Election blunder for Australia’s conservatives

July 8, 2016

With the votes still being counted from last week's Australian elections as this article was being written, neither the conservative Liberal/National coalition nor the center-left Australian Labor Party (ALP) reached a governing majority in either chamber of the country's parliament. Whatever the final outcome, the results weren't what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull planned when he called for a "double dissolution" election--a procedure in which all of Australia's Senate and House of Representatives seats are put to a vote in a single election. Turnbull is the leader of the center-right Liberal Party, which has been governing in coalition with the National Party, whose strongholds are in rural Australia.

In an article for the Australian socialist newspaper Red Flag, Tom Bramble looks at the reasons why Australian voters surprised Turnbull and his big business backers.

THE FEDERAL election result is a disaster for Malcolm Turnbull and bad news for the Australian ruling class, which had hoped that a decisive Coalition victory would open the way for renewed attacks on the working class.

The best that the Coalition can hope for is a wafer-thin majority; at worst, it could lose government. Either way, its troubles have only just begun. It is weak and discredited, and riven with internal disputes. With a majority of two or thereabouts at best, its hold on the floor of parliament would be fragile. It would be at risk of losing government as soon as any MP crosses the floor, absents themselves from parliament, quits or dies in office.

And given the seething discontent within Coalition ranks, with a large minority of right-wingers looking for an opportunity to put the boot into the prime minister now that he has failed in the task that he was set--saving seats for the backbenchers--the scene is set for ongoing instability and strife. Even the Nationals, who, unlike the rest of the Coalition, increased their vote, are likely to be making more demands on their Liberal partners.

Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull
Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

MALCOLM TURNBULL would not have been the only person fretting on election night. Big business welcomed the Coalition's decisive defeat of the Labor government in 2013. They saw it as an opportunity to press ahead with further attacks on the working class and the intensification of the neoliberal agenda.

They had worried that [former Liberal Prime Minister] John Howard, in his later years in office, had taken his foot off the gas. Dealing with the global financial crisis had restricted their room to move during the first Kevin Rudd [a former ALP prime minister] government, and the subsequent ALP internal dysfunction limited Labor's capacity to take up the baton of economic "reform".

And so, with Labor losing 17 seats at the 2013 election and Tony Abbott sweeping to power on a two-party swing of 3.6 percent, the ruling class sensed an opportunity to make gains.

It was not that Australian workers had suddenly become converts to the business agenda in 2013. Tony Abbott was savvy enough to understand that, had he stood on the agenda set out for him by the Business Council, the public might have held their noses and voted Labor back into office.

And the memory of the Howard government getting its arse kicked over WorkChoices in 2007 was still fresh in the minds of the Coalition strategists. Abbott sought to reassure voters, promising, "No cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST, and no cuts to the ABC or SBS."

But within a month or two of taking office, the mask came off and the real agenda of the Abbott government was revealed--attacks on health and education, attacks on workers' rights and attacks on social security.

Support for the government quickly fell. When Treasurer Joe Hockey released the most vicious budget since the Great Depression in May 2014, accompanied by all the class war rhetoric of "leaners and lifters" and ending the "age of entitlement," the government slumped further, never to recover.

The Abbott government limped through the rest of 2014 and into 2015 with the backlash against its first budget limiting its room to maneuver. All the grand plans for a serious push against the working class had to be shelved.

Under Abbott, the Coalition looked to be marching towards certain defeat at the 2016 federal election. Putting aside their dislike for Turnbull, the Liberal party room decided to dump Abbott last September. Liberal MPs reasoned that a new leader would give the government a fresh face and might just save their seats.

Big business also backed Turnbull over Abbott because they thought he would be a better salesman for their cause--tax concessions for business and the rich, attacks on the trade unions and cuts to social welfare.

They could see that Abbott had been irretrievably damaged, and looked to Turnbull as the suave and persuasive alternative, someone who could revive their anti-working class agenda. He was, after all, one of their own, a former investment banker with a personal fortune of $200 million.

But it didn't pan out like that. The working class could sniff out Turnbull pretty quickly, and his initially sky-high opinion polling rapidly went south as soon as he started to talk about a Goods and Services Tax (GST) hike and pulling federal funding from health and education. Facing an immediate public backlash against his regressive proposals, Turnbull had to pull back.

Those blind to his reactionary economic agenda but willing to give Turnbull a chance to move on issues like marriage equality and asylum-seekers quickly became disillusioned. Facing constant pressure on his right flank from the Abbott camp, Turnbull quickly established that his right-wing economic policies were matched by conservative social policies as well. Marriage equality was delayed with the plebiscite, and asylum-seekers were left to rot on Nauru and Manus Island.

THE DOUBLE dissolution was meant to break the logjam and reset the agenda. Turnbull seemingly had it all in place. The double dissolution would clear out the obstructive independents from the Senate, and the Coalition would sail to victory on the back of tax cuts for small business and the public's bad memories of the Labor governments of Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Once in office, Turnbull could set about handing over $50 billion in tax cuts to business, busting the construction unions, leaning on the Fair Work Commission to scrap penalty rates, salami-slicing Medicare and hiking university fees.

