Australian politics is in turmoil. The federal Labor government under Rudd then Gillard tore itself to pieces and lost all credibility within six years. Now the Liberals are repeating the experience, with Abbott’s leadership in tatters after less than 18 months in power. What’s going on?
Much of the mainstream commentary highlights Abbott’s botched sales pitch for his budget. Cabinet minister Andrew Robb has echoed this, saying the problem was budget “surprises” in Medicare and universities and “the way we rolled them out”.
Labor under Julia Gillard made a similar claim: the government was introducing good policy, and passing legislation through parliament, but just couldn’t get its message out.
Malcolm Turnbull offered the same explanation when making a thinly disguised pitch for the Prime Minister’s job—that leaders must be, “above all explainers and advocates, unravelling complex issues in clear language that explains why things have to change”.
There’s no doubt Abbott has failed to convince people about the need for budget cuts—but the issue is not communication. The bitter experience of three decades of so-called “economic reform” is that people are worse off.
This began under the Hawke and Keating Labor governments in the 1980s, which forced through wage cuts through the Accords while slashing corporate tax rates from 49 to 33 per cent.
It was a ruthless ruling class offensive to boost corporate profitability at the expense of working class wages and living standards. And it worked. The wages share of national income has fallen from 62 per cent in 1975 to 53 per cent today. Hawke and Keating also began a wave of privatisations, as did state governments like the notorious Kennett Liberal government in Victoria.
Governments of both stripes since have continued in the same vein.
Again and again we have been told that reform will mean short term pain, but make us all better off in the long term. But the good times have never arrived.
Out of touch
There is an enormous gap between the policies the majority of the population want and the policies of both major parties.
Privatisation, for example, is massively unpopular. Essential polling shows an overwhelming 70 per cent think privatisation mainly benefits the corporate sector and always leads to price increases. Essential polling also shows massive opposition to government cuts. Only 12 per cent of people support cuts to services to balance the budget, while 68 per cent back higher corporate tax.
Traditionally, the working class looked to Labor as the party that represented their interests. But the experience of successive Labor governments has trashed that idea.
John Howard lost in a landslide in 2007 over WorkChoices. But Rudd Labor gave us WorkChoices Lite. In Queensland, the Labor government under Anna Bligh was wiped out in 2012 after it forced through $15 billion in privatisations. Now, three years later, Campbell Newman and the LNP have been thrown out after delivering savage cuts to services and promising further sell-offs.
One consequence is that support for the two major parties is in long-term decline. Labor’s rusted-on base of life-long Labor voters has dramatically fallen from 32 per cent of people in 1969 to 24 per cent. So mainstream politics has become more volatile, as voters thrash around in vain trying to find a party that represents them.
Both major political parties are committed to neo-liberalism and the agenda of big business. The end of the post-war boom in the 1970s produced the initial pressure to introduce neo-liberal policies, as business faced a crisis of profitability. But their need to amass ever-greater profits means they keep coming back for more.
There is despair in the boardrooms at how badly Tony Abbott and the Liberals, the party traditionally trusted to represent business interests, have failed. The Liberals are facing electoral oblivion, but their major attacks have not got through the Senate.
Michael Stutchbury, editor of the business mouthpiece The Financial Review has complained that, “Politics is a mess. There’s been no major economic policy reform since Howard’s GST in 2000.”
So far, the crisis that surrounds the experience of Labor in government has only marginally improved the standing of The Greens. Things are likely to stay that way until The Greens unequivocally look to represent the unions and working class.
Underpinning the turmoil in parliamentary politics is the low level of class struggle. The greatest strength the working class majority has is in its industrial strength and in mass movements to fight for change outside of parliament. This is where real reforms, for land rights, equal pay, penalty rates and long service leave, have been won.
That is why socialists put such emphasis on fanning the flames of struggle—this is where the hope for change lies.
By James Supple