While the final results from the 2 July Australian federal election are still to be determined, it looks as if the most likely outcome will either be a hung parliament or a very slender majority for the conservative Liberal/National Coalition. The extremely close result represents a major crisis, not only for the Coalition, but for the entire political establishment.
Going into this election the aim of the incumbent Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was to clear out the crossbench in the Senate. From the point of view of the capitalist class, they were a hindrance to passing the budget cuts and legislation needed to make ordinary people pay for the worsening economic situation.
With the support of the Greens, the government introduced new laws aimed at making it harder for ‘micro parties’ to harvest preferences and get elected. Turnbull then called a Double Dissolution election, where all seats in both houses of parliament were dissolved.
Turnbull begged the public to vote for ‘stability’, playing on people’s fears about the economy. This plan for stability came spectacularly undone, with Turnbull learning the hard way that there are no organisational solutions to political problems.
Most voters are opposed to slashing social services while giving corporations handouts – like Turnbull’s proposal to cut business taxes by $48 billion over ten years. They rejected the status quo irrespective of Turnbull’s parliamentary manoeuvres.
Turnbull portrayed the Labor opposition as incompetent economic managers and claimed that the Coalition would be better placed to provide “jobs and growth”. But apart from vague commentary about focusing on ‘technology’ and ‘innovation’, it was never explained how this would be delivered.
Clearly for the vast bulk of people that suffer from housing stress, high debt levels, and worsening job prospects this sloganeering meant very little. Huge swathes of people decided to rebuke Turnbull, with the Coalition suffering a 3.6% swing against them (a loss of around 15 seats).
While the opposition Labor Party made some gains, these were far from impressive. Labor added less than 2% to their dire 2013 election result, and actually recorded their second lowest primary vote since 1949, at around 35%.
People unashamedly rejected both major parties. In 1990 less than 5% of people voted for minor parties and independents; today that figure sits at around 26%!
Before the election Turnbull only had to deal with an unruly Senate, now he has to grapple with a potential deadlock in both houses. The situation is even more unstable than just a few months ago and his personal authority is significantly diminished.
Labor struggled to make serious inroads throughout the arduous eight week long campaign. For almost the entire election period polls barely changed, showing the two major parties neck and neck. Out of desperation, Labor decided to focus on the issue of Medicare in the final weeks. They claimed that Turnbull wanted to privatise the public health system.
While the Coalition has floated plans to privatise the Medicare payments system, the truth is that both major parties have undermined public healthcare. Labor was actually the first to freeze Medicare rebates, implementing ‘co-payments by stealth’.
Some commentators, including Turnbull himself, have claimed that Labor’s scare campaign had a decisive impact. While perhaps a small section of older people changed their vote on the basis of Labor’s propaganda, the main trend was cynicism of the intentions of both the major parties.
While it would not be accurate to say that people desire instability, in the absence of a major party that genuinely represents the interests of the majority, voters are increasingly using minor parties to act as a check on the pro-business agenda of both the Coalition and Labor.
The social base of the major parties has diminished and never before have they been so out of touch with the electorate. There is a huge opening for a pro-working class alternative to step into the breach. However, the crisis of leadership in the workers’ movement is so pronounced that such opportunities have been consistently lost.
The trade union leaders bear the most responsibility for this situation. They have continued to cravenly support Labor despite having next to no pro-working class policies.
In this election campaign, Labor refused to commit to legislate to protect penalty rates for weekend work, yet union leaders still donated millions of dollars to Labor and mobilised thousands of volunteers to help them win votes.
While the bulk of the union leaders support the old two-party system, ordinary working people are moving in the opposite direction. They are seeking out people and parties that speak to their experiences and many are prepared to take a chance on outsiders. But because of the absence of a broad left alternative, it has mostly been right-wing populist figures filling the vacuum.
Perhaps the main beneficiary of this was the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT), a new micro party created around the right-wing economic nationalist Nick Xenophon. NXT won more than 20% of the vote in South Australia – a state ravaged by job losses in manufacturing and steel.
At the time of writing, they seem to have won three seats in the Senate and one in the lower house. They now have the potential to be powerbrokers along with other right-wing figures, like Jackie Lambie and Derryn Hinch.
