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Survey of attitudes to taxing pension earnings

Shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen, has laid down the gauntlet by making the introduction of superannuation earnings tax for pensioners a key electoral issue. The Liberals have responded in kind by declaring they will not fiddle with super if re-elected. Why has this seemingly trivial issue gained so much attention and which side will emerge victorious?

The increasing role of ‘fairness’

Arriving in this country nine years ago, superannuation was explained to me thus: 'a system whereby the government forcibly confiscates 9% of your income, deposits the cash in a faraway place for an indeterminate amount of time (assume no less than four decades), under a set of rules that are likely to change every few years. Oh, and it's very popular.'

One of the most delightful local expressions, for which there is no English equivalent, is the phrase 'unAustralian'. For instance, it is unAustralian to describe The Castle as unwatchable dirge (surely Kenny is a more entertaining representation of the Aussie battler class than those halfwits from Bonneydoon). Most unAustralian of all is to ignore the right to 'a fair go'. Fairness is the one cultural value that unites all Australians.

Fairness is a highly subjective concept and exists largely in the eye of the beholder; one person’s equity is another’s tyranny. But fairness has been in the news a lot recently. When the government released its discussion paper on tax it repeated ad nauseum the phrase 'lower, simpler, fairer.' Chris Bowen prefaced his super reform plans by declaring that 'an important criterion for a well-functioning tax system is fairness'. Peter Costello somewhat resignedly responded by remarking that 'once upon a time, fairer taxes meant lower taxes.' Clearly, not any more.

Survey of high net worth clients

So what to make of Labor's plans to introduce superannuation earnings tax in the pension phase? We posed this question to some 400 of our high net worth clients, most of whom will be negatively impacted by Labor's proposals, either now or in the future.

Labor has proposed introducing a 15% tax on superannuation earnings that are in pension phase, subject to a tax-free threshold of $75,000. Currently, those in pension phase pay no earnings tax. Under this proposal, an individual would need a Super Fund balance in excess of $1.875 million before they would be eligible for earnings tax (assuming an earnings rate of 4%). An individual with a Superannuation balance of $3 million would be liable for $6,750 tax. Do you think this is fair?’

Pension earnings tax

Pension earnings tax

The results, shown below, were surprising to us. They showed a consistent 60% or so in favour of a pension tax. The comments were even more revealing (a selection is attached at the end). Though the majority accepted the need for the wealthy to contribute their fair share, there was a universal fear that 15% would become 20% and that inflation would quickly erode the exemption via bracket creep (the 9th Wonder of the World). Others pointed to the need to differentiate between super monies that have already been fully taxed (non-concessional contributions) versus lightly-taxed (concessional contributions) – a valid point. Finally, many pointed to the need for politicians to lead by example and switch their lucrative defined benefit pension arrangements to the more frugal defined contribution scheme. It is hard to lead with any moral authority when you are fattening the cat.

If even wealthy Mosman families have little argument, a pensions earnings tax is a racing certainty. We hope that it is accompanied by the indexing of the tax-free threshold (given that Bill Shorten first flagged $100,000 as the tax-free threshold three years ago, Chris Bowen's version with a $75,000 exemption is the first tax in living memory to be increased before its introduction!), we would urge the current assets test home exemption to be reviewed and we would dance naked in the streets if Canberra led by example. The Liberals are on an electoral hiding to nothing by dogmatically ruling out further pension changes. Politicians rarely stick with unpopular plans and hence we believe that pension earnings tax, equitable or despotic, is coming. Tax-fee retirement, Tony? Tell ‘im he’s dreamin’!


Jonathan Hoyle is Chief Executive Officer at Stanford Brown. Any advice contained in this article is general advice only and does not take into consideration the reader’s personal circumstances.

