In last week’s elections the Australian Labor Party (ALP) suffered a historic defeat, with its lowest primary vote since 1903, at just 33.8 percent. In 2007 the ALP won 43.4%, but since then there have been six years of Labor governments, first under Rudd and then Gillard, in which the working class saw the party they had voted for implement policies demanded by big business while real wages stagnated.
The situation has many similarities with what we are seeing in Europe, although taking place with something of a delay due to the recent boom Australia has experienced on the back of the rapid expansion of China. That boom has now ended, and this has brought to the surface all the underlying contradictions, for in spite of the boom, the working class saw no real gains. Now that the boom has ended, the bosses are demanding a tough stance on wages, working conditions and social spending. This opens up a new chapter in the class struggle in Australia.
The ALP took power in 2007 after the previous Howard government had launched an open attack on trade union rights and working conditions, the infamous Work Choices legislation, which led to massive mobilisations of workers across the country. [http://www.marxist.com/massive-mobilisation-australia301106.htm] In spite of the cowardice of the Trade Union leaders, the response of the rank and file of the unions was amazing. But instead of building on this, the union leaders channelled the movement towards getting Labor elected, which many workers saw as a way of getting the anti-worker legislation removed. However, Labor once in power only made some minor changes, basically leaving in place most of what the outgoing government had legislated. Nevertheless, from the outset the Australian capitalist class realised that the Rudd Labor government had come to power on the back of a successful workers' movement and they did their best to undermine it from day one.
Further to this, healthcare, education, public transport and social services were left underfunded, while it continued to support the war in Afghanistan and at the same time refusing to impose any serious taxation on the profits of the big corporations. All this has alienated a significant section of traditional Labour voters, who cannot identify any party that represents them. This explains the higher level of abstentions, the vote for a myriad of small fringe parties and also the high number of voters not even bothering to register.
A lot of emphasis has been placed on the so-called ‘leadership tension’ and infighting at the top of the Labor Party between Julia Gillard, party leader and Prime Minister until just before the elections, and Kevin Rudd who was brought back in to replace her at the last minute in an attempt to save the Labor vote. In reality these internal conflicts were not the cause of Labor's defeat, but reflected the fact that the party tops were aware of the intense dissatisfaction among their wider working class electorate.
Crisis in the Labor Party
All this brought to the surface a crisis that was brewing within the ALP. We have to explain clearly that six years of right-wing policies is why Labor lost. The right-wing control of the party has led to yet another massive defeat. Now the right wing of the party is trying to make all kinds of excuses, that the leadership turmoil was behind the defeat, and so on, but in reality it’s their own wretched policies that have failed everywhere, including at state level where there have also been substantial defeats.
Rudd himself was tipped at various stages to lose his own seat but he just made it, although he had to rely on preferences from the Greens as he lost the primary vote in his electorate to the Liberal candidate
The leadership of the ALP is merely reacting to events with no clear strategy – the policies of trying to develop programmes without posing the question of where the resources are to come from, without posing clearly the need to take over the wealth that is in the hands of the few, without clearly posing the question of the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy under workers' control – is constantly causing problems. They are terrified of going after the rich, even if the policy is popular – the mining super-profits tax is very popular, but they caved in at the first sign of trouble.
It would therefore be wrong to draw the conclusion that Labor lost because the Liberals had become more popular. The truth is that the incoming Coalition's vote only rose by 1.7% – not exactly a mass swing. This was no landslide victory for the right wing. Back in 1996 when Howard won the elections, he did so on a 5% swing!
