Labor slumps but there’s no mandate for Abbott

As she lost the seat of Bennelong, Maxine McKew summed up Labor’s crisis: compared to 2007, she said, Labor stood for nothing.

Kevin Rudd was removed as Labor’s poll rating crashed. But Julia Gillard dragged Labor even further to the right – capitulating to the mining bosses and lowering company tax, delaying action on climate change, and, most shamefully, competing with Abbott about which party would more effectively stop the asylum boats. It will take a deliberate effort to undo the damage done by Liberal and Labor’s race to the bottom.

While Abbott tried to cover up the worst elements of Liberal policy, nobody believes that WorkChoices is “dead, buried and cremated.” Abbott’s rise and the extra Liberal seats in parliament have increased the confidence of the right wing.

However, there were two bright spots to an otherwise disastrous federal election. One is the end of Wilson Tuckey, the racist Western Australian National Party bovver boy. The other is the increased vote for the Greens. The Greens have their first member in the House of Representatives and will have around nine Senators and the balance of power in the Senate after June 2011.

The election was not a vote for Tony Abbott – the Coalition received only 1.8 per cent of the 5.4 per cent swing against the Labor government.

The election was a massive protest against the record of the Federal, and in the case of Queensland and NSW, state Labor governments.

It is still too early to say which party will actually form government, but the hope must be – despite the pathetic do-nothing (and worse) policies of Gillard – that Labor will form a minority government with the support of the one Green member and other independents.

There is a danger that the Labor leadership will draw even more right wing conclusions from its disastrous election showing.

But Abbott has no mandate for his refugee bashing, climate change denial, or his anti-union policies. A majority of people voted for Labor and the Greens. If by some quirk of the parliamentary negotiations Abbott becomes Prime Minister, we will have to fight him even harder than we fought John Howard.

Labor’s policies to blame

One thing should be obvious – it has been Labor’s policies that have opened the door to Abbott. Having declared climate change to be the greatest moral challenge of our times and there being massive popular support for radical action by Labor – first Rudd then Gillard showed they did not have the courage of their convictions. A million people walked away from Labor in the space of two weeks.

On refugees, Rudd’s “tough but humane” attitude was in fact code for being tough on asylum seekers. Instead of junking all of Howard’s anti-refugee policies, Labor kept Christmas Island detention and off-shore processing. Instead of countering Abbott’s racist scaremongering about boat arrivals, Rudd gave in.

In October 2009, Rudd pushed for an Indonesian Solution in which the Indonesian navy would “stop the boats” and the Indonesian government would detain asylum seekers in Australia-built detention centres. Then Labor froze the visa applications of Sri Lankan and Afghan asylum seekers, and re-opened Curtin detention centre.

The anti-refugee agenda has been driven from the top, not by concerns in the wider community.

Gillard dragged Labor even further to the right. She gave into the mining bosses. She pushed even harder against refugees. She continued to stall on taking action to stop climate change. Many Labor members and supporters were even more disgusted.

Some Greens have been carried away by their relative success  – and while that success is welcome, the overall election result is nothing to cheer about. Some people have celebrated a hung parliament as a blow to two-party control– but there is nothing progressive about extra Liberal MPs in Parliament.

Not all Green preferences went to Labor, and Tony Abbott may yet form a government. The election results are a warning. Real change is not going to come through Parliament.

The Greens’ balance of power in the Senate will only mean anything if Labor and Liberal are unable or unwilling to do a deal. It would be a mistake to think that one Greens MP is going to dictate policy to a Labor government that will likely be even more conservative that the last one.

Australia may not have gone into recession, but the global financial crisis has left workers and their families worse off. Wages have fallen behind the cost of living. Australia will not be immune to another round of global instability. Abbott has promised to make savage cuts to government spending to cut the deficit, while Labor is also determined to manage capitalism and put the Budget back in surplus by 2013.

Don’t wait for Labor
There is another lesson from the election results – we can’t rely, and we shouldn’t wait, for Labor. With its mass demonstrations and the campaign against WorkChoices, the union movement played a major role in ousting Howard. But then the union leaders waited for the Labor government to change the laws.

But Labor left Howard’s anti-union Building Task Force in place. Unions have faced record fines for taking industrial action, and union members have faced the threat of jail for defying the dictatorial powers of the Task Force. Fair Work Australia laws still maintain enterprise bargaining, deny the right to strike and limit the right of entry.

Ark Tribe, a South Australian unionist, is back in court in September. The construction unions have said that they will launch a national strike if Ark is jailed. Let’s hope so. It will take an industrial campaign, not just to keep Ark out of jail but to defeat the anti-union laws.

The climate movement put its hopes in Labor introducing a market –driven Emissions Trading Scheme or some form of a price on carbon. When Labor reneged, the climate movement was left paralysed. Gillard’s “Cash for Clunkers” scheme is not going to stop climate change, any more than her “citizens’ assembly”.  It is an insult to the movement. To force real action, we need to build a movement that looks to the streets and workplaces to win direct government funding for renewable energy and public transport.

The refugee movement faces a real fight against off-shore processing – whether that’s Nauru, East Timor or Christmas Island. A grassroots campaign forced major changes to detention even under Howard – we will need to mobilise to do that again. Hundreds of Afghan asylum seekers are still affected by Labor’s visa freeze and women and children are back behind barbed wire and locked gates.

Thousands of people rallied and marched for refugees in the lead up to the election. There is a solid base to build the campaign for refugee rights.

The racist Northern Territory Intervention remains in place with plans to extend welfare quarantining and to destroy the jobs and lives of even more Aboriginal people. The No Intervention Greens campaign won a clear majority in remote Aboriginal communities, while the grassroots campaign of the Intervention Rollback Action Group has won more supporters.

The election has not settled any of the issues that really matter. The future of climate action, refugee rights and union rights is going to be settled in the parliament of the streets. We can’t wait for Labor and we can’t wait another three years.


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