Thomas Mayo. Photo: Jack Smith

Australia has a long way to go before it’s ready to have an open and genuine discussion on superannuation policy for First Nations people, according to Indigenous leader and Voice to Parliament advocate Thomas Mayo.  

In a candid reflection of his campaign experience at the Investment Magazine Chair Forum, hosted by the sister publication of Professional Planner, Mayo – a maritime union official in the Northern Territory and signatory to the Uluru Statement from the Heart – pointed out how easy it is for Indigenous voices to be misinterpreted when it comes to touchy subjects like superannuation policy. 

“We know that referenda have never succeeded in this country without bipartisan support,” he told the crowd in Sorento, Victoria.  

“I think any analysis [about why the Yes campaign failed] should ask: Who told lies about what this [the Voice referendum] was? 

“Just because I said as Indigenous people, we might want to comment on superannuation policy given our life expectancy, that was something then twisted into ‘the Voice might take your superannuation’.” 

He said disinformation and scare campaigns about issues such as super settings were weaponised against the Yes23 campaign, of which he was a key strategist. He said a lack of bipartisan support, and mistruths amplified by some sections of the media, were the “biggest factor” in the referendum loss.  

Some super sector stakeholders have previously weighed in on the topic publicly. In a submission to the Coalition government’s 2020 Retirement Income Review, the AustralianSuper questioned whether the 55 to 60 preservation threshold is “fit for purpose” for the First Nations cohort as many are not likely to reach the age.   

However, the legal status quo remains. A Queensland-born Wakka Wakka man Uncle Dennis’s request to receive his pension early due to shorter life expectancy was rejected by the Federal Court in July last year, on the basis that he did not “demonstrate any lesser enjoyment of the relevant human right – the right to social security”. 

Mayo said winning the Voice would have been a crucial step to advance reconciliation on key issues like this. But while the referendum’s result was devastating, he was positive that the campaign has made an impact.  

“I look back to the long history of struggle for everything that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have gained. And I know that we haven’t always succeeded in these peak moments,” Mayo said. 

“I understand that – partly as a trade unionist and as campaigner as well – you don’t always win. But you’ve got to have the fight. You got to have a go.  

“And that adds up – it still builds that platform towards where you want to be.” 

Looking into the future, Mayo said there is more to grapple with for First Nations communities with employment and superannuation space.  

According to Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia (ASFA) statistics, the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with super is about 74 per cent for men and 59 per cent for women in 2018, compared to 86 per cent and 84 per cent of the general population benchmark.  

Mayo spoke of the need to establish works from Indigenous Elders in preserving languages, stories and other parts of First Nations culture as full-time jobs, and address current inefficiencies in government initiatives like the Community Development Program, which he said was “miserable”.  

He called for support from some 40 chairs, deputy chairs and investment committee chairs at industry and retail funds present at the event. 

“People weren’t getting super. They were exploited and weren’t covered by laws and regulations around safety,” he said. 

“We’ve got to move forward. We really do. And the biggest message that I want to put out… is to put your arm around someone that voted no. 

“Because I don’t think many of them were with darkness in their hearts. They were just misled, and we’ve got a job to do.” 

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