Year one of the Abbott government

The election of the Abbott government in September 2013, which brought to an end six years of right wing Labor rule, was a relatively low-key affair. Abbott did not come to power with a mandate for the broad attacks on social spending and workers’ rights that came to be the defining policies of his first year in government. Rather, he relied on drumming up racism towards refugees and the already existing anti-Labor sentiment.

The widespread contempt for and disaffection with the federal Labor government – a product of both its attacks on education spending, refugees and single mothers, and the underwhelming nature of its “reforms” such as the carbon tax, Gonski school funding plan and National Disability Insurance Scheme – allowed the Liberals to successfully pursue a small target election strategy in relation to domestic policies. Despite this, once elected, the Abbott government aggressively attacked the welfare state, unions and social spending. Its aim was to open a new and more confrontational chapter in the long running campaign to roll back the historic gains of the working class made during World War II and in the post-war boom.

This provoked a strong response from those in the firing line of Abbott’s attacks, as well as from a section of the political establishment. This response helped to create a situation in which Abbott’s has become the least popular first term government in post-war history and late in 2014 is showing no sign of turning the situation around.

The deployment of troops to Iraq, combined with the police raids on the homes of Muslims in mid-2014 – aimed at creating a hysterical social panic about terrorism and Islamism – to some extent enabled the government to divert attention from its problems and recoup some support on a racist basis. But these can be understood only as the actions of a failing government struggling to win public support for its domestic agenda and the confidence of the ruling class. They were able to ameliorate Abbott’s woes only temporarily.

Fundamentally, the government proved itself unable to put forward a vision behind which it could rally support and force through the austerity measures that the bosses are demanding. With a working class population still generally supportive of public spending and the welfare state, unfazed by the budget deficit and generally distrustful of and cynical towards politicians, the political class in general faces a daunting task in achieving this objective. How profoundly the Abbott government has discredited itself with its failed attempts to impose its agenda over the last 15 months remains to be seen.

The context of Abbott coming to power

The September 2013 federal election highlighted a number of key features that continue to characterise the political situation in Australia.

The first was the continued decline in support for, and loyalty to, the ALP. Labor’s primary vote of 33.4 percent was its lowest at a federal level since 1903.[1] Despite the threat of Abbott – a particularly reviled figure in Australian politics – Labor failed to attract a swing from any occupational group within the working class, or a majority of trade union members, for the first time in its history. The party was largely dependent for its support on low-income households in which English is not the first language, the poor and young professionals – hardly the full spectrum of what usually constitutes the party’s core base.[2] Many of the party’s traditional supporters who voted for a minor party in the Senate did not preference Labor. According to the Australian Development Strategies election report, the preferences of skilled blue collar workers with trade certificates, service workers, labourers and young women with children who voted for minor parties in the Senate were more likely to go to the Coalition than to Labor, illustrating the distance that is developing between Labor and its traditional constituency.[3] Fewer than a quarter of people today describe themselves as “lifetime” ALP voters, compared to around a third throughout the 1970s and 80s.[4]

Despite the disastrous nature of the election result, it elicited no serious assessment of the party’s problems from within the Labor leadership. “Disunity” between Rudd and Gillard was quickly established as the consensus on what went wrong, and the ensuing leadership battle between Albanese and Shorten accordingly was devoid of any political or ideological demarcation between the two. Both defended the record of Labor in office. There continues to be a dearth of critical or left wing voices or organised groupings within the party, reflected in the fact that in the leadership competition, Albanese, ostensibly from the left, was indistinguishable politically from Shorten.

The Greens also suffered electorally, their primary vote dropping by almost a quarter, from 11.8 percent in 2010 to 8.7 percent in 2013.[5] Overwhelmingly this was a consequence of their support for and alliance with the right wing Gillard/Rudd Labor governments. Not only were the Greens key to enabling Labor to govern in the context of a hung parliament, but they actively extolled the virtues of the government and their “achievements” in association with it, particularly the dental scheme and the carbon tax. But the unpopular carbon tax created a downward pressure on living standards by giving bosses an excuse to hike utility and other prices, while cuts to the single parent’s pension, the racist deal to send asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea, the backdown on the mining tax and the cutting of higher education funding were equally “achievements” of the Labor-Green coalition. This experience undermined the Greens’ image as a socially progressive alternative to the major parties able to stand to some degree above grubby parliamentary manoeuvring.