Many bourgeois commentators have tried to portray this election as confirmation of a swing to the right of the Australian electorate. They have highlighted the question of the ‘boat people’, the refugees coming into Australia. Both main parties in fact used the refugee/asylum seeker issue as a kind of safety valve to deflect attention away from their unpopular policies and scapegoating them for the country’s economic problems. Opinion polls constantly indicated that the economy was the main issue for the bulk of the electorate. At the top of people's concerns were issues such as healthcare, education, wages and so on. The refugee question was only fifth on the list of people's concerns. And as all the main parties were saying more or less the same things on the economy, that explains why so many people didn't vote for any of them! The Greens and the small left fringe groups didn't help much on this either as they mostly approached the Refugee issue from a strictly moralistic point of view, instead of explaining that it was being used by the bourgeois as a means of distracting attention from the real social issues. The refugees are not to blame for the cuts in social spending, but no one really explained this.
New government prepares anti-worker offensive
The truth is that the leader of the Coalition, Abbott, said very little about his real intentions during the election campaign, wary of the fact that to highlight the need for austerity measures would have damaged his prospects. Better to be vague before the elections, count on people voting for you in protest at what the Labor government had done and then once elected bring out the knife!
Proof of all this is shown by the fact that the bourgeois media in the past few days have been calling on Abbott to move quickly and carry out the draconian measures the Australian capitalist class requires. On the Business Spectator website, Stephen Koukoulas published a piece, “No time for Abbott to hover with the knife”, in which he explains that “If Tony Abbott wants to kick off his prime ministership on a strong note, he and Treasurer Joe Hockey should have an economic statement or mini-budget, if you like, sometime before year-end… a quick implementation of some cuts in government spending in the right areas will work to shore up Australia’s triple-A fiscal position and give some fiscal freedom, if needed, some time down the track.”
This is the real programme of the incoming government, but it wasn't explained in such clear terms during the election campaign.
Thus, it was more a case of Labor ‘losing’ than the Coalition ‘winning’. In actual fact, what the voting pattern reveals is widespread disillusion with all the mainstream parties. People have not forgotten what Howard did, but they are not happy with the recent Labor experience either.
Prior to the elections some pollsters were predicting an out and out rout of the Labor Party. This did not in fact materialise. Although the primary vote of Labor was down, it was still close to 34%. And in the final count of votes, including the preferential votes, Labor mustered 47%. In the core working class areas of Australia's big cities, such as the western suburbs of Sydney, Labor held on to seats that the polls were predicting they would lose. This shows that while the workers are unhappy with Labor, when it came to the crunch and they saw the real prospect of the right wing getting back in their only option was to vote Labor.
Back in August 2010, three years into the Labor government, the elections produced the first hung parliament for 70 years, somewhat similar to what we saw in Britain. This already revealed the process that was taking place: growing disillusionment with Labor but no enthusiasm for the Liberals. Gillard thus had to form an unstable minority government counting on the Greens and some rural ‘independents’ for support.
That explains why the Greens suffered their first setback in the national vote winning only 8.4%, more than 3% down on the 11.7% they won in 2010. Previously they had tried to present themselves as a kind of ‘left’ alternative to Labor, as Greens have done elsewhere in the world. This recent concrete experience of seeing the Greens actually cutting social spending, as they have done in Tasmania where they have governed with Labor, has exposed them in the eyes of many. That explains why in Tasmania, where they won 16.9% in 2010, their vote has now been halved. However, on many social issues, the Greens still appear to be to the left of the ALP, at least among the more middle class layers and even some unions, and this explains why although their vote went down they still managed to maintain their base in Parliament.
Growth of fringe parties
The alienation of a significant section of the electorate can be seen from the following figures. A record 21 percent of primary votes went to parties other than the Coalition or the Labor Party. This is a recent development that would have stunned everybody 15-20 years ago, but now it’s seen as normal. This confirms the deep disillusionment with the Labor and Liberal parties. 50 odd parties contested the 2013 election. However, the main focus for the ‘micro’ parties was getting elected in the Senate, as it’s easier to get into it than the House of Representatives.
A lot of the parties are right-wing parties, or single-issue parties that attract a certain level of protest voting. Even then, however, they side with the government of the day – e.g. at state level, the Shooter’s Party cut a deal with the conservative Coalition government to sell off the electricity grid in exchange for allowing shooters to shoot animals in the national parks.
