Speech delivered online to the delayed (2020) ASFA Conference held online and from the International Convention Centre Sydney (ICC Sydney) on 10 February 2021.
Good morning: Delegates, guests, partners, exhibitors – friends.
Welcome to the 58th ASFA conference.
Thank you to all our partners.
Without your support we cannot stage an event like this. Please allow me to make special mention of our major partners, TAL, NAB and LINK Group.
I am sure you will find the next few days entertainingly instructive and gives you ideas about how you personally can contribute to Australia’s world-class superannuation system.
What a world we live in.
Since we last met at an ASFA conference it feels like an episode of the Twilight Zone or Black Mirror.
A year ago we began to recover from bushfires, some still raging, which killed 34 people, destroyed nearly 3000 homes, cost an estimated 103 billion dollars in damage, and devastated an area equivalent to 80% of the land mass of the United Kingdom.
Climate change is real and hugely relevant to where and how super is invested.
From March 2020, Covid hit our lives, our communities, our economy. Hundreds of thousands lost their jobs, were required to take unpaid leave, became temporary workers, were smacked hard by an economic and social crisis, the biggest sudden drop in GDP and employment since records began.
In both cases – with the fire fighters, the emergency service workers, doctors, nurses and ancillary health workers, and many others – we are lucky to be able to rely on their dedication and determination to keep us alive and healthy.
I want to pay tribute to them and those who have lost their lives. There were nearly 29,000 infections (that we know of), more than 900 fatalities. Australia did well, comparatively, but disease, disruption and death is still not behind us.
Our conference, and the way in which it is being held, reflects the tumultuous year we just lived through. The coronavirus forces us to look afresh at how we connect and deliver events and the theme of this year’s conference is Connection Reimagined.
I am confident you will find our creative approach to the virtual experience enjoyable, educational, and immersive.
This ASFA Conference calls attention to what we do.
We matter, now and ahead, to the future lives, the dignity in retirement, of tens of millions of Australians.
In addition to marvellous speakers and thought-provoking content, our conference is about bringing the people of our industry together. We have found innovative ways of giving you access to speakers, industry leaders, and the wider superannuation community.
One member of our community missed at this conference is Susan Ryan who died last September. The first woman to hold a Cabinet post in a federal Labor Government, Susan, served as Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women and Special Minister of State. She sponsored anti-discrimination and equal opportunity legislation.
After politics she embarked on a new career in superannuation – as Executive Director of ASFA from 1993 to 1997 and as President of AIST from 2000 to 2007.
Empathising with the disadvantaged and the picked upon was her hallmark. As brilliantly told in her autobiography, Catching the Waves, her life is a reminder that doing good is not about being popular or taking the easy path. It requires doggedness, tenacity and above all a clear sense of purpose.
That example, the impact each of us can have in anything we do, is particularly relevant today.
We in superannuation played our part in helping deal with the crisis that is still here.
Most directly through the early release scheme delivered efficiently – over $36Billion in payouts – that helped Australians left vulnerable.
But those Australians who withdrew their superannuation, however, suffered a hit to their retirement. It is essential that the Government act to help them rebuild their balances.
The obvious way is via the legislated increase in the compulsory superannuation guarantee to 12 per cent. Going ahead helps to rebuild balances more quickly, as well as providing better support for all Australians in retirement.
Superannuation’s patient capital provides ballast for our economy. Our investments in productivity-boosting assets and technological and medical breakthroughs continue to make a significant contribution to our recovery.
Delegates, we recently responded to the Government’s October budget Your Future, Your Super package.
As always, ASFA brings a rational and evidence-based approach to the assessment of any proposal. We support the aim of making the system simpler and raising standards and performance for members.
But we disagree with the methodology for the annual performance test and in particular the risk that trustees will be driven to cling passively to benchmarks, some of which, such as the infrastructure benchmark, would have perverse investment outcomes, such as leading trustees to avoid investing in local infrastructure.
To cap off a turbulent year, late last November the Government released the Retirement Income Review.
Pleasingly, the review found the Australian retirement income system to be effective, sound and sustainable.
Yet the Review report toyed with alternatives. Much of the ensuing debate was dominated by commentators choosing snippets of data that suited existing positions, not strictly anchored in the Review’s findings.
The Review’s report speculates unconvincingly about various options, which adds dust to the winds.
For example, whether the SG and wages “trade-off”. Wages do not automatically rise if super is withheld. We have a decade’s hard evidence to back that insight.
The Review also triggered discussion about whether superannuation could be used for home ownership. Another kite in the sky. No one expects that the value of the principal residence will be treated as part of retirement eligibility, in ways the report discusses.
Our main point is that superannuation is for retirement. Not for every worthy cause that hijacks the stage. Using superannuation as a panacea for all life’s troubles greatly weakens the system and the benefits provided to individuals in retirement and to the nation.
That was the year that was, some of the issues tackled.
I am betting that 2021 is a year of recovery, less social distancing, and a return to some degree of normality.
Welcome to another brilliant ASFA Conference.
This is the video of my speech:
In preparing, I wanted to honour Susan Ryan (1942-2020), politician, feminist, administrator, company director, and champion of women and friend to many, who died on the weekend, was one of the great reformers and instigators of Australia’s modern superannuation industry.
When she died ASFA issued a statement which I wrote. Some excerpts:
Doing what is right matters.
This sometimes came at some personal cost. There were many periods of happiness, but spells of loneliness. As she wrote in her memoirs, Catching the Waves. Life in and out of Politics (Harper Collins, Sydney, 1999), “I am by temperament quite gregarious, but the combination of my gender and my politics meant that the position I occupied most often was that of a shag on a rock.” Her reflections and insights in her book on various political changes and reforms in the 1980s were the most perceptive of any penned by former Hawke Ministers.
A pioneer in the Women’s Electoral Lobby, then a Senator for the ACT from 1975 to 1988, she was the first woman to hold a Cabinet post in a Labor government. She served as Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women and Special Minister of State.
Post politics, she held various CEO Chair and other important posts. In every instance, improving the lives of others, empathising with the disadvantaged and the picked upon, was a hallmark.
Ryan was CEO of the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia, 1993-97, then served as President of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees, 2000-7. She was a member of the ASX Corporate Governance Council, 2003-7, and the independent Chair of the IAG & NRMA Superannuation Plan to 2011, the same year she was appointed Australia’s first Age Discrimination Commissioner.
Her legacy includes improvements in the lives and financial well-being of millions of Australians. But she would hate anyone to be complacent.
There is more to be done.
The best way we honour her is to rekindle reforms to prevent discrimination and to equalise the situation of women workers, who overall are behind their male counterparts.
The ASFA conference itself went smoothly, with high 80% positive feedback, mostly, on the various sessions, showing they hit their mark. I attribute this strong result to Andrew Boal, the Conference Committee Chair; Martin Fahy and the ASFA team, particularly Jacqui Maddock, the ASFA Manager – Content, Campaigns and Media, whose indefatigable organising skills, including introducing and chairing some sessions, was to the fore.