ResponseComments (unedited)
NOAltering long term arrangements amounts to retrospective taxation. I sold a family home to put money into super. That property may have doubled at this point of time. Can the labour party reverse that!
NOAny changes in super should not retrospective.
YESAs long as the figure is indexed, $75k is ok now but in 10 years it may need to be higher etc.
YESAs long as there was some method of ensuring it didn't become 20% or 25% etc!
NOBecause with inflation more and more retirees will be taxed.
NOI am opposed on principle because people with 3 Mill Super Balances are not on the Pension, and cost very little to the Govt to support. I also believe that this style of tax may raise far less income than they expect. Additionally, how many times can I expect my savings to be taxed, and what is the community (cost) trade off for people who will fall back into the pension?  It would be far more equitable to raise the GST by 2% and revue items that are fundamental to sustain a basic lifestyle. This tax would hit the richer in the community as they always purchase more than those not so fortunate.
NOI can't believe that this is an election issue. Would it raise any more than 0.5billion?
NOI feel a bit torn on how to answer this. Personally I prefer to direct my money to causes I feel strongly about and know it is well spent. Then again I think more wealthy Australians should give something back. Perhaps tax those who dont give x amount philanthropically?
NOI have been working since I was 15 years old (47 years) and are no different to anyone else that has been trying to accumulate enough money so they have the ability to maintain the life style we have become accustomed to without having to dependence heavily on the pension If need. We haven`t just picked this this money of the local money tree. We have built businesses, employed people with substantial risk to our personal assets and families. Small Business have paid our fair sharegh.
NOI think that anybody who is not accessing any government benefits of any sort (i.e. are truly self funding their retirements) should not be taxed at all.  Why?  Because we have already been taxed on the money that has gone into the fund!
YESI think that the tax amount is quite reasonable and that without this tax on super the country will not be able to provide adequate health and welfare services for the community as a whole.
YESIf my fund was earning $100,000 per year I would pay $3,750 in tax.  An effective tax rate of 3.75% in exchange for healthcare, roads, defence and of course the safety net of an old age pension should my investment be wiped out.  Sounds like a great deal to me.
NOIt is grossly unreasonable for any government to have encouraged and structured long term retirement savings plans for over 20 years, then subsequently reduce the value of those savings to their owners.   Regardless of the social equity (or other) debates which may emerge, this system was created on the trust that the Australian people have in their government and cannot be changed without destroying that trust.
NOMy answer is a "qualified 'no!' The qualification relates to the threshold number at which the tax is levied. My view is that it should be $4m and the earnings rate 5%; that is the tax would start when the earnings exceeded $200,000.  With my proposal someone earning $250,000, taxed at the Labor rate of 15% would pay $7.5k. That would catch the truly 'fat cats!' and the amount earned by the ATO would drop by a small amount compared with the Labor proposal.
YESnot a question of fairness but probably what needs to be done. the worry is that the 15% would then become 20% & so on & on!! not and incentive for anyone to create a worthwhile Super account for themselves
YESNot a question of fairness, but necessity given Australia's circumstances, and the better off can more easily shoulder the burden.
NONot while politicians exempt themselves from similar tax treatment.
NOPensioners have already paid tax and shouldn't pay anymore, it's not fair.
NOPeople with Super have worked and earned their super one way or another & have already paid taxes.  Even though this may not seem a lot of tax for a whole lot of people it takes away incentive for people to put money into Super. Ask someone below 40 about Super and its a necessary evil but ask someone who is 60 and its a necessity. More encouragement is required for people to invest in Super  or the government will be supporting the nation with pensions. LEAVE SUPER ALONE!
YESSo long as the 75k threshold only related to income from super not income derived from outside super
YESSomething has to be done to redress the imbalance between advantages of super for the rich, vs the poor. This is at least a starting point (there could be others).
YESTax is required to provide services for all - including those in retirement. And we could be in retirement for many years. So yes some contribution to the services that we use in this stage of our lives is merited.
As most people in Australia wont be above tax free threshold I imagine that most would say it's fair.  The issue is complex but that is the Australian political style...simplify it and dumb it down. Bill vs Tony. Should this happen? Probably no given that the rules were set a long time ago and are being changed because of the Iron Ore Price.
YESWe all pay tax on income during our working lives including income from investments. Paying a small tax on our retirement income is a natural extension of this.  I am sure most retirees know they are currently gwtting a very gwnerous concession at present even if they worked and saved to accumulate all their super... which probably includes family inheritences which are also tax free.
YESWe cannot have one third of the population not paying tax. Abbott's argument about taxing the income of wealthy pensioners is ideologically driven and is, as usual completely illogical
NOWhen the Federal Government first urged the working citizen to start his or her own superannuation fund it was represented that they would not tax a person's saving!
NOWhy should those who have studied,worked hard and been responsible spenders and many of whom have contributed large amounts of tax for the benefit of others be asked to pay more  We seem to want to encourage laziness and mediocrity
NOWithout all the facts, it seems in good return years I will pass this threshold with as little as $400,000 @ 20%. Yes only two years in ten on average. With it comes 1 -30% return do I get to carry the loss forward, I take the risk and ATO take the cream this isn't fair it's about normal.
YESYes but I'm tempted to answer no as it doesn't go far enough. We haven't earned the right to live for 30 years after retirement without contributing to the cost of society.

