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Prebble and Anderton agree on some things

When it comes to super Act leader Richard Prebble says he can agree with his Alliance counterpart Jim Anderton on some points.

Tuesday, October 30th 2001, 9:27PM

The problem with super is clear. Too many political parties are making irresponsible promises about superannuation, in order to buy votes. They see the future financing of their promises as someone else's problem.

Broken promises in superannuation undermine confidence in the democratic process.

The Cullen superannuation fund is yet another reckless scheme to buy votes. To borrow $6 billion over the next four years to invest in the world sharemarket is very risky.

If the Cullen scheme was in place on 11 September and had the $6 billion in it, more than $2 billion dollars would have been lost.

If the Cullen scheme works, then no one else needs too. You could save for your retirement by borrowing on your credit card. Dr Cullen set up his scheme on a simple mistake. Since the passing of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, Treasury has been working to create a Crown balance sheet. The first balance sheet was published last December - a month after Dr Cullen announced his scheme.

Prior to the publication of the balance sheet it was impossible to separate out income from capital. Dr Cullen thought that the next four years would see huge surpluses in the Crown account, that he would then put aside for a super fund. After the publication of the Crown accounts we realised those surpluses are capital, and the Crown's income is in the red.

Dr Cullen would never have announced: "I have this great idea, let's borrow money and gamble it all on the sharemarket." In a free vote in parliament, the Cullen scheme would be voted out tomorrow. It's reckless. It's a gamble. It is not the answer and it will not last.

Superannuation is a problem throughout the western world. Tax-based schemes like ours have been financed by the happy fact that there have been many more taxpayers than retired. But falling birth rates and longer life span are turning the population around. Many retired, too few workers.

New Zealand is now spending 6% of GDP on super compared to just 3% in Australia. New Zealand's scheme is less targeted and more generous than the Aussie scheme.

In 1995, a New Zealander aged 55 on an average or modest income, could expect to retire on 61% of existing earnings. This is up 32% 1961.

For Australia, the comparable figures are 40.9% and 19% respectively.

With unchanged benefits, the cost of superannuation escalates rapidly as population ages.

As it's estimated every dollar of tax spent costs the taxpayer $1.50, this is a huge burden. Having said that, we must be careful not to overstate the problem.

New Zealand superannuation arrangements are basically sound and with a few changes, well-signalled, the issued can be managed.

One of the policy problems in this area is that people on fixed incomes can't change their circumstances - by definition.

If you are 30 and the government changes the tax regime, you may be hurt financially but you can adjust. You can take a second job, change jobs, save more, all manner of things.

But if you are retired and your income is the state pension, you have to bear the cost of the change. This makes the elderly vulnerable and able to be manipulated by reckless promises and fear-mongering.

So Act says we should try to get a consensus on superannuation. I don't pretend my party has the only wisdom. On behalf of Act, I'm willing to try to reach a lasting consensus.

Certainty is better than perfection.

It's useless to say, as Dr Cullen and Jim Anderton do: "We will agree to consensus but only if you agree with us."

No, let's sit down and agree to negotiate sincerely and be prepared to compromise.

The political parties are not as far apart as we pretend. Let me set out some things that even Jim Anderton and I agree on.

First, we should guarantee the present income of those who have already retired. The government is promising to increase their incomes, so they must agree that, in real terms, the income of the already retired must not decrease.

Second, any changes should fall on those who have not yet retired, or who are too close to retirement to be able to make a real difference - so those under, say, 55 years old.

Third, any changes should be phased in over a long period.

Fourth, there must always be a safety net retirement scheme.

I believe all parties can agree on these four minimum principles for superannuation. It is then a relatively easy problem to solve.

There are two steps that will make superannuation affordable. First, index superannuation to inflation, not to incomes - just like the invalid's benefit. That's fair.

Second, over time, lift the age of entitlement to super to 68. In some countries, it's 70. If we phased in a lift in the age over 10 years, starting in 10 years time - a total of 20 years - that would only fully affect people who are now under the age of 45.

Then super is affordable. It's nothing like as tough an issue as healthcare.

Act says we should then turn our attention to the real answer to a prosperous retirement - savings-based superannuation. The biggest reason why working New Zealanders don't save enough for retirement, is the high level of taxation.

The state takes 40% of everything the country produces. And the state takes 50% of the income of the average household.

Tax makes saving unaffordable. A low flat tax rate would see the country's savings rate improve, investment increase, more jobs, more growth and a secure, prosperous retirement.

That's ACT's policy.

Richard Prebble is the leader of the Act party. This is a speech he gave to AMP Superannuation Consultants.

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