On this basis, all the media outlets, Fairfax and Murdoch alike, backed the Coalition for another term in office. They saw the election as a chance for Turnbull to put his stamp on the government and to win a mandate.

Most of all, the media, the business lobby groups and the CEOs of the top companies demanded stability. Fed up with the wrangling in the Senate, they wanted a government that could deliver, preferably the Coalition, but they could live with the ALP as well.

Stability is the very thing that is now missing. Good. Stability would mean a ruling class offensive. Instability will hamper its efforts to smack the working class. Stability would mean a Coalition government on the warpath. Instability means a government on edge, frightened of its own shadow.

The election result is a repudiation of Turnbull's $50 billion tax cuts to big business and his unashamed agenda of ruling for the rich. It turns out that you can't put lipstick on a pig. For all that the Coalition goes on about the chaos of the Rudd and Gillard years, the government has just suffered the second-largest swing against it of any first-term government in the postwar period, bested only by John Howard in 1998.

An actual loss of government would be the first time that a first-term government has suffered that ignominy since the Great Depression.

THE CALAMITOUS result for Turnbull has unleashed a war among the right, which has been brewing since Abbott was deposed last year. Andrew Bolt, the standard bearer for Australian Trumpism, led the way with a scathing attack on Turnbull.

"Malcolm," Bolt wrote, "you assassinated a Liberal prime minister, Tony Abbott, who'd won an election by a huge margin...You treated the Liberal base like dirt, smashing it with a huge super tax, refusing to speak to conservative journalists, repeatedly humiliating Abbott. You have been a disaster. You...led the party to humiliation, stripped of both values and honor. Resign."

Other right-wingers quickly followed. Columnist Terry McCrann wrote: "One thing is absolutely clear: Malcolm Turnbull has crafted a Triple-A disaster--for himself, for the Liberal Party and, most of all, for the country".

Peta Credlin, Abbott's former chief of staff, predicted that "his own party is more likely to junk him than its principles, even if it means losing office--so I expect a [ALP leader Bill] Shorten prime ministership to be the most likely outcome of a hung parliament."

Cory Bernardi and Eric Abetz on the party's conservative far right have already made statements indicating they are out for blood. They both reflect and inflame outrage among the Liberal base about the ousting of Abbott last year. Right-wing talkback callers on Melbourne's 3AW on Sunday morning fumed at the "treacherous" Turnbull and echoed Bolt's demand that he go.

While some right-wingers reluctantly voted for the supposedly liberal Turnbull, many instead voted for Pauline Hanson's One Nation, which stands to pick up at least one and as many as four Senate seats. The return of Hanson to the parliament, her vile anti-Asian hate now updated to target Muslims, will significantly amplify the voice of the far right in Australian politics at just the time that the right is seething over the failed Turnbull government.

Turnbull now leads a parliamentary team more divided than ever. On the table are two issues that are immediately going to set the prime minister at odds with others if he remains prime minister. The marriage equality plebiscite will bring out all the Coalition's troglodytes, confident now that they can push Turnbull back and itching for an opportunity to humiliate their leader. More importantly, unpopular budget measures still have to get through the Senate; there is little prospect of an easy path.

In these circumstances, it is difficult to see how Turnbull can last long as party leader. But it is equally difficult to see how any Coalition leader can put together a government that could re-launch the aggressive neoliberal agenda enshrined in the 2014 budget.

The Coalition has no mandate to press ahead with attacks on the construction unions. It has no mandate to carve up Medicare. It has no mandate to cut penalty rates or attack the unemployed. The ground is cracking beneath its feet. And within its ranks there is bitter feuding.

A WEAK and divided government presents the labor movement with an opportunity to push back. Just waiting for Labor to stumble into office on the ruins of this Coalition debacle is not the way forward. It's worth noting that the ALP picked up only half the votes dropped by the Coalition, and its share of the primary vote is nothing to write home about.

Years of pursuing right-wing economic policies have taken their toll on the Labor Party as well. We need to use Turnbull's humiliation to organize our own ranks.

Whether or not the Coalition hangs on, whether or not we are headed for fresh elections in coming months, the only guarantee that we have for defending our rights, our conditions and our jobs is to begin to rebuild our strength in the workplaces, on the campuses and on the streets.

This is not a hopeless task, even though our side has not waged a serious fight for many years. Not for nothing did Bill Shorten thank "the mighty trade union movement of Australia" on election night. This movement has been put at the service of the ALP's electoral push this year.

We should now seize the opportunity presented by instability in the ranks of the enemy to prepare our forces and to fight, whether that be against job losses or wage cuts, whether it be against attacks on health and education, whether it be around marriage equality, asylum seekers or $100,000 university degrees.

Fighting on these fronts means not just strikes and demonstrations, but building a bigger left that can wage this fight with the vigor and determination needed to carry new struggles to victory.

First published at Red Flag.

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