The analysis shows how either of the reform packages proposed by both major parties would be a big step in the right direction. It explores how the current system provides much larger benefits to those with such ample resources that they will never qualify for an Age Pension. And it shows how the proposed changes would affect them – and pretty much nobody else.
As they debate the Coalition government’s proposals to wind back tax breaks on superannuation, politicians on all sides can do three big things: create a better and fairer superannuation scheme; take an important step towards repairing the Commonwealth budget; and show that our political system still works.
Both main parties have laid out their preferred reforms to super tax concessions. While they agree on all but the details, they are yet to strike a deal. Our new research shows what is at stake.
A better, fairer, super system
First and foremost, the proposed reforms to superannuation announced in the 2016 budget are about making super better, and fairer.
Tax breaks should only be available when they serve a policy aim. The purpose of super identified in the budget and due to be defined in legislation is to provide income in retirement to substitute or supplement the Age Pension. Super tax breaks don’t fulfil this purpose when they benefit those who were never going to qualify for an Age Pension in the first place.
The plans of both the government and the ALP would be big steps towards aligning super tax breaks more closely with their purpose. They would trim the generous super tax breaks enjoyed by the top 20% of income earners – people wealthy enough to be comfortable in retirement and unlikely to qualify for the Age Pension.
Retirees with large superannuation balances will start paying some tax on their superannuation savings, but still pay much less tax than wage earners on lower incomes. For a small proportion of women with higher incomes later in life, the changes will reduce their catch-up contributions. Yet the changes will reduce the tax breaks far more for wealthier old men.
Claims that the budget changes will affect many low and middle-income earners are wrong. Our research shows the changes will affect about 4% of superannuants, nearly all of them high-income earners who are unlikely to access the Age Pension. Nor are the proposed changes retrospective. Many reforms affect investments made in the past, and no-one suggests they are retrospective. Rather, the changes will affect taxes paid on future super earnings, and entitlements to make future contributions to super.
Any plausible combination of the packages on offer would make the super system fairer. At present, someone in the top 1% of income earners can expect to receive nearly three times as much in welfare and tax breaks from super in their lifetime as an average income earner. The government’s changes would trim some of these excesses: the top 1% would instead receive just twice as much as low or average income earners. And by targeting tax breaks that go to the top 20% of income earners, neither side’s plan would see much of an offsetting increase in Age Pension spending.
An unsustainable tax system for seniors
Decisions by the former Coalition Government to abolish taxes on superannuation withdrawals in 2007 and radically increase the amount senior Australians could earn before paying income tax have dramatically reduced the tax bills of older Australians.
These changes are one of the main reasons why households over the age of 65 (unlike households aged between 25 and 64) now pay less income tax in real terms today than they did 20 years ago. At the same time, the workforce participation rates and incomes of seniors have jumped. Generous super tax breaks have been funded by deficits. The accumulating debt burden will disproportionately fall on younger households.
Tax breaks to older Australians are also a major cause of the increase in the “taxed nots” identified by Treasurer Scott Morrison. The number of older Australians not paying any income tax has increased from three in four in 2000 to five in six today. The rise of these “taxed nots” coincides with the introduction of the Senior Australian Tax Offset in 2000, and tax-free super withdrawals in 2007.
Repairing the budget
The increased cost of services and reduced taxes per older household explain in large part why the Commonwealth budget is in trouble. For eight years, budget deficits have persisted at about 2 to 3% of GDP, and the future looks little better. The returned Turnbull government is putting a priority on budget repair, now described as a “massive moral challenge” by the Prime Minister. Winding back some of the tax breaks given to older Australians during the happier times of the mining boom is an obvious step.
The government’s super package would save the budget at least A$800 million a year. Alternative proposals by the ALP, which broadly supports the Coalition’s reforms, and then goes further, would save more than A$2 billion a year. Should Treasurer Morrison seek a deal with the ALP or the Greens, any “concessions” will mostly improve the budget position.
Nor is the Turnbull government likely to find more attractive opportunities for budget savings. Unlike most of the government’s savings measures, changes to super tax breaks are broadly popular. Electorates more likely to be adversely affected by the super changes – that is, those with more old and wealthy voters – tended to swing less to the ALP at the last election than other electorates. And a survey before the election showed that the proposals had more support amongst those most likely to be adversely affected.
A test for our political system
Even after the reforms, super tax breaks will still mostly flow to high-income earners who do not need them, and the budgetary costs of super tax breaks will remain unsustainable in the long term. Further changes to super tax breaks will be needed in future. But agreeing to the super package now before the Parliament would be progress in the right direction. And there is a broader issue at stake.
Super is only the first of a number of difficult choices that will come before the Parliament as government seeks to promote economic growth in a sluggish global economy, and bring the budget back under control. There is no easy road to these ends that will keep everyone happy all the time. Pragmatic compromise will be critical.
The proposed changes to super tax breaks are built on principle, supported by the electorate and largely supported by the three largest political parties. If we cannot get reform in this situation, then our political system is in deep trouble. In coming weeks, our MPs have the chance to show how government in Australia can still change the nation for the better.