Who is John Watson, Anyway?


You may never have heard of outgoing Tasmanian Liberal Senator John Watson, but you will probably have good reason to thank him one day.

Your retirement will almost certainly be much more comfortable than it might otherwise have been, because of his work.

Paul Keating has, quite rightly, taken much of the credit for overhauling Australia’s superannuation industry. But it was the quiet work that Senator Watson undertook in the shadows of parliamentary committees that made Keating’s vision of worthwhile superannuation for all Australians a reality.

Chief executive officer of the Investment and Financial Services Association Richard Gilbert, who knew him well, said Watson’s biggest achievement was persuading the Liberal Party to accept the Superannuation Guarantee Levy, giving Australia a $1.3 trillion superannuation industry that is "ten years ahead of the rest of the world".

When Keating started his overhaul, superannuation was a privilege enjoyed by government workers and a few rich and powerful people in private industry. Now almost all Australians can look forward to having at least some independent income in retirement.

The Superannuation Guarantee Levy, introduced in 1992 at the rate of 3 per cent of a worker’s standard salary, now stands at 9 per cent.

As the charge falls on employers, the Liberal Party initially found the levy hard to accept, even at that lower rate. But John Watson’s patient work helped to clear a path for it.

Gilbert, who was deeply involved in that work as a committee staffer, recalled Watson’s contribution, saying Watson – an accountant by trade – took an "insightful and judicious" approach to his work. "Senator Watson always thinks outside the square," Gilbert said. "He brings very strong technical skills to his work as a Senator."

Watson, who spent 30 years in the Senate, retires on 30 June as "father" of that house.

Although they are technically political enemies, Senator Nick Sherry, now Minister for Superannuation in the Rudd Labor Government, said this is an honour that Senator Watson "wholeheartedly deserves."

In a valedictory speech last week, Sherry came not to bury Senator Watson, but to praise him: "In particular, I want to acknowledge his role as a member and Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Superannuation."

Sherry said he had often found himself, in those times, pressing Federal Departments for answers at late night meetings, and that Senator Watson had often asked "like-minded" questions. Sherry said Watson’s training as an accountant had provided good preparation for the work he had done on financial issues.

In hard political times like the present, cross party compliments like this are – sadly – all too rare.

The job, of course, is not yet done, and the superannuation system is still being improved. Reforms currently being made will soon allow fund members to calculate much more accurately what benefits they are likely to accrue in retirement. This should allow people to make adjustments to their contributions, if necessary, to ensure that they do not have to spend their retirements in poverty.

So, as you press the starter button on the motor home you bought for your retirement, or collect the tickets you bought for your flight to Paris, you might pause for a moment to thank Paul Keating and John Watson.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.