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While older Australians reap the benefits of the government’s fiscal policies, it is millennials who are fast becoming the nation’s largest voting bloc, but they are not becoming more conservative as they age. By Mike Seccombe.

Election 2019: welcome to the age war

Sophie Bazzano’s face was stony as she listened to Treasurer Josh Frydenberg answer her question on Monday night’s episode of Q&A.

She asked why his budget had not addressed the concerns of young people – climate change, flat wages, housing costs – and Frydenberg responded with trickle-down economic theory.

“When you get more productivity, for example, the instant asset writeoff that we provided for small business, extending that to $30,000 – already used by 350,000 small businesses, and small businesses are the engine room of our economy – that’s going to strengthen the economy,” he droned.

His questioner’s expression remained utterly blank, the perfect visual cue for the follow-up query from host Tony Jones.

“Are you in danger of losing this generation of voters because they simply aren’t hearing your message?” Jones asked the treasurer.

Frydenberg avoided giving a direct answer, but the correct response would have been, “No.” The government is not “in danger” of losing younger voters. It already has lost them.

Jones said the program had received “dozens” of questions similar to Bazzano’s, from other young voters. Even as Frydenberg was trickling away about instant asset writeoffs, a viewer’s tweet went up in the chyron, a succinct answer: “Because they are looking at the baby boomers for votes.”

For the Morrison government, however, it looks like the boomers won’t save them this time.

If one goes to the detail of the polling data, the government’s predicament becomes clear. Take this week’s Essential poll – the headline number has Labor ahead 52-48, broadly in line with all the other major polls and obviously bad news for the conservatives.

But it is far worse for them when one looks at the breakdown by age. Among voters aged 18 to 34, only 31 per cent plan to give their first preference to the Liberals or Nationals. Thirty-three per cent prefer Labor, and another 21 per cent prefer the Greens. One Nation gets 5, and other parties, 9.

In two-party-preferred terms, that works out to 57-43 in Labor’s favour.

Among the next age group up – 35- to 54-year-olds – the Liberal–National primary vote is only a little higher, at 33 per cent, while Labor gets 42 and the Greens 11. One Nation is again 5 and others 10. Two-party preferred, it’s 58-42 to Labor.

Only among the over-55s does the Coalition win, 58-42.

Trouble is, there are only about 6.5 million of those over-55 voters, and some 10 million younger ones. What’s more, the years of right-wing government appear to have activated these younger voters. According to the Australian Electoral Commission, when the Abbott government was elected in 2013, only about 50 per cent of 18-year-olds were enrolled to vote. By 2016, it was 70 per cent.

In the broader 18-24 age group, enrolment was 81.3 per cent in March 2013, then jumped to 87.4 just ahead of the 2016 election. It jumped again to 88.5 before the same-sex marriage postal survey, and last month stood at 86 per cent.

Assuming the usual rush of enrolments once an election is called, it’s possible we will see a record number of young voters on May 18. And they will heavily favour progressive parties.

Even if the Coalition squeaks a win against the odds this time, its electoral problems are likely to worsen into the future, because progressive political preference is moving up the age range. The old truism that people become more conservative as they get older is no longer so true.

“It’s not simply age, per se; it’s generational,” says Ian McAllister, professor of political science at the Australian National University.

Millennials, the oldest of whom are now pushing 40, are “very different” from the baby boomers and the generation that preceded them, McAllister says.

“There are a lot of factors involved, among them the use of social media, the prevalence of higher education among that generation, plus economic pressures,” he says.

In relation to education, there is a wealth of research in various countries showing a strong correlation between higher learning and progressive social and political views. In fact, says McAllister, it matters more than occupation, income or any other factor.

In this country the most comprehensive, long-term dataset on political behaviour, the Australian Election Study, begun in 1987 by McAllister, shows the defining characteristic of the typical One Nation voter is that they didn’t finish high school. At the other end of the educational spectrum, people with postgraduate qualifications are the most likely to vote for the Greens.

