"Thrilled to be advocating on behalf of the sector": Q&A with AIST's Melissa Birks September 2019

Melissa+birks

A passionate believer in the profit-to-member model for super, Melissa Birks has joined AIST as its new head of advocacy. We ask Melissa about her particular areas of focus, and the role super funds can play in addressing issues of climate change and retirement incomes for women and indigenous Australians. She also shares a little of her childhood and what keeps her busy on the first Sunday of each month.

What are some of the areas you will be focusing on in your new role?

Representing the views of our all profit-to-member funds on issues within superannuation, legislative change, policy and any broader issues that are relevant.

What excites you about the role? What do you expect to find challenging?

As a passionate believer in the profit-to-member model for super, I’m thrilled to be advocating on behalf of the sector. Engaging with trustees and fund staff from across our membership is exciting and tapping into the collective knowledge and wisdom of this group is a unique opportunity. In terms of challenges, it will come as no surprise that the volume of pace of change in the industry is the biggest challenge.

Given the massive turnout for the recent climate change rallies, do you think super funds have a bigger role to play in advocating for better climate outcomes (in addition to their investment choices)?

A range of super funds already play an active role in climate investing and given the long term nature of superannuation they are uniquely placed to do so. With the clear, undeniable impacts of climate change, super funds are already considering the economic impacts of climate change within their portfolios.

"The most important thing super funds can do is advocate for policy and structural change."

You’ve said women’s retirement incomes are a focus, what are three things that super funds can do to help achieve better outcomes?

The most important thing super funds can do is advocate for policy and structural change. The issues facing women are the result of our current super system being based on an assumption that a worker has an uninterrupted career, with no part time work or career breaks and that there is no gender pay gap. Clearly this is not the reality for most women. These settings need to be revisited to ensure the system is fair and women in the future do not face the prospect of retiring on 40% less than men.

AIST has also just released the Indigenous Summit report, what areas do superannuation funds need to address to improve superannuation outcomes for indigenous Australians?

A few practical things that super funds are working towards include, standardising ID requirements for ATSI members across all funds, based on the existing AUSTRAC guidance, allowing financial counsellors to act as third party representatives for members and providing cultural awareness training to staff as part of their professional development.

What was your very first job?

When I was 15 I was a ‘chemist girl’ at the Pharmacy in my home town of Moe. I loved wearing the white uniform, I felt so grown up!

Where did you grow up and what was it like?

I grew up in Moe, which is a coal mining town in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria. I lived on 7 acres and spent my spare time with my best friend riding around on my dragstar bicycle and going tadpoling. It was a great place to grow up and has given me a lifelong appreciation of hard working, down to earth Australians.

What is something most people wouldn’t know about you?

I do a radio show on northwest fm the first Sunday of each month, called ‘80s is enough’ where I play only 80s music. Daggy, but lots of fun!

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