Labor, Greens and independents in government
- Written by Diane Fieldes
Less than five years after the landslide defeat of the hated Howard government in 2007, Labor is so unpopular that the return of the Liberals to office seems assured. By the 2010 election Labor was already close to losing office. Despite the much-vaunted success of the Austr
The result of Labor’s 2010 election campaign was that the ultra-reactionary Tony Abbott came within a whisker of winning. The ALP could not form government without the support of the Greens’ single House of Representatives member, Adam Bandt, and three independents – the ex-Nationals Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, and former Green Andrew Wilkie. Some on the left welcomed the formation of this minority government as a positive outcome. It supposedly presented an opportunity for progressive advance. The day after the election long-time left wing activist Tim Anderson declared:
Unexpectedly…a great opportunity for social change has emerged… The August election was a strong statement against…shallow electoral politics…there is room for a range of new voices, including the Greens, including the maverick MPs, but also including all those of us who have been disillusioned with conventional politics.[i]
Prominent Greens member (and former Democrat senator) Andrew Bartlett, argued that:
this new parliament is likely to be quite different, and most likely better… The difference of real significance will be a transfer in power from the Executive back to the Parliament… What this will mean is not only greater transparency and accountability. It will also mean more genuine consideration given to private members’ business.[ii]
Similarly, Guy Rundle’s Crikey article, “We’re entering a new dimension here, people”, waxed lyrical about “the possibility of new processes, and new flows which make provisional blocs in different ways. It’s the most imaginative solutions that become the most possible”. Even more over the top was Rundle’s claim that “The mere process over the last three days has done more to make visible the invisible structures of power, and their potential (if not straightforward) transformability, than a hundred civics lessons”.[iii] Perhaps as an indication of how low some of the left’s expectations for change have become, long-time soci
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 capit
alism, for the society of the free and equal, for sharing the wealth, for an economy which respects the environment, and for a break with US military adventures… It might not be quite a political Spring, but it is an advance on the deeper winter that could have been.[iv]
From this perspective, the election outcome could apparently help to move even the ALP to the left:
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 percent — mostly at the expense of rightward-shifting Labor… 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.[v]
Predictably, two years down the track, all of these hopes have proven to be illusions. Labor has continued on its rightward, anti-working class trajectory. Tragically, no sizeable force outside parliament – most importantly the trade union leadership – has been willing to stand up to the ALP government. After the greatest success in their history, the Greens have devoted themselves to propping up the Gillard government, and their electoral advance has stalled. The independent MPs have made no impact – and given their politics, this is a good thing. Everything that has happened since 2010 has paved the way for a sweeping Liberal victory.
Gillard’s Labor bankrupt from the start
Labor did deservedly badly in the 2010 election. They stood for nothing but the policies they had pursued since their return to office in 2007, continuing in substance (if occasionally not in name) the right wing attacks of the preceding Howard government. The ALP’s primary vote fell from 43.4 percent in 2007 to just 38.0 percent. In raw figures they lost almost 677,000 votes, with a primary swing away from the ALP in almost every state and territory. But it was a collapse of the ALP vote and not a surge to the Liberals that delivered the hung parliament. The official figures show a swing of 2.6 percent from Labor to the Co
Disappointment in Labor’s right wing record in government showed in other electorates. In 2007, the
More people refused to vote…than at any time since compulsory voting began in 1925… More than 14 million…were on the rolls… But almost a million of them decided not to vote. And of those who did, almost 730,000 voted informal. More precisely, it turned off more Labor voters than any other election for decades. Some voted for the Greens. Some voted informal. Some didn’t bother to vote at all. But few crossed over to vote for the Co
alition… The Co alition’s vote rose only by the barest margin… Election 2010 was a negative campaign, where the leaders stood for less than ever before, and insulted voters’ intelligence more than ever before. Both sides asked us to vote against their opponent, rather than giving us reasons to vote for them. And more than ever, voters – especially, but not only, Labor voters – responded by refusing to give their vote to either side.[vii]
The two years since the election have been a concentrated example of everything that is wrong with Labor in government. Gillard’s minority government is in complete crisis, despised by both the left and the right. As
Her relentlessly right wing agenda has not only led to demor
