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Cut tax breaks to make super fairer and the budget stronger

Australia’s $3.3 trillion superannuation system is supposed to boost people’s retirement incomes. The Government says as much in its proposed legislated objective for superannuation. The system is supported by billions of dollars of tax breaks each year, ostensibly to that end.

But there’s just one problem. Increasingly, much of what is saved is never spent.

Our new report, Super savings: Practical policies for fairer superannuation and a stronger budget, points out that without an overhaul, super tax breaks are set to do little more than boost the inheritances of Australians with well-off parents.

Super contributions and super earnings are both taxed more lightly than other income. These tax breaks cost the Budget about $45 billion (2% of Australia’s gross domestic product, or GDP) each year. Here's a reminder of the major tax concessions afforded to super.

Superannuation benefits from significant tax breaks

Treasury predicts that the cost to the Budget will hit 3% of GDP by 2060, and that the cost of super tax breaks will overtake the cost of the age pension by as soon as 2036.

Superannuation benefits favour the wealthy

These tax breaks are not well targeted. Two-thirds of their value benefit the top 20% of income earners, who are already saving enough for their retirement. Retirees with big superannuation accounts pay much less tax per dollar of super earnings than younger workers do on their wages.

Much of the boost to super balances from tax breaks is never spent. By 2060, one-third of all withdrawals from super will be via bequests – up from one-fifth today.

Super has become a taxpayer-funded inheritance scheme. Reining in super tax breaks is a responsible way to boost government revenues in a world where the government has committed to higher spending on defence, healthcare, aged care, and disability care.

Share of total super tax breaks by type and income decile 

Governments have supercharged demographic pressures by introducing generous tax concessions for older people. A ‘self-funded’ retiree couple can have, from 1 July 2023, $3.8 million in super, unlimited home equity, and income outside super up to about $66,000 a year, and pay no income tax. The share of households older than 65 paying tax has halved over the past two decades, and average income tax paid has barely changed for people older than 65, despite strong growth in their incomes and wealth.

A reform package to address the inequities

We recommend a reform package that would save the budget more than $11.5 billion a year, including:

  • Raising Division 293 tax, which curbs tax breaks to high-income earners on their pre-tax super contributions, from 30% to 35%, and lowering the income threshold at which the tax applies, from $250,000 to $220,000 a year. This would save the budget about $1.1 billion a year and stop many high-income earners benefitting from larger tax breaks, per dollar contributed to their super, than low- and middle-income earners.
  • Lowering the cap on pre-tax super contributions, from $27,500 to $20,000 a year. This would save about $1.6 billion a year, mostly by reducing voluntary contributions made by older, wealthier Australians to minimise their income tax bills.
  • Abolishing carry-forward provisions and government co-contributions, which were intended to encourage catch-up contributions but in fact facilitate tax minimisation. This would save about $1.1 billion a year.
  • Taxing all superannuation earnings in retirement at 15% – the same rate that applies to super earnings before retirement. This would save more than $5.3 billion a year.
  • Taxing earnings on super accounts larger than $2 million – rather than $3 million as proposed by the Albanese Government – at 30%. This would save about $3 billion a year, compared to about $2 billion a year under the government’s plan.

The warning signs are everywhere. Australia's current superannuation system is unfair and unsustainable. The reforms we recommend would make the system fairer and the budget stronger.

For more details and background information, see the Full Report.


Joey Moloney is Senior Associate and Brendan Coates is the Economic Policy Program Director and a Fellow at Grattan Institute. This article is general information and not personal advice.


April 12, 2023

Why not keep things as they are but introduce an estate tax on all concessionally taxed assets such as the home and unspent super? 15% tax on the home and unspent super might be reasonable. Simple and fair.

And why skew the welfare system so much toward home owner? Why not means test all assets equally?

Large numbers of average Australians may find themselves non homeowners in future and may be saving like mad into super as a fall gap.

April 10, 2023

The family home not counting for age pension results in taxpayers handing over around $40k a year so people with $2m + houses in Sydney and Melbourne don’t have to reverse mortgage and can pass on a bigger inheritance.

