Gerard Noonan August 08, 2012
Joining forces … the boards of not-for-profit super funds have a balance of staff and employers. Illustration: Karl Hilzinger Photo: Jessica Shapiro
Look around the world and one thing about Australia stands out (other than our obsession with sport): the way we've constructed and run our retirement incomes system.
Most attention is usually paid to the sheer size of the retirement savings pool. We use figures I once thought were only used in astronomy - $1.4 trillion today, rising to $4 trillion by the mid-2020s - which will soon put Australia in the bronze, or even silver, medal class.
However, less remarked upon is the unique method Australia uses to govern not-for-profit superannuation funds, which account for $450 billion of the national super pool.
Long ago, in the 1980s, the basic plan was constructed to ensure the system was well managed and governed on behalf of Australia's working population. It was, at heart, a simple idea: set aside, by law, some of each employee's salary to provide for their retirement, elect an equal number of staff and employer representatives, make sure they are well trained, and give them the freedom and responsibility to invest the growing pot of money. These are the so-called industry and government funds with equal trustee representation on their boards that are pledged to return all profits to members - hence the name, ''not-for-profit''.
It's been a great success by any measure. For more than 25 years, there has been spectacular growth among the industry and government funds. Collectively, they have easily outperformed the so-called ''professionals'' running retail funds, who operate out of the major banks and insurance companies.
The regulator's best estimate puts them ahead by close to 2 per cent annually.
There has been no major, or even minor, collapse or scandal in the sector, which certainly can't be said of some parts of the financial system: ask investors in Trio, Storm Financial or Prime. This is largely thanks to close attention by regulators, and to the trustees' determination to make sure Australia's outstanding policy initiative of the 1980s isn't squandered.
But in recent months, there have been shrill calls from certain quarters for this success story to be abandoned. What looks to me like a manufactured ''debate'' has focused on the way industry-fund boards are constructed, with opponents calling for more ''independents''.
Now, no one could sensibly argue about the importance of independence. Like summer by the beach, cute kids and gold medals, it's pretty close to being a universal verity. But the problem is, the boards of industry funds are currently as independent as the boards of any public company in Australia - more so, in fact, as few, if any, have representatives of management on them. So if that's not the issue, what's behind the push?
My best guess is commercial self-interest and old-fashioned anti-union prejudice. While the boards of the not-for-profit funds typically have equal representations of employer and employee trustees, it suits conservatives to call the funds ''union controlled'' - something that is patently wrong.
The trustee boards of industry funds such as Australian Super, Cbus, Hesta, HostPlus - and my own fund, Media Super - have equal representation of employers and unions. In my experience, it has been one of the most successful experiments in getting labour and capital to work constructively together that you'll find anywhere, any time.
Could the system be improved? Undoubtedly. As industries grow and develop, the way they are governed can improve. But getting the balance right is important. If there's a need for some super-fund boards to seek special talents, they can under the current law.
Across the 80 industry and government funds represented by the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees, there are 60 ''unaligned'' trustees who have been chosen by their boards to fill gaps in what the regulator calls a board's skills matrix. Two industry funds have boards structured as three employer, three employee and three ''independent'' directors. In other situations, boards have chosen a non-aligned chair. But forcing an influx of accountants, lawyers, financial planners or others from the professional-company-director class isn't the solution.
Flexibility to manage the variations is already there. Most boards would be comfortable adding non-aligned directors as long as the core element of the successful model remains: equal representation on the boards of not-for-profit super funds. It's worked a treat so far - and with far superior results to any other way of managing Australia's precious natural resource, its retirement incomes savings system.
Gerard Noonan is chair of industry fund Media Super and a former editor of The Australian Financial Review.