Superannuation Changes Fail Fairness Test

The government’s announced reforms to the tax concession further undermines the potential of superannuation to significantly contribute to either the assets available to workers when they retire or the fiscal sustainability of the Budget as the population ages. Currently, the super tax concessions reduce tax revenue by 2 percent of GDP ($24 billion) per year, but superannuation is only projected to reduce public spending on the aged pension by 0.2 percent of GDP in 2050.

The government’s proposals fall far short of the recommendations made by the Henry Review. It explicitly ruled out raising the Superannuation Guarantee to 12 percent. Moreover, both the Rudd government’s proposed reforms and the Henry Review’s recommendations fell well short of proposals that were submitted to it over the course of its deliberations, including a proposal in the CPD report (Spies-Butcher and Stebbing 2009) and similar proposals made by the Australia Institute and the Industry Super Funds.

In its response to the Henry Tax Review, the Rudd government has maintained many existing inequities in the tax treatment of superannuation, rather than undertake more ambitious and courageous reform. The Government proposals provide the most expensive tax benefits to the highest income earners.

Table 1.How the Proposals for Reform Redistribute the Tax Discounts for Super

Income ($)Current 15% Concessional Tax ($)Govt Announcement ($)Henry Tax Review ($)CPD’s Tapered 20% Rebate

The Current Tax Treatment of Super Contributions

The Superannuation Guarantee (SG) currently requires that 9 percent of an employee’s income be invested in super and it is taxed at the concessional rate of 15 percent (i.e. super contributions are taxed at 15 percent). Table 1 outlines the structure of tax concession (TC) that applies to the SG contributions made by employers on behalf of their employees, by income level.

Table 2.

Current Tax Treatment of Super Contributions, 2009-10

Income ($)Marginal Tax RateSG ($)Tax Discount (%)TC on SG ($)

The table shows that whilst tax payers earning $35,000 per annum receive no benefit from the tax concessions, those earning $250,000 receive $6,750 per annum of government assistance. The current benefits individuals receive increases in both monetary and proportional terms with income.

The Rudd Government’s Proposals for Super

The government proposes to increase the Superannuation Guarantee (SG) to 12 percent of income and introduce a new 15 percent rebate for the super contributions of those earning less than $37 000 per annum. The rebate is capped at $500. Table 2 displays how these proposals impact the distributive effects of the tax concession for super contributions.

Table 3.

Government’s Proposed Tax Treatment of Super Contributions, 12 percent SG

Income ($)SG ($)Tax Discount (%)TC on SG ($)

This table reveals that the government’s proposals maintain the regressive structure of the tax concession for super contributions. While those earning $250 000 gain $9 000 in tax concessions under this proposal, those earning $35 000 receive only $500. The introduction of a rebate for those earning under $37,000, while leaving in place an inequitable system is a step in the right direction. However, the $500 is not indexed, so even this modest improvement for fairness falls over time.

The most concerning element of the proposed reforms is the effect of an increase in the super guarantee to 12 percent. As Table 3 shows, this results in a significant increase in the tax support for high-income earners, rising from $13,500 to $18,000 for those on $500,000 pa. This is well in excess of the support being offered to low income earners. There is little evidence that an increase in the SG is an effective means of assisting low-income earners in retirement. Unless the tax concessions are restructured, any increase in the SG is grossly inequitable.

The Henry Tax Review’s Recommendations

The Henry Tax Review recommended that the Rudd government replace the existing set of tax concessions on super contributions with a flat rate rebate, perhaps set at 20 percent, up to a cap (Henry 2010: 35). It explicitly suggested that the government leave the rate of the SG at 9 percent and not increase it to 12 percent. Table 3 shows the likely distributive effects of these recommendations.

Table 4.

Henry Review’s Proposed Tax Treatment of Super Contributions, 9 percent SG

Income ($)SG ($)Tax Discount (%)TC on SG ($)

The reforms proposed by the Henry Review are clearly fairer than those announced by the government. Although those earning over $100 000 are granted significantly higher tax concessions in monetary terms than lower income earners, the flat rate structure of the proposed rebate means that tax payers receive the same rate of benefit. Low-income earners, however, still receive comparatively low concessions. Workers on an income of $35 000 per annum receive a tax concession over fourteen times smaller than that received by an individual with an income of $500 000.

The CPD Proposals

In our report for the CPD, we suggested that the current concessional rate of tax for super contributions be replaced with a 20 percent flat rate rebate that has a taper that kicks in once tax payers earn $80 000 until it is phased out altogether at $100 000. Table 4 reveals the likely distributional effects of this proposal.

Table 5.

CPD’s Proposed Tax Treatment of Super Contributions, 9 percent SG

Income ($)SG ($)Tax Discount (%)TC on SG ($)

The flat rate rebate proposed by the CPD is the most equitable of the concessionary treatments of super contributions considered here. Table 4 shows that low-income earners receive more from this proposed benefit structure than high-income earners, whilst those on around average earnings ($60 000) benefitting the most in both monetary and proportional terms. Low-income earners receive more from this model than either the current tax treatment of super contributions or the rebate proposed by the government. Under this proposal, higher income earners with salaries over $100 000 receive no tax concession.