The other right-wing formation to get traction was Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Hanson is a well-known racist figure who entered parliament briefly in the 1990s on a platform opposing Asian immigration. Today she has switched to scapegoating Muslim people, but she mostly attracts support because she is seen by some as an opponent of the powers that be.
She taps into anger against the greed of the big banks and the lack of jobs, and has even opposed some privatisation. Like Xenophon, she leans towards economic protectionism. Her support mostly came from economically depressed parts of the country, particularly regional Queensland, suffering high unemployment rates due to the slowdown in mining.
The rise of One Nation is a set-back, giving abhorrent racist ideas a national platform, but also opening up more space for the major parties to continue using a racist divide-and-rule approach to push through their unpopular agenda. Fighting racism goes hand-in-hand with fighting the big business agenda of all those in the parliament. The left needs to convince people of the fact that Hanson’s racism is a tool for the establishment.
Many right-wing populist figures are adept at confusing issues and covering over the real source of the problems we face. Instead of blaming the system that exploits working people from all backgrounds, they instead attempt to scapegoat migrants and other minorities.
It is the two-party duopoly that creates the conditions for the rise of reactionary populist figures, but it is the absence of a left alternative providing real solutions that allows them to thrive.
The Greens pose as a more progressive alternative, but they have been unable to win over big sections of working people. At the same time as ordinary people are moving to break with the mainstream political establishment, the Greens are seeking to become part of it.
Apart from a few inner-city areas, the Greens were unable to tap into the discontent that exists. They instead portrayed themselves as a small mainstream party, a potential ‘responsible’ partner in a Labor/Green government. There was very little enthusiasm for this.
They received around 10% of the national vote, a slight increase on 2013 but still less than their 2010 result. While they comfortably retained the lower house seat of Melbourne, and nearly won the neighbouring seat of Batman, they also lost a Senator in South Australia.
As we have explained before, their reluctance to take up class questions with gusto and their shift away from activism sees them mostly limited to middle class gentrified areas. This is unlikely to change under the leadership of the conservative Richard Di Natale.
What will happen next?
Despite everything, at the moment the Coalition is still favoured by the bulk of the capitalist class. Turnbull will likely cobble some form of government together and attempt to rule, albeit precariously.
This is far from ideal for the capitalists, who were hoping for a parliament that could deliver cuts to social spending in order to pay for company tax cuts and other measures that defended their profits. For them, the need for stability is urgent given the likelihood that Australia may soon enter recession.
Billionaire retailer, Gerry Harvey, expressed frustration at the fact that no major party is able to implement the cuts big business requires. He told one journalist: “Neither side can do anything about it because the minute they do they’re hammered. The only cure we’ve got is to have a dictator like in China or something like that. Our democracy at the moment is not working”.
As economic crisis deepens there will be increasing attempts to subvert democratic norms. Already in Europe we have seen a number of unelected technocratic regimes. Even in the aftermath of the Australian federal election the major parties are considering manoeuvres in the Senate to lock in six year terms for their own candidates while crossbenchers who received higher votes would only get three year terms.
While an immediate new election is unlikely, so fragile is the situation that it is possible that even a Coalition government with a narrow majority will be unable to serve its full term. In the meantime some of the more unpopular budget measures put forward could be blocked by an unruly parliament. The government will be compelled to negotiate on almost every last piece of legislation.
But we should have no faith that the crossbench can be trusted to defend our interests. Every last candidate elected to both houses supports the capitalist system, and will always act to defend it. In the final analysis, this means prioritising profits over the needs of ordinary people.
The social and labour movements need to take advantage of the weak state of the government to push back against the pro-big business agenda. We have to fight against measures that make working people pay for the crisis. In doing this, we must also build a genuine political alternative. Not only would this push back against corporate rule and wealth inequality, but it would check the rise of the right-wing populists and help unite working class people so that we are better placed to fight for our interests.
There is no doubt that this election will be seen as a turning point. A new economic situation is opening up, and this will be mirrored by even deeper levels of political crisis. The discontent that is currently being expressed in the electoral arena is merely a precursor to much more significant struggles that will take place in the coming period.