SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 172 October 2013

Labor’s lost election in Australia

The conservative Liberal-National coalition, led by Tony Abbott, swept to power in the Australian federal election on 7 September. It is on track to win 89 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives. The vote for the incumbent Australian Labor Party (ALP) slumped to 33.8% leaving it with an estimated 57 seats, a loss of 15. Labor’s vote was at its lowest level for more than 100 years. Kevin Rudd, who only retook the ALP leadership a couple of months ago, has resigned.

The coalition is reckoned to hold 33 of the 76 Senate seats, while the ALP and Greens combined are expected to get 35 seats. Several smaller parties and independents will hold the balance of power. This result should not be read as an endorsement of the coalition’s conservative agenda. In fact, it picked up less than half of the national swing against Labor, and under a third of the combined swing against Labor and the Greens.

For the most part, people did not vote for the Liberals with any enthusiasm but rather as a way to punish the ALP, who they regarded as betraying their interests. Despite presiding over an economic boom, Labor’s policies resulted in an increase in the cost of living for most people. Billions of dollars were doled out in corporate subsidies, while cuts were made to welfare payments and education funding. The ineffectual mining tax, which allowed big mine companies to continue to rake in super-profits, and the carbon tax that did nothing to reduce carbon emissions, only added insult to injury.

Factional infighting within the ALP also contributed to people’s distrust of the party but, had the government been genuinely progressive, delivering real reforms for ordinary people, it would not have mattered who the leader was. Labor’s woes stem from the fact that it has transformed into a big-business party but still relies on the votes of working people to stay in office. This contradiction cannot be resolved. In fact, it is likely to sharpen, especially as we move into more uncertain economic times and big-business profits come under more pressure.

Just days before the election, Rudd had a minus 26 approval rating. Abbott scored minus ten, making him the first opposition leader to win an election with a negative rating. In short, people voted for the party they hated the least. Polls and surveys consistently show that most people are opposed to the agenda of both the major parties. On economic and social issues, the majority of the population stands to the left of the Liberals and Labor. The problem is that there is no major party that represents those values.

The agenda of both parties is unashamedly pro-big business. The differences are more about style rather than substance. For example, when the Liberals want to shut schools and sack teachers, they just do it. When Labor wants to, it laces the policies with Orwellian language, talking about ‘consolidation’ and ‘the centralisation of services’. Instead of ‘shut downs’ Labor proposes ‘mergers’. The end result is the same.

In many parts of the country the anger towards the major parties was expressed through a vote for the Palmer United Party (PUP), headed by billionaire Clive Palmer. It won 5.6% of the vote nationally and could pick up one or two lower house seats in Queensland, as well as a couple of senators. While Palmer is a mining magnate from the establishment, he presented his party as something new, using radical language in his propaganda. The truth is, however, that PUP is a staunch supporter of free-market capitalism and will offer nothing to the ordinary people who voted for it. It is also likely to be unstable as it revolves around the personality cult of Palmer, renowned for his hair-brained schemes and speaking before thinking.

Above all, the PUP vote and the possibility that such right-wing populism can win some more support in the short term, shows that a growing number of people are prepared to break from the major parties. In fact, the minor party vote share was at record highs. The challenge is to build a progressive alternative that can really meet the needs of ordinary people.

The Greens registered 8.4% of the vote nationally, a drop of 3.3%. Despite this, they managed to hold all of their seats and also pick up an extra Victorian Senate spot. Adam Bandt, the party’s sole lower house member, bucked the trend and re-won the seat of Melbourne, increasing his primary vote by 7.8%.

Despite the fact that Bandt gave ‘supply and confidence’ support to Labor (not voting against the government in confidence motions and finance bills), and voted for most of its unpopular legislation, he was more skilful than most Green candidates at decoupling himself from the government in the run-up to the election. This allowed him to benefit from the deep anti-Labor sentiment that has developed in inner-city Melbourne.

Elsewhere, people saw the Greens as connected to the ALP due to the de-facto coalition they had for most of the last term. In their heartland of Tasmania, the Greens suffered a drop of 8%. This was due to their coalition with Labor at a state level. In power, their policies have been exposed as the same as the major parties. For the Greens this is the music for the future.

Nonetheless, although the Greens do not offer an economic or political alternative to the major parties, the fact that the two-party duopoly has been broken in an important part of the country can help open up space for socialist forces to grow in the coming years.

While government is formed in the House of Representatives, a majority of votes is also needed in the Senate to pass legislation. The newly-elected senators will not take up their positions until July 2014. Until then, the Greens will hold the balance of power – potentially making it difficult for Abbott to pass laws. That said, the Greens have already said that they will not block supply bills or support no-confidence motions against the government.

Abbott will probably move slowly, concentrating on planning for the next budget and putting his hopes for more far-reaching changes on negotiations with the newly-elected senators post-July 2014. This could be problematic, however, as he may need to negotiate with up to eight different groupings. It is not the stable situation his big-business backers were hoping for.

People have voted for the coalition to punish Labor, but they will not see it as a mandate for Abbott to implement the wide-ranging cuts big business is demanding. The length of Abbott’s honeymoon will depend heavily on international developments. If the world economy takes a dip, Abbott may be forced to implement cuts quicker than he had hoped. This can provoke a political reaction. Even people who voted for the coalition can move into action to protect their interests. At the same time, if the international situation allows it, Abbott may choose to move more slowly. This can give the workers’ movement, and the various social movements, time to prepare for the attacks that are in the pipeline.

In many ways the outcome of this election was known months in advance. One of the big-business parties was always going to win. Rather than seeing the options as a choice between one and another corporate party at election times, we need to break from the capitalist framework and fight for a system that puts the needs of the majority front and centre. One of the first steps in that struggle is the building of a new mass left-wing party that represents ordinary people. The actions of the new government will force people to further question the merits of this system and, in the months and years to come, support for a new workers’ party will grow.

Editorial (extract) from The Socialist, newspaper of the Socialist Party (CWI Australia)

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