alisation and despair among the left and traditional Labor supporters, it has also galvanised the Liberal Party and Tony Abbott’s lunatic cheer squad of shock-jock radio hosts and Murdoch opinion writers… Within days of taking over the leadership last year, Gillard abandoned one of the few popular policies of the Rudd government – the Resources Super-Profits Tax – completely capitulating to pressure from the mining billionaires to drop a tax that had clear majority support. Next she dropped any pretence that Labor had a humane refugee policy, vilifying asylum seekers in a desperate bid to outdo Abbott’s vile “stop the boats” rhetoric… On [other] social issues, Gillard has gone out of her way to antagonise Labor’s own supporters. In spite of an increasing majority in society that supports same-sex marriage, Gillard has repeatedly emphasised her opposition to changing the Marriage Act… [and] is implementing a reactionary carbon tax that will end up hurting workers’ living standards while doing nothing for the environment. Predictably, this has only further alienated Gillard from working class voters. [viii]
Labor’s right wing policy program has only strengthened the hand of the Liberals. Newspoll’s surveys of voting intentions show that by July 2011 the Labor vote dipped below 30 percent, and has generally stayed there.[ix] Such is the crisis for Labor that a post-2012 budget primary vote of 30 percent is described as a “bounce” – at the same time as the Co
It’s not as if there aren’t lessons for Labor from the last decade. State by state – in
When Labor was decimated at the subsequent
Those on the left who put their hopes in the parliamentary process and the supposed “end to the two party system” forgot a basic truth: that the real struggle between reaction and progress lies outside parliament. With no end in sight to global economic crisis, there is worldwide pressure on governments of every political hue to cut back spending and attack working class organisation and living standards. Labor’s trajectory is not unique. In countries like
Committed as they are to carrying out whatever attacks on workers’ living standards the ruling class demands, Gillard’s government has been incapable of articulating a clear message to its supporters about the state of the economy. This is made worse by the contradictions they confront with no solutions. In order to boost business “confidence” and consumer spending, the government and its top bureaucrats are constantly talking up the state of the economy. The head of the Treasury Department, Martin Parkinson, told a Senate hearing:
It is almost as if most Austr
alians seem to think we live in Greece. We don’t. We actually have an incredibly bright future ahead of us.[xiv]
This ignores the re
In the last two quarterly reports, we judged that Austr
alia’s multi-speed economy could more accurately be described as a three-speed economy. But in the latest report the best way to describe the situation is Western Austrfirst and daylight second… Across alia Australl state and territory economies except alia Western Austrare struggling for momentum.[xv] alia
This is particularly the case in the two most populous states. Victoria’s economic growth has been weaker than almost every other state over the past decade with this likely to intensify as tax revenue slows while debt levels rise. Reserve Bank figures show average growth per head of population in
The one positive side to the utter disarray of the Gillard government is that its very unpopularity and its desire to avoid absolute electoral oblivion, while not enough to hold back the neoliberal program in toto, has tempered it to a limited degree. The 2012 budget, for example, while on paper achieving the holy grail of a surplus, was accompanied by some half-hearted class rhetoric from Wayne Swan, and a small degree of attempted vote-buying payouts to the poor. Any weakening of the economy will most likely see this disappear, and an increase in the austerity measures already in place by governments of all persuasions, just as it has in
In the 2010 election the Greens polled almost half a million more votes than in 2007. They were able to capture a larger section of Labor’s former left wing constituency – five out six of their votes came from disaffected Labor voters. The swing to the Greens was 3.8 percent, bigger than the swing of 1.9 percent to the Co
However these hopes of many on the left were far from fulfilled. After signing a deal to support the minority government, the Greens settled into just voicing mild criticisms of the ALP on some issues but doing nothing to mobilise serious opposition. It isn’t as if the leading Greens did not give enough warning of how they would act. In an interview immediately before the 2010 election, Bob Brown proclaimed that the Greens had “shown a responsibility that the Co
In the event the Greens committed to three years of “responsible” government and stability at all costs.[xix] But there are very serious political problems with this commitment to “stability”. The editorial in the 23 August Austr
The strong showing for the Greens will exert new pressures on them too. On one hand, there will be mounting demands on them from the corporate media and big business to conform to the rules of shallow electoral politics. But an opposing pressure will come from people who voted Greens in record numbers precisely because the party challenged the neoliberal policies of Labor and the Co
alition from the left.[xxi]
