Election shock—how this happened and lessons for the left

It wasn’t meant to be like this. Yesterday’s election result has shocked everyone—from the pollsters to the pundits, Labor and even Scott Morrison himself. Solidarity had also been expecting a different outcome.

For the last three years, polls showed that the Liberals would be defeated. But it looks likely that they will hold on as a minority government or with a narrow majority.

Their single-minded scare campaign against Labor’s plans on franking credits and negative gearing proved effective. The campaign was dominated by the attacks on Labor’s proposals and Bill Shorten’s feeble efforts to defend them.

The political commentators are already concluding that Shorten’s plans were too bold and ambitious. But on the contrary, Labor equivocated when explaining its policies on negative gearing and franking credits, rather than coming out clearly and saying they wanted to hit the rich.

Similarly, despite Labor’s spending promises, Ipsos researchers concluded from focus groups during the campaign that, “Western Sydney participants struggled to identify any specific policy initiatives or announcements from Labor.”

The unions ran a concerted Change the Rules campaign, but it was focused overwhelmingly on doorknocking and leafleting in marginal electorates. This failed to shift seats.

The union movement has wasted enormous resources on an electoral strategy based on a flawed slogan that to change the rules we had to elect a Labor government that would then hand down some changes to the industrial relations laws. But their electoral approach did nothing to change the government (in fact in some targeted seats, there was a swing to the Liberals) and most importantly it does nothing to build the unions’ capacity to fight industrially, or to build union membership.

The Change the Rules campaign was much worse than the Your Rights At Work campaign that played a significant role in defeating John Howard in 2007. With mass stopwork rallies, unions put attacks on wages and workers’ rights at the centre of the campaign against Howard.

Not this time. It was only in Victoria that there were large stopwork demonstrations that involved a significant cross-section of the union movement. It is no coincidence that the greater mobilisation in Victoria helped produce a small swing towards Labor in that state. But elsewhere few unions beyond the construction and maritime industries were prepared to mobilise union members to stopwork rallies. Instead the unions relied simply on doorknocking in marginal seats.

A union movement that was actively mobilising well before the election campaign—with large stopwork rallies and workplace meetings—could have helped make class issues like increasing the minimum wage, restoring penalty rates and taxing the rich central to the election campaign.

But without that campaign workers were left wondering if Labor was serious about its promises about a living wage or tackling casual contracts.

Climate election?

Climate change was also a major issue in the election. One of the few things to celebrate on election night was Tony Abbott losing his seat to conservative independent and “climate leader” Zali Steggall on Sydney’s wealthy north shore. The Greens also held their vote and have managed to save their Senate seats. But their efforts to court wealthy voters, especially in the Melbourne seats of Kooyong and Higgins went nowhere. Green votes in many working class seats went backwards.

Commentators have also been quick to condemn Queensland workers for the increased vote for One Nation and Clive Palmer. But it was Labor’s failure to make it clear that “climate action” would guarantee existing jobs and create more that allowed One Nation and Clive Palmer to pull votes. Labor’s two-bob each way—with Shorten refusing to oppose Adani but also saying he might review it—made it look like he wouldn’t defend coal miners’ jobs. It was a Trump moment in the Australian election.

One Nation also picked up votes through a campaign of open climate denial, both in Queensland and in NSW’s Hunter Valley coal region where it polled 21.9 per cent in one seat.

As a result we have three more years of a government dominated by racists and climate deniers.

But there remains wide support for real action on climate change. The issue ranked as the biggest threat to the country, nominated by 64 per cent of people, in this year’s Lowy Institute poll.

The election result shows most dramatically that climate action at the cost of workers’ jobs and living standards will not win popular support, and only ends up boosting the far right. Taking the issue of workers’ jobs seriously is a life or death issue for the climate movement.

The focus on the Stop Adani campaign without any serious campaign for climate jobs has proven to be a disaster. It led Queensland CFMEU mining division leaders to threaten to campaign against Labor candidates who were not pro-Adani, and saw many of their members vote for the right.

Bob Brown’s Stop Adani convoy—which charged into hostile coal mining areas in north Queensland during the middle of the election campaign—backfired badly.

But the issue of climate change is far from settled. The Liberals still lack an energy policy, and Scott Morrison will be under pressure from big business to revisit this during his new term. On election night retiring Liberal MP Julie Bishop declared that the party needed to re-consider the National Energy Guarantee, the policy it dumped during the push against Malcolm Turnbull. And the broad public awareness for climate action will not go away.

The Liberal Party will continue to be divided over climate. Morrison has pandered to the hard right of the party, and some of them will likely demand that the Liberal government commits to build a new coal-fired power station. 

There has been a call for another global climate strike in September. High school students need to strike again in big numbers and this time there needs to be a concerted mobilisation of unions and workers behind them. The call for mass public investment to create the jobs and the transition we need must be the central focus of ongoing climate campaigning.

Morrison has no mandate or agenda of his own, having spelled out few policies during the campaign beyond his tax cuts for the bosses.

Refugees barely featured in the campaign, with both major parties agreeing on offshore detention and boat turnbacks. Labor’s strategy of emphasising how much it agreed with the Liberals did not stop Labor being defeated. Going quiet is not a strategy. Now the 20 July rallies to mark six years of offshore detention take on an added importance.

The Liberals’ disastrous budget under Tony Abbott in 2014 means Morrison will be cautious, and he also faces the prospect of having to hold together a minority government. But there will now be pressure from big business to further increase the budget surplus through cuts and for new attacks on unions, as the economy slows.

The failure of the union Change the Rules campaign will embolden the bosses. Bosses already have more applications to terminate agreements in the Fair Work Commission. And we face three more years of the anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission police.

The union movement needs to go back to basic organising in the workplaces based on taking strike action to defend wages and conditions. Unions will have to be prepared to break the rules that limit solidarity and strike action by fighting industrially, instead of focusing on elections.

The election is a setback, but this is a government that can be fought.

We need to mobilise against the Liberals’ agenda over the next three years if we want to seriously shift politics and build for action on climate change, get rid of anti-worker and anti-union laws and end inequality by taxing corporations and the rich.


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