Politics

By-election blues: Malcolm Turnbull eats humble pie after Super Saturday wipeout

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Enjoy that pie, Malcolm (Image via @TurnbullMalcolm on Instagram)

It was indeed a Super Saturday, says John Passant — for Bill Shorten and the Labor Party, that is.

SUPER SATURDAY turned out to be super indeed. Labor held all of its four seats, with swings to the ALP in every one. It was a great day for the ALP, and for the many many people who despise this anti-worker Turnbull Government.

The born to rule Liberals could not even win back what they regard as "their" seat, Mayo. Rebekha Sharkie, a former Liberal, and now part of a supposedly middle of the road spin off, Centre Alliance, thrashed Georgina Downer, the Institute of Public Affairs aficionado. Downer is the very model of a modern major conservative.

The insider media narrative, built on its own out of touch "reality" and a succession of polls, was that it would be very close in Longman and Braddon. A win in either seat for the Liberals (or the LNP as they are in Queensland) would supposedly see Bill Shorten under real pressure to keep the Labor Party leadership.

One insider said the ALP could lose both seats. A major Murdoch media outlet, three days before the by-election, produced a poll showing Labor would lose Longman under Shorten but win under their preferred candidate, Albanese. The swing to Labor in Longman was almost 10%. In Braddon it was 0.5% to Labor, based on a strong flow of preferences from fisherman Craig Garland.

After Super Saturday, the only leadership speculation there is should be about Malcolm Turnbull. However, this is not part of the mainstream media’s "Channel 9" political entertainment agenda, so, unlike the "Kill Bill" strategy, will not be pushed by The Australian, Sky News and other Murdoch outlets, the Fairfax newspapers, commercial radio or commercial television. At least the ABC has, on the basis of the reality Super Saturday presents of a likely Shorten government, begun to ask questions about Turnbull’s government — although not his leadership.

There is no real alternative leadership to Turnbull within the Liberal Party. It says much about the reactionary nature of the Liberals that Peter Dutton is their (loss) leader in waiting. As part of a deliberate Government strategy, he was a prominent campaigner in Longman, Braddon and Mayo.

His racist and xenophobic pitch to voters, based on lies about strong borders (nudge nudge, wink wink), "African gangs" (megaphone message) and cutting immigration (nudge nudge, wink wink) seems to have lost votes for the Liberals. The primary vote for the LNP candidate in Longman, "Big Medals" Trev Ruthenberg, is running, at the time of writing, at around 28% — 10% below the LNP primary vote in the 2016 election.  

Some of those previous LNP voters switched directly to Labor. Some defected to the cardboard cutout One Nation on the way to voting for Labor. The PHONies’ vote went up by 6% to 16%. Despite the PHONies preferencing the LNP above Labor, a significant number of these voters then sent their votes to Labor.

The 5.5% two party preferred swing to Labor in Longman will worry Peter Dutton, the racist in chief. His seat of Dickson is next door to Longman and he holds it with a margin of just 2%. As the Turnbull Government and his own political future look over, he will become more desperate, and will ramp up the xenophobia and racism.

Turnbull megaphoned Dutton on African gangs. As an exchange on Friday between voters in Longman and Turnbull suggests, the issues for most voters centred around wages and penalty rates, jobs and public services.

One lesson from Longman is that this distraction no longer works, if it ever did. A government that does not address stagnating wages, penalty rate reductions, cuts to public health, transport and education, and that does not create full-time fulfilling jobs, cannot survive on racism alone.

These class issues were concertinaed in the question of tax cuts for big business, which, if the cross bench in the Senate are sensible, is now dead. 

Bill Shorten captured it when he asked on Friday:

"Do voters really want more of the same? More cuts to hospitals, more cuts to schools, more tax cuts for big banks? I don't think so. We're going to find out."

And find out we did. Labor’s strategy of concentrating on bread and butter issues was a success. Given the Turnbull-Dutton Government has nothing to offer to address these issues other than neoliberal policies that deliberately make them worse for most people, Labor’s approach puts it in the box seat to win the next Federal election. On a margin of just 2%, Peter Dutton will become a rotting scrap in the garbage can of conservative history. 

The election of a Shorten Labor government will challenge the ALP to deliver on its rhetoric and promises to workers, while at the same time managing capitalism and its inherent contradictions. If growing inequality and stagnating wages are systemic – and I believe they are – then the real question is what forces exist to keep the pressure on Labor to deliver?

The one class with that capacity is the working class and the trade union movement in particular. The Change the Rules campaign shows that the relationship between union officials and the ALP is too close. Change the Rules is trickle down for unionists and workers.

"Trust us. We will deliver from on high." When Labor gives a few crumbs, the trade union bureaucracy will be happy and pronounce victory. But workers want to sit at the table and share the meal, not just be given some scraps. After all, we did all the work to produce their feast.

I think the electoral focus – which is what Change the Rules is all about – misconceives workers’ fundamental strength in the workplace and their capacity to cut off the flow of profits to the bosses. 

The real question to me is whether Labor will enshrine an unfettered right to strike in the law and remove all the other impediments to industrial action. On the back of that, the second question is: will the ACTU mobilise workers to strike in the fight to defend jobs, increase wages and protect public services? The answer to both is no.

The real alternative is workers organising themselves to strike for better pay, conditions, jobs and social services. Without a strong fighting force outside Labor to keep the pressure on the incoming Shorten government, the pressure from the ruling class to develop policies in government that favour it will be immense and irresistible.

By all mean let’s celebrate Labor’s Super Saturday success.  The political death of the Liberal government will be something to savour. But let’s also keep in mind that we must keep the pressure on Labor all the time to deliver real and substantial benefits for workers.

That means building a fighting working class prepared to strike for better pay, better jobs and better public services. Otherwise we will end up doing the same dance of neoliberalism and class collaboration with Labor again and again and again.

Read more by John Passant on his website En Passant or follow him on Twitter @JohnPassantSigned copies of John's first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed(Ginninderra Press 2016), are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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