But far from there being two equal pressures on the Greens, previous experience of the Greens’ electoral success had already shown how little weight the wishes of those who vote for them carry. In
Just as the Greens supported previous Labor and Liberal minority governments when tough remedial budget action was required, we have rolled up our sleeves to take on a similar responsible role once again… The Greens welcome the move to a new fiscal strategy.[xxvi]
As Matthew Holloway, writing in
This is not a Greens budget; it is a Labor budget. The Greens will deal responsibly with all budget legislation on its merits. We will not block the budget or supply, but we will look to improve it where we can in a fiscally responsible manner. However, in order to ensure stability in government, the Greens will not be supporting any opposition move which aims to wreck the budget.[xxviii]
Fiscal responsibility is code for a commitment to austerity measures when the capit
Brown made it clear that he did not want the Greens to be simply another minor party like the Democrats. Instead of the Democrats’ stance of “keeping the bastards honest” the Greens would “replace the bastards”. Prior to the 2010 election Guy Pearse, a Greens member (formerly a Liberal) and commentator spelt out how the Greens’ version of “replacing the bastards” works:
Ultimately, this minor party can’t threaten the dominance of the major parties without becoming a major party itself… Some are reluctant to consider going into government, knowing the only re
alistic medium-term scenario involves forming a co alition with one of the two major parties. They dread the compromise involved…these tensions are being resolved organically; most people walking through the door of the fastest growing political party in the country are political orphans from one or other major party, and they’re uninterested in a place on the fringe.[xxx]
For all the Greens’ focus on parliamentary manoeuvring they don’t actually have the balance of power on critical issues. For example, while the Greens have been able to voice criticism of Labor’s continued backing for the war in Afghanistan by getting a parliamentary debate on the issue, there is no chance of a parliamentary vote forcing Austr
One important difference between the Greens and the independents is that the Greens do have thousands of members outside parliament. But far from their electoral successes galvanising that base into extra-parliamentary action, for example to build an anti-war movement, the opposite has been the case – with one notable exception. The campaign the Greens have mobilised their activist base around since the election has been the government’s most unpopular policy – the carbon tax. Almost as soon as parliament resumed in October 2010, the Greens put aside their policies like an end to coal-fired power stations and devoted their energies to “winning” a price on carbon. They mobilised to back up the climate NGOs’ “Say Yes!” campaign that promoted the tax. Julia Gillard’s sales pitch, calling the tax “the most important economic reform in decades”, is only the echo of Bob Brown’s proud boast that the carbon tax is one of the Greens’ major achievements.[xxxi] So their great achievement is to push through a neo-liberal tax that disproportionately hits workers by forcing up the price of basic necessities like electricity, delivers huge subsidies to polluting companies and will do little, if anything, to deal with climate change.
The fact that the Greens have tied themselves to an increasingly unpopular Labor government means they cannot build support among workers and students fed up with Labor’s right wing agenda. In the Victorian and NSW elections held at the end of 2010 and the start of 2011 the Greens polled well below expectations. In the
There is no sign that the Greens leadership has any intention of pulling back from this course. Any idea that Bob Brown stepping down from the leadership might open up more space for the left of the Greens was decisively refuted by the appointment of businessman Peter Whish-Wilson as his replacement in the Senate. Whish-Wilson, a former vice-president at the
A lot of the issues tend to be perceived as being conflict between companies and development and conservation, but obviously it’s more complicated than that. I’ve got experience in how corporations work. I believe that it’s time to start putting all the divisiveness aside.[xxxiv]
And unfortunately the left in the Greens that has consistently given way to Brown in recent years shows no sign of taking a firmer line under new leader Christine Milne. Lee Rhiannon, the most high profile left wing Green, enthused about the Greens’ very own investment banker Whish-Wilson, stating that “When you come to talk about dark greens, light greens etc and about division, again it’s shown to be wide of the mark… I very much welcome Peter. We’ll be working together in a collaborative way on a whole range of projects.”[xxxv]
Katter left the Nationals…due to his disenchantment with economic ration
ality. Katter opposed the sale of Telstra… He opposed the sale of Medibank Private in 2006, lamenting the privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank, Qantas and other state assets…he has spoken publicly against the Northern Territoryintervention. The strongest link between the three independents is their rejection of the Nationals, their former party. Styling themselves as defenders of the interests of farmers, small business and workers in the country, they oppose what they see as the destruction of services and the threat of deregulation and glob alisation.[xxxvii]
