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Election 2016: Uncertainty is the new black

Returning from a motor bike spin around the dust-dry streets of Hanoi a few years back, I sensed my pillion-passenger father was relieved when it was over. I was concerned. Sure, he was 82, but he'd had motorcycles, and a couple of years before, he'd willingly flown halfway across the country in an ultra-light. Plus, I'd deliberately taken it easy.

But what my mother said changed my understanding.

Older Australians are not bluntly opposed to changes that would make things fairer.
Older Australians are not bluntly opposed to changes that would make things fairer. Photo: Glenn Hunt

As you reach old age, she explained, you are not merely less physically strong, you inevitably feel that bit less secure – of others and even yourself.

It is both physical and psychological – the sense that the world is no longer really yours.

Trepidation rises, becoming more or less constant.

Doubtless, this tendency serves an evolutionary/survival function but it also helps explain why the elderly – as a cohort – tend to be conservative, and more anxious in the face of change. That, and the non-negotiable fact that most people retire with a finite nest egg, and harbour quite rational fears about whether it will last. It's a question of existential import, and yet one that only becomes real once you get there.

The government would do well to consider this as it crafts its tax package to be unveiled along with the budget. This is because after all the promised free thinking and grand ambition, it is now fixing to trim the old cash cow of superannuation tax concessions in a bid to claw back enough revenue for company tax cuts and to live up to is own visionary billing.

Welcome to election year 2016, where uncertainty is the new black.

And with possible changes to super looming, it's a case of welcome to a new compound uncertainty – the prospect of unknown changes to a system reliant on high levels of trust but which is also in permanent tension with its corollary, doubt.

Tinkering with super will add to fears of increasing costs for those who feel they have no power to replenish any depleted incomes. Being nervous about that is merely common sense.

As the policy options are weighed, National Seniors Australia – which boasts 200,000 members from Australia's almost 7 million over-50s – wanted to know what its members thought about the issues being kicked about in the public square.

The results of its membership surveys make for interesting, and even surprising reading. Some of the findings – revealed here for the first time – will confound the stereotypes such as the fact that more than 87 per cent of seniors use the internet and 40 per cent use social media.

Or the fact that from the mail-out to 9854 members it became clear that older Australians, many of whom rely on superannuation and who have investment properties, are not bluntly opposed to changes to make things fairer. They just want to be sure those changes are measured, reasonable, and that they hit the most well off.

From nearly 3000 returns or 29.58 per cent, it emerged that 48.7 per cent of the membership derive their incomes from either superannuation or returns on savings and investments.

So these people have real skin in the game when it comes to super changes and to a possible tightening of both negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount, as proposed by Labor.

Asked to nominate which areas of policy ranked highest in importance, older Australians placed health at the top of the tree with 90 per cent listing it as "very important". That was ahead of national security which scored 82.6 per cent and economy, 81 per cent, and immigration, on less than half of that at 40.3 percent.

Affordable and accessible healthcare also topped the list of concerns on which the membership wanted to see National Seniors undertake lobbying in Canberra to secure better outcomes.

But older Australians are watching the public debate and know that some crimping of their circumstances is inevitable.

This pragmatism is producing some even more surprising outcomes from the grey constituency.

Such as the fact that a mere 10 per cent of respondents "strongly oppose" plans such as Labor's proposed reduction on negative gearing, that would limit tax concessions on multiple investment properties. Conversely, a healthy 45 per cent "strongly support" the idea. Another 35 per cent "strongly support" reducing the tax concessions on superannuation balances greater than $1.5 million.

And 85 per cent of respondents "strongly support" improved collection of revenue from international companies – again Labor proposes tougher multi-national tax collection.

And while the government is now moving towards offering a company tax cut instead of an individual one – because it will be more influential on growth – some 68 per cent of respondents either "somewhat support" or "strongly support" actually increasing company tax for Australian companies.

Less surprising is the finding that very few older Australians (6.4 per cent) want to see the family home calculated in the age pension assets test which would result in many people being forced to sell and downsize in order to qualify.

The findings come as the Business Council of Australia also backs changes to negative gearing, CGT, and a new cap on contributions that would hit wealthy contributors only.

As the government attempts to make the sums add up, it must also manage the politics – and that means acknowledging voter anxiety, rather than lashing out and complaining about impatience.

While older Australians lean towards the economic competence and inherent conservatism of the Coalition, they're sending a message also that changes should not hit those with the least ability to alter their circumstances. More of the same will not cut the mustard.

About that much at least, there is certainty.

Mark Kenny is Fairfax Media's chief political correspondent.

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