2016 federal election: Can the disengaged be mobilised for change?

Peter Boyle (left) alongside some of the NSW Socialist Alliance Senate team at the launch on April 15..
Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Mainstream media chatter about recent polls showing the Coalition's honeymoon has dramatically ended has ignored another revealing statistic: there is a growing slice of the population that rejects the politics-as-usual model. They are the people the surveys lump into the category of “don't know”.

These are the people who do not engage with the pollsters' questions. They have a variety of reasons, but disengagement from the whole political process as they see it on TV and hear it on the radio is one of them.

A flurry of polls over the last weeks, before Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull affirmed the Coalition's plan for a double dissolution election on July 2, underscored the widespread disillusion with the major parties, their leaders and what they have to offer.

In answer to Essential Poll's question about whether Turnbull or Labor leader Bill Shorten would make a better prime minister, 34% said “don't know” — up from 30% in September. Enthusiasm for merchant banker Turnbull had dropped from 53% last year to 44%. Shorten's personal ratings had improved from 17% to 22%.

The latest Newspoll has Labor ahead by 2 points in two-party preferred terms (49% to 51%), and an IPSOS poll on April 18 showed Labor and the Coalition at 50% each. While the mainstream analysts continue to debate the meaning of these figures, they agree that the electorate is “volatile” and that a lot could happen in the short election campaign. There is a strong argument that the 50:50 split shows that, increasingly, voters see no policy difference between the major parties.

This seems borne out by the less reported — but more interesting — Essential Poll results, which reveal strong opinions on policies that would make a difference to most people's lives. The April 12 poll, which was based on 1010 respondents, asked about tax reform and included some concrete reform options.

When asked: “Would you support or oppose the following tax reforms to raise more funds for government services and infrastructure?”, 86% supported stopping companies and wealthy people from using legal loopholes to minimise tax payments by sending funds offshore and 80% agreed with forcing multinationals to pay a minimum tax rate on Australian earnings.

Sixty-five per cent supported an increase in income tax for high earners and 62% said superannuation tax concessions should be removed for high income earners. It is important to note that there were considerably fewer “don't knows” among these questions.

Superannuation tax concessions are tax breaks for contributions put into superannuation savings, as well as for the earnings on super investments. The government claims these tax breaks are about boosting contributions, savings and investment. In reality, it knows the big end of town is using the 15% tax rate to avoid paying 45%. It knows that the biggest tax breaks go to the higher income earners and the lowest income earners get little or no benefit because they have nothing left to “put away”.

GetUp! has estimated that 60% of all superannuation tax concessions ($18 billion) go to Australia's richest 20%.

The Australia Institute has come up with a plan for tax concessions to be tiered at different rates for different income levels.

But Peter Boyle, Socialist Alliance candidate for the seat of Sydney, argues that if a universal right to a pension at a liveable wage level was introduced, there would be no need for any superannuation tax concessions.

“About $40 billion a year could be saved if superannuation tax concessions and the Capital Gains Tax discount — another subsidy currently going to the wealthy — were abolished,” Boyle told Green Left Weekly.

“Turnbull and Co won't do this and upset their ruling class friends, but they might try to trick a few people by fiddling with the rates at budget time. An election budget is going to have to at least pretend to give out a few bribes.”

The Essential Poll showed support for a GST rise has fallen to 27%, down from 37% in February. Boyle argues that the GST should be abolished because it is an inherently regressive tax that hits the poor harder than the rich.

“While a GST rise seems to have been removed from the table for now, it'll be back if the Coalition wins in July. The push to reduce company taxes may also be put on hold — but only until after the election.”

Boyle said the impact of the Panama Papers' revelations about the 1% hiding its wealth in offshore tax havens and the Bernie Sanders' campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was having an impact on politics in Australia.

“All these revelations of the wholesale tax-dodging habits of the rich have put the parties that serve the rich on the defensive.

“Bernie Sanders' stand against the greed and corruption of Wall Street and the bankers is finding a resonance here too. People are looking around for an Australian Bernie. Even if one does not emerge, there is a growing sentiment that we don't have to settle for politics as usual.

"The 'don't knows' in all the polls express disillusionment in current choices. But they also express a desire for something better. The 'Feel the Bern' movement shows that a politics with clear demands to redistribute the wealth and make society fairer can mobilise a dramatic re-engagement with politics by the politically disillusioned," Boyle said.

[Socialist Alliance is fielding a NSW Senate ticket, headed by First Nations activist Ken Canning. Get in touch by email — nsw@socialist-alliance.org — or ring (02) 8070 9331.]

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