The Socialist Party (CWI in Australia) is delighted to see the back of prime minister John Howard and the federal Coalition government. He joins other ‘Coalition of the willing’ leaders, including Blair, Aztar and Berlusconi, in being kicked out of office, and with Bush on the way soon.
The Iraq war and subsequent disastrous occupation, and Howard’s close ties to the White House, were an electoral weight around his neck. However, the election was overwhelmingly a referendum on Work Choices - the raft of laws aimed at extracting extra surplus value from the working class.
Labor enjoyed an across the board swing of 6.03% last Saturday, greater than the 5% swing won by John Howard, in 1996, or the swings of 2.5% and 3.6% swings for Whitlam in 1972 and Hawke in 1983. However, because of Work Choices there were even higher swings in working class seats where many voters had previously voted Liberal. The ‘Howard battlers’ had deserted the Coalition and voted Labor.
The ECM polling group reported that “among the crucial 10% of people who voted for Howard last time, but voted Labor on Saturday, industrial relations was the key issue – it caused the shift among 57% of them.” The Australian newspaper reported: “Of the first 22 seats to fall to Labor on Saturday night, 17 had above-average numbers of labourers, and 14 had unemployment rates above the national average. But 12 also had above-average numbers of single parents.”
There are two main contradictions in the Labor win. The first is how a government can be booted out so unceremoniously during an economic upswing?
An answer was offered by the Socialist Party in the special federal election edition of our newspaper ‘The Socialist’ that was sent to 30,000 houses during the campaign: “Many people – some estimate two million – have been left behind by the boom such as the army of casual workers and those displaced in industries like manufacturing, which have been smashed by international competition. Those workers who have raised their net wealth during this boom have done so through overtime and debt. This makes them slaves to the banks when interest rates rise. The long hours worked also undermine their quality of life.”
It was these people who were insulted when Howard declared, “working families have never had it so good” – a quote cleverly exploited by Labor.
The other main contradiction is that despite the elation from the thousands of ALP, Green and trade union-mobilised election workers and voters on Saturday night (there was nothing like the level of enthusiasm since the Whitlam victory of 1972) the ruling class was extremely relaxed about this victory – unlike in 1972.
In reality, this election represented a victory of the representatives of one section of the ruling class over another. Vast chunks of the Murdoch and Fairfax media actually called for a Labor vote!
They believed that the Howard government had reached an impasse in driving through its counter-reforms. A federal Labor government, in close alliance with the State Labor governments and with a compliant trade union leadership, could drive through the changes sought by capitalists.
The last federal Labor government succeeded in smashing two trade unions and introduced the main neo-liberal changes of the past period. The counter-reforms of the Howard government were modest in comparison. Two recent influential books (Ozonomics by Andrew Charlton and The Longest Decade by George Megalogenis) have made these points.
Even Work Choices was limited in its effectiveness for the bosses due to popular opposition. Last year, the government was forced through public pressure to introduce a formal assurance that workers on less than $75,000 a year cannot be worse off after trading away penalty rates, shift allowances, holiday pay or overtime.
The Liberals have been left in an absolute mess by Saturday’s result, similar to the state of the Tories after their 1997 defeat to Tony Blair’s New Labour, in Britain. The Liberals are set to lose around 30 seats out of their previous 89. Over 500 ministerial advisors will lose their jobs.
The recriminations have begun, with Deputy Senate leader Helen Coonan declaring that “The boss stayed too long. It came to the point where he no longer had the full confidence of his cabinet. But none of us wanted to commit regicide.” In the last weeks, Howard sensed this and relied increasingly on his wife, who became a mini-Rasputin figure – “she was intervening a lot, on all sorts of bizarre issues…In the last week she had more influence than pollsters”, complained one senior Liberal strategist (after the fact).
No wonder Peter Costello cut and run. It looks likely that Malcolm Turnbull will get the poisoned chalice and take over the party. The rapid shift from ‘unconquerable’ Howard government, just 12 months ago, to the Liberals shattered, defeated, demoralised and divided state today, is a sign of the rapid movements to expect in politics, in this period.
The thousands of election activists mobilised by the ALP, Greens and the union movement’s ‘Your Rights at Work’ campaign have next to no illusions in Labor leader Kevin Rudd, yet celebrated like there was no tomorrow on Saturday night. The mood was overwhelmingly anti-Howard, anti-Work Choices rather than pro-Rudd or pro-Labor. This is different than when Whitlam won in 1972.
There is a layer of less politically active workers who are hoping in desperation that Labor ‘Can’t be as bad as the Coalition, surely?’
The more advanced layer of trade union activists and politically thinking workers and young people expect little more than slight relief from a federal Rudd government.
Rudd confirmed these doubts with his dry and heartless acceptance speech on Saturday night and his even worse speech the following morning, where he mainly reported on his phone calls to US President Bush, British PM Brown and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, and offered no promises to the millions of expectant Labor voters.
