Australia: PM Turnbull deposed, but political crisis set to continue

Australia saw yet another change of prime minister in late August. After a week of high drama, the Liberal Party booted put prime minister Malcolm Turnbull from office and installed Scott Morrison in a ‘party room’ vote.


Turnbull now joins every other prime minister since 2007 in failing to see out a full term. The high turnover of prime ministers is one of the expressions of the deep political crisis that Australia faces.

In many ways, the depth of the crisis is incredible considering that Australia has not experienced a recession in more than 25 years. Despite the formal economic growth, there is still an immense amount of pressure on all the powers-that-be.

General political crisis

The crisis affects all parties that represent capitalism. It is not caused simply by the personalities in play. Just before the ‘Super Saturday’ by-elections in July, there were signs that shadow cabinet member Anthony Albanese was preparing to take the leadership of the Labor Party away from Bill Shorten.

The reason for this attempted leadership change lay in ongoing disappointing poll results for Shorten as opposition leader. Ordinary people are unimpressed by all the political leaders on offer. Labor has only had a reprieve from their own leadership tensions because of the government’s worse performance.

The Liberal-National government has had the worst of both worlds in recent months: they have been unable to implement their corporate agenda and trailed in the polls.

The ‘Super Saturday’ by-elections represented a huge blow to the government. Going into the campaign they wanted to make gains, and perhaps even pick up a seat, but they were routed everywhere they stood. The government had hoped to win support for their proposed company tax cuts, but on that front, they were solidly knocked back.

In an attempt to shift the focus away from the stalled company tax cuts, Turnbull moved to try and push through his signature energy policy – the National Energy Guarantee (NEG). This was nothing short of a disaster.

Turnbull presented the NEG as an “energy reliability plan” that will push down prices. In reality, it is a pro-business policy designed to keep dirty coal plants, and profits, churning over for years into the future. There is no verifiable evidence that it would actually reduce energy costs at all. The plan itself was made in consultation with energy industry bosses.

But even this weak plan was too much for the Liberals’ climate change-denying MPs on the back bench. Led by the former prime minister Tony Abbott, the backbenchers threatened to torpedo the legislation in parliament. Under pressure, Turnbull was forced to water it down so much that it’s now seen as worse than nothing.

The Liberals’ policies are increasingly seen to be at odds with the vast majority of voters. This has shrunk their social base. In that context, a debate has opened up in the Liberals’ ranks about how to address this problem and stop the bleed of votes.

The Liberals are torn between whether to take the Trump right-populist road or try to steer their way along a more moderate path. This lies at the heart of their internal crisis.

Disenchantment with politics

The glaring problem on the Australian political landscape is the absence of a party that genuinely represents the interests of ordinary people. Big business has two parties while working people have no major party to call their own.

With this being the case, people have become increasingly disenchanted with the major parties and disillusioned with mainstream politics. Out of frustration, voters have tended to punish governments at the ballot box, putting immense pressure on party leaders.

After tearing itself apart, the Liberal Party will now try to pull things back together to prepare for the general election, which is due sometime before May 2019. But the damage done during this internal fight has been severe.

Not only is it going to be near impossible for the Liberals to recover in the coming months, but the divisions that have been opened up could prove irreconcilable, and pave the way for a full-blown split in the years ahead.

Labor Party has no solution

The main beneficiaries of this crisis in the short term will be Labor. Despite the fact that Labour leader, Bill Shorten, is far from popular with voters, Labor is now in the box seat as the general election looms. But if they are thrown into power, they too will face pressures similar to what the Liberals have endured.

Shorten’s turn to mild populism is an indication of the pressures already building up. Like the Liberals, Labor’s social base is shrinking. They have shifted to the right in recent decades, abandoning their working-class base in favour of big business interests. Today their programme is only marginally different from the Liberals.

Big business clearly recognises this and, out of frustration with the Liberals, some sections of corporate Australia are now considering backing Labor. This was shown last month when more than $1 million in donations were collected at a Labor business conference in Sydney.

The Liberals are the first choice of big business, but they see Labor as a reliable back-up team. They desperately hope that a more stable parliament can be set up under Shorten. They are not fooled by Shorten’s fake populist rhetoric.

Big business seems to have a much better understanding of the character of the Labor Party than the bulk of the trade union leaders, who continue to sow illusions in Labor as some sort of workers’ party. Rather than putting clear demands on Labor, the unions have given them a blank cheque.

The ACTU’s ‘Change the Rules’ campaign has the potential to really impact the political situation. But instead of using the campaign to pressure both the major parties with strikes and mass protests, it is merely being used to boost Labor’s electoral fortunes. This is a huge mistake.

If Labor comes to power at the next election, it will be because people merely see them as the least bad option. They do not have a program to satisfy the needs of the millions of people who are struggling with low wage growth, housing stress and cost of living pressures.

A Shorten Labor government would be no better than the previous Gillard or Rudd Labor governments. Perhaps some minor cosmetic changes would be made, but the underlying set up – where big business dominates – would remain.

This will be the case no matter what, but if a recession hits, as is likely, whoever is in power will be expected to protect profits and shift the burden onto ordinary people. This is the scenario that the trade unions should be preparing for.

The way out

Rather than meekly lining up behind Labor, the unions – in conjunction with progressive community groups, welfare recipients, and students – should be trying to carve out their own political agenda.

They should draw up a programme for the change we need and mobilise working people to fight for it. That fight could include standing independent candidates in the upcoming election, but by far the best way to exercise pressure on the powers-that-be is by organising industrial action and demonstrations.

Mass opposition to the big business agenda clearly exists. If that opposition was brought together in the form of a new mass movement, it would help to turn the tide against profiteering and wealth inequality.

If the ‘Change the Rules’ campaign took on that sort of approach, it would be much better placed to actually improve the living conditions of millions of people. It would also help bust open the political situation in Australia, and lay the basis for a real political alternative to the major parties to be built.

That is the way out of this political quagmire.

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