The Australian election: the working class moves leftward under conditions of crisis.

by Davey Heller

On May 21st, a Federal election was held in Australia resulting in a crushing defeat for the far right Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Liberal Party and returning the Australian Labor Party(ALP) to office for the first time in nine years. The election showed that despite appearances, including the anti-vax rallies and the best efforts of the bourgeois press, the working class has shifted to the left rather than the right during the last two years of crisis. The election delivered a severe blow to the project of consolidating far right politics through electoral processes. The Liberal Party is hopelessly split due to the ruling class divisions over climate change. It has effectively lost its base in the upper middle classes of the cities. The far-right minor party  vote largely did not eventuate  None of this is an endorsement of the ALP whose election is only a distorted reflection of this class dynamic.

The collapse of the Liberal  Party vote must be viewed in the context of efforts of a section of the ruling class, led by the Murdoch press,  to turn the party into Australia’s very own “MAGA-lite” party of militarism, nationalism and social reaction. This involved the purging of the more centrist elements of the party, a process which culminated in the 2018 Parliamentary coup which installed the far-right Pentecostal Christian Morrison. This was part of the international capitalist trend to attempt to move bourgeois democracy to the right towards authoritarian or even fascist rule in response to the deepening capitalist economic crisis.

Although part of an international trend the shift to the right of Australian politics arose also out of internal tensions amongst the ruling class on how to respond to climate change, the US war drive against China and how to best suppress the working class industrially.

The fissure over climate change however dominated this election. What the media refers to as the “Climate wars” is really an inter-ruling class struggle between the renewable energy and coal lobbies to advance their own profit interests.

 Australia is the second largest coal exporting nation. Scott Morrison in 2017 in a Trumpian stunt brandished a piece of coal in Parliament symbolising he was the champion of the coal lobby. However, a different section of the ruling class, closely connected to a powerful sector of finance capital is salivating at the prospects of the profits from renewable power and the web of offsets and other market mechanisms which offer the false promise of “greening” capitalism.

Scott Morrison holding a lump of coal in Parliament 2017

Each of these factions had their very own oligarch pumping money into the election. The coal lobby had the repulsive figure of Clive Palmer, a coal billionaire who pumped $100 million dollars into his personal political project the “United Australia Party (UAP)”. He sought to repeat the trick of 2019 of funnelling the far right “anti-establishment” vote back behind the ruling Liberal/National Coalition. Australia has a compulsory preferential voting system that means a person can vote for example for the United Australia Party as their first or primary vote but if their first choice does not win, their vote flows to whoever they preference after that. In 2019 enough preference votes from UAP and other far right candidates flowed back to the Liberal Party to push them to a narrow victory.

The renewable energy lobby oligarch was Simon Holmes a’ Court, the son of Australia’s first billionaire.  A’ Court poured seven million dollars into a movement to elect the so-called “Teal” candidates. Although running as independents, the Teal candidates were effectively rebranded centrist Liberals from the upper middle classes who campaigned largely on platforms of tackling climate change.

The election was held in the shadow of a recent history of climate related natural disasters. Large chunks of the east coast of Australia literally burnt in the bushfires of the Black Summer of 2020. In the months before the election much of the east coast was repeatedly subjected to deluges of biblical proportions.

The Teal independents took crucial seats from the Liberal Party in some of the most affluent areas of Melbourne, Sydney and Perth. One defeated the sitting Treasurer. They became more than a climate protest vote but a way for the upper middle class to push back against the Liberal Party’s increasingly reactionary stance on social issues such as treatment of indigenous Australians, feminism and transgender rights. Similar middle class “progressive” concerns saw the Greens pick up four new seats in Brisbane, taking them from both Labor and Liberals. This result is of enormous significance as it means that the push towards a “MAGA-lite” version of the Liberal Party has effectively cleaved off their traditional base of support amongst the affluent most educated areas of the major cities.

In contrast the $100 million investment from the coal baron Clive Palmer in his United Australia Party failed almost completely in its aims. The election saw surprising results like an indigenous Socialist Alliance candidate outpolling the United Australia Party in a far north Queensland electorate! Despite plastering “Freedom” slogans across billboards, newspapers and the internet, the party largely failed to turn its anti-public measures based campaign into votes.

One of the many billboards paid for by Clive Palmer

In fact the backlash against the Liberal Party in West Australia and Victoria indicated that there was deep hostility to the way the Federal Liberal Party had sought to undermine the (now abandoned) public health measures of the states. Whilst the ALP state Premiers MacGowan and Andrews have now joined the “let it rip” brigade, for the first 18 months of the pandemic the Federal Liberals tried to turn these two Premiers into the personification of “dictatorial” public health measures. Despite the banner headlines and the anger from the mobilised far right “freedom” mobs, the election showed that the supposed implacable hatred of public health measures was not deeply felt in the electorate.

