Voters show signs of an attitude reset – the system needs to catch up

The Australian people have got some cheek, refusing to go along with the hysterical representations of the Albanese government’s proposed changes to superannuation tax discounts. They were supposed to be outraged. In some media, there was a full-throttle campaign against the changes, with ominous warnings of other, more dastardly, tax grabs to come and Anthony Albanese having a trust problem because he’d said before the election that Labor wouldn’t fiddle with super. He and Treasurer Jim Chalmers were said to be now on the slippery slope to oblivion.

Then a bunch of polls showed most people didn’t care about this “broken promise” and thought the changes were fair enough. Newspoll found voters favoured the change 64 per cent to 29. Essential’s figures were 50-19, with 31 per cent undecided. Even a majority in a reader’s survey of The Australian Financial Review – not traditionally a big ALP constituency – were strongly in favour. Voters looked at the issue on its merits and concluded that reducing the tax concession on super balances above $3 million – affecting just 0.5 per cent of super account holders – couldn’t possibly amount to a breach of faith worth getting worked up about.

The three-year electoral cycle has led governments to campaign permanently rather than govern.Credit:Dionne Gain

Here’s a suggestion: perhaps we’ve reached a stage where the electorate is more open to change than it once was.

Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a political and media system structured to discourage audacious policymaking. Media conferences have fewer guardrails, with baseless speculation aimed at provoking a headline-grabbing reaction often forming the basis of questions. Meanwhile, oppositions these days seek currency in rejecting almost any policy put forward by the government.

Then there’s the lag effect caused by past political events. The Labor Party is still weighed down by its 2019 election defeat. Bill Shorten and his shadow treasurer Chris Bowen wanted to form an activist government with an extensive policy agenda. By identifying the money in the budget they would redirect to a wide range of new spending programs, they sealed the Labor’s fate; the public wasn’t up for ending the largesse connected to franking credits and negative gearing. Confident they were on the way to victory, they got too far ahead of voters.

Subsequently, Labor under Albanese successfully took a small target approach to last year’s election. In practical terms, this pushed consideration of substantial reforms further off into the future, past the next election.

The three-year electoral cycle is also a serious hindrance. Increasingly, it has led governments to campaign permanently rather than govern. It was not always so. The Hawke and Howard governments waded into difficult territory, and endured difficult periods, but recovered without having to change leader. The tendency to treat leaders as disposable consumer products is a more recent feature of our politics.

It’s not surprising political parties have become hyper-cautious. More recent political history is littered with prime ministers who went down because they either went back on their word or sprung a policy on the public without taking it to an election. John Howard, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott were all caught in that net.

But those leaders got into trouble variously over policies on climate change, industrial relations, health and education that reached into every household and workplace, not a measure affecting a relative few who could afford to take a haircut.

I believe there is a glimmer of light on the horizon when it comes to introducing more audacious policies than Albanese’s super tax change, thanks to COVID-19. Do we fully understand yet how much we’ve been affected by the pandemic? We like to think of ourselves being in a post-pandemic phase but in truth we’ve only made it past the health effects stage. The economic impacts are affecting us every day and will do so for years to come. Surely we can see that whatever it was that we considered normal or settled – the mindset that enabled us to endorse a figure as avowedly unserious as Scott Morrison as prime minister in 2019 – is no longer operative.

These are unsettling times. The lockdowns and other restrictions, the social privations, the psychological problems that flowed from and ultimately characterised the pandemic are still washing through the Australian psyche. We had time to reflect on what was right and what was wrong in our society and our economy. That’s what made it easier for some people to switch their votes and opt for a change of federal government last year.

Where we are in 2023 is uncharted territory. We’re living in an unstable international environment. The economic recovery is starting to feel like it isn’t an economic recovery at all. We’re eating up our savings and still face a mountain of debt. The climate change challenge seems to be getting away from us. Parents are no longer envious of their children and the lives they’ll be able to live. People aren’t stupid. They understand that these conditions are structural – the result of years of policymaking and decisions taken, or not taken, before May 2022. The day will come when every little thing can be blamed on Albanese, but we’re not there yet.

That’s why it seemed so incongruous to see the Coalition and its media supporters losing their minds about Albanese’s super tax change. There are bigger things on our minds than that. Most of us were changed in some way by the experience of the pandemic and there’s every chance that our approach to the purpose of politics changed with it.

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