Malcolm Turnbull is floundering. His lead in the polls has disappeared as he hesitates about tax changes, the budget, and when best to call the election.
The Liberals can be beaten. Their “rule for the rich” agenda is deeply unpopular, as we saw in the response to Abbott’s horror 2014 budget and Turnbull’s cuts to Medicare pathology payments in December.
The scale of the protests to let the 267 asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus Island stay in Australia has seen the government retreat on sending them back to offshore detention.
But instead of building the kind of united left fightback that could put Turnbull on the ropes, The Greens, Labor and the ACTU have collapsed into mutual recriminations over Senate voting reforms and the consequences for the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) legislation.
Turnbull is telling the cross-bench Senators to support the reintroduction of the ABCC or face a double dissolution election—where most of them would lose their seats.
The ACTU should be leading a fight against the ABCC—The Australian is bragging about the trumped-up charges against 100 CFMEU officials and delegates, including Victorian CFMEU officials, John Setka and Sean Reardon.
There should be strikes and rallies and the rebuilding of a “Your Rights At Work” campaign to kill off Turnbull’s attempt to resurrect the ABCC. Instead the ACTU has initiated robo-calls to campaign against The Greens and the Senate voting reforms; calls which don’t even mention the ABCC. The claim that The Greens have done a deal over Senate voting reforms that will hand control of the Senate to the Liberals is not true.
The ACTU’s focus on a Senate lobbying strategy, rather than struggle, has reduced them to being propagandists for the Labor Party. As a result awareness and activism around the ABCC is low, when it should be front and centre.
For their part, The Greens are at a critical juncture and have done themselves no favours.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale is pioneering a path towards electoral respectability and pragmatism. The Greens’ agreement with Turnbull over Senate voting reforms embodies this approach. In order to get reforms that increase the chance of The Greens holding the balance of power in the Senate, they have given Turnbull a gun to hold against the heads of the current cross-benchers.
The Greens’ deal with Turnbull over Senate reform comes on top of Di Natale’s much-quoted “never say never” comment about forming government with the Liberals, his refusal to advocate preferencing Labor over the Liberals, and media speculation about the Liberals preferencing The Greens in Victoria. The combination is bleeding the support The Greens have won among union members and working class people.
While The Greens may be formally right to support the voting reforms, the reforms are insignificant compared to the risk of the reintroduction of the ABCC.
The Greens should have been prepared to sacrifice Senate reform in this term to make it clear that stopping the ABCC was their first priority. The ABCC is literally a life and death issue for construction workers and The Greens needed to show that class interests come before their self-interest to hold the balance of power in the Senate.
The Greens are the most consistent opponents of the Liberals’ agenda in parliament, but this isn’t enough. They need to make it beyond doubt that a Greens vote is anti-Liberal. That also means adopting a national policy of swapping preferences with Labor in every seat.
The Greens manoeuvring over the Senate reforms has seriously damaged their relations with the unions. Now the Senate voting reforms have been carried, the focus will shift to a possible double dissolution election and the fight against the ABCC.
Whether or not there is a double dissolution, we already know what Turnbull stands for. Parliament will sit again for the May budget. Turnbull might try to push the ABCC legislation through then.
Instead of playing parliamentary games, the ACTU should be calling the demonstrations we need. The Greens should be willing to throw their weight in with the unions to lead the rallies to pressure the cross-benchers to hold the line and oppose the ABCC. They should be pledging their support for industrial action that has the real power to stop anti-union laws.
The struggle that can beat Turnbull is not in parliament. Instead of in-fighting we need to unite to shift politics back to the left. The mobilisation at the Lady Cilento hospital to defend baby Asha saw hundreds of people stand vigil at the hospital, backed by the Queensland unions to oppose the return of the refugee family to Nauru. United protests to defend Medicare in February took the fight to Turnbull.
Federal public sector workers need all our support as they continue their campaign of strike action against Turnbull’s cuts to jobs, pay and conditions. This is the kind of action that can defend our rights and give us the best chance of knocking the Liberals out at the election.