19 May 2016
by Corey Oakley

An election that raises real issues but presents few real alternatives

If there was one thing the Liberal government didn’t want, it was an election dominated by the politics of class and wealth inequality.

That’s the reason the 2016 budget abandoned the language of “ending the age of entitlement” and “lifters versus leaners”, opting instead for the inoffensive sounding “jobs and growth”. It’s why the Liberals tried to hide the truth about their $50 billion of corporate tax cuts and agreed to minor cuts to superannuation concessions for the super-wealthy. It’s why, faced with Labor’s demand for a royal commission into the Liberals’ banker mates, the government announced expanded powers for ASIC and trumpeted (unconvincingly) its determination to clean up the banking sector.

Unfortunately for Turnbull, truth, on occasion, will come out.

Not only has Labor shown an unusual willingness to denounce the budget for what it was – a series of handouts to the rich that do nothing for the vast bulk of Australians – but the government’s problems were exacerbated by its over-eager friends in the Murdoch press, who leapt on Labor’s response, loudly accusing Bill Shorten (of all people!) of waging a “class war” against the rich.

If anything were guaranteed to improve Labor’s position, this was it.

Things got even worse for Turnbull with the rise to sudden fame of Duncan Storrar, the minimum wage worker who asked on Q&A why the wealthy were getting tax cuts they wouldn’t even notice while he couldn’t afford to take his kids to the movies. In less than a minute he tore away all the self-congratulatory bullshit with which industry bosses and their Liberal stooges cover their policies, and left the Liberal member for Kooyong, Kelly O’Dwyer, babbling hopelessly about the virtues of giving away $6,000 toasters to cafe owners in her leafy eastern suburbs electorate.

The problem for the Liberals is that even though their focus groups tell them everything they need to know about the inadvisability of seeming too close to the banks, or too uncomprehending of the lives of people born without a silver spoon up their nose, they just can’t keep up the pretence.

In the first leadership debate, Turnbull, in the course of a single answer, went from appearing to sympathise with popular opposition to the banks to expressing horror at Bill Shorten for, according to Turnbull, wanting to put all bankers in the dock. The response from the audience indicated the only place they’d consider more appropriate to put banking CEOs would be the gallows.

The Liberals are in a bind. In the past, their go-to in situations like this has been to whip up a scare about refugees or terrorism. We can expect they will try this at some point in the campaign. But Turnbull is badly positioned to carry out such a manoeuvre. For one thing, Tony Abbott has somewhat poisoned the ground. Even many people who agree with the Liberals’ racist policies on refugees could start to see what the game was about when Abbott, in his final days, answered every question about the economy or health policy with the declaration that he had “stopped the boats”.

Added to that, Turnbull is widely perceived not to really believe in the Liberals’ reactionary social policies. He is unconvincing as a hard-right warrior defending the borders from Muslim hordes. That hasn’t stopped him from presiding over the murderous detention regime on Manus Island and Nauru, or continuing down the road towards a police state in the name of “anti-terrorism”, but it does make him ineffective in diverting attention from the fact that the Liberal Party is continuing to screw most of the population in the interests of the super-rich.

None of this, though, means that Labor will coast to victory, or even win the election. The core reason for this is that the ALP, in spite of its markedly more leftist positioning over the past six months, is still incapable of inspiring much enthusiasm.

It is clear that Labor’s recent rhetoric against the banks and the super-wealthy is connected to an international phenomenon – increasing public opposition to the politics of neoliberal austerity, and the rise of left-populists such as Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK Labour Party. Bill Shorten, in his first media appearance of the election campaign, even invoked the idea of the “1 percent” made famous by the 2011 Occupy movement.

But there is a big difference between Shorten’s ALP and the radical-reformist movements that have sprung up internationally. Corbyn and Sanders (like Syriza in Greece before them) emerged in opposition to the existing social democratic or liberal leaderships. The politics which these new movements are defined against – the Blairites in Britain and the Clinton-dominated Democratic Party in the US – were fierce and long-time advocates of privatisations, cutbacks in government spending and free trade. With the onset of the global economic crisis in 2008, they embraced the policies of savage austerity that have decimated working class living standards and ruined millions of lives.

In Australia, Labor was just as complicit in the development of the neoliberal order. Indeed, it was a Labor government, under Hawke and then Keating, which in the 1980s implemented vicious changes equivalent to those infamously presided over by Thatcher and Reagan internationally.

But in 2008, the peculiarities of the Australian economy, in particular its partial insulation from the global economic crisis courtesy of the mining boom, meant that the Labor government, even though it was led by a self-declared “economic conservative”, Kevin Rudd, was able to avoid the implementation of a harsh austerity agenda and responded to the global crisis with a Keynesian-style program of government spending to offset the economic downturn.

Labor thus avoided the sharp schism experienced by similar parties overseas. And the bitter public opposition to the 2014 austerity budget that led to the downfall of Abbott, combined with the examples of the popularity of populist left rhetoric overseas, has convinced the previously died-in-the-wool advocates of right wing economic policy in the Labor leadership that there is considerable utility in shifting to the left on economic policy, in rhetoric if not (for the most part) in substance.

This has had some interesting consequences – notably that the “anti-rich” rhetoric of Labor, such as it is, has been led by such unlikely figures as notoriously employer-friendly former union official Shorten and doyens of the corrupt and virulently anti-leftist NSW Right such as Sam Dastyari.

But it has also meant that Labor’s populist rhetoric has not gone much beyond fairly banal motherhood statements. More importantly, it is driven by cynical electoral calculations, not a new radical movement drawing in people who want to see a radical change in Labor policy or a serious alternative to the status quo.

Added to that is the fact that Shorten’s mild left turn follows on from several decades of Labor pursuing policies that have profoundly disillusioned its working class and left wing base. A few half-decent statements are not going to turn that around, particularly when Labor remains in lock-step with the government’s reactionary agenda on issues of race, border protection, national security and war.

So although the political shock waves that have rocked much of the world are no longer unfelt in Australia, we still have nothing like the kind of galvanising movement of opposition to a system run for the rich that has caused such significant ruptures internationally.

A reflection of this is that, aside from the perennially hysterical Murdoch press, the business and media elites have not yet found it necessary to intervene heavily against Labor in this election campaign.

Whatever the Daily Telegraph might say, the people who own Australia are not seriously concerned about the possibility of the Liberals being turfed out. They know that whatever he says on the campaign trail, Bill Shorten has their back.

The Greens, who are mounting a serious challenge to Labor in a number of inner-city seats and provide an alternative political home to many who are justifiably infuriated by Labor’s reactionary policies on refugees and other social issues, nonetheless show no sign of cohering the kind of class-based radical political movement that has emerged in a number of places overseas.

Their political posture is increasingly that of the concerned middle class – people who just want rational policies on social and environmental issues rather than the belligerent medievalism on offer from the major parties, and whose concern over inequality more resembles a spirit of Christian charity to the benighted poor than any notion that the many need to rise up against the economic dictatorship of the few.

The fact that the politics of class has risen to its rightful place at the centre of Australian politics is something to be celebrated. But if this is to result in more than the public shaming of a few representatives of industry and the satisfying ejection of a decrepit Liberal government, we need a political alternative that presents a much more thoroughgoing critique of the status quo, and a genuinely radical strategy for transforming Australian society.