Super tax did not turn many rich Liberals against Turnbull

The Australian

9 December 2016

David Crowe

Malcolm Turnbull has good reason to be on permanent alert for a revolt from the Right. As the farce over climate change this week showed again, the conservative wing of the Liberal Party is quick to flex its muscle when its views are challenged.

But how powerful is that bulging bicep? On at least one issue this year, the threat from the Right looked far bigger than it really was.

The superannuation tax changes, made law last week after gaining royal assent, brought out all the Coalition’s internal anxieties. Critics of the changes warned of a voter backlash. Conservatives threatened to walk. “If the government’s superannuation policy does not change, I will be crossing the floor,” Liberal National Party MP George Christensen declared. He and others got their way: the bills were legislated only after Scott Morrison and Kelly O’Dwyer replaced the hated $500,000 lifetime cap.

The backlash was real. The political pain was severe. But the revolt should not be exaggerated. When the July 2 election results came in, the government found it had a problem with “battler” voters in marginal seats, most of them untouched by a tax increase on super accounts worth $1.6 million. The anger felt by the Liberal Party’s wealthier supporters did not turn into a powerful force at the ballot box.

Polling booth by polling booth, the government held the wealthier suburbs and lost ground in Middle Australia. This shows up in the results for Hughes, an electorate in southern Sydney that extends from the apartment blocks of Sutherland to the waterfront homes along the Georges River and the suburbs of Liverpool.

Liberal MP Craig Kelly held the seat against a 2.5 per cent swing, but the threat came from the Left, not the Right. At the Sutherland Uniting Church Hall, where 1865 formal votes were cast, the swing against Kelly was 6.8 per cent. The swing to Labor was 7 per cent.

The same thing happened in other parts of Sutherland, where Labor and the Greens gained ground. Another battler suburb, Kirrawee, where the median income was about $1400 a week in the 2011 census, also swung against Kelly. His primary vote was down 4.7 per cent and Labor candidate Diedree Steinwall was up 5.7 per cent.

Compare that with Illawong, a suburb that juts out into the Georges River. Here, where the median household income was about $2300 a week, the swing against Kelly was just 2.4 per cent. Labor lost votes. The big winner was the Christian Democratic Party, up 4 per cent.

There was a stronger swing against Kelly in Alfords Point, with a median income of about $2500. Voters here swung against Kelly by 4.7 per cent. The gains were split between the Greens, the Christian Democrats and the Animal Justice Party. That wasn’t a backlash from the Right. The wealthier part of the electorate gave the Liberals one of their best results. If fury over super was driving this shift it would hardly make sense to back the Greens.

The Christian Democratic Party was not running hard on super. While it argued for a “zero taxation” policy on super contributions and payouts, this commitment was on page 27 of a 48-page policy booklet.

The same trends were on display in the electorate next door, Cook, held by Morrison since 2007. The Treasurer suffered a swing against him of 2.7 per cent but the trend was greater in areas that probably had smaller super balances. In Cronulla South, for instance, he suffered a 3.3 per cent swing. Barely any of it went to Labor. The Greens gained 2.2 per cent, the Christian Democrats gained 2.6 per cent and an independent, John Brett, saw a similar swing. The big factor was the absence of the Palmer United Party, which won 3.6 per cent in the previous election. The median household income was about $1500 a week in Cronulla in the last census.

Compare that with Burraneer, a suburb of beautiful homes overlooking the Hacking River. Here, where the median household income was about $2400 a week, the voters at the Burraneer Bay Public School stuck with Morrison. The Christian Democrats gained about as much ground as the Palmer United Party lost. After preferences, the swing against Morrison was only 1.2 per cent.

The tax hike on super shifted some votes, of course. The Liberal Democratic Party turned it into an opportunity to woo Liberal members away from their party. The LDP’s NSW senator, David Leyonhjelm, kept his position in the upper house with the help of this one issue. Yet the party’s results were patchy in the lower house.

In the Victorian seat of Higgins, for instance, the LDP won only 1.2 per cent of the primary vote — or 1093 votes. This is O’Dwyer’s electorate and saw a furious local debate over the tax increase, although Victorian barrister Jack Hammond seemed to attract dozens of supporters rather than hundreds of them when his Save Our Super campaign held a town hall meeting.

The results in Higgins and elsewhere shoot down the theory that Liberals stayed loyal on their lower house ballot papers and took their revenge in the Senate. The LDP managed only 1.36 per cent of the Senate primary votes in Higgins, not much different to the house result and well behind Derryn Hinch and the Nick Xenophon Team. Hinch and the NXT both voted in favour of the super tax package.

Coalition MPs know the super debate made their election campaigns more difficult. They know the names of the volunteers who stayed at home this year out of frustration at the policy. Yet the issue was not the electoral poison some of the strongest critics claimed. Perhaps voters, even in wealthier parts of the country, understood that tax concessions had to change when the deficit was about $40 billion. Consider this when you are told conservatives are mobilising on an issue.

In the end, the super changes added a valuable $3bn to the budget bottom line while improving retirement balances for millions of workers on low incomes. They were prudent and fair. They were worth the backlash. Most important, the backlash was smaller than expected.

That may be worth remembering next time Turnbull is warned of a revolt from the Right.