Luke Howarth

After almost 12 months of relatively clear air, Minister for Financial Services Stephen Jones finally has an opponent.

Luke Howarth, MP for the Brisbane seat of Petrie, was on Tuesday named Shadow Assistant Treasurer and Minister for Financial Services in a front-bench reshuffle by opposition leader, Peter Dutton.

Howarth had previously been shadow minister for defence industry and personnel. During the Morrison government, he was Assistant Minister for Community Housing, Homelessness and Community Services; and Assistant Minister for Youth and Employment Services.

“Luke understands that small business is the backbone of the Australian economy,” Dutton said in a statement.

“He has previously run a family business before entering parliament and has a strong understanding of the financial pressures many Australians are currently experiencing under the government’s cost of living crisis. Luke will bring his strong command of retail economics to this important role.”

The appointment ends a long period in which the Coalition has opted not to have a full-time shadow minister in the portfolio, leaving shadow treasurer Angus Taylor to be the primary spokesperson on superannuation and financial services since the resignation and subsequent departure of Stuart Robert.

‘Critical portfolio area’

The party has also had a de facto shadow in outspoken Coalition MP Andrew Bragg, a former Financial Services Council staffer and critic of trade union influence in the super sector.

Bragg, who is believed to be an increasingly influential player in the depleted moderate wing of the NSW Liberal Party after the so-called “teal wave” of independent wins in wealthy seats at the last federal election, was arguably overlooked for the job, but has been appointed to the newly created role of Shadow Assistant Minister for Home Ownership.

“Andrew’s astute policy mind and advocacy will stand him in good stead for this critical portfolio area for the Coalition under my leadership,” Dutton said.

The role will allow Bragg to continue to be active in the superannuation debate as the Coalition seeks a mandate for its controversial policy allowing Australians to withdraw super to buy a house, which it will take to the next election as soon as this year.

Together, he and Howarth will be the key advocates for policy in the sector and a more flexible super system.

Liberal sources, who described Howarth as a fierce “partisan” who is broadly liked across the party, said he is likely to be play an aggressive style of politics in the portfolio and maintain a hardline stance on both ‘super for housing’ and the Quality of Advice Review, which the opposition wants to see accepted and implemented in full.

Howarth is described as a sceptic of the principle of preservation, which the government wants to enshrine in law as part of its ‘objective of super’ campaign, launched by treasurer Jim Chalmers at a Political Series event hosted last year by Conexus Financial, the publisher of Professional Planner.

“Industry [super] funds should be nervous,” said one source familiar with Howarth’s views on the sector.

‘Competitive and transparent’

A black belt in martial art judo and former boss of his family’s pest control business, he has been a vocal supporter of the previous government’s early release scheme during the pandemic’s first wave.

He has also been an advocate for self-managed super funds and admitted in parliament that he had an SMSF, saying he would “fight tooth and nail” to protect the rights of trustees and their families.

“The Morrison government supports all Australians and their choices when it comes to their retirement… [and] remains focused on having a superannuation system which is competitive and transparent and which puts Australians in control of their own super,” he said in a speech to the House of Representatives in December 2020.

In that speech – which featured several potshots at his now counterpart Jones, who was then shadow minister for superannuation and financial services – Howarth said superannuation was a “good thing”, but that home ownership was just as important.

“I was very fortunate that my father taught me when I was 18 years of age to put a little bit additional money away on top of what is a compulsory superannuation system,” he said.

“Whilst in Australia we have a compulsory and universal system that was put in place under the Keating government, it’s not perfect. Those opposite, in the Labor Party, I think, are sometimes blinded by that fact.”

Meanwhile, senator James Paterson – who as a former staffer at conservative think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs has also been a critic of compulsory super – was appointed Shadow Cabinet Secretary and Melissa McIntosh was named Shadow Minister for Energy Affordability and Shadow Minister for Western Sydney.

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