Cat out of the bag on hostility to older voters

The Australian

31 January 2019

Simon Benson, National Affairs Editor

Labor’s tax philosophy is based on an easily understood principle: tax those who aren’t your people and funnel it through to those who are.

It is a formula most often cloaked in terms of fairness and inequality.

So the extraordinary thing about Chris Bowen’s tax taunt yesterday was not so much what he said, but that he said it at all.

The opposition Treasury spokesman’s challenge to older voters that they don’t have to vote Labor if they don’t like his plans to take $55 billion in dividend imputation cash refunds from them, tore away that cloak. He may have been stating the obvious, but it was a rare articulation of Labor’s hostility to this demographic and the politics at play.

This is a new demographic division that pits two distinct groups against each other — self-funded retirees and working families.

Bowen would be the first to admit privately that this policy was a gamble from the start.

It took less than two weeks for it to be torn up and redrafted when it was pointed out by this newspaper that pensioners were also going to be dragged into the net and that, contrary to the policy’s claim, many of its beneficiaries were in no way rich.

Australian Taxation Office data shows that the most numerous group claiming tax credits on their Australian share dividends — but not necessarily the refunds — were women older than 75. The aggregate amounted to a value of about $1.1bn a year.

Labor is likely to get away with the cash grab, however. Only those who receive the refunds have any idea what in fact they are and how they work. As far as Labor is concerned, these are largely people who don’t vote Labor.

The assumption is that very few other people care and Labor is unlikely to lose a seat over this policy.

What senior Labor figures do now admit, however, is that a decent campaign by the Coalition on this could be the difference between Labor taking marginal regional Queensland seats from the Liberal National Party.

Labor’s policy gives the government the best chance yet to sandbag those seats where the Liberal Party base, the over-55s, still feel burnt by the Coalition’s super reforms.

None of this is in any way enough yet to force a reconsideration by Bowen or Bill Shorten on the policy.

It represents a quarter of Labor’s $200bn-plus spending program.