Australia: Right wing Liberals wins federal elections

Howard didn’t win it…Latham lost it!

The following slightly edited statement by the Socialist Party (Australian cwi) National Committee looks at last weekend’s Australian federal elections. The result saw the fourth win in a row for the right wing Liberals, led by John Howard.

Right wing Liberals wins federal elections

In the last weeks of the Australian federal (national) election it was clear the Liberals (a right wing party) were going to win, even if a there was to be a swing against them. But the surprise is that the Liberals look like they are going to win the Senate (upper House). This means they have control of both Houses and can effectively do as they wish. If the Liberals do win the Senate it may be with the support of a new, if yet small, religious right-wing party, the ‘Family First Party’. This would be the first time in 24 years that the Liberals have control of the Senate.

This is a direct consequence of the right wing, conservative agenda of the Australian Labour Party (ALP).

The lack of appeal of the ALP’s policies, were compounded by its decision to give their voting preferences to Family First, rather then preference the Greens, which are seen by many youth and workers as holding more progressive policies. The ALP leaders preferred to see workers suffer under a Liberal regime rather than to have to concede government positions to the Greens.

Liberal control of both Houses means that the most reactionary polices can be carried through by the Howard government. Huge industrial battles loom over the next few years, as the Liberals attempt to privatise Telstra, the state majority-held telephone company. Howard has already indicated he will role back protection for workers by introducing new industrial relations legislation. The passing of his unfair dismissal legislation will mean that all workers in firms of less than 20 employees will lose their right to challenge unfair dismissal at the Industrial Relations Commission – effectively making a huge number of workers casual.

The media and Liberals are claiming this is an historic fourth successive victory for Howard. It will mean he will have been prime minister for eight and half years. Howard is now the second longest serving Australian Prime Minister.

However this is an historic victory for other reasons. This was the dullest election ever. All the candidates were uninspiring and frankly boring. Deceit and lies by the Liberal campaign was used on an unprecedented scale. It will prove to be the most divisive election in Australian history, as the results means that Howard will attempt to drive through reactionary policies.

No choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee

When you have two parties that are fundamentally just the same why change course? Instead of gaining the thirteen seats they needed to win the election, Labor will lose around five seats.

In his acceptance of defeat, Latham could only say the elections were a victory for democracy and he merely offered to oppose the Liberals.

The ALP, most trade unionists, and many in the communities are demoralised and very badly bruised by the election outcome. In the eyes of most workers this was a bad defeat and there will be a certain demoralisation in the unions and working class communities in the short term.

However Howard didn’t win this election. Latham lost it with a pathetic policy to marginally improve education, health and to ‘help’ families. Over the election period, Howard promised to spend more than Labor on services to the extent that Latham accused Howard of going on a spending spree! Latham’s tax and family benefit policy meant that the unemployed, and those earning less than $35,000 a year, would be better off under Howard! However there is little doubt that Howard will renege on all but the reactionary promises he has made.

Because Labor had a programme little different from the Liberals it stressed Latham’s personal ‘honesty and integrity’ as opposed to Howard’s lies and dishonesty. But many Australians decided to ‘accept’ Howard’s lies in turn for the security of promised low interest rates, so they can continue to pay their mortgages.

Howard rested on his good luck of being Prime Minister during an economic upturn, even if the upturn has been partially due to keeping wages down. Workers have only survived or moved forward on the basis of long hours of overtime and taking advantage of historically low interest rates.

Economic slowdown coming

All the economic commentators expect a rise in interest rates soon and a slowdown in growth, if not a recession. The debt-induced upturn will not last forever. That is why Howard, on behalf of the Australian ruling class, must push ahead with attacks on workers’ rights, government spending, the privatisation of Telstra, attacks on democratic rights and, of course, ‘divide and conquer’ attacks on hard won social gains.

Interest rates were very successfully used as a scare tactic by the Liberals. Memories of 17% interest rates under previous Labor governments did have an effect. One Labor strategist correctly pointed out: "Interest rates were the Tampa of this election" [The ‘Tampa crisis’ concerned Howard’s hard-line policy towards asylum seekers in the 2001 federal elections].

Home ownership is over 70% in Australia and many middle classes and even some working class families have two home mortgages. This means that almost every family live from week to week. A slight rise in interest rates would have a big effect on their standard of living.

In response to this scare campaign, the ALP had no real alternative to the pro-capitalist policies of Howard. Labor didn’t have an economic alternative to his neo-liberal programme (neo-liberal policies were previously implemented by the last Labor government). Latham’s ALP didn’t have anything to say about job insecurity or growing poverty. Unbelievably they said nothing about the occupation of Iraq (even Kerry in the US has belatedly campaigned on this issue). [Months ago, Latham promised, if elected, to remove troops from Iraq by this coming Christmas. But this ‘pledge’ was subsequently so heavily qualified as to become meaningless.] The ALP was just as quiet on attacks on democratic rights under the cover of the ‘war on terror’.

Despite the fact that Howard sensed the electorate’s mood had changed on refugees, Latham said little on the issue except promising money for a Coast Guard. Furthermore, Latham’s badly explained Tasmanian forestry policy left Howard looking like he was the defender of workers’ jobs in that sector.

There was no real motivation for workers to vote Labor. Many middle class and even working class families took the attitude to stick with the ‘devil you know’ (the Liberals) rather than vote for the ‘devil you don’t know’ (ALP).

Although there were small voting movements against the ALP in Victoria and Tasmania, (the ALP lost seats in both areas to the Liberals) Latham’s vote overall remained the same as during the 2001 federal elections (38.2%).