Anti-vaccine and lockdown protest in Melbourne in 2021

The failure of the far right parties to pick up votes went beyond the UAP. Pauline Hanson and her “One Nation Party” who have been given free publicity by the bourgeois press to promote hatred of minorities for almost thirty years was almost beaten in her efforts to get into the Upper House (Senate) by the Legalise Cannabis Party!

The section of the ruling class who is seeking to foster far right rule as a response to the growing economic crisis and drive to imperialist world war will need to either redouble efforts to build such a movement outside Parliament or try to salvage the Liberal Party for the project.

Whilst the election was a disaster for the Liberal Party, the leftward trajectory of the electorate did not result in a swing to the ALP. This is not a surprise given their right-wing campaign which did not offer any significant concessions to the working class. In fact the Labor Party’s primary vote dropped slightly from the last election and they received little over thirty percent of the vote. It is only because they did better than the Liberals in so many seats on preferences that they won enough seats to form government. The combined primary vote for the Labor and Liberal Party was at an all-time historic low this election. It is clear that the dominance of the two-party system in Australia is breaking down after being a bedrock of bourgeois rule for over a hundred years.

New ALP Prime Minister Anthony Albanese far left at the QUAD meeting soon after he was sworn

The ownership of the Australian press is concentrated in the hands of a small number of companies including right wing oligarchs like Kerry Stokes and Rupert Murdoch. The slanted coverage in the bourgeois press throughout the election indicated that most of the ruling class favoured a return of the Morrison Government over the ALP. This is not because there was any doubt about the commitment of the pro-business Labor Party to either austerity or the US war drive but because it was felt that a far-right Liberal Government would be better placed to handle the inevitable working class backlash to this agenda. Even during the election campaign the issue of inflation and the cost of living came to prominence with the inflation rate hitting 5.1 percent, interest rates increasing, the price of petrol skyrocketing and housing continuing to be unaffordable. The risk for the ruling class is that the ALP and the trade union bureaucrats will be unsuccessful in keeping a lid on demands of workers as they increasingly enter industrial struggles. The response of the bourgeois press to the election has been decidedly muted which reflects the confusion in their ranks about how to respond to the changed electoral landscape.

Anthony Albanese is now the 8th Australian Prime Minister in 15 years. Instability in government has been a product of splits in the ruling class over how to best control workers (smash unions or coopt them them through the bureaucracy), climate change (coal versus renewable) and China (how to trade with China whilst supporting the US war drive).

It is unlikely that the Albanese government will be able to handle any of these tensions successfully. Despite his protestations in a time of economic crisis it is not possible to increase wages AND profits. It is not possible to maintain the profits of the fossil fuel industry AND transition rapidly to renewable energy. And is not possible to balance a war with your major trading partner without causing chaos!

The contradiction between Australia’s trade relationship with China and its security alliance with the US has led US Imperialism and its agents to help foster two recent Parliamentary coups. In 2010, ALP Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was removed by his own party and replaced by Julia Gillard just prior to the announcement of the Pivot to Asia by Obama from the floor of the Australian Parliament. Although all factions of the Australian ruling class support the US alliance, Rudd represented the faction who wished to accommodate China’s rise in the Pacific in some limited form. As Wikileaks revealed, the senior ALP figures behind Rudd’s removal were effectively assets of the US.

Likewise, Malcolm Turnbull was removed in 2018 by his own party and replaced by Scott Morrison. Turnbull was also criticized for being “soft” on China.  That coup had Rupert Murdoch’s fingerprints all over it. Murdoch owns key sections of the Australian press as well as his network of media in the UK and the US including Fox News which he also used to foster reactionary intrigues to benefit US imperialism such as Brexit and the election of Trump.

US imperialism and the CIA pay very close attention to Australian politics because of its key role. Biden, Johnson and Morrison just signed the AUKUS Treaty to lay the groundwork for the Axis to fight a World War against the deformed workers state of China. Australia has key US bases including the Pine Gap spy base which helps guide key elements of the US war machine. Australia has participated in every major bloody US imperialist war since WW2. It is the context of Australia as a key ally of US imperialism that gives the election a broader significance for the international proletariat. 

Obama announces the pivot to Asia from the Australian Parliament in 2011

The volatility class relations within the country will only deepen in the years ahead. The ALP Government under Albanese is a weak one.  It has a wafer thin majority off the back of a very low primary vote. Like other bankrupt social democratic forces internationally it will ruthlessly serve its bourgeois masters in a time of crisis at the expense of the working class As in the US there is a risk that such an ineffective government will indeed lay the groundwork for a return of the threat of the far right within and without Parliament. The absence of any mass based Marxist parties in Australia is of course a material factor in this ongoing crisis. Efforts must be made to turn the leftward trajectory of the electorate into an increase in the level of the class conscious fighting spirt of the Australian working class..

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