Shorten says the universal nature of super means the “lowest paid punters” should benefit, but “people further up the food chain” should be looked after. He says the government is considering lifting the cap on voluntary contributions for people in their 50s, who have generally hit a “sweet spot” for savings after their children have left school and they can contribute more.  Granting concessions to superannuants is one of two fundamental operating principles of the system, Shorten says. The other is compulsion. “Those two have to go together. If you are going to tell people they can’t access a portion of their money now, it has to be concessional. That’s part of the basic deal, the bargain, of superannuation.”

These concessions should be seen by Australians as strengths of the system: they need to realise the benefits of deferring present income for a later day under favourable regulatory conditions, he says. “I make this observation: if you have a wage rise beyond a certain point, you’re handing it to [the Reserve Bank governor] Glenn Stevens or you’re paying it in tax. Isn’t it better to have the concessional treatment and then at least it’s all yours?” Another operating principle should be the certainty of the system, he adds. Compared to the generational timeframes of superannuation, the turnover rate of Treasurers and Assistant Treasurers during political cycles is very high. So people need more confidence that the system won’t change unnecessarily while their money is locked in.  “If you’re a 25-year old, you’ve finally finished your degree and you have 40-plus years of work ahead of you – there will probably be another 30 people after Treasurer Wayne Swan and myself doing this work.

That could lead to the potential for a lot of zigging and zagging on superannuation policy.” This does not mean super should never be impenetrable to the forces of change, but “we’ve got to remove it from the day-to-day political hurly-burly because I think this is one of the things which undermines confidence in superannuation”.  With the caveat that it may be the most naïve comment he has made in his weeks working in the portfolio, Shorten says: “We do have to take the politics out of retirement incomes policy and superannuation. We’ve got to get to a point where we can fence it off and not let it be influenced by the annual Budget and every other issue.” It would be “very smart politics” to “set it up and move it beyond politics,” he says.

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