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Treasury says don’t use the $32 billion number

If you enter ‘superannuation $32 billion’ into Google, you receive about 18,000 responses. The $32 billion number has become the most dangerous weapon used by critics of super tax concessions. For example, in ABC’s The Drum, it says:

“The cost to revenue of the concessional treatment of superannuation reached $32 billion this year. That is almost 50 per cent more than the Defence budget and $2.3 billion above Commonwealth spending on education.

Treasury projects that the figure will jump to $45 billion by 2015-16, by which time it will overtake the cost of the age pension. So where is the sense of outrage about this budget-blowing, out-of-control 41 per cent increase in government spending, making it the fastest growing major area of government?”

It is important to know what this number means, as it is often used as a budget example of how the Government could make savings for other purposes.

At the SMSF Association Conference on 19 February 2015, Rob Hefernen, Executive Director Revenue Group, The Treasury spoke at a session with industry regulators called, ‘The evolution – Superannuation as the leader in the wealth industry’. This talk has not been posted on The Treasury website.

“I’m a bit of an imposter as The Treasury is not strictly a regulator, we’re a policy adviser to the Treasurer and Assistant Treasurer, and on broader economic policy to the Government as a whole. One thing John Fraser (the new Treasury Secretary) is very keen on is that senior staff should have a much better understanding of how business and private sector make decisions, which is why we welcome these sessions.

The superannuation system is growing at an extraordinarily rapid rate, with SMSF growth outstripping the overall system. In 1996, at the time of the Wallis Inquiry, superannuation assets totalled $245 billion or about 38% of Australia’s GDP. Today it is over $1.85 billion, greater than the GDP. SMSFs are now 35% of all super assets, a massive growth. This growth is something that policy advisors and regulators need to understand. We need to understand the drivers, and what it means for the economy. Clearly a vehicle for people who want a direct say in their own retirement savings must be something that people value highly. The idea of people taking responsibility for their own savings and having the highest quality of life in retirement is a good thing and should warrant appropriate government support.

There was a fair amount of comment in the Financial Systems Inquiry about the objectives of superannuation. It’s fair to say the objectives are sometimes not fully understood. From the Inquiry’s point of view, to provide income in retirement and increase the quality of life is a key objective. Some people might quibble about the effect on the aged pension and we’ll see more discussion on that.

I do want to address our Tax Expenditure Statement (TES). It is part of the Charter of Budget Honesty. Let’s be clear: there are some things that the TES is, and there are some things the TES is not. It is not a document with a policy message. When it is reported in the press - God bless them - there seems to be an inference that simply because there is a large measured tax expenditure, the Government should do something about it. That is not the case. There is no policy message whatsoever in the Tax Expenditure Statement.

What it is meant to be is a benchmark or measure of the amount of money potentially foregone. If I could just bore people for a second, if you think about the aged pension. This costs about $20 billion a year, the measured outlay. No one would say if the aged pension was repealed – not that this would happen – would you get a $20 billion saving. People would go onto NewStart, they might go back into the labour force, they might go onto a Disability Support Pension. All it is the amount of the pension multiplied by the number of people who receive it.

Does it take into account behavioural change? No, it doesn’t. When people report things that say this is a measure of tax expenditure, and therefore that’s the amount the Government could save if they did something about it, that is untrue. We do attempt to do a revenue gain estimate and the TES is extremely qualified on revenue gain. It actually says:

“The revenue gain estimate should be treated with particular caution - (which is code for ‘beware’) -  there is usually little, if any, information on how taxpayers might react to the removal of a tax expenditure. Assumptions about taxpayer behavioural responses therefore need to be made, and these assumptions can be difficult to meaningfully substantiate.”

We really don’t know. Going through that, you might ask, ‘Why on earth would you do it?’ Well, on page 5 of the TES:

“Consistent with a recommendation of the Australian National Audit Office in its 2007-08 performance audit of the TES, the TES reports revenue gain estimates for 10 large tax expenditures.”

We are asked to do an audit, so we do. But be wary on the revenue gain estimates. Don’t use them, they are too unreliable. On the revenue foregone, done according to international best practice, that is not a measure of what is saved. Anyone who says this is not reading the fine print – it’s not even fine print, it’s in bold print. Every year when we put it out, we get criticism, so I wanted to make it clear.”

In response, Andrea Slattery (CEO of the SMSF Association) said:

“Can I just confirm then that the $32 billion that the Government could save on superannuation and then spend somewhere else if it got rid of tax concessions, they will not get all $32 billion?”

To which Rob replied:

“I don’t even think you need a document to confirm that.”


Graham Hand attended the Conference as a guest of the SMSF Association. The bold emphasis in the text is his highlighting, not the speaker’s.


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