As the government prepares a budget that is reportedly set to entice older voters through guarantees on tax rates for superannuation, it is increasingly clear that generational conflict will be a defining motif of the next federal election.
With precious little else going right for it, it comes as no surprise that the Turnbull government should conclude that Labor’s risky gambit on dividend imputation presents too good an opportunity to pass up. This was foreshadowed during the Batman byelection campaign, when some in the government could be heard sharpening their rhetoric in anticipation of a rebuff to Labor and its new showpiece policy.
History records that things didn’t quite play out that way, but Labor’s opponents have nonetheless kept the dream alive by pointing to the fine print of the result. While Labor picked up substantial swings of 5.2% against the Greens on pre-polls and 7.4% on postals, the swing on votes cast in the traditional fashion on polling day was only 1.6%.
Since a great many of the pre-polls and postals would have been cast before Bill Shorten announced the policy five days out from polling day, the theory goes that it was followed by a backlash that might yet have cost Labor the seat if the issue had more time to gain steam.
In truth, this level of detailed electoral entrail-reading is often less illuminating that it’s made out to be.
Confounding factors in Batman may have included the fact that the 2016 election was held during mid-semester break, increasing the number of Greens-voting university students among the pool of early voters. More tangibly, Newspoll’s finding that only 33% of respondents supported the policy, with 50% opposed, suggests the public is, at a bare minimum, yet to be persuaded. If that can indeed be weaponised by the Coalition during an election campaign, a number of dicey seats rich with older voters might yet be saved, particularly in New South Wales.
These include Liberal-held Robertson on the central coast and Nationals-held Page on the north coast, which were among the handful of Coalition gains from 2013 that were retained in 2016; and Gilmore on the south coast, where the Liberals have struggled since Ann Sudmalis succeeded Joanna Gash as member in 2013.
All told, it’s not hard to see why those in the government who dare to hope that a third term can still be achieved would wish to put the grey vote front and centre of their election strategy. However, to make it work to the necessary extent would require an expert demolition job on Labor’s policy on the scale achieved by Paul Keating against the goods and services tax in 1993, and Tony Abbott against the carbon tax in 2013.
Given his record to this point, nervous Liberals might very well feel cause to wonder if Malcolm Turnbull is the right man for the job.