Since Abbott has been in power, the Greens have been able to resume a more critical stance and distance themselves from Labor. As a result, their support has rebounded somewhat, climbing back to 10 percent by late October.[6]

The 2013 election shone a spotlight on the political disengagement that continues to permeate society. Twenty percent of eligible voters opted out of the electoral process altogether, by failing to enrol, not turning up to vote or casting an informal ballot.[7] The informal vote in the lower house was at a 20-year high at 5.91 percent, indicating a record level of disillusionment with the major parties.[8] In Western Sydney’s working class suburbs, informal voting increased by 50 percent in 2010 and in 2013 was above 10 percent in some areas.[9]

By contrast, the Senate informal vote was considerably down on previous years – 2.96 percent – and significantly lower than for the House of Representatives. This suggests a desire on the part of many to demonstrate their disdain for the major parties where the potential exists to do so, by voting for small parties or independents in the Senate.

Several studies have confirmed that indifference towards the established parties and political process is widespread and growing. A study of trends in political opinion published by the Australian National University indicates that the proportion of respondents who think it does not make any difference who is in power has risen from 13 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in 2013, while 17 percent believe that who they vote for will not make any difference. Over the same period, the percentage of people who feel that the government is run for a few big interests has increased from 38 to 47. Twenty-eight percent of people report that they are not satisfied with democracy.[10]

This widespread distrust of politicians and the political process does not necessarily constitute a particularly radical or left wing sentiment, nor does it extend to other ruling institutions of capitalism. Indeed, it exists alongside a generally high level of confidence in the police, courts and military. The percentage of people who consider the Queen to be “very important”, for example, is today 44 percent, an increase of 50 percent over the last 15 years.[11]

Nor does it preclude people being influenced by right wing ideas and campaigns led by the political establishment (and strongly backed by a compliant mass media), such as the hysterical campaign against Muslims and the threat of terrorism. Indeed, the fact that much of this protest vote went to a figure like Clive Palmer, a mining magnate and one of the richest people in the country, highlights the ambiguous nature of widespread frustration with politics in the context of low class consciousness and a weakened left.

The long term depoliticisation of society and the working class, underpinned by the continued decline of the union movement and the left, is the important broader context in which the Abbott government has come to power. So while there can be discontent about certain issues or the government in general, and this can be connected at times with class concerns, there is only limited capacity to organise or cohere this sentiment into any sort of material force. Nor is there any significant layer of people with this as their political orientation or goal. The passivity of the union leadership is the decisive factor in this mix, and short of a new left wing current emerging within, or with an orientation to, the workers’ movement, it is difficult to see how this can be turned around.

Abbott’s agenda and reaction to it

Opposition to Abbott’s agenda in his first year of government has mainly been galvanised by the National Commission of Audit report and the federal budget. But even before the full scale of these attacks was revealed, there was a discernible baseline of pre-existing hostility to Abbott. This was reflected in polling, social media and at the highly successful “March in March” actions, which took place before either the Commission of Audit’s report or the budget were made public. The March in March events, which were organised via social media by an eclectic grouping of individuals with no social base to speak of, mobilised more than 80,000 people in 30 cities and towns around the country. March in March’s calls for transparency and to “take back our government” connected with a widespread concern over a figure like Abbott – already notorious for his association with various Howard-era policies and right wing Catholic social values – running the country. In this sense, Abbott is more polarising than the bland, suburban style of Howard, and more politicising than Rudd or Gillard by virtue of having a clear agenda and a degree of conviction (objectionable though it may be) that was largely absent during the Labor years.

Building on this existing disquiet, both the Commission of Audit report and the budget thrust class issues – and class hostility – to the centre of public political debate. Savage cuts to social services and entitlements workers depend on, combined with numerous handouts to big business, including a promise to cut the corporate tax rate by 1.5 percent,[12] meant even the mainstream media had to concede that the budget represented some sort of class war. Joe Hockey’s cigar-smoking antics, smirking arrogance and moronic lectures about ending the “age of entitlement” epitomised for many the government’s contemptuous attitude to the working class and poor and its dedication to the top end of town. In May, polling suggested that 67 percent of people considered Abbott to be “out of touch with ordinary people”, 63 percent thought him “arrogant” and only 29 rated him as trustworthy, down 11 percentage points from before the budget.[13] For his part, Joe Hockey went from being the third most popular government minister to the least during the first year of the Liberal government, according to a survey conducted by McNair Ingenuity Research.[14]

Strengthening the opposition to the government was the changed positioning of the ALP in response to Abbott’s budget. For a time at least, the budget provided Labor with an opportunity to take a popular oppositional stance against the Liberals, and to some degree reconnect with its traditional supporters on the basis of class concerns. Shorten’s budget reply, in which he drew heavily on oratory skills acquired during his trade union official days, was unlike anything heard from a Labor leader in recent years. This both appealed to and encouraged the widespread anti-budget sentiment, and delivered the ALP a boost in the polls, highlighting the degree to which Labor, despite the widespread cynicism that exists towards it, continues decisively to shape mass working class opinion.

