Australia: Conservative Liberal-National coalition swept to power

One or other corporate party is no ‘choice’ for working people

The conservative Liberal-National coalition, led by Tony Abbott, swept to power in the Australian federal election on Saturday 7 September. While a couple of seats are still to be determined, the Coalition is on track to win 89 of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives.

The incumbent Australian Labor Party’s (ALP) vote slumped to 33.8% leaving them with an estimated 57 seats – a loss of 15 seats. 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.

While the final Senate results may not be known for a week or more, the Coalition is predicted to hold 33 of the 76 seats – less than the 39 needed for a majority. The ALP and Greens combined are expected to hold 35 seats, while several smaller parties and Independents will hold the balance of power.

No endorsement of right-wing agenda

This result should not be read as an endorsement of the Coalition’s conservative agenda. In fact, the Coalition 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 much of the population.

The fact that billions of dollars in corporate subsidies were dolled out, while cuts were made to things like welfare payments and education funding, did not go unnoticed. The ineffectual mining tax, which allowed big miners to continue to rake in super-profits, and the carbon tax that did nothing to reduce carbon emissions, only added insult to injury.

There is no doubt that factional infighting within the ALP contributed to people’s distrust of the party but if the government was genuinely progressive – and was delivering real reforms for ordinary people – it would not have mattered who the leader was.

Labor’s woes are not due to issues with its personnel. The crisis in the party stems 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. The profit interests of their big business backers are at odds with the interests of its voter base. 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.

Both leaders hated

Just days before the election, Rudd had a minus 26 approval rating while Abbott scored minus 10. Abbott is the first opposition leader to win an election with a negative approval rating. In short, there was no love for either of the leaders. People voted for the party that they hated the least.

Polls and surveys consistently show the most people are opposed to the agenda of both the major parties. On both economic and social issues, most of the population stands to the left of the Liberals and Labor. The problem is that there is no major party on the landscape today that represents those values.

The Socialist Party takes no joy from this situation. The agenda of both parties is unashamedly pro-big business at the expense of ordinary working people. The minor differences that do exist 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 shut schools and sack teachers they lace their policies with Orwellian language and talk about things like ‘consolidation’ and ‘the centralisation of services’. Instead of ‘shut downs’ they propose ‘mergers’. Regardless of the approach, the end result is the same.

Palmer United Party breakthrough

In many parts of the country the anger that exists towards the major parties was expressed through a vote for the billionaire Clive Palmer’s party – the Palmer United Party (PUP).

PUP won 5.6% of the vote nationally and while votes are still being counted in a number of areas, it is possible that they 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 and different from the status quo. He even used radical language like ‘revolution’ in his propaganda.

The truth is the PUP is a staunch supporter of free market capitalism and will offer nothing to the ordinary people who voted for it. The party is likely to be unstable and erratic as it revolves around the personality cult of Palmer, who is known for his hair-brained schemes and speaking before thinking.

In the absence of a progressive alternative it is possible the PUP can win some more support in the short term. While we do not welcome the growth of right-wing populist forces, what it does show is 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 at this election.

The PUP will be exposed in time but the challenge is to build a progressive alternative that can really meet the needs of ordinary people.

Greens vote dips

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 despite the Liberals, preferencing against him. He increased his primary vote by 7.8%.

Melbourne was the exception to the rule, as elsewhere people saw the Greens as connected to the ALP due to the de-facto coalition they had with the party for most of the last term. In contrast to most other Green candidates, Bandt did more to try and connect himself to the social movements that exist.

Despite the fact that he gave supply and confidence to Labor, and voted for most of their unpopular legislation, Bandt was also more skillful at decoupling himself from the government in the months leading up to the election. This allowed him to present himself as an opponent of the government and to benefit from deep anti-Labor sentiment that has developed in inner-city Melbourne.

The Greens results in their heartland of Tasmania were more telling. In that state they suffered a drop in support of 8%. This was due to the fact the Greens are seen as closely connected to Labor, as they are in a coalition government 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.

Socialist Party campaign in Melbourne

The Socialist Party also stood in the federal division of Melbourne. Our candidate Anthony Main won 1.45% of the vote coming 5th in a race of 16. Of the minor parties, only the ’Sex Party’ won more votes. The Sex Party is the political outlet of sex industry bosses and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising.

The media has reported that the Greens spent almost $1 million dollars in the seat of Melbourne and that Labor spent at least half a million dollars. The Socialist Party for its part spent a mere $5000.

This was spent on printing 50,000 leaflets and 2,000 posters, the bulk of which were distributed by volunteers. Our message in the campaign was that regardless which capitalist party is in power, the system does not work for the majority of people. We were the only party in the race to talk about wealth inequality, the need for democratic public ownership and planning, and the need for system change to address the issues we face.

Our campaign was connected to our day to day work including the fight against the East-West tunnel project and against the sell-off of public housing estates. While our vote was modest, it contributed to keeping Labor out of the seat.

While 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.

Senate make up

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 main threat ahead is cuts to spending and austerity measures which would mostly be encapsulated in the budget. The Greens have already said that they will not block supply or support no confidence motions against the government.

Abbott will probably move slowly concentrating his efforts 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, in itself, could be problematic, as he may need to negotiate with up to eight different groupings. While it is possible that Abbott can garner enough support in the Senate to get his way, this is not the stable situation his big business backers were hoping for.

While people have voted for the Coalition in order to punish Labor, they will not see it as a mandate for Tony Abbott to implement the wide ranging cuts big business is demanding. The length of Abbott’s honeymoon will depend heavily on international developments. For example, if the world economy takes a dip, Abbott may be forced to implement cuts quicker than what he had hoped. This can provoke a political reaction. Even people that recently voted for the Coalition can move into action to protect their interests.

At the same time, if the international situation allows it, Abbott may chose 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.

The Socialist Party does not accept that cuts and austerity measures are necessary. Ordinary people should not be forced to pay for a crisis that they did not create. If anyone should pay it should be the big business profiteers and speculators, who have benefited while the vast majority of people have struggled to make ends meet.

Workers need a party of their own

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 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.

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September 2013