs, usually with some glowing reference to Wilson.

Wilson recently recently fired off a third tranche of questions that are due for reply on June 12, after which we boldly predict the answers will fall off the back of a truck and end up in the media, with the Fin — which prosecutes a relentless war on industry super funds — a favoured recipient.

While Wilson has been issuing reams of questions to super funds, as The Australian’s John Durie pointed out, the latter are “in the midst of answering 1.7 million requests for money back under the government’s refund scheme on top of its day jobs, so time is not exactly abundant”.

While getting billions out the door while trying to ensure ID thieves didn’t steal super, most industry funds managed to comply with the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority’s (APRA) five-working-day guideline — doubtless to the chagrin of the government.

Meanwhile Wilson let the big banks off having to appear before his committee on the basis that they were “fully occupied” with pandemic-related work.

Vexatious level of detail demanded

A number of Wilson’s third set of questions repeat previous questions or, as Durie noted, cover areas where the royal commission found no issue with industry funds. Others demand a vexatious level of detail.

Despite all funds having to report details of their investments to APRA, and APRA reporting each fund’s investments across investment categories, Wilson has sought a geographic breakdown of fund investments, including “North America (inc USA)” and “United States specifically”, “Europe (not inc UK)”, “Europe (inc UK) and “United Kingdom specifically”, not to mention Africa and China.

You can already see the headlines in a News Corp tabloid: “Outrage as Aussies’ retirement savings invested in Botswana”.

There’s also some extraordinary hypocrisy in one question which demands “the event name, organising entity, ticket price and attendee(s) for the past decade” of any political fundraisers attended by representatives of funds — which is far more detail than the Liberal Party reports about its fundraisers and far more detail than corporations are required to provide under political donation laws put in place by the Liberals under John Howard.

Those questions appear to be part of a long-running Liberal conspiracy theory — mainly peddled by Andrew “Virus Guy” Bragg — that industry funds siphon money to the Labor Party, a claim the media is still allowing him to peddle with zero evidence.

Wilson also appears to not understand the basics of superannuation governance, asking multiple questions about whether funds had invested in or lent money to REST or Hostplus, two industry funds wrongly targeted by the government and the media as potentially failing to pay out funds under the early access scheme.

Wilson’s questions bemused industry figures, who wondered why on earth they would invest in another super fund, or how any employer and trade union-nominated directors would approve such an investment as complying with their fiduciary duties, given such investments might even breach the industry’s governing Superannuation Industry (Supervision) Act 1993.

Australians who had their lives shattered and their finances ruined by the big banks might reflect on how different things might be if previous Liberal chairs of the committee had subjected retail super funds to similar fine-grained scrutiny over the extensive and outrageous abuses they perpetrated in the years before the banking royal commission.

There were no reams of questions from the committee to retail funds about related-party transactions, or high levels of fees, or their underperformance compared with corporate and industry funds.

Chairs like Sarah Henderson, David Coleman, Craig Laundy and John Alexander had no interest in seeking information about the tardiness with which members were moved into MySuper products, or how dead people were charged fees, or how fees were charged not merely for no service but when there wasn’t even a financial adviser to provide a service.

Instead it was left to Senate committees and Nationals, Labor and Greens senators to investigate and expose the abuses of the big banks and their financial advisory arms — and how little regulators like ASIC had done to protect their tens of thousands of victims.

The Liberal contribution to that effort was to try to repeal financial advice laws and demonise industry super as “venal union funds”. Now that extends to a campaign to wreck the superannuation system entirely (the latest instalment of which was written up this week in gushing terms by Nine’s papers).

Still, we can look forward to the next round of hatchet jobs from Wilson and his journalist mates later this month.

Correction: this article initially suggested only industry funds had received questions; Crikey understands retail funds may have received some questions from the committee as well.

Peter Fray

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