Labor and the ‘national interest’

Julia Gillard’s Labor government has pledged itself to govern in the “national interest”. Amy Thomas looks at what this really means


At the end of the post-election shemozzle that gave us a minority Labor government, a relieved Julia Gillard declared that Labor “was ready to govern” in “the national interest”. And she thanked independent MP Andrew Wilkie “for bearing in mind at all stages the national interest.”
Labor ministers have repeated the term ad nauseum—the war in Afghanistan is in the “national interest”, the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the MySchool web site are too; even a price on carbon is justified in the same way. Even Greens MP Adam Bandt, after striking a deal with Gillard, declared, “Labor and The Greens would deliver… in the national interest.”
But what exactly does it mean?
In her acceptance speech, Gillard’s “national interest” appeals went along with her constant reassurances that Labor was ready to be a “responsible”, “stable”, “effective” and “secure” government. In the weeks beforehand, the mainstream media was full of concern that a minority Labor government, under influence from The Greens, might not be capable of delivering the policies that Australian business wanted.
There was even a brief dive in the value of the dollar, reflecting the big end of town’s concerns that Labor might shift left after taking a walloping from The Greens.
An editorial in The Australian complained of the threat to the neo-liberal consensus: “Securing contested legislation will become a nightmare. The political logic of this result will undermine pro-market reform and promote government intervention.”
Gillard was anxious to reassure them that nothing of the kind was in store. She pledged to work as closely as possible with the Coalition to find common ground in—you guessed it—“the national interest”.
But the problem with the idea that there is a shared “national interest” is that it obscures a simple reality—Australian society is divided by class. A millionaire CEO lives in a completely different world to that of a working class family struggling with the bills and mortgage payments.
Invoking the idea of a common “national interest” obscures class divisions and promotes the idea that all Australians have a common interest.
Labor, despite the fact that it emerged as a party to represent the working class, has always refused to defend working class interests when in power, and declared itself committed to “the nation”.
Yet appeals to the “national interest” are always appeals to the working class to accept attacks on their living standards or the logic of Australian military intervention overseas. The “national interest” is code for the interests of corporations and the rich.

Whose interest?
Australian capitalism is dominated by a very small section of society. The bosses and CEOs who run the factories, offices, mines and big business are the people who make most of the real decisions about our economy.
They have enormous power to decide what is produced and where, who will have jobs and who will be condemned to poverty. Telstra has just sacked 950 workers, following the sacking of 800 in 2008. The workers at Telstra had no say in the sackings.
When Rudd tried to introduce a tax on the mining companies last year, unelected business leaders like Andrew Forrest and Clive Palmer went into overdrive to beat the legislation. The Australian ran an editorial declaring that a softer mining tax was “in the national interest”. Michael Chaney, Chairman of NAB, declared that, “the [resource] super-profits tax…is clearly, in our view, against the national interest”. But this was as clear case as any of the mining companies looking out for their own interests, in trying to avoid paying higher tax.
Gillard, worried about a confrontation with the mining companies, declared the door “wide open” to them and has since watered down the tax substantially.
When the global economic crisis began, the Labor government backed up big business, calling on everyone to “tighten their belts” to deal with the crisis. But they were forcing workers, not business, to take the hit.
In an interview in 2009, Gillard claimed that Labor’s industrial relations policies had been pursued in “the national interest”. In fact research in The Sydney Morning Herald showed that workers in Western Sydney took an effective wage cut in 2007-2008 when considered against the increased cost of consumer goods.
Yet Australia’s top 100 companies increased their wealth twice as fast as workers between 1993 and 2009. A typical Australian CEO finishes the working week with a salary 100 times that of the average worker, according to the Australian Council of Trade Unions.
More recently, Gillard has held back the Australian Services Union’s push for equal pay for women workers in community sector. Gillard has complained it will cost $4 billion for equal pay to be introduced. Meanwhile, Labor has stood by while the outrage at the banks’ naked profiteering brews across society. The profits of one bank, ANZ, were $4.2 billion last year—enough to cover the equal pay claim. But Labor is not asking them to take any cut in their profits.
Labor has even been prepared to go on the offensive against the unions to defend the “national interest”. Gillard has again and again reminded us of her achievement in staring down the teachers over their threatened ban on administering the NAPLAN tests. As a minister under Rudd, she wrote to the Australian Education Union to tell them she would not change course because: “The Rudd government determines its education policy in the national interest”.
Labor Prime Ministers in the past have even gone so far as to send the military in to break strikes. Ben Chifley broke the 1949 coal strike that way and Bob Hawke did the same to the 1989 pilot’s strike.
The Scullin Labor government came to office at the start of the Depression in 1929. Their contribution to the Labor tradition was to inflict massive wages and pension cuts so that the government could pay its debt to the banks.
As one observer recorded: “Reductions in old-age pensions, soldiers’ pensions, and similar social benefits was a fatal program for a Labor government… but Mr Scullin, long since surrendered to the idea of ‘saving the nation’, at all hazards, barely hesistated.” Again, savage attacks on workers were apparently necessary to the interests of “the nation”.
But one of his own ministers let the truth slip, giving voice to the anger of millions when he declared that, “This Labor government has outraged every principle it was sworn to preserve and has been false to the class that had given it life”.
The offshoot of protecting Australian profits at home is protecting them abroad, often down the barrel of a gun. Governments, Labor or Liberal, will go to war to protect the “national interest”—in fact that is exactly why Foreign Minister Stephen Smith says we are in Afghanistan. Australia’s alliance with the US helps Australia dominate the Asia-Pacific region. Controlling trade routes, making deals for Australian companies, and locking out rivals is a necessity for the Australian state. As well as troops fighting a US war of domination in Afghanistan, the government has troops in East Timor, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, the Solomon Islands and Sudan. In the last three years, the military has also spent time intervening in Samoa, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
Military spending is phenomenal—Greg Combet, when he was Minister for Defence Personnel, boasted that, “over the 2010-11 budget year and three forward estimates years, we will have committed to $122.7 billion to the defence of the nation.” Spending like that could build enough solar thermal and wind power to totally transition to renewable energy. But for Labor, defending the nation’s rich comes before the safety of the climate.

State power
The state, too, helps defend the interests of big business and pass it off as the “national interest”. Parliament itself is not the only element of the state—it also consists of an enormous public service bureaucracy, the police, army and the courts, whose judges and top managers are never elected. But they have enormous political power and are prepared to use it.
This year the Treasury’s “Red Book” of financial advice urged the Gillard government to, “take further steps to strengthen the structural position of the budget”, or rather, cut back welfare benefits and public spending on services. Obediently, Wayne Swan has begun preparing the ground for budget cuts next year—“we will make the right decisions, in the national interest”.
Government departments can also pursue their own interests with little interference from parliament. The Immigration department recently took it upon itself to advise the conservative Canadian government how to implement Howard-style Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) for asylum seekers, even though the federal government has abolished TPVs here.
Marx wrote in 1871 that as capitalism developed and the class antagonism between capital and labour grew, that, “state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of a public force organised for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism.”
He and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, “…the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of modern industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative state, exclusive political sway. The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”
The “national interest” is a fiction—a code word for the interests of capitalism. Our elected misrepresentatives are at best hopeless and at worst, an enthusiastic participant in our exploitation. The fight for equal pay, for an end to the ABCC, for an end to the Intervention—means taking on the bosses and a Labor government which is prepared to do their dirty work. Let the fight begin.


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