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It gets a little bit lonelier each week…

Terry Mason standing in front of a microphone

Last year seemed to have so many funerals, and 2020 started with two more, so when I was asked about ways to #ChangeTheNation – this seemed an obvious yarn. I was in a quandary though with so many other pressing issues: deaths in custody or incarceration rates or suicide or FASD or racism or an engaging, pluralistic, honest and inclusive school curriculum or the failures of Close the Gap or intellectual/cultural property rights or modern treaties as opposed to a weak, government controlled advisory voice or the effects of climate change or…but there is plenty of yarns that focus on these issues.

Then it occurred to me that we have reached the date that was the focus in 2008 for the Australia 2020 Summit in Canberra.

Climate Change was an important topic at the summit and the drought and fires during the latter part of 2019, and the start of 2020, reminded me of these discussions.

There was another item on the agenda attracting much less general interest. The National Tertiary Education Union Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Policy Committee had asked then NTEU President Caroline Allport to speak about the proposal that First Nations Peoples be able to gain voluntary early access to retirement, pension and superannuation.

The final report contained clause 7.36: ‘Re-appraise superannuation for First Nations people: their shorter life expectancies mean they have less opportunity to enjoy superannuation after retirement.’

Since then, the continuing failure of the Close the Gap initiative has brought into closer focus the inequity in a fixed statutory age for retirement and access to superannuation for First Nations Peoples.

Most of us will be lucky to live long enough to reach retirement age. Particularly so with the government’s move to raise the age of retirement in the future. Collecting superannuation is almost a hypothetical discussion for many at present.

Many First Nations Peoples are employed in lower earning capacity positions (average 23% lower) and this is exacerbated by work being inconsistent rather than ongoing. Retirement income averages 27% less.

First Nations women face even worse superannuation outcomes. They ‘are more likely to be a sole parent, have a higher birth rate, larger families…more likely to make major changes to their work life balance to accommodate these responsibilities. If employed…more likely to be of intermittent casual or part time…are less likely than any other group to have a retirement that offers more than poverty and deprivation’ (NATSIWA 2018).

Discriminatory policies such as CDP (Community Development Program) that force many to work 20 hours a week for their unemployment benefit add to the problem. Participants are not covered by the Fair Work Act, they don’t have Federal OHS protections or workers’ compensation and they can’t take annual leave, sick leave or carer’s leave (First Nations Workers Alliance). This also means they may be working for a ‘for profit’ business but not receive superannuation.

There have been various conferences/consultations recently within the industry about First Nations superannuation. Much of the emphasis has been on administrative complications, extended kinship matters and contribution ‘solutions’. The Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia calculate that contributions would need to be raised to 14.3% or workers would need to work an extra 6.5 years than the rest of the population (on 9.5% contribution) to achieve a comfortable retirement. This situation ignores the failure of Closing the Gap. The median age of the First Nations population is 21 years so the problem is a growing one and cannot be ignored.

A precedent argument that other groups will wish to claim the right to early access holds little weight. If there is another identifiable group in Australia that has the same proven disadvantage, then they also would have the opportunity to request the change. This is not about privilege but reparation of an inherited legacy.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions has 5 priorities in the ‘Our Voice, Our Future’ report concerning First Nations Peoples. One of these deals with retirement savings that calls, among other issues, for:

  • A reduction in the statutory retirement age and superannuation access age for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers which reflects the life expectancy gap
  • A reduction/amendment to the statutory age for accessing the old age pension and or any other relevant government benefits
  • A review of the tax-free threshold status in conjunction with a reduction in the statutory age for accessing superannuation

Compassionate release or hardship provisions do not answer the basic problem and are seen by many as offensive. Decisions are still being made on behalf of people.

Rather than further dialogue, we are asking for action. Surely there is a Superannuation Company that has the moral fortitude to work with us to convince government to remove the impediments to voluntary early access.

This is not just a matter of equity but a matter of humanity for individuals, families and communities. It is repugnant enough that people die younger through no fault of their own but to miss the opportunity to do so in a socially richer environment, where they can enjoy the quality time with family and grandchildren that others enjoy, denies them of some dignity.

In the meantime, each week seems to get a little bit lonelier……

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