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It could have been a SUPER idea

By John Tomlinson - posted Friday, 8 April 2011

The introduction of superannuation in Australia was initially promoted in the 1930s and 1940s by the conservative side of politics. It was opposed by Labor politicians who thought that superannuation would undermine public support for the age and invalid pensions. These pensions were categorical and means tested very much in line with the charity and poor law systems which had preceded them. They were meant to perform similar functions to that of Bismark's social insurance scheme in Germany which provided workers with a universal cover in the event of injury or old age.

In Australia, some private employers, federal, state and local governments offered superannuation to permanent employees in an attempt to retain long serving staff. Casual and temporary employees were not included in such arrangements. Higher paid employees were the most likely to have superannuation. By 1986 only 22% of female employees had any superannuation.

During the period of the Hawke Government, Labor changed its approach to superannuation. It introduced a compulsory privatised form of superannuation - a far cry from the social insurance model prevalent in Western Europe. Employers were required to withhold a set percentage of all wages over specified limits and remit them to the employee's superannuation fund. This model of superannuation extends the inequalities experienced during the working life of employees into the post work phase of peoples' existence.


Why laissez faire superannuation?

During most of the fifty years preceding the introduction of Labor's superannuation scheme Australians frequently declared that Australia was an egalitarian country where Bob was as good as his boss. Why then did the Party which claimed to represent the working class choose a pro-capitalist neo-fundamentalist form of superannuation?

There were many forces which culminated in this outcome. First there were the churches.

Anglicans' raison d'etre centered on legitimising existing privilege. The Catholic Church, during the decades following World War II, was so preoccupied with fighting Communism and liberationist theology that it neglected its social justice teachings. By the time it had slain both these dragons it was engulfed in the saga of priests preoccupied by choirboys with bums which, for all the world, resembled jelly on sticks.

Mainstream protestant denominations mainlined on the promotion of the Protestant Work Ethic and their concern to find ways to sanctify the accumulation of personal wealth gained via shoddy used car dealing all week followed by psalm singing on Sunday. The Evangelicals were on much the same track but had had an even more difficult job trying to convince their elderly followers that becoming born again would not result in their losing their seniors card.

The non-mainstream political groups who might have been able to keep the Labor Party true to its working class roots were no more successful. The Wobblies, the International Workers of the World, had allowed themselves to be criminalised by getting involved in forging Australian currency. In the wash-up their membership splintered into a variety of anarchist groups. The Communist Party of Australia shattered on the rocks of Russian State Capitalism and Stalinist pogroms and the Hungarian and Chinese Cultural Revolutions.


The last hope was the emergence of a powerful secular philosopher but, unlike the French, there is no tradition in Australia of embracing independent thinkers of the stature of Sartre.

Pragmatists failed us then and will do so again.

Hawke had championed the demise of craft unions and their amalgamation into huge unions such as the CMFEU. There was a subsequent increase in power of the leaders of these super unions. Faced by a dramatic decline in membership several union leaders saw an opportunity to prop up their power base. They pushed strongly for the formation of Industry Superannuation Funds which would be able to compete with the insurance and banking industries' funds for members.

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About the Author

Dr John Tomlison is a visiting scholar at QUT.

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