by Chanticleer

Geoff Wilson is going to Canberra on Monday, and he’s probably going to get a hero’s welcome. Geoff Wilson says being dragged into politics of franking credits was “brutal”.
Not from the Liberal Party, although a phone call of appreciation from Scott Morrison wouldn’t be unjustified given Wilson’s long and hard campaign against Labor’s policy to end franking credit refunds appears to have helped the Coalition pull off an almost unthinkable victory in the federal election.

(And no, Wilson says the PM hasn’t been in contact yet.)

Rather, Wilson’s backslaps on Monday will come from his own investors, during the Canberra leg of Wilson Asset Management’s shareholder briefing roadshow, which is currently making its way around the country.

Wilson said on Sunday that WAM’s 80,000 shareholders – the vast majority of whom were self-funded retirees who would have lost out under the Labor change – were always at the heart of his campaign.

“We understand that we are only there because of our shareholders. We want to make a difference for them.

“That’s in terms of investment returns, but it’s also whether we make a difference in terms of standing up for them and being their voice.”

Wilson still gets emotional when he recalls the more than 2000 stories that WAM collected from investors as part of a series of surveys it conducted on the franking issue.

“Some of the stories made me cry,” he says simply. One involved a woman who was a full-time carer for her disabled adult son. They did not own their own home, but the income they received from franking credits paid their rent and other expenses.

“Who was going to pay her rent? We try to have a very open relationship with our investors, which works both ways. We feel their pain.”

From Chanticleer’s point of view, it always seemed curious that Labor stuck so rigidly to its policy given the number of stories that emerged of older Australians who relied on franking credit refunds to both provide their income but, just as importantly, stay out of the taxpayer-funded welfare system.

Surely some sort of compromise position – a cap of say $15,000 on franking credit refunds – would have defused the issue in such a way that showed Labor wasn’t being harsh or unfair, but also allowed it to keep some of the budget savings.

Wilson says Labor’s policy was seen as an attack on the entire self-managed super system, particularly given big superannuation funds could still access the refunds.

He said this made the franking credits policy not just a financial worry, but an emotional one.

“Why does someone have their own self-managed super fund? When you retire it gives these people a purpose, so they can manage their own money.”

He says running your own fund is a real mission for many of the shareholders who come to WAM’s briefings. There were 800 at the Melbourne briefing last week, attended by Chanticleer. And Wilson expects 1000 in Sydney this week.

“They’re engaged and they’ve got a passion and it keeps them going.”

Wilson admits the fight was personally painful at times.

In the middle of last year, Labor’s shadow treasurer Chris Bowen, the architect of the failed franking plan, accused Wilson of creating a dodgy petition of angry investors to stir up opposition to the plan.

In February, a newspaper report breathlessly revealed that it had “obtained” a recording of Wilson contacting Liberal MP and distant relative Tim Wilson, who was leading a parliamentary inquiry into the proposed franking credit policy, to ask him to schedule one of the inquiry’s hearings to coincide with a WAM shareholder briefing. The recording was, and still is, on WAM’s website.

Wilson was attacked on social media as having a vested interest in defeating the policy proposal, with claims it would make investing in his listed investment companies less attractive.

”When we got dragged into the politics, that was painful. It was brutal,” Wilson says.

“This whole thing confirmed I will never go into politics,” he laughs.

Wilson adds that he remains disappointed that more in the investment community didn’t stand with him on the issue.

The veteran investor now faces a new challenge. A few weeks ago he shaved his hair off for a WAM team event and declared he would not grow it back until the franking credit issue was resolved.

“I’ve got to start growing it again,” Wilson says with a touch of disappointment, given the famously frugal fund manager had calculated he would save $37,000 in hairdressing expenses if he’d kept his locks shorn for the rest of his life.

“And at 61, it’s a long way back.”