The result has openened up the country to more discussion of policies beyond neo-liberalism which is the official ideology of both Labor and the Coalition. In economics, the Greens are social democrats and supporters of public intervention. The independents are “statist” in their approach, so much so that the Murdoch press calls them disparagingly – but not entirely inaccurately – “agrarian socialists”. This election result has moved us beyond the two-parties, one-choice system. For the moment, neo-liberalism is no longer the unchallenged received wisdom.
To return to the opening claim that this is the optimal government available. The Greens and the independents are in advance of Labor on three key issues – refugees, climate change and the war on Afghanistan. The Greens and independents are in complete agreement in supporting humane treatment of refugees, most of them from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan who risk their lives in flimsy boats to reach Australia. They oppose Labor’s plan to ship these refugees to East Timor. On climate change, the Greens and independents believe in an urgent response (no matter how flawed and inadequate) while Labor decided it could not support anything that was not corporate friendly. And on Afghanistan, The Greens and independents have demanded, and been promised, an urgent debate on Afghanistan once parliament reconvenes.
Interestinly, it was one of the four independents – Andrew Wilkie, a former intelligence analyst, who in 2003 publicly quit over the fake intelligence that was used to justify the invasion of Iraq – who called the former majority Labor government’s case to go to war in Afghanistan “the biggest lie of the election campaign”.
In one other – and no less important – respect, the minority government is optimal. In June, Labor’s right-wing faction leaders deposed the Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd and replaced him with the deputy PM Julia Gillard. This was immediately followed by a swing to the right in key areas. The tax on mining super-profits was reduced from 40% to 22.5% and cut in at a higher level. In future, refugees were to be shipped offshore to East Timor. Any action on climate change that the corporations opposed would not be contemplated in the next term of parliament.
Labor’s right-wing argued that this shift to the right would restore Labor’s electoral fortunes. In the event, these moves lost Labor any reformist sheen and prompted a swing against it – mostly to the Greens. Labor’s vote fell from 43.5% to 38%, with the Greens rising almost 4% to nearly 12% and the other 1.5% going to the Coalition which received 43.5%.
Not only did the shift to the right not have the promised electoral benefits, but the secret, backroom manner of Rudd’s removal also repelled many voters. Rudd was PM one day and deposed the next. That old cliche – the night of the long knives – actually happened, leaving Labor looking morally shabby.
The opportunity now exists in the Labor party to roll back the power and influence of the discredited right-wing faction bosses. What will act as an additional spur is the rise of the Greens who increased their share of the vote by 50% – mostly at the expense of rightward shifting Labor. The Greens will now have 9 of the 76 seats in the Senate where their vote was another two percent higher than in the lower house. (The Senate is elected by proportional representation.) With Labor having 31 seats, the Senate will have its first centre-left majority for more than three decades. (However, because of a pecularity of the Constitution, the new Senate does not take effect until July 1 next year.)
With Green voters having risen from one in six of left-of-centre voters to one in four, Labor may now be tempted to tack to the left to recover and keep its voters.
How long this new, mildly reformist government lasts is an open question. This is the first time since 1940-41 that Australia has had a minority government at the national level. The country is used to having majority governments. However, at state level there have been minority governments relatively frequently over the past 20 years, so it is not entirely unknown territory. The economic conjuncture is also favourable. Australia is a political satellite of the United States, but an economic province of booming China. On the back of record exports of coal, gas, iron ore and other minerals to China, India and Japan, the economy is growing at over 3% per year, there is relatively full employment, the deficit is about 3% of GDP and the government debt is less than 10% of GDP.
For the moment the Greens and the independents are driving the new government insisting on (and achieving) promises of more debate in parliament, more consultation and more freedom to introduce legislation. The Greens are also demanding consideration of a higher super-tax on mining profits, withdrawal from Afghanistan, a price on carbon, same-sex marriage and a reduction of fetters on union action. A still shell-shocked and grateful Labor leadership is entertaining all these proposals.
It is possible to argue that there is a left-of-centre majority in the country. Moreover, if the young were properly enrolled to vote, this leftish majority would be overwhelming. About 1.4 million eligible voters are not on the electoral roll – equivalent to 10% of the electorate. We know that the majority of these are young people 18-24. And they are exactly the group that votes 2-1 for Labor and the Greens. (The failure of the young to register is scarcely a surprise. Our parliamentary democracy is owned by the corporations, perfectly illustrated by Labor’s abandonment of an emissions trading scheme and a genuine mining tax. Why would the young rush to embrace something that is seemingly meaningless?)
Nevertheless the push-back from conservative forces inside and outside Labor’s ranks is taking shape. The Murdoch press (it accounts for 70% of newspaper circulation in the country) is ferociously opposed to the new government. The Coalition has confirmed its more right-wing leadership in place. And Labor’s right, while lying low, have not lost their positions. The two Labor-supporting country independents, who represent traditionally conservative electorates, may also get cold feet.
There is also media pressure bearing down on the Greens to “moderate” (read abandon) their policies. Red-baiting has re-appeared with revelations, mainly in the Murdoch press, about the leftish and even ancient Stalinist associations of some of the new Green MPs. Even the party’s inspiring but sober-sides leader, Bob Brown, has been indicted for his “tomato red” economic views – on the front page of the liberal broadsheet, The Sydney Morning Herald.
But for the time being, political life is running in new channels in Australia. This moment opens up new configurations and new balances of forces which are more hopeful for those who are campaigning for a good life beyond consumer capitalism, for the society of the free and equal, for sharing the wealth, for an economy which respects the natural conditions for life, and for a break with US military adventures with their murder, wholesale killing, torture and enormous waste.
It might not be quite a political Spring, but it is an advance on the deeper winter that could have been.