Infighting is common to many industries, from clean energy and high-speed internet to vegan food and natural wine. The degree to which robust debate spills over to displays of public dispute distinguishes mature industries who put their customers first from immature industries who cannot set aside their self-interests.

Superannuation is sprinting towards the state whereby it is defined by its self-interest rather than its important core function of converting savings into retirement income.

And let’s be frank: the elements of self-interest are not hard to identify. In aggregate, and uncomfortably called out repeatedly by John Daley, the system incurs a massive dollar cost to perform its core role, resulting in a lot of very-well paid people, payments back to unions and multiple well-funded industry bodies (even our senior regulators are extremely well paid). All this for an industry which has exhibited little innovation of note and is hugely peer group focused.

Any industry which cannot work through its infighting to resolve industry challenges is likely to be viewed skeptically. Of course, for superannuation the majority of contributions are mandatory: this should be a sector where self-interest doesn’t exist.

Worse still superannuation is inflicted with an industry structure which funnels down the lines of the major political parties. So when issues spill into the public domain, often through the same industry bodies who were unable to collaborate to generate consensus, they then become fodder for political point scoring. Sometimes it’s hard to discern the difference between what’s happening on twitter and the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics. This is all lapped up by the media of course.

And what is the outcome? Reduced public confidence in the superannuation system.

This week Kenneth Hayne suggested that governments have lost the trust of the people to govern, resulting in many matters that could be dealt with through legislation be referred to independent inquiries. As he bemoaned slogans supplanting reasoned debate, I wonder how he would reflect on an industry has had around 30 reviews in the last decade.

The range of issues feels endless. Take what should be the philosophical debate on access versus preservation: we can all see the party line slogans (“it’s your money” versus “long-term investment in nation-building projects”). Other examples, to name a handful of many, include fee definitions, exposure measures, fund liquidity and the role of unlisted assets, award models, intra-fund advice models and vertical integration.

Soon, industry bodies will be viewed purely as lobby groups, rather than for their role in education and design of industry policy and standards. This impacts their own behaviours and KPI’s risking a spiral that is hard for them to pull away from. It’s hard to imagine a more institutionalised model of self-interest than using mandatory savings to fund industry lobbying.

Perhaps the solution for canny policymakers is to play to those self-interests. Imagine if future increases in SG were conditional on total industry limit spends on industry body fees and executive salaries and an X% drop in expenses: I’m pretty confident the industry would find a way to meet the challenge.

But I’m not without optimism. The power of sensible, considered words which cut across the infighting battleground cannot be understated.

Paul Keating recently commented that Senator Jane Hume’s concerns that super funds with high member concentration risk to a single industry sector carried systemic risk and should consider merging were “reasonable”. Maybe, to preserve my optimism, I should just put aside the rest of Keating’s speech and Hume’s subsequent tweet-fest.