April 12, 2023

Cam, whereas those who live in cheaper capital cities or country likely more after-tax disposable income due to significantly lower home- loan amounts and may use extra disposable income to acquire cheaper city's /country negatively or positively geared property for portfolio of 2mill including family home value, how do you see that being sorted other than any portfolio anywhere up to same figure to be counted? That may have negative trickle effect to cheaper towns, investment property sales to be under limit, small business maybe suffer more in those places than Syd/Melb. No vested interest, just interested.

April 09, 2023

Give everyone over 67 a pension, but tax their total income at normal rates, including the income on their super.

You don't have to abolish super and have everyone withdraw it all at once. The super guarantee, and the super funds, would stay in place, with all super taxed as in accumulation mode, and locked away until you reach retirement age.

Super would then give everyone an additional income when they retired over and above their pension entitlement.

The earnings on your super would stay in the fund and not be included with your normal income until the year you turn 67, at which point you would be given an age pension and your super earnings would become part of your normal taxable income.

The super funds would pay retirees however much they wanted each year, from both their earnings and capital, and give them a tax statement at the end of the year, similar to what managed funds do at present, showing the earnings on their super with a (refundable) tax credit for the tax already paid within the fund. The earnings, and the prepaid tax amount, would be included with their taxable income. Retirees would have a tax free threshold equivalent to the pension, all income above this would be taxed at usual rates.

That way the super funds continue to manage retirement savings with only a small increase in administration costs, so no jobs lost there, there are no tax free earnings in super, so the govt gain, and means testing is abolished, saving costs to the government on administering and policing the system.

It would also eliminate the high marginal effective tax rates experienced buy some retirees where pension is lost along with tax being paid and offsets being reduced.

June 12, 2023

Yes this is eminently fair and sensible. Costello doing away with tax was a mistake

Kerrie Sheehan
April 09, 2023

Put simply If you have less than about $1,500,000 in supersuper and other investments you will be better off withdrawing all you super at retirement as you will pay tax than paying 15% tax on your super. No tax to be paid by those who inherit your super and no super fees.

Only the wealthy will have super after retirement.

April 08, 2023

"The warning signs are everywhere. Australia's current superannuation system is unfair and unsustainable"

The above is not fact, as the author's would have one believe, but their (Grattan's) highly publicised, pointed opinion!

The article is only an opinion piece and Grattan is always banging on about what in their view is unfair and unsustainable. Often a somewhat tiresome, one sided argument!

I for one would gladly welcome a Grattan article or two advocating more accountable, responsible government spending and cost cutting efficiency measures that that should be implemented, to ensure that more of every tax payer dollar is operative and less administrative, rather than just tax more, as if it's the panacea to all our challenges!

April 08, 2023

"much of what is saved is never spent." ... "boost the inheritances of Australians":

The saving generation get tax 'concessions' to reduce the otherwise excessive tax rates.
The inheriting generation will be able to save less and spend more with less debt.
All good.

Abolish Super, Age Pension Means Tests and adjust taxes. Equitable and sustainable at a stroke.

April 08, 2023

"Abolish Super, Age Pension Means Tests and adjust taxes. Equitable and sustainable at a stroke."

I really admire your persistence and enthusiasm Dudley (wrt abolishing super and non means tested pension for all), but you do realise that that this is never going to happen, don't you?

Way too many rent seekers, vested interests and a "honey pot" for government's to raid whenever the need arises!

April 08, 2023

There is also the inflationary affect of so much money coming into the economy so quickly. Demand inflation, too much money chasing too few goods.

If the government was to say, hey we think compulsory Superannuation is a bad idea now so we are scrapping the system millions of Superannuation accounts would be emptied and that money spent.

Sure, some would keep it with intention of retirement, others putting it aside for aged care costs or paying down the mortgage.

Compulsory Superannuation came about because most people are hopeless at saving money. Something like 47% live pay packet to pay packet and around 1/2 that number again don't have 3 months of emergency funds.

That would be a lot of money coming into the economy in a very short time.

April 08, 2023

"never going to happen": "Never say never". "honey pots" past present and future have been available for governments to raid subject to hissing of the plucked. Under my grand scheme, income wise the wealthless would be no worse off, the super guarantee-ers would be up to 100% better off, the self-supporters would be no worse off, the super greedy would be no worse off other than for curtailment of some super 'concessions'. In the unlikely event that scheme is not implemented, the mere mention might cause some to pull heads out of super sand and see a broader vision.

