Abbott’s obscene rule-for-the-rich budget has given Labor a new lease on life. Newspoll has them six points ahead in two-party preferred terms, a 6.5 per cent increase on last year’s federal election.
It’s not just their vote that has recovered. Their vocal opposition to key budget measures like the Medicare co-payment, university fees, the petrol excise increase and denying the dole to under 30s, has rebuilt some hope and enthusiasm that Labor will be better in power and unwind Abbott’s attacks.
We’ll all be celebrating if the slogan “one term Tony” becomes a reality. But if we want to kick out Abbott and his policies, we can’t rely on Labor.
Firstly, Labor broadly accepts the political and economic logic behind Abbott’s budget strategy, and unchallenged, will deliver a fundamentally similar neo-liberal diet of cuts.
We still live with Howard’s legacy—the GST, the bulk of WorkChoices, the ban on same-sex marriage, watered down Native Title—because the previous Labor government kept it all in place.
Secondly, waiting until mid-2016 to kick Abbott out at the ballot box risks demobilising the fight against him, letting demoralisation set in, and giving the Coalition breathing space to defend their agenda.
In 1996, the anger at John Howard’s first budget was left to dissipate when the unions abandoned an industrial campaign against it. As a result Howard scraped back in 1998.
The only guarantee of real change is the strength of the movement against Abbott in the streets and the workplaces, and whether it is willing to take the fight to Labor, too.
Just voting Labor in will mean a slower program of cuts. The evidence was there for those who wanted to hear it in Shorten’s budget reply speech: “What the Australian public expect are consistent structural changes aimed at the medium and long term…Australia does not have a budget emergency, as the government claims, but it has a budget task.”
Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen has made a point of stressing his commitment to cutbacks, saying “Labor understands that in challenging times, budgets need tough choices” and boasting that Labor cut $180 billion in spending while in power.
Labor itself promotes the idea that the budget has to be returned to surplus through cuts. As recently as 2012, it sacrificed single parents on the altar of the budget balance, cutting their payments by forcing them onto NewStart. Gillard also took the axe to university funding, and Kevin Rudd raised the pension age from 65 to 67.
Labor is not above picking and choosing from Abbott’s horror budget, signalling they’ll support his “green army”, a proposal where young people will be paid less than the minimum wage for environmental projects like picking up rubbish.
Labor has been committed to neo-liberal economic management since Hawke and Keating, and has continually betrayed its supporters in power.
Labor and the fightback
Shorten has told the Labor caucus it needs to appeal to the “white hot anger” at the budget. Yet at the same time Labor will neither block supply (the budget funding bills Abbott needs) nor call for the protests and strikes against Abbott that we need now.
Labor MP Tim Watts made it clear Labor was more concerned with parliamentary respectability and managing capitalism, saying, “any opposition that uses the Senate to block supply would be creating a noose for its own neck should it ever form government and not control the upper house itself.”
Labor wouldn’t offer support to the March in March or March in May. The unions will be the key to mobilising workers to fight Abbott, yet Bill Shorten is seeking to cut ties between the unions and Labor and dump the connection with working class politics.
Mass demonstrations, social movements and most importantly, strikes, have the power to force Abbott to back down. Workers can stand in the way of the business profits that are so important to Abbott and his corporate friends.
In John Howard’s last term, union leaders turned the focus of the Your Rights at Work campaign from “fighting” to “voting”. The very strength that could have truly buried WorkChoices was held back for a focus on marginal seats campaigning and keeping quiet about Labor’s shortcomings. That meant when Labor was elected, the pressure that could have forced them to act had already subsided.
None of us—pensioners, the sick, the disabled, workers—can afford for the same thing to happen again. Welfare rights, support for the disabled, education funding, retiring before we’re 70—it will all have to be forced on Labor.
Strikes and the fightback now will decide whether the outcome is genuine change, or Abbott-lite.
By Amy Thomas