Alfred Ellis
December 05, 2016

I am at the point that I question many of my past goals and achievements to provide for my wife and my retirement, free from dependence on the Aged Pension and, if anything is left over, to pass on to our children. Was this so wrong! Now I see others wish to share in my labours worth. I am bemused by the gullibility of many. The 'yes' respondents eagerness to contribute to bloated government coffers, earmarked to be wastefully expended! No less than the Gratton Institute advocates how we 'well off' retirees should enjoy our end lives far more, by not saving/hording our super savings, remembering that the aged pension is the safety net for us all. Tongue in cheek, I can see a few more world trips!

June 12, 2015

I am in pension phase and vote yes. I am amazed at the number of 'nos' who say changes aren't fair because of decisions they made to invest in super 20 or more years ago. Short memories. The no tax situation has been in for only a decade.
Why not go back to the previous system and tax the income on the concession amount and not the after tax proportion.
Fair for all as this was the position when we were planning our retirements.

Andrew H
June 10, 2015

I have no issue with paying some tax on withdraws from SMSF as income be the starting point 75000 or 100000 BUT must be indexed. (tax free from 60 was never going to be sustainable just an election ploy from someone who still feeds off the public purse

I get really angry at Libs approach where someone has made the effort to be truly self funded but they will earn less than those who did nothing (ARE YOU READING THIS JOE!)

I commenced work in 1977 and guess what we knew about ageing workforce issues then. I was lucky enough to have a super scheme at work, but guess what I paid in voluntary additional payments because I did not want to be a pensioner! Not hard to work out!

Now I am OK because I took action, still I recognise others are not so well off and maybe have not had ability to save extra.

BUT do not penalise me (I earn under 100k) have truly sacrificed to get to where I am and I intend to "retire" @ 57 and do voluntary work.

Looking forward to the first pollie who scraps the system they lunch off, saying that it is necessary because of uncertain employment going forward. If that was true then maybe all those on annual or seasonal or casual employment will be eligible for the same. Oh well pigs might fly one day.

June 09, 2015

Labour tried to implement a tax on pension earnings in excess of $100,000 several years ago, as mentioned. The industry convinced the politicians that it would be incredibly complex to implement equitably, if not impossible. The policy was dropped.

Why are we (they) going around in circles, posing the same policy with potentially the same outcome? - i.e. being scrapped

June 05, 2015

I completely agree with the last comment within the article. Why should people feel they can 'drop out ' of society by not contributing to taxes yet still use services for maybe 30 years? They are dreamin'!

Ps. The Castle is one of my favourites

Jonathan Hoyle
June 05, 2015

David, you're right in that the phrasing of the question is very important. We took great care with this as most of our clients are confused around the difference between earnings and withdrawal tax. We believe the question is neutral.

Peter, it's 75k per member, which makes the tax even smaller. See above point.

Peter Lang
June 05, 2015

I have two questions.

1. Is the $75,000 limit per SMSF fund or per member?

2. How is it fair to take a high tax in years with high capital growth and not refund the fair share of tax in the years of capital loss? Even Labor's mining tax was going to refund the mining companies the mining tax in years when they had poor years. If the MRRT was still in place the taxpayers would be paying hundreds of millions per year to the mining companies. Does Labor's polices propose a similar refund to Superannuation when their returns are poor?

I'd support it if:

1. The New Tax on Super applies only to concessional taxed contributions

2. The limit is indexed to the same index as pensions - e.g. average male earnings

3. The tax is applied to average income above the threshold over the past 10 years (this is essential to avoid highly inequitable tax in high capital growth years)

4. The limit is $100,000 and it is indexed to the same index as pensions

5. There is no tax in years when the fund earns less than the minimum pension payment amount.

David Redford-Bell
June 05, 2015

I am not surprised the results were positive when the question was framed as such. If you didn't include the assumed pension balances, the results would probably be much different. Many people would mistakenly look at those pension balances and think "This tax would never apply to me".

It is very easy to exceed the $75,000 threshold once you start including realised capital gains in the equation, and not just a flat 4% earnings rate (which rarely, if ever, occurs in real life).

Steve Martin
June 05, 2015

There is clearly an unfairness in leaving large pension accounts untaxed. I broadly support the proposed changes as the proposed rates are low and there a social benefit in discouraging super abuses. I have a couple of caveats. Until age 60 members will pay tax on the taxable component of the pension paid, so there will be an aspect of double taxation for those affected. For me, I would have thought that a figure of $100,000 as the threshhold was a fairer amount. There is an aspect of risk in being a self funded retiree completely reliant on the income from a SMSF. There were many who suffered retirement income drops in the GFC and to counter this most members in pension phase do not take out all earnings, if they can help it, they leave some in the fund to help build the fund to allow for those times when markets and interest rates drop. It would be good for the proposals to cater not only for what is a reasonable income stream, but also give a bit of a buffer to give the fund a bit of fat to cater for tough times. Still, I am wholly in support of taxing excessive super profits.


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