After an inevitable honeymoon, there will be clashes between the Rudd government and the trade unions, students, environmentalists and working people. Already the head of Unions NSW, John Robertson, is calling for an immediate repeal of Work Choices and retrospective legislation, so that people on the Australian Workplace Agreement (individual contracts) can get off them. This puts him to the left of the Australian Congress of Trade Unions (ACTU) who are much more compliant to Rudd and argue for a ‘step-by-step’ approach to repealing Work Choices. Robertson has correctly pointed out: “There are already some in this [Rudd] government trying to rewrite history as though it had nothing to do with Howard’s workplace laws. They were the platform for Kevin Rudd to launch himself – it was Work Choices and the ‘Your Rights at Work’ campaign.”
The Labor Party will enjoy a short-term growth in membership as careerists enter to find jobs in the new regime. Thousands of new jobs in and around the Federal government will open up now and this opens up ripe and rich pickings for the Young Labor elite.
However, the central thesis of the Socialist Party, that the ALP is no longer a workers’ party in any meaningful use of the term and is not a conduit for social change, remains true. The echo for our call for a new workers’ party will grow in the months and years ahead.
The Greens had a slight rise in their national vote, but were squeezed by the polarisation of this election. Many left voters stayed or returned to the ALP in order to ensure the defeat of Howard, notwithstanding the preferential voting system. They lost the most left wing Green Senator, Kerrie Nettle from NSW, but gained possibly one or two others.
In the seat of Melbourne, their leftwing Green candidate, Adam Bandt, did well, coming just behind the Liberal candidate on 22%, and after all the preferences are counted might end up second to the ALP member, Lindsay Tanner.
The Greens are still largely a party of the more radical layers of the middle class and are based in the inner city suburbs. They are essentially a brand name based on the hope that the words they use to describe themselves mean something in reality.
In opposition, their politics are for cushioning the impact of capitalism on the environment and on living standards. In power, as seen in New Zealand, Germany, and Ireland, and locally in Yarra Council, they crumble under the pressure of the ruling class.
The more radical layers of the Greens actually see the party as a stepping stone to, or part of, a future new workers’ party. They have fewer illusions in the Greens than some of the far left who seem to have recently developed a one-sided love affair with this party.
The Socialist Party, almost alone on the Left in Australia, has refused to collapse into a ‘vote Green’ position – in fact, some groups go further, with the ISO and Solidarity groups on the verge of collapsing into the Greens. They will not win Green members to socialism but will lose members to the Greens.
Ironically, our principled position - politically criticising the Greens but working side-by-side with them, where possible and appropriate, in concrete campaigns - has allowed us to have a closer relationship with this party and its membership than anyone else on the Left in Australia.
The socialist vote was squeezed in this election. In Melbourne, the SP candidate, Kylie McGregor, who is also President of the low pay union, Unite, was up against the best Green candidate in Australia and, scandalously, also faced competition from another tiny socialist group, the Socialist Equality Party, that merely exist on the internet. Yet, with a name almost identical to ours, they took some of our vote. In the Victorian Senate, they got twice the vote of the Socialist Alliance (SA).
With 66% of the vote counted, Kylie got 389 votes (with 264 votes to the SEP). Our vote was roughly twice the level in the eastern half of the seat, where Steve Jolly holds a council seat in Yarra City - Australia’s only socialist councillor. Our booth workers reported that the vote Kylie got was a much more conscious socialist vote than in the past.
The trade unions mobilised thousands of campaign workers in this election. Union members return to work today with a spring in their tail. This heightened confidence is the main benefit to come from Labor’s victory.
But a sober look at the experience of unions under Blair and Brown in Britain or under State Labor governments in Australia, show that fundamentally things will be the same as under a traditional Tory regime.
In fact, the ‘Third Way’ approach of Labor, where neo-liberalism is thickly coated with advertising budgets, feasibility studies and lots and lots of committees, has proved to be more successful for the ruling class than the blunt approach of the likes of Thatcher and Kennett. In that sense, an ALP/Rudd government could prove to be more dangerous, not less dangerous, for the trade union movement and the working class, as a whole. Why else is it supported by Murdoch?
The Socialist Party congratulates all those who voted and participated in the campaign to defeat the Howard government. It is a great boost for the morale of the working class. Bad regimes can be defeated. However, we also issue strong warnings for the future under the ALP pro-capitalist government in Australia.
The conflicts to come with Rudd and his State colleagues will raise the political consciousness of millions. The idea for a new workers’ party will gain in support. On a whole number of battlefronts – the environment, in the workplace, on campus – there will be militant action and a rise in support for socialist ideas.
Enjoy the fact that Howard is in the dustbin of history for now, but be prepared to fight against Rudd in the not to distant future!