However Katter’s opposition to elements of neoliber
There can be no doubt that Katter is a reactionary. When a member of the
The other independents have not much more to recommend them. Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott are both ex-Nationals, well to the right of Labor. And even small-l liberal Andrew Wilkie, who poses as being progressive, stated that he was open to giving power to the Liberals. Yet Graham Matthews was quite willing to go to bat for them as well, drawing the conclusion that “On a wide range of issues, from climate change, to Indigenous rights, to economic policy, they are objectively to the left of both major parties.”[xxxix]
The illusions in the independents rested on the assumption that undermining the two party system is necessarily a gain for the left. But there is nothing progressive about replacing a non-choice between the right wing politics of both Labor and Liberal with a hung parliament reliant on a small number of right wing independents. The fact that the independents held the balance of power didn’t signify “a break with the two-party system”. It just meant that the election was close. At best, the independents could do what the Greens have often done over the years – move short-lived private members’ bills, speak against government bills, or instigate and participate in parliamentary inquiries that are ignored. Adam Bandt told the Sunday Age that an increased role for private members’ bills “will mean I could move legislation on areas important to me – like tackling climate change, ending mandatory detention and removing discrimination against same-sex marriage – and it would have to actually be dealt with”. For two hours, perhaps. Bandt and independent MP Rob Oakeshott did speak against the people smuggling bill in November 2010, and Bandt, Wilkie, Oakeshott and Katter all opposed Labor’s National Radioactive Waste Management Bill, but with the Co
There is nothing innately more left wing about private members’ business. Even if accountability and transparency were to appear in some unexplained way out of minority government, this misses the point. The key problem with the policies of Howard, Rudd and Gillard has not been their lack of transparency but their right wing content. Guy Rundle’s claim that negotiation with the independents to form the Gillard minority government “has done more to make visible the invisible structures of power…than a hundred civics lessons”[xl] is nonsense. On the contrary, the “invisible structures of power” made themselves visible in the anti-working class policies that the new government continued to dish out. Independent MPs have had procedural reforms introduced before. Independents controlled the balance of power in the NSW parliament between 1991 and 1995, during which they negotiated changed parliamentary procedures and introduced a bigger role for private members. None of these prevented the relentless imposition of neoliberal policies.
The failure of the unions
The great tragedy is that the union movement has not acted as a left alternative to Gillard. The trade unions have done next to nothing to fight for jobs and conditions, more public spending, or to reverse anti-union laws. Instead the unions have, in the main, accommodated to and apologised for the Gillard government while it has attacked their members. This fawning reached its symbolic height when Gillard was given a standing ovation on the first day of the 2012 ACTU Congress.
A look through the last two years of ACTU media releases reveals, at most, polite expressions of concern about aspects of government policy. The only signs of life are directed at the Co
The leadership of the Federal Labor Party has now been settled, and the Government must urgently focus on an agenda to improve the lives of all Austr
alians, united against the real threat to workers’ rights and the economy of a Tony Abbott government… ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence said the Labor Government had achieved much.[xli]
After government intervention forced the Qantas dispute into Fair Work Austr
This abject failure of the ACTU to stand up to Labor’s right wing policies can only give the bosses greater confidence to back Abbott’s hard right agenda and go further on the offensive if the economy turns down. Already we have seen straws in the wind at a state level with new Liberal governments in
The Gillard government has been a government for the big end of town and a disaster for workers and the oppressed. It has determinedly continued with the neoliberal agenda of the previous Howard and Hawke/Keating governments. The Greens have not provided a left wing alternative to Labor’s anti-working class policies. Quite the reverse. They have propped up this reactionary government and given a blank cheque to Labor’s austerity budgets.
Free of any serious restraints, the Labor government, by demor
[i] Tim Anderson, “Creating the democracy we don’t yet have”,
[ii] Andrew Bartlett, “A kinder, gentler polity?” New Matilda, 26 October 2010, http://newmatilda.com/2010/10/26/kinder-gentler-polity.
[iii] Guy Rundle, “We’re entering a new dimension here, people”, Crikey, 26 August 2010 http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/08/26/rundle-were-entering-a-new-dimension-here-people/.
[iv] Hall Greenland, “The best available government”, Green Left Weekly, 18 September 2010.
[vii] Tim Colebatch, “The great turnoff”, The Age,
[ix] Newspoll, Federal voting intentions, www.newspoll.com.au/cgi-bin/polling/ display_poll_data.pl.