The Palmer United Party (PUP) is the latest party of this kind to emerge from Queensland where there is a great deal of popular anger at the traditional parties. Palmer is an eccentric mining billionaire and real estate speculator who set up his own party, but it’s more like a business than a popular political party.
Palmer spent huge sums of money standing candidates everywhere and buying expensive television and newspaper publicity. In his campaign he declared that Australia needed a ‘revolution’. He also promised to cut taxes, raise pensions, and massively increase spending on healthcare and education and on many issues was positioning himself to the left of the ALP. Palmer tries to portray himself as a ‘man of the people’. However, his candidates were primarily ex-employees – his candidate on the Gold Coast was the former coach of the soccer club he owned! On the basis of this demagogic campaign – promising what he clearly knows he cannot deliver, considering that he is no opponent of capitalism, somewhat like Berlusconi in Italy but on a smaller scale – the PUP won 5.5 percent of the national vote. This extreme right-wing billionaire has won a seat in the lower house, and at least two of his members will enter the Senate, where they and other right-wing minor party figures are expected to hold the balance of power. In Western Australia a Senator from the before unheard of ‘Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party’ has been elected.
While a significant number of votes were spread across these fringe parties, it is also significant that, according to the Australian Electoral Commission, nearly 1.4 million eligible voters failed to enrol, clearly not seeing the point in voting for anyone! And of those who went to the polling stations, close to 700,000 were deemed invalid votes as many simply put a blank vote or crossed all the parties out. This is the highest level of informal votes ever recorded. As Australia has a compulsory voting system, informal votes or votes for fringe parties are often the only way to express a protest against the major parties.
As a side note, it is worth pondering over the fact that while there has been such a historically high level of disaffection towards Labor and all the mainstream parties, including the Greens, the Socialist Alliance was trounced once again, winning less than 1% nationally, despite the growth of voting for smaller independent parties. They believe that to solve the question of the leadership of the working class it is sufficient to stand against Labor and proclaim themselves the alternative. This is the classical quest for a shortcut in building a mass left opposition to the right-wing leadership of Labor. What is required is patient work of building up a Marxist Tendency embedded within the Australian labour movement, starting with the trade unions and preparing for the inevitable conflicts within Labor itself at some stage.
Coming class struggle
The process in Australia is beginning to catch up with events globally. After the 2007-08 global financial crisis, the Australian economy seemed to have escaped the crisis, similarly to countries like Brazil, Turkey, Russia and many south-east Asian countries. This was mainly thanks to the Chinese economy sucking in raw materials to feed its own growth. The Chinese economy is now slowing down and this has affected Australia. The mining boom is coming to an end and this has further reduced the room for manoeuvre for Australian big business. This explains why the bosses are now demanding a major “restructuring” of the Australian economy, with cuts in public spending, cuts in wages and pensions, even greater flexibility in working conditions and so on. While the boom lasted they were happy to make big profits while the working class hardly benefited at all. Now that the boom is over they want to make the working class pay.
All this is a recipe for intensified class struggle in Australia. What we saw in the mobilisations against Howard's anti-worker legislation was just a taste of what is to come in the next period. With a right-wing government in office, with an end to the boom, and with the bosses preparing a massive offensive against the working class, we can confidently predict that the workers will move on the industrial front in an attempt to defend what is left of the gains of the past. This will express itself in tensions first on the trade union front as the new generation of workers attempt to use the unions to defend themselves. Already union leaders have started to mobilise against the coming offensive. However, we should treat this with a little suspicion. Workers cannot rely upon the bureaucracy when push comes to shove. The nice cosy life of the past that the tops of the unions desire so much will come to an end as the workers shift to the left seeking a way out of the crisis. In these conditions the ideas of Marxism will find a ready audience.