Most women would be forgiven for missing last week’s Retirement Income Review report. This much-heralded report, like so many Morrison government documents, was released late last Friday afternoon when the nation was focussed on other things.
But the Morrison Government cannot be forgiven for missing another opportunity to address economic insecurity for women in retirement.
Indeed, the omission of women from the terms of reference was no accident. More than 100 prominent Australians working in senior roles in business wrote to the Treasurer, identifying systemic problems in the superannuation system for women and asking that these be added to the terms of reference.
The request fell on deaf ears. When I raised it at estimates with the former finance minister, Mathias Cormann, the best he could do was remind me how the retirement income system supports Australians in retirement – “that’s obviously men and women”.
Suggesting the Retirement Income Review would respond to the interests of women because women are Australians is the triumph of hope over experience. On average, Australian women currently retire with almost 50 per cent less superannuation than men, and 23 per cent of women retire with no superannuation savings at all. Women in retirement face growing rates of poverty, housing stress and homelessness.
The same economic forces that created these circumstances are also present for younger women who are only now entering the workforce. Women are more likely to work lower-paid jobs in less lucrative industries. Women are more likely to provide unpaid care, taking time out from the workforce to spend with their children, or to care for sick or elderly relatives.
It is not as though the Morrison Government is unaware of these issues. In 2015, I chaired a Senate committee inquiry into the Economic Security of Women in Retirement. The report made 19 recommendations and received bipartisan support. However, since then the Morrison Government has shown little interest in implementing these recommendations, or any other measures to support retirement security for Australian women.
In any given policy debate – tax, income, higher education or retirement – the Morrison Government appears indifferent to women’s economic interests. This track record of complacency towards women and their retirement is not interrupted by this report.
At its heart, the report pays lip service to diverse experiences, but its analysis is heavily dependent on modelling that is not reflective of the lived experience of many women, particularly that very large group of women that earns a modest amount each year. Its women’s earnings that are key to understanding this problem; women are over-represented in the bottom 40 percent of income earners, and very significantly underrepresented in the top 15%. For example, the modelling which drives the reports analysis, assumes 40 years of uninterrupted work. This is not the reality for many women.
The Morrison Government’s response to the report similarly brushes over women’s experiences. The Treasurer has argued that “the aged pension provides a strong safety net for those who retire with small super balances.”
Putting aside the Liberals relentless attacks on the aged pension over the last 7 years, the evidence before my inquiry was that single women dependent on the aged pension in the private rental market do it very tough. Women told stories about missing meals, going without showers to save on fuel and heating costs, and the devastating sense of isolation and exclusion that accompanies poverty. Superannuation was designed to mitigate these risks for Australian workers.
Is the government really asking us to accept that women should accept a less secure retirement than men?
The Morrison Government has missed a historic opportunity to advance the economic security of women through the Retirement Income Review. This was their chance to ensure that our retirement system works for both women and men. Sadly, this is a test they have failed.