Liberal MP Tim Wilson (Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

There’s a particular trap in Australian progressive politics which involves dismissing a political issue simply because Tim Wilson has become involved.

It’s fair to say the Liberal MP represents the antithesis of what anyone with a skerrick of blood in their veins feels life is all about: the rent-a-blazer with a nine-dollar smile, last seen in the 2019 election hanging around old folks homes like a has-been crooner doing morning melodies, or a fake relative with a newly drafted will.

But that would be to underestimate him, as the course of the franking credits issue showed. Wilson’s relentless campaigning on it was a savvy pick up on the widespread anxiety Chris Bowen’s (remember him?) very modest proposal induced — even in people with no share portfolio.

Labor, cosplaying class war, never noticed how the issue was eating away at it in the Melbourne “middle band” seats it assumed it would win and didn’t, thereby losing the election.

Well, it’s happening again with compulsory superannuation.

Freedom Boy has become the grinning face of the anti-super campaign, leading many to assume that the issue hasn’t got chino’d legs.

The barrage of propaganda, to the effect that industry super fund managers pretty much light up their cigars with ‘umble people’s modest contributions, is a farrago of misinformation. But to not see its power would be another mistake.

Compulsory super, as an issue, is going to eat away at Labor’s support in key social strata, and Labor will need to come up with a more flexible policy on it to win them back.

The problem for Labor is the contradictory nature of compulsory superannuation itself. It combines two things that look similar but are quite different.

The compulsory employer contribution is made up of two things: firstly, a charge to employers over and above what would be paid in wages, an actual transfer from profits to wages, actual class politics.

The other part is what would have gone into present wages, but is now sequestered into superannuation. That is a compulsory sequestration of employee wages. The strict value of that may be impossible to calculate, but it’s real and people increasingly notice it as a wage gap, and as a fix with a touch of paternalism and governance to it. 

Labor is failing to notice this, in part because its leaders — both MPs and tame intellectuals, think-tank big fish and the like — spend so much time congratulating themselves on what a triumph compulsory super has been that they fail to notice the increasing disquiet about it among those it is meant to serve. (And of course there’s a third part, a purely voluntary employee contribution). 

The deeper paradox of this is that compulsory super has been the agent by which distrust of the thing itself has become generalised. When Labor introduced it in the early 1990s, we were still a recognisable class society, with a degree of class discipline that Labor could rely on to implement coercive social policy.

But compulsory super immediately began to undermine that, turning collective class life into individualised life-course management.

It was part of a suite of measures — negative gearing, workplace agreements, mixed public-private health system — that turned sections of the working class into life entrepreneurs, managing the individual fate of their families.

As the fortunes of different sections of the working class and Labor-oriented middle class have divided substantially, that atomisation has become significant. It’s Labor’s missing primary vote: not the regular 10% Green progressive vote, but a 5%-8% bump who are classically working-middle class, would never vote Green, but are so life-entrepreneurialised (not by choice) that the Liberals appears to better represent their interests at the federal level.

That includes construction workers, fly-in fly-out workers, sales reps and numerous others whose working life has also been atomised — by short-term contracts, agency employment etc. For many, compulsory super — designed for full-time, stable employment — is a mismatch which costs them the opportunity to deploy their money to maximum advantage.

Labor leaders’ rah-rah for compulsory super is blinkered and unreflexive — self-serving working-class branding, a degree of Keatingolatry, and a refusal to acknowledge that it was Labor that created the conditions whereby any collectivist policy becomes ever more difficult to sell.

Keating got what he wanted: from the party’s Catholic right, an attack on its left collectivist traditions. But his understanding of social change was so poor that he never anticipated how much this would undermine Labor. Three decades of near-total failure later, here we are.

The solution is relatively easy: separate the employer contribution and fight for it, and extend it, under the “make corporations pay” line; make part of the employee contribution voluntary, and own that freedom as a Labor thing (with campaigns around why it’s a good idea for many to put into super, the $500 cup of coffee blah blah); wrap a defence of industry super funds in that freedom; propose to raise the pension, funded by a Medicare-style levy that draws on the minimal collectivism that sustains the latter’s political viability, and reduces the burden on super for non-penurious retirement.

If Labor is unwilling to be flexible and creative in that fashion, it should be prepared to answer a campaign in which the Coalition asks the electorate why Labor doesn’t trust workers with their own money.

Surely that’s incentive enough for actual policy development: having to face six months of Freedom Boy’s beluga-coprophagic grin.

Note: This article has been updated to clear up confusion between the implicit employee contribution and the voluntary employee contribution.