However, because Labor’s opposition was restricted to speeches and press releases, and no effort was made to mobilise people as happened during the anti-WorkChoices campaign (albeit under pressure from the unions), the potential to build a serious movement and further drive opposition to the government was not realised. How much more the Liberals could have been sidelined in the polls and thrown into political crisis had Labor and the unions been prepared to push their advantage is unknown.

Shamefully, the unions were if anything to the right of the ALP in their budget response. They did virtually nothing to mobilise union members or the broader community against it. Speaking at an emergency budget response meeting at the Victorian Trades Hall in May, ACTU leader Ged Kearney pathetically suggested that the ACTU might consider supporting a rally in October, that is, five months later. Not surprisingly, this weak proposal failed to materialise.

The ACTU’s public statements were just as pathetic. “Harsh budget to change Australia for the worse” was the underwhelming title of its weakly worded response, nearly half of which was devoted to a discussion of how to strengthen the Australian economy. There was and continues to be no propaganda campaign to reinforce opposition to the budget among workers: no TV ads, billboards or widely distributed printed material. This is in stark contrast to the unions’ response to WorkChoices in 2005, when hundreds of thousands of unionists were mobilised in a series of nationally coordinated rallies and mass delegates’ meetings.

Particularly appallingly, the more left wing Victorian unions, which might have been expected to take a lead and set an example to other states, instead prioritised campaigning for Labor in the November state election. The anti-budget demonstrations they called (one on a working day, one on a weekend) were only half-heartedly built, and none of the key unions mobilised seriously for them. No section of the union movement anywhere took a determined or pro-active stand around the budget, meaning a vital opportunity to challenge the government and rebuild support for and participation in the unions was wasted.

The long-term inactivity and class collaborationist approach of the union leaders has contributed to a situation in which they are no longer even expected seriously to challenge anti-worker budgets. Such activity is more likely to be seen primarily as the preserve of parliamentarians and the ALP. This is dramatically different from periods in which the unions were stronger and the union leaders under greater pressure from an organised and more combative rank and file. In response to the Fraser government’s 1976 budget for example, which included plans to wind back Medibank, the unions were forced under pressure from their members to call a general strike. Three subsequent decades of retreat, passivity and class collaboration on the part of the union officials, during which shop floor organisation has been broken down, workers depoliticised and traditions of and confidence in industrial action eroded, have created the conditions in which the unions have only limited capacity to take action and the officials are under little pressure to do so, even if they were so inclined.

It’s not just in relation to resisting the budget that workers continue to suffer the result of a weakened union movement. According to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures from June 2014, union coverage currently stands at 17 percent nationally, down from 30 percent in 1993 and the lowest level since records began over 100 years ago.[15] In the year ending June 2014, there were 208 disputes and just under 89,000 days of strike action, fewer than one fifth the number ten years ago. This is the culmination of a long-term trend; in the late 1980s and early 1990s the average annual number of strike days per thousand workers was 191; since 1995, it has been 43. In the year to June 2014, it was just under eight. [16]

This is partly why the Abbott government felt confident to quietly introduce new industrial relations laws within its first year. Continuing what was started in the Howard era, and more or less left in place by Labor, the new laws resurrect individual contracts, further restrict the right of entry of union officials into workplaces and the right to strike, and give bosses greater power in their dealings with unions. As Abbott no doubt anticipated, they encountered very little serious challenge from either the unions or the ALP.

By the same token, however, the weakness of the unions has undercut Abbott’s ability to score the crushing blow he was hoping for from the $53.3 million royal commission into supposed union corruption.[17] The fact that unions are not high profile players in politics today in the way they have been in the past militates against the government’s ability to generate a climate of union bashing. Indeed, the royal commission has struggled to attract as much attention as the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption inquiry, which by contrast is an ongoing source of embarrassment (and high profile resignations of corrupt figures) for the Liberal party. The Victorian Liberal party encountered the same problem in its efforts to demonise the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) during the 2014 state election campaign: union busting simply does not connect when unions are weak and palpably unthreatening, and sympathy for the tribulations of multinational companies is virtually non-existent outside of the corporate elite.