[x] Jessica Wright, “Budget bounce for Labor in latest poll”, Sydney Morning Herald, 15 May 2012.
[xii] Luke Foley, “Road map is there: now to find our way back”, The Austr
[xiii] Thomson Reuters, “CFMEU’s $50K injection to Katter”, Workforce News, 16 March 2012. sites.thomsonreuters.com.au/workplace/2012/03/22/cfmeus-50k-injection-to-katter/.
[xiv] Jessica Wright, “Austr
[xvii] “CBA to cut 100 Melbourne jobs from its mortgage services branch”, Herald Sun, 7 May 2012.
[xviii] Kate Ausburn, “Bob Brown interview: ‘We’re Austr
[xix] See, for example, the emphasis that Adam Bandt placed on stability when interviewed a few days after the election: “More open government possible: Xenophon”, Lateline, 25 August 2010, http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/content/ 2010/s2993569.htm.
[xx] Editorial, “Reform waits for no country”, Austr
[xxi] Simon Butler, “Who wants a two-party system?” Green Left Weekly, 4 September 2010.
[xxii] Matthew Holloway, “The neo-liberal face of the new Greens”,
[xxiii] Rose Matthews, “Tasmanian Labor-Greens government slashes health care”, Green Left Weekly, 16 October 2011.
[xxiv] “Politicians heckled at health rally in Hobart”, ABC PM, 10 October 2011, www.abc.net.au/news/2011-10-10/politicans-heckled-at-health-rally-in-hobart/3459860.
[xxv] “Union slams minister over prisons dispute”, ABC News 25 February 2011, www.abc.net.au/news/2011-02-25/union-slams-minister-over-prison-dispute/1957028.
[xxvi] Nick McKim, media release: “History repeats itself: Powersharing parliaments need to fix problems left in wake of majority governments: Greens initial state budget response”, 16 June 2011, http://mps.tas.greens.org.au/2011/06/history-repeats-itself-powersharing-parliaments-need-to-fix-problems-left-in-wake-of-majority-governments-greens%E2%80%99-initial-state-budget-response/.
[xxvii] Holloway, “The neo-liberal face of the new Greens”.
[xxviii] Senator Bob Brown delivers the Greens budget reply speech, 13 May 2011, http://greensmps.org.au/content/news-stories/senator-bob-brown-delivers-greens-budget-reply-speech.
[xxix] Sally Neighbour, “Divided we fall: The Austr
[xxx] Guy Pearse, “A Green balance”, The Monthly, July 2010.
[xxxi] Jeremy Thompson, “Brown welcomes ‘great green action day’”, ABC News, 11 July 2011, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2011-07-10/brown-welcomes-great-green-action-day/2789084.
[xxxii] Fieldes, “NSW Labor learns nothing”; Bramble, “Chickens come home to roost for Queensland Labor”; “Greens play down election results”, Weekly Times,
[xxxiii] For a lengthy discussion of this in relation to the Greens, see
[xxxiv] Andrew Darby, “Milne gets nod for new face to build support base”, Sydney Morning Herald, 5 May 2012, cited in Tom Bramble, “The Greens embrace business”, www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=732.
[xxxv]Adam Brereton, “Who is Peter Whish-Wilson?” New Matilda, 4 May 2012, http://newmatilda.com/2012/05/04/greens-appoint-peter-whishwilson.
[xxxvi] “More open government possible: Xenophon”, Lateline, 25 August 2010.
[xxxvii] Graham Matthews, “Who are the Independents?” Green Left Weekly 29 August.
[xxxviii] Oakley, “Nothing positive about rise of the independents”.
[xxxix] Matthews, “Who are the Independents?”.
[xl] Rundle, “We’re entering a new dimension here, people.”
[xli] ACTU media release, “Leadership now settled, Government must focus on agenda for working Austr
[xlii] ACTU media release, “Unions welcome Fair Work Austr
[xliii] ACTU media release, “Industrial disputes continue to fall under Fair Work Act, proving employer groups wrong”, 2 June 2011.
[xliv] ACTU media release, “Support for carbon tax – ACTU tells carbon inquiry costs of inaction far outweigh costs of action”, 27 September 2011; ACTU media release, 8 November 2011, “Passing of climate change legislation provides certainty for workers”.