The data shows that in the United States, it is the least-educated who are the strongest supporters of Donald Trump. In Britain, they were the ones who voted for Brexit.

Across the world, the data piles up supporting the famous observation of the 19th-century economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill, that while conservatives are not generally stupid, “stupid persons are generally conservative”. Perhaps, though, we might substitute the word “uneducated” for “stupid”.

In 1971, at the height of the baby boom, just 2 per cent of Australians had a university degree. Now, nearly one-third of Australians do.

And across a broad range of political issues, from Muslim immigration to climate change, younger, better-educated voters take the progressive view. To cite one example: an Essential poll in March this year showed 84 per cent of Greens voters believe there is conclusive evidence that human activity is causing climate change. For Labor voters, the figure was 75; for Coalition voters, 53; and for “others” including One Nation, just 48. Those beliefs also correlated to age.

In summary, the demography of education is moving ahead of the Liberal and National parties. And they are constrained from moving with it, because they need the preferences of the most ignorant.

Understanding that dynamic explains a great deal about this election campaign. It explains why the Coalition parties are so riven about the issue of preferencing One Nation. It explains Scott Morrison’s attempt to drum up hostility to asylum seekers after the passage of the medivac legislation, which he followed up by spending $185 million reopening the Christmas Island detention centre – to house no inmates. It explains his equally unsuccessful attempt to portray Labor’s policy on electric vehicles as a threat to rob tradies of their utes and families of their weekends in the bush or on the coast.

In each case, the broader electorate saw through the narrow appeal to populism, and the prime minister quickly backtracked.

So to another big factor identified by McAllister as making younger voters very different from preceding generations: the use of social media. In a nutshell, the left rules it, and there could be no better example of that than the contrast between GetUp! and its newly established conservative counterpart, Advance Australia.

GetUp!, with its million-odd followers, has become a formidable political force. It’s safe to say that until recently, almost no one had engaged with Advance Australia.

But this week, they finally broke through on social media, with a campaign ad featuring a masked “truth crusader”, Captain GetUp, in orange bodysuit, black budgie smugglers and grey cape. The grainy video, shot in Tony Abbott’s electorate of Warringah, shows Captain GetUp miming as an American-inflected voice reads a rather inane script decrying GetUp, Labor and the Greens.

Captain GetUp quickly trended, but not in a good way. He was almost universally ridiculed. He quickly spawned mocking memes, parodies and donations of money to GetUp!

“Bizarre,” was how one described the campaign to me. “Literally make your enemy a superhero and amplify their message.”

There could hardly be a starker example of the inability of the conservative parties to reach younger voters online.

And that’s a big, big problem for them, because online is where they get their news and form their views. They’re not reading the Murdoch papers, watching Sunrise on TV or listening to Alan Jones.

In announcing the election on Thursday morning, Morrison stressed his government’s economic credentials – as one might expect, given the well-documented voter perception that conservatives are better at managing the economy.

But even on that front, demographic change is shifting the debate.

As Danielle Wood, the budget policy director for the Grattan Institute, detailed in an address to the National Press Club just before the budget, the conservative parties have delivered a lot for older voters, at the expense of the young.

She reeled off a list of sobering statistics, illustrating the growing financial burden placed on working-age Australians by those who have retired.

Only about 20 years ago, Wood said, there were 7.4 people of working age for every one over age 65. By 2015 that had fallen to 4.4.

Bad luck for younger Australians, she said, but that’s an inevitable consequence of an ageing population.

“But what I find less easy to accept is a series of policy decisions that have substantially increased the size of the transfers to older households – expanding their good fortune at the expense of subsequent generations.”

The age pension, for example, had increased as a share of average weekly earnings from 30 per cent to 37 per cent over the past two decades. Yet the unemployment payment, Newstart, had not increased.

“Newstart recipients now live on $40 a day compared to $65 for full-rate pensioners,” she said.

