Shadow minister for superannuation Mathias Cormann has warned there will be a big shake-up in the corporate governance standards of the country's $1.4 trillion sector if the Gillard government is ousted at the next federal election.
His comments come as a political storm has broken out over speculation that the government plans to target the rich by reducing tax concessions on super, to be outlined in the May budget.
Cormann's comments also come as the country's biggest industry fund, AustralianSuper, announced its long-time chairwoman, Elana Rubin - a representative of the ACTU - would step down and be replaced by Heather Ridout, with little explanation given for the surprise change.
A spokeswoman for AustralianSuper said Rubin believed that after 20 years "it was time". She said it had nothing to do with AustralianSuper's current stoush with the Future Fund or Rubin's board position with life insurance group TAL, which is currently re-tendering for the contract with AustralianSuper after its contract expired.
Super was always going to be a target when Treasurer Wayne Swan wrote his controversial essay last year on the rising influence of vested interests. The heartfelt essay was designed to win back the party's heartland by stirring the embers of a class war as well as reducing the budget black hole by curbing the various concessions enjoyed by the rich.
Today and the dream continues but the target has shifted to Australia's $1.4 trillion retirement savings, particularly tax concessions relating to the rich.
It is not hard to see why. Figures released in the Tax Expenditure Statements show that the total cost of super tax concessions - or revenue forgone - jumped more than 10 per cent in 2011-12 to a record $32.4 billion. Total tax expenditures are $111 billion. Even if these super tax figures are overstated by 50 per cent, as argued by lobby group the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia, it is still a golden goose waiting to be slain.
But it has created a huge political storm on all sides of politics, with some of the ALP's own members, including Simon Crean, attacking any further changes to the country's superannuation system.
A spokesman for Bill Shorten, the Minister for Super, said: "The only live plan to increase taxes on superannuation is Tony Abbott's plan to whack a 15 per cent tax on the savings of 3.6 million low-paid and part-time Australian workers, including 2.1 million women."
In relation to the speculation, he said: "As the minister has said, we are not going to comment on what may or may not be in the May budget."
Shorten may not be commenting, but everyone else is. AustralianSuper chief executive Ian Silk was quoted in the Financial Standard as saying: "Most AustralianSuper members would crawl over broken glass to have this money; most Australians don't have anything like a million dollars."
Besides sounding very much like politically charged statements, it was a strong reminder that the super system was born out of politics and economics and any changes to the system will always start a political firestorm.
Indeed, AustralianSuper itself is a $60 billion industry fund with its board consisting of six employer representatives and six ACTU representatives. Higher-profile union representatives include Paul Howes, the national secretary of the Australian Workers' Union and vice-president of the ACTU, and Brian Daley. Well-known employer representatives include Ridout, a director of the Reserve Bank and former chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, and Tim Poole, a director of Newcrest Mining and former managing director of Hastings Funds Management. Hastings manages the airport assets in Australian Infrastructure Fund, which recently sold its stake in Perth airport to the Future Fund. AustralianSuper is preparing legal action against Hastings and the Future Fund over the transaction.
The stoush came to light in the media; AustralianSuper members had been kept in the dark.
Lack of transparency, conflicts of interest at board level and an overhaul of the board structure of super funds to eliminate the equal representation of unions are a few of the issues that will be on the Coalition's agenda.
The federal government has done some cleaning up of governance in the super industry, including making remuneration more transparent. But it has steered away from the thorny issue of board composition, arguably to keep the unions on side.
Conflicts of interest also need to be resolved, particularly given the number of super board directors appearing on more than one super board.
A director of a bank would never be allowed to take up a position on the board of another bank, including the RBA. Yet a director of a super fund can, as evidenced by Ridout. Also, interestingly, AustralianSuper has a shareholding in Members Equity Bank.
The country's compulsory super industry was born in the 20th century. It has a lot to be proud of in terms of helping Australians amass personal wealth. But the shortcomings need to be fixed to make it suitable for the 21st century.