Australia: Neither big business party given mandate to govern

The Australian Federal election held on August 21 delivered a hung parliament – the first in 70 years. Neither the Labor Party led by Julia Gillard nor the Coalition led by Tony Abbott won the 76 seats required to form a government. The result is both a reflection of the lack of enthusiasm people have towards the two major parties and a reflection of the uncertain future that faces Australian capitalism.

With Labor sweeping to power in 2007, and Australia’s seeming avoidance of the worst of the economic crisis, many people are asking how Labor’s fortunes could have turned around so quickly.

At the time of writing Labor had won 71 seats in the House of Representatives with the Coalition also winning 71. Independents have won 4 seats while the Greens won their first lower house seat in Melbourne. With 3 seats still undecided horse trading is now underway to determine who can cobble together a minority government.

Labor punished

Big swings were recorded against the Labor Government particularly in the states of Queensland and New South Wales. Overall Labor’s primary vote fell more than 5% to 38% while the Coalition increased their vote slightly (1.9%) recording almost 44% of the first preference vote. The Greens polled the highest ever vote for a minor party with 11.5%. After preferences Labor leads slightly on a two party preferred basis.

In New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland (QLD) voters punished Labor partly because of deeply unpopular Labor State Governments. In both states these governments have embarked on privatisation programs. In NSW the government is seen as particularly corrupt. In Queensland voters were also clearly angered by what they saw as the undemocratic ousting of former Queensland based Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Added to these regional factors was a mood of general disappointment with Federal Labor. Since 2007 the Labor government back flipped on a number of key election promises. They have refused to act on climate change, kept the vast majority of John Howard’s anti-worker laws and continued to scapegoat refugees.

At the same time most people have underlying concerns about the state of the economy. Despite what the major parties say, the economic situation is still very fragile. With the federal budget in deficit both Labor and the Coalition have maintained the need for austerity measures to “bring the budget back to surplus by 2013”. Many people correctly saw this as an attempt to make workers pay for the downturn, hence the “neither of the above” attitude expressed on election day.

Voter disillusionment was also shown in the high number of ‘informal’ and ‘donkey’ votes. Voting is compulsory in Australia so rather than staying home many people go to the polling booths and deliver a blank or ruined ballot paper. In this election more than 600,000 people voted informal – more than 5.3%. In working class electorates the result was even higher.

Swing to the Greens

The Greens were the only party to substantially increase their vote in this election. Almost 1.2 million people voted Green – an increase of 3.7% compared to 2007. In the upper house the party looks set to increase their number of Senators from five to nine, thereby holding the balance of power.

Most of the primary votes lost by Labor went to the Greens. Thousands of young people, sections of the middle class and even a layer of workers voted for the Greens on the basis that they presented a program that was to the left of the major parties.

They called for urgent action on climate change, a more humane refugee policy and an end to the ban on same-sex marriage. Even on industrial relations their policy was far superior to Labor’s and this helped them secure support from a few trade unions including the Victorian Electrical Trades Union.

While the Socialist Party has significant differences with the Greens, we view their election results in a positive light. It shows that important layers of the population are looking for a more progressive alternative to the major parties. The question that remains, however, is will the Greens be able to deliver?

Unfortunately the Greens do not have an economic or political alternative to the major parties. They support the capitalist system albeit with a friendlier face. Their failure to articulate an alternative to the profit-driven system means that when they get into positions of power they cave into the pressures of big business. This has been seen in Germany, Ireland, Tasmania and on several local councils across Australia.

While it looks certain that the Greens will have the balance of power in the Senate they are hampered by the fact that the two big parties share general agreement on most significant policy issues.

Big business anguish

Big business has expressed its disappointment with the election outcome through the pages of the capitalist press. They had hoped for a ‘stable government’ that could restore investor confidence by moving quickly towards implementing the austerity measures required to bring the budget back into surplus.

Given the fact that the two major parties and the Greens all agree on the need to be “responsible managers of the economy” it will still be possible for cuts to be delivered. The problem for big business is that the process is now much more complicated and if we do see another downturn in the economy the ability for the government to act decisively has been diminished. It is not ruled out that an early election could be called in an attempt to break any deadlocks that arise.

From the point of view of big business profits this is an unstable outcome for the Australian ruling class. However, this does not mean that ordinary people should be complacent. With the US still mired in recession, and with the sovereign debt crisis in Europe and China facing an uncertain future, it is still probable that the world economy will experience a double-dip recession.

While Australia was not hit with the full effects of the crisis in 2008, it is unlikely that will be the case a second time around. With the budget in deficit, and a potentially unpredictable parliament, it will be much more difficult for further stimulus measures to be introduced. Capitalist parties and Independents of all stripes will be forced to offload the economic problems onto working people.

New workers party needed

If nothing else this election has shown that the two major parties are really one and the same. During the campaign they both engaged in a race to the right – each trying to prove to big business that they would be the best defenders of the profit driven system. There is clearly a desperate need for a party that stands for the interests of ordinary people.

Workers and young people need to be prepared for the attacks that are on the agenda. Regardless of the make up of the government that gets cobbled together its main priority will be bringing the budget back to surplus. This will inevitably involve cuts in the areas of health, education and welfare. Mass struggles will be required to stop these attacks.

While the make up of the government is an important consideration, we need to remember that most important decisions in society are not made in parliament but in big business board rooms. Real power lies at the point of production and real change is achieved through the mass mobilisation of ordinary people.

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