Australia: Weak government has no mandate

Time for the unions and social movements to push back

The Australian newspaper noted last month that there is “something of a vacuum of political authority in national affairs”. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has emerged from the federal election severely weakened. He almost lost power, managing to hang on by just a single seat in the lower house. In the Senate, far from clearing out the cross bench, the election has increased it from 8 seats to 11.

Labor’s vote barely increased while the Greens lost a Senator. All the parties that represented the status quo were largely rejected by voters.

Instead of restoring stability, the government is now in a state of ongoing crisis. Already since the election the government has been humiliated by a census debacle. Even the decision about whether or not to nominate former prime minister Kevin Rudd as UN secretary-general left them looking divided.

The government has also had to contend with the scandal surrounding the abuse of children at the Don Dale detention centre in the Northern Territory. In an attempt to contain the situation, Turnbull called a Royal Commission, but within days the Commissioner had resigned. At every turn the government is struggling to assert itself.

The Australian is correct about the vacuum of political authority. Of increased concern for the establishment is the situation facing the economy and the federal budget. The ruling class is demanding that deep cuts are made to social spending. They want to ensure that big business profits are protected and that the working class is forced to pay the price for the economic slowdown.

This, however, is a major challenge for the government. The main reason the major parties were rejected at the election was precisely because of ordinary people’s opposition to paying for a crisis they had no part in creating. The ruling class is concerned that unless action is taken on the budget, a crisis out of their control could erupt.

Getting the agreement of the Senate cross bench for deep cuts will be difficult, especially given that most of them posed as opponents of the government’s plans. But even if some of them do agree to certain things, there is still plenty of scope to stop anti-worker measures.

The question is whether or not the trade unions and social movements are prepared to put up a fight. The Socialist argues that the conditions are ripe to push back against Turnbull’s attacks. Most pressing is the need to wage a campaign against the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) legislation.

Depending on how the populist Xenophon Team [led by Nick Xenophon, an Australian senator], and the anti-immigrant, right populist One Nation party respond, the government may well have the numbers to push the ABCC laws through. These laws represent a major threat to all workers, as they are designed to weaken unionised workers in the construction sector. If successful, this would open the gates to cuts to wages and conditions, not only in construction but elsewhere.

While the double dissolution election was formally triggered by the ABCC bill, the government hardly mentioned it during the course of the election campaign. They have not won the argument, and their fragile hold on power shows they have no mandate.

The unions should immediately announce that, if the bill is brought back before the parliament, a nationwide 24-hour general strike will be called. Such an action could galvanise working people and send a strong message to the powers that be. It would exert immense pressure on the cross bench and the employers that are set to benefit from the laws.

With the potential for the government to face challenges on the offshore detention of refugees and same-sex marriage rights, a powerful action like a one-day stoppage would give huge amounts of confidence to social movements.

Anger is growing about the terrible conditions refugees on Nauru and Manus Island face, and, if a plebiscite on same-sex marriage goes ahead, many people will use it to punish those who have held back this reform for years on end. The potential exists to unite huge swathes of the population against the government’s big business agenda.

The election results showed that people are fed up with ‘business as usual’ politics. While the main beneficiaries of the frustration right now are the right-wing populists on the cross bench, an upturn in activity from the unions and social movements would not only be capable of pushing the government back, but it would also force left and working class politics back onto the agenda.

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September 2016