April 08, 2023

"the inflationary affect": Which is why abolishion must be performed during a recession - when the savings propensity is highest and spending propensity lowest.

April 09, 2023

@Dudley. Google how much Australian's pay in super fees each year and then ask if the rent seekers will just let that go without a monumental fight and intense lobbying!
Added to which, Labor ideologically "owns" the birth/baby that is compulsory super in Australia and I'd say they're pretty reluctant to can it. Pretty significant vested interests and I'm sure some of the benefits are no doubt hidden from us. Anyway Chalmers and Albo want to siphon off some for building social housing!

April 08, 2023

30% tax on Super contributions (Div 293) is already plenty. Raising it to 35% would be absurd, especially if also lowering the cap to 20k per annum.

April 08, 2023

Whichever way you slice and dice this debate it is simply a matter of the Government wanting to generate more revenue through taxes that don’t currently exist so they can control the distribution as they see fit.

The rhetoric around it costing the budget is BS. There is no cost per se, it is being communicated that way as a means to an end.

April 07, 2023

Does Brendan Coates of Grattan want a 15% tax on all income from superannuation? We already paid our share of taxes. That's what we get for working, paying tax, investing for 30 years in super, and then to want to tax it more?? Don't 50% of all families pay 0$ tax ?? Honestly, retirement is all we have to look forward to.

John N
April 07, 2023

Rather than introduce more complexity into Superannuation rules would it not be better to take the Keep It Simple Approach for the Pension Phase. Allow account holders to accumulate Super through concessional & non concessional options BUT with the end state being that once in pension mode the income is tax free up to a threshold of say x times (or deemed based on prevailing average risk free rates) the prevailing pension rates. Any income above the tax free threshold then is including in and along with other income and tax applied at the prevailing tax rates. Perhaps the element that should be considered is assets like property require the ability to assess (deem) an annual income rate for inclusion into annual returns. If this is unpalatable to specific individuals then their options are live with the rules or exit these type of Superannuation investment options. The deeming for average risk free rates also puts accountability with policy makers re their decisions that impact risk free returns. EG If risk free rates go down then tax collection goes down. Re the Accumulation Phase (a) up to 27500 per year concessional contributions would seem to be aligned to the this approach and (b) only allow non concessional contributions in the later years of the individual eg post 60 and up to 70 BUT knowing that any excess that goes in that generates excess returns above a deemed threshold will be taxed at prevailing rates would be a deterrent for over investment. The objective would be to allow individuals to invest in Super, that in retirement results in a reduced demand to fund government funded pensions, allowing individuals to provide for their retirement outside of the government funded pension domain and the benefits that go with this but knowing "over investment" will result in rates of normal taxation.

April 06, 2023

How 'bout replacing the 15% contribution tax with a marginal rate minus 15% tax (4% on the 19% tax rate, 17.5% on the 32.5% tax rate etc) and charging a 50% tax on all unused super at death.

John Fletcher
April 06, 2023

There's some reasonable content and ideas in Joey's suggestions. However taxing earnings in retirement phase at 15% is a disincentive for people to add money to super. As he rightly points out, a couple can generate considerable income outside super (not sure it is quite 66k for a couple, but we'll run with that) and not pay tax. At a 5% earning rate, they can have $1,320,000 invested outside super and pay no tax. That is more than most 'average' Australians have invested in total in retirement. So, why would they add any to superannuation and pay 15% tax? The first thing I would do at retirement is pull it all out so as not to pay tax.

My suggestion for a fairer system to the people that need it is to go back 20 years. Reasonable Benefit Limits, while complicated, allowed you to have up to a 'reasonable' amount in super where you had access to it and for that to be tax free. The rest had to be in a lifetime pension, where the money has to come back out of super over your lifetime, or lose the tax benefits.

As financial planners, we help clients use all the available rules to maximise their benefit, every week. That doesn't mean that all of the rules are good or fair to society, but we will use them as much as possible while they are there.
What Joey does show, is that there are certainly some major changes still needed to fix our super system.


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