Jim Chalmers

Treasurer Jim Chalmers has expanded his vision for superannuation funds to invest in “big national priorities” that can also generate returns to members.

Officially opening Australian Retirement Trust’s Sydney office on Monday night, the federal treasurer thanked the $200 billion mega-fund for its investment in affordable housing supply in south-east Queensland, alongside manager QIC and the Brisbane Housing Company. ART’s $150 million capital allocation, announced in July last year, aims to build up to 1200 new homes by 2025 via the newly formed QIC-BHC Social Housing Consortium.

“We do think there’s an opportunity, at the same time as you’re delivering for your members the best possible returns for their retirement… that we recognise that there are some ways, where that’s possible at the same time as we invest in those big national priorities as well,” Chalmers said.

“We’re interested in that and I know that you are as well, because the deal you did with QIC on housing, the work that you do on the investor roundtables, and engagement across so many areas which will determine our future prosperity.”

The comments echo those made by the treasurer at the Conexus Financial Political Series breakfast in February, at which he outlined the government’s plan to legislate an objective for the super system and implored trustees to invest in the energy transition and affordable housing as part of their ESG integration efforts.

At the ART event on Monday, Chalmers acknowledged the government’s contention that funds can invest with the dual purpose of returns and social impact “invites some commentary in the financial press”. But he implored funds to do what they believe is best for members in the long term.

He said the government’s projects to legislate an objective, alongside its plan to crack down on generous tax concessions, were motivated by its desire to improve the system Labor believed in so deeply.

‘Terrific but imperfect’

“Tonight’s an opportunity to celebrate your success and your ambition,” he told the room of ART executives and stakeholders.

“And also to assure you that the government certainly sell really right through the cabinet. Right through our government we understand the central role of super in what we are all trying to achieve together. [But] we can’t be complacent about this wonderful thing. Superannuation is terrific, but still imperfect.”

Chalmers offered guests an anecdote from the sidelines of the G20 meetings in India last week, where he represented Australia along with outgoing Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe.

“When things get a bit quiet, Phil [Lowe] and I sometimes [ask]: ‘if you look around this room, [which] of big economies who would you trade places with?’ And we usually conclude that you wouldn’t trade places with anyone.”

While some countries have “a bit of a better balance sheet” than Australia’s, or other relative economic strengths, few if any have a compulsory defined contributions pensions system that rivals ours, he said.

“Our superannuation system… is a source of substantial comparative advantage and it means that we can do things in this country on behalf of working people that other countries can only dream of,” Chalmers said. “And that gives us the big head start on the rest of the world, it’s something I’m very thankful for.”