What's next for women's super?

NSW Senator, Jenny McAllister, writes about what is next for women and superannuation.

Superannuation promises to be one of the major battlegrounds of the next parliament. We have a real opportunity to give effect to progressive values and make our retirement system fairer. If we are to do this opportunity justice, however, we need to make sure we address the gender gap in retirement outcomes.

One of the first things I did when I joined the Senate was to establish an inquiry into women’s economic security in retirement. I did this because women are retiring with half the amount of superannuation as men.  I wanted to find out what the causes of this problem were and what we could do to fix it. Earlier this year, we released the inquiry's report. We found that if action is not taken now, young women will still face a less secure retirement than men their age when they retire in forty years.

The reason for this is that Australia’s retirement system disproportionally rewards the working lives of men over women. From their first day at work, Australian women face a structural disadvantage. The combination of the gender pay gap, time out of fulltime work for caring responsibilities, tax arrangements that disproportionally benefit higher paid men, and a concentration of women in lower paid occupations mean women are retiring with approximately half the superannuation of men.

It is not acceptable that women can enter retirement after a lifetime of work and care facing poverty, and we did some good work in the last parliament in putting this issue on the agenda. There is now a strong base of public support for super reform. The coalition was forced to look like they were doing something about super in their last budget. However, the government’s claims that their reforms will help women simply don’t stack up. If anything, the three measures they most often point to just show how out of touch the coalition is with the lives of ordinary Australian women.

  1. Catch up Concessional Superannuation Contributions 
    The government claims this measure will help women by allowing them to make additional tax-free super contributions when they are working to make up for the period of time spent out of work. The problem is that most women aren’t earning enough to contribute an amount capable of making a difference. It is difficult to find extra money to put into your super when, like so many women, you are working part time or earning less than the average wage. Industry Super Australia estimates that this measure will help less than 2% of women who have super accounts.
  2. Improve Superannuation Balances of Low Income Spouses
    The government claims this measure will help women by provided a tax incentive to more men to make contributions to their partner’s super accounts. This proposal says a lot about the Liberals’ view of gender relations, but doesn’t do a lot for women who cannot (or do not want to) rely on a partner for economic security. As one woman said to our senate inquiry: “A husband is not a retirement plan”.  
  3. Low Income Superannuation Tax Offset
    This is the only measure that will have a real impact on the retirement gender gap. Appropriately enough, it is a renamed version of a Labor policy that the Government has been planning to cut for the last three years. This is a win we should be proud of. It is concerning, though, that the only measure that addresses the inequity facing women is a Labor policy that this government were dragged kicking and screaming into keeping.

It is not surprising that the government dropped the ball – gender equity has not been a priority for them. In fact Treasury even admitted at the last budget estimates that they had not been asked to do any analysis breaking down the effect of the government’s super changes by gender. There’s no excuse for this. Our inquiry found that there are so many tangible things that can be done to improve retirement outcomes for women:

  • fixing super by redirecting tax concessions from high income earners towards things like paying super on paid parental leave, removing the minimum income threshold for super, or increasing the super guarantee;
  • securing the aged pension; and
  • taking real steps to narrow the gender pay gap.

One of our key tasks this year will be to keep the interests of women at the forefront when super policy is being developed in the party and in the parliament. Super reform is having its moment. Opportunities like this only come around every generation. We can’t afford to have the gender retirement gap stay the same. And neither can Australian women. 

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