That ever-growing disparity “speaks to the political perception of deserving and undeserving welfare recipients”.

The increase in the pension, though, was not the worst of it. More egregious were changes made by the Howard government to the benefit of wealthy older people.

She ticked them off: tax-free superannuation income in retirement, refundable franking credits and special tax offsets for seniors, which had delivered a massive and unfair benefit to retirees.

“Incomes for households over 65 have more than doubled over the past 25 years, substantially faster growth than for households under 55,” she said.

“An older household earning $100,000 a year pays on average less than half the total tax of a working-age household earning the same amount.”

Wood rejected the argument that age-based tax breaks were defendable on the grounds that the retired had paid their way during their working years.

In reality, she said, younger households were underwriting the standard of living of older ones to a far great extent than in the past.

“People born in the late 1940s, at the beginning of the baby boom generation, reached their peak contribution to the tax system in their early 40s – and at that point they were contributing an average of $3200 a year to support older generations in retirement.

“An average 40-year-old today, born at the tail end of Generation X, is paying $7300 a year. That is more than they are contributing to their own retirement through compulsory superannuation contributions.

“There is simply no policy justification for this degree of age segregation in the system.”

Older Australians have massively benefited, too, from the indirect effects of policies beloved of the Coalition parties, such as negative gearing and the halving of the capital gains tax, which played a major part in driving up the cost of housing, pricing out younger people.

In 1981, the home ownership rate for households headed by 25- to 34-year-olds was 60 per cent. By 2016, it had fallen to 45. Among those aged 35 to 44 it has fallen from 75 to 62.

The younger generations have many other reasons, too, to feel aggrieved about their elders, who got their university education free and entered a workplace of secure full-time jobs and enjoyed regular real wage rise.

Furthermore, the massive intergenerational inequality fostered by decades of age-preferential government policy and neoliberal economics is now in the process of morphing into something even more intractable: intragenerational inequality.

We see it already, as those younger people fortunate enough to have well-to-do parents increasingly draw on the “bank of mum and dad” to help them into housing. And we will see it to a greater extent as the boomer parents expire.

“Wealthier parents tend to have wealthier children,” Wood tells The Saturday Paper.

“And as this very large pot of wealth that has accumulated among the baby boomer generation is ultimately passed on we will see an exacerbation of wealth inequality across the population.”

Yet we see little indication that the current government intends to take any steps to address this generational inequality. Indeed, the recent budget again changed the provisions applying to superannuation in favour of the ageing wealthy and their future inheritors.

People between 65 and 67 will be allowed to contribute up to $100,000 a year into their super, without having to pass any work test. The age limit for receiving contributions from a spouse also was increased from 69 to 74, meaning that if one party has already maxed out their super they can inflate their spouse’s.

“We expect to see people with a lot of assets outside super take advantage to put more into the tax-preferred super environment,” says Wood.

“We’re also likely to see an increase in what’s called recontribution strategies, which essentially allow them to reduce the taxation on inheritances.”

Which is to say, the government continues not only to defend the existing inequities of the tax system, but to expand them, for the elderly and the wealthy, who are their core demographic.

The opposition, in contrast, has gone the other way, to side with younger people.

Labor, says Wood, “has finely honed its pitch to tap into the concerns of young people”. She points to its promises to reform negative gearing, capital gains tax, dividend imputation and family trusts, as well as its commitments to other areas of concern, such as the environment and climate change.

The conservatives portray this as a grab for increased taxes, but it’s more properly seen as a reallocation of the burden to those older Australians who have long enjoyed preferential treatment.

Australia has not previously seen an election fought so clearly along generational lines.

But make no mistake. It won’t be the last.

It is literally the way of the world, says McAllister. In the US, in Britain, as in Australia, “the new reality is that the generational division is the major factor in how people vote”.

“You can see it in the data,” he says.

Just as you could see it on the face of that young woman on Q&A.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 13, 2019 as "Election 2019: welcome to the age war". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.