But the Liberals gained 3.3%, to take them to 40.7%. This was mainly at the expense of the Democrats, a small party that originated as a split from the Liberals, which polled 1.1% (down 4.3%). The Democrats were wiped out as a party and lost all three senate seats. This signifies a hollowing out of the ‘centre’ in Australian politics.

The Liberals also picked up votes at the expense of the racist, populist right, One Nation party. Its vote collapsed to 1.2% (losing 3.1%). With a 6% swing against them, One Nation is likely to lose its one seat. One Nation’s former leader, Pauline Hanson, (standing as an independent) is unlikely to win a seat.

The Greens, scoring 7%, increased their support by 2.1%. They are set to win a further two seats, bringing them to three. This represents support for the Greens from a large section of middle class and many working class activists. The Greens are now the third party in Australian politics, receiving over a million votes. They are perceived by voters as a left wing alternative to Labor. We understand this and see it as a sign of how well a real new mass workers’ party would grow. However, we must continue to point out the Greens’ pro-capitalist economic policy, its support for the occupation of Iraq (as long as this occupation is under the UN flag), its support for the Australian imperialist intervention in the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, and its ‘economic rationalist’ (i.e. cuts making) record in power in Yarra City Council etc.

Unlike the ‘Socialist Alliance’ we will not sow illusions in the Greens.

The two big winners (other than Howard) were the Greens and the right-wing Family First. This shows the polarisation developing in Australian society, which will increase as Howard launches his impending war against the working class.

Socialist Alliance vote

The Socialist Alliance [dominated by the Democratic Socialist Party and the International Socialist Organisation] got 0.5% of the vote overall (and 0.1% in the Senate in Victoria). This is a very poor showing.

[Although in favour of left electoral alliances, where possible, the Socialist Party (CWI in Australia) argued from the formation of the Socialist Alliance that the Alliance did not have the necessary forces to make a big breakthrough, that it hugely exaggerated its potential, and that it did not put forward a clear socialist programme].

The federal results for the Socialist Alliance underlines why the Socialist Party’s argument that a new, genuine, mass workers’ party, based on real forces, such as the trade unions and community organisations, is the only way to build a viable alternative to the main right wing parties.

The Socialist Alliance’s maximum vote was 2% in Canberra. It received 1% in a couple of other areas. But the Socialist Alliance mostly gained one or two hundred votes (0.3% to 0.5%). In the federal seat of Melbourne they got less than half the vote the Socialist Party got in the same seat in the 2001 federal election.

If the ALP had won the 2004 federal elections, it would have not led to real reforms for working people. In fact, being in power would have exposed them as the capitalist party they are. It would have convinced many trade unionists to end supporting ALP and to start a campaign for a real workers’ party.

The call for a new workers’ party will face even stronger opposition from union leadership, who will argue that their will have to wait for an ALP victory in three or four years. However amongst many rank and file workers there will be a growing feeling that waiting for Labor has been tried and failed. It’s like waiting a life time for wage rise by one percent or hoping for a smiling boss rather than a grumpy one. Australians can’t afford to wait for a possible future Labor victory – the stakes are too high. Our campaign for a new workers’ party will continue.

Amongst big sections of the working class, especially young people, there will be a view that only mass action, strikes, rallies etc can now stop Howard. The weakening hold of Labor over workers can lead to spontaneous or semi-spontaneous movements of the class against Howard’s attacks, similar to the mass movement in Victoria against the Liberal Kennett government, from 1992-93.

Some on the left, in the unions and the communities will blame workers for voting for Howard. The blame, however, lies with the ALP and the Left for not understanding that the ALP is a lost cause. As an openly capitalist party it no longer represents the working people of Australia; it represents the bosses. The ALP has offered nothing more than more of the same capitalist Liberal polices, both at federal level and state level. The ALP is in power in every state, and they have attacked unions in every state, holding down wages and, in some states, decimating education and health. It is an indictment of the ALP’s right wing policies that they have now lost four times in a row in federal elections.

Huge battles ahead

On the evidence of Howard’s plans, the Socialist Party is preparing for huge industrial battles and demonstrations on the streets of Australian cities.

In his acceptance speech Howard said he had things to do, like changing industrial relations. Last Sunday morning big business leaders laid out plans for Howard on television. They want the full privatisation of Telstra, large tax cuts for big and small businesses, the right to sack any worker at any time for any reason, removing unfair dismissal legislation and huge changes in industrial relations that will attack workers’ legal benefits. The bosses also warned of a recession in the next six months to a year. The working class will not sit back and accept this onslaught. So, coinciding with a recession, a hiking of interest rates and with it huge pressures on families to repay their mortgages, the Liberals will be faced with massive opposition over the next year or two.

Howard has won the elections but his victory is a poisoned chalice. The economy faces a downturn. A rise in interest rates is expected, with negative consequences for the standard of living of millions of working people.

Blocked on the political path once again, workers and, in particular, youth, will see no option but to take to the streets to combat attacks on their wages and working conditions, as well as the attacks on social gains. There could be huge industrial struggles over the sale of Telstra around next July.

The youth, anti-low pay campaign, ‘Unite!’ can play a key role campaigning on the question of fighting the relaxing of unfair dismissal laws, which would effectively transform permanent workers in small firms into casual workers.

The Socialist Party pledges to be part of the impending social movements, to, amongst other battles, protect the forests and forestry workers from big business, and to defend the gains won by women over the past years from the Liberal/Family First social conservative assault.

There is a law in history that when blocked on the political front, the working class turns to the industrial front. We predict a period of attacks from the ruling class, leading to heightened class struggle and politicisation. Howard’s fourth victory is preparing a big swing to the left in the consciousness of workers and youth.

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October 2004