Australians deliver reality check for major parties in cliffhanger election

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(Image by Alex Proimos via commons.wikimedia.org)

John Passant discusses Australia's close election result and what is says about our disengagement with out of touch politicians.

WHAT A CLIFFHANGER this election was and is.

After almost eight weeks of three word slogans from the major parties, the options appear to be, at the time of writing, a minority government formed either by the Coalition or Labor, or a very outside chance of a Turnbull Government with the barest of majorities. The latter may be wishful thinking from Coalition spruikers.

Wishful thinking by the ruling class and its propaganda outlets has been a key part of this campaign. The close result has come as a surprise to the Government, most of the mainstream media and their editorial and opinion writers and to the bookies.

The smug, ugly self-important verbal diarrhoea erupting from the political class of the 1% showed how divorced from reality bourgeois politicians and their newspapers and other media are. Here is what I wrote in IA last week about fake stability: 

Yet most pollsters and commentators, with one or two exceptions, tell us the Turnbull Government will win the election with a reduced but workable majority. These are the same sort of people as their brothers and sisters in the UK, divorced from the world that working class people live in — the sort of people who were telling us that Remain would win narrowly.

Apparently, Australian pundits are as divorced from the real world as their British counterparts.

OK, enough of my bragging. What happened? Part of it had to do with class. Shorten Labor didn’t "do a Corbyn". They did, however, play to some pretty obvious class concerns among workers and others by emphasising the threat that the Coaliton posed and pose to Medicare.

This highlighted for me the contradiction that is Labor. Two of the key Medicare proposals Labor highlighted were the freeze on Medicare rebates — a Gillard Government initiative. And a co-payment — a measure first introduced by the Hawke Government.

There were other class issues raised — like the threat to penalty rates but even there, the ambiguity of Labor’s position became clear. While Labor opposed any cut to Sunday penalty rates, it would respect the decisions of the Fair Work Commission — including cuts.

That contradiction in Labor is also reflected in the swing. It was 3.7% against the Government but only 2% to the ALP.

Having said that, if you look at where the swing to Labor was highest and at the new seats Labor won or is close in, it seems that they are often areas under threat from major job losses, or where there is high unemployment, low wages and precarious work arrangements.

Another reflection of the contradiction that is Labor is that its overall percentage vote before preferences in this election is only around 35%. The Coalition’s is around 41%. These are low figures compared to earlier generations and are in part explained by the inability of either major party to deliver reforms that benefit working people, rather than changes which benefit capital.

Both major parties have implemented neoliberal polices that have shifted wealth from labour to capital. The Hawke and Keating Governments started and set the standard for this wealth transfer through a compliant union leadership. The end result is a union membership of around 18% and a weak trade union movement afraid not only of its own shadow but its members, especially if they were to strike "illegally" (another legacy of Hawke and Keating.)

The Keynesian neoliberalism of the ALP means that some working people and progressives are looking for a new home. The Greens picked up just under 10% of the vote this election — up a bit over 1% on the 2013 result. Yet their appeal is not on the basis of class but a vague brace of policies that supposedly transcend class. Their focus is not the mass movements or building them, or the class divisions within society but bourgeois parliaments. This, I think, dooms them to be forever in the shadows.

We are now, too, seeing the rise of so-called centrist politician Nick Xenophon with three Senate seats in South Australia and two in the lower house.

We saw the election of Pauline Hanson on an Islamophobic scare campaign to the Senate in Queensland. She won over 9% of the vote and her racist organisation may also win a Senate seat in NSW and one in WA. The threat she told us 20 years ago involved Asians. Now it is Muslims. Fred Nile’s Christian Democratic Party – a party of Christian reaction – may win a seat in NSW. In Victoria, Derryn Hinch looks like he has won a seat in the Senate on the back of a law and order scare campaign and his media personality status.

The rise of these right wing parties, groups and individuals reflects the long death rattle of social democracy in Australia and the consensus of both major parties to demonise refugees and asylum seekers and invade Aboriginal lands. It also reflects the inability of those of us on the revolutionary left to break out of the prison of irrelevance we are in.

Given its history and trajectory and its main raison d’etre, to manage capitalism, Labor will not and cannot now do a Corbyn, or even a Sanders, and develop a radical program for wealth re-distribution from the rich and capital to the poor and workers. 

On the plus side, the election result has set back the slash and burn agenda of the ruling class. They are on the back foot, at least for the moment. However the global crisis of capitalism – what some left wing economists call the Great Recession – and its slow strangling of the Australian economy since about 2013, means that whoever ends up governing will have to try to cut spending on social welfare, public services and deliver tax cuts to business. They will also chip away at wages.

The Liberals are in crisis. The Abbott faction, never really known for its grasp on reality, believe they could have won with Abbott in charge. This ignores the fact that one of the reasons Turnbull lost so much in this election, even if his Government clings to power, is that it implemented Abbott’s agenda but with a fake smile. 

Cory Bernardi is already proclaiming the government that does not yet and may well not exist should drop the "irrelevant" gay marriage plebiscite and concentrate on the big economic issues — you know, like cutting wages and living standards and applying a thousand cuts to health and education. Eric Abetz has crawled out from under his rock and suggested Abbott get a ministry in a government that does not yet and may well not exist.

If, as Antony Green suggested, the House of Representatives split is something like 72 for Labor and 73 for the Coalition, both sides are short of bare majority of 76 in the 150 seat parliament. This means that not only will Turnbull be even more a captive of the right wing and reactionary forces in his own party and the Nationals but someone like Bob Katter could hold the balance of power.

Let that last paragraph sink in. Instability reigns. This is ultimately because the gap between what those who rule for capital and those who vote for them want, especially on the Labor side, is unbridgeable in the current economic environment of falling global profit rates, increasing austerity and the rapid slowing of the Australian economy this is producing.

As this election also shows, the major parties will continue to ignore real action to address the existential threat that is climate change, lift the 2.5 million Australians who live in poverty out of it, or house 100,000 homeless. Unemployment and underemployment will continue to threaten the very fabric of society.

The solution is not to blame Muslims, migrants, Aborigines, the Chinese, or even criminals — or whoever else is the target of the demonising and distracting agenda of the ruling class. The alternative is for workers and groups to defend living standards and jobs and begin building an alternative politics that puts the big issues – climate change, poverty, the insanity of capitalist production – on the agenda.

John Passant is a former assistant commissioner of the Australian Tax Office. Read more by John on his website en PassantYou can also follow him on Twitter @JohnPassant.

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