By securing the support of Greens MP Adam Bandt and key ex-National independents Julia Gillard has held on to power—but only just. The fact that we have come so close to an Abbott government is a stark warning. As she lost the seat of Bennelong, Maxine McKew summed up Labor’s problem—compared to 2007, she said, Labor stood for nothing. Abbott’s ideas only got a hearing because Labor moved so far right, accepting much of the Liberals’ agenda.
They declared climate change the greatest moral challenge of our time—then dropped it—and a million people walked away from Labor in the space of two weeks.
After removing Rudd, Gillard dragged Labor even further rightwards—capitulating to the mining bosses, delaying action on climate change, and most shamefully competing with Abbott about which party would more effectively stop asylum boats. Instead of junking all of Howard’s anti-refugee policies, Labor kept Christmas Island and offshore processing. Instead of countering Abbott’s racist scare-mongering about boat arrivals, Labor gave in.
But there is no sign at all that Labor has learned anything from the near-death experience. Far from being the most left-wing government we have ever seen, it will likely be even more conservative than the last one.
The bright side of the election is the fact that most of the swing against Labor went to The Greens. Adam Bandt was elected to the House of Representatives and there will be nine Greens with the balance of power in the Senate after June 2011.
Greens support was decisive in putting Labor back into government—but there is a huge challenge ahead. Firstly, for them to stick to their principles and not get sucked into settling for minor improvements to Labor’s right-wing agenda. The focus on establishing a carbon price is an example of this danger.
Secondly, the focus on parliamentary reform will have little impact (see p11). The Greens’ balance of power in the Senate will only mean anything if Labor and Liberal are unable or unwilling to do a deal. Even if private members bills on same sex marriage or asylum seekers get two hours’ debate, the bill can sink just as easily as Greens amendments in the past.
Even conscience votes won’t deliver majorities for any particular bill. The risk is that The Greens will be dragged to the right by a Labor government that also relies on the rural independents. Another three years of timid, “responsible” government will damage both Labor and The Greens and risk seeing more people voting informal or shifting to the Liberals at the next election. If Labor is going to be turned left, Greens MPs, Senators, Greens members and supporters will need to be focussed on a lot more than private members bills or maintaining stability in the parliament.
Don’t wait for Labor
Over the next three years Gillard’s government will have to negotiate every piece of legislation with the independents—who have promised only to pass the budget and block no confidence motions. Some have celebrated this as a break with “the two party system”.
But while the independents may have good positions on refugees and climate change they are far from being progressive (see p7). And their power, along with that of The Greens member in the lower house, is limited. They cannot force Gillard to agree to progressive legislation her government does not support—on climate, union rights, refugee rights, same sex marriage or the NT Intervention.
The Labor government can still pursue some policies like offshore processing without passing new legislation. Real pressure on Labor to shift will only come from outside parliament.
At times over the last three years the movements have sold themselves short. The unions played a major role in ousting Howard, but then waited for the Labor government to change his IR laws. But it left Howard’s anti-union Construction Commission, the ABCC, in place. A national strike when Ark Tribe is back in court on September 13 could help kill off the ABCC and set an agenda for real change.
The climate movement’s support for Labor introducing a market-driven Emissions Trading Scheme or some form of a price on carbon disarmed it. Supporting a Greens-backed carbon price will also lead nowhere. Only a movement that sides with workers to oppose electricity price rises and is willing to challenge the power of the carbon polluters can win real change.
The refugee movement faces a real fight against offshore processing, but the thousands who marched for refugees in the lead up to the election are a base on which to re-build the campaign (see p12). The racist Northern Territory Intervention remains in place with plans to extend welfare quarantining. But the active campaign by the Intervention Roll back Action Group won substantial swings to The Greens in remote Aboriginal communities (see p9).
The Greens’ vote shows there is a substantial left base to help the unions and the campaigns to build. But the demands of the movements are only going to be settled by the power of workers not the power of parliament.