In addition to the bleakness of the overall industrial picture, there were fewer small-scale industrial disputes last year than in previous years. Pickets like those at the Baiada chicken factory in Laverton in 2011, the Toll warehouse in Broadmeadows (both in Victoria) and the Children’s’ Hospital in Brisbane in 2012 provided a focal point for solidarity action and at a local level bucked the prevailing trend within the union movement. They also showed that old-fashioned class struggle unionism is still relevant and provides the basis for workers to make gains, however small. In addition, they represent important opportunities for socialists both to intervene and to gain experience of struggle as it exists today. Unfortunately, the outbreak of such struggles is dependent on an array of factors coming together, an important one being the willingness of union officials to support a dispute. However, class struggle is far from being a priority of any section of the union movement at this juncture.

The one area of society in which there was noticeable active opposition to the budget, contrary to the broader trend, was in the student movement. From a high profile protest on the ABC’s Q&A current affairs talk program to the mobbing of Liberal politicians on numerous campuses, students led the way in public resistance to the government. This was combined with sizeable national rallies, the largest of which brought more than 7,500 students into the streets across the country. These were the biggest student mobilisations since the campaign against voluntary student unionism nearly ten years ago.

These protests demonstrate the merits of action over passivity in the face of government attacks. Polling indicates that the budget measures concerning higher education, such as the deregulation of fees and university places, increasing the interest on HECS debts and the lowering of the HECS repayment threshold, became some of the most well understood and unpopular of all the budget measures. A June poll showed that, of all the measures that respondents wanted the opposition to vote against, deregulation of university fees had the greatest support.[18] Another poll taken in October similarly indicated that the deregulation of fees was the second most unpopular policy decision the government had taken over the previous 12 months, after cutting funding to hospitals.[19] There is nothing about education as an issue that means it is closer to people’s hearts than other social services. It was the fact that students were angry – and angry enough to take action – that made people think about the issues, take notice of the students’ arguments, and in many cases be persuaded by them. The fact that students were able to have this great an impact on public opinion and discussion with just a few defiant protests indicates how significant an opportunity was squandered by the unions.

The students’ efforts were aided by a relatively cooperative media, which showed a propensity to cover even quite minor anti-budget actions. It is difficult to tell whether this is because rampaging students make for entertaining news bulletins (as, for that matter, do irate Liberal ministers) or because of higher than average hostility to Abbott’s domestic agenda within the media ranks. Either way, the extensive and relatively critical coverage of the budget, including a raft of anti-budget opinion pieces and generous attention to the many gaffes of Liberal ministers, helped drive and legitimise the anti-budget sentiment and focus attention on issues of inequality, all of which was positive. Murdoch’s brief attempt in April to push back against this and argue for the agenda of the ruling class was not sufficient to turn this around.

The relative strength of Socialist Alternative on the campuses was crucial to the prominence of students in the budget response. The existence of highly active socialist clubs around the country, combined with their significant representation in the official structures of the student unions, both locally and nationally, helped immeasurably in pushing the campaign forward. Combatting or neutralising the reluctance and at times outright hostility towards the campaign on the part of all the other major political groupings in the student movement, including the National Labor Students, Grassroots Left, independents and Student Unity, was a particular challenge. The importance of revolutionaries building a base of support among students, and the potential this has for influencing wider struggles, has been confirmed by this experience.

On a slightly different point, it is worth noting how little the Greens were able to make of the anti-budget sentiment, despite taking a relatively strident anti-budget stance. They were effectively sidelined by Labor on an issue that fits best with the ALP’s social base and history, and as such proved unable to make gains in the polls during the time in which the budget was the focus of national politics. Possibly this is also a consequence of the fact that a section of Greens supporters are not that unhappy about the budget and broader economic approach of the Abbott government. More Greens supporters than Labor supporters approve of Abbott’s handling of the economy,[20] and just under 20 percent think there should be fewer services and lower taxes, according to an October Essential poll.[21]

Overall, given the lack of serious mobilisation against the budget on the part of the unions and political parties that might have led something, it is striking that the opposition to it remained as steadfast as it did. This indicates that, had there been a serious effort to mobilise by the unions or ALP, it could easily have become a major crisis for Abbott. The March in March, despite having no social base to speak of, demonstrated the potential for this.

The lack of sustained mobilisation helps explain why the government was able to avoid a catastrophic collapse in the polls. For all the opposition, Labor could generate a lead of only a couple of percentage points at the height of the budget concern. Without a serious campaign, the mass anti-budget feeling was confined to passive sentiment, rather than an active campaign that could have further politicised the sentiment, generated activism and focused attention on strategies to defeat the budget. Without this, it seemed like just another case of an objectionable policy being put forward by a contemptible government, more or less in line with expectations. Indignation easily collapsed into resentful resignation and, insofar as it seems nothing is being nor can be done to stop the attacks, the existing disengagement and passivity are reinforced.

The other reason the polls could remain relatively stable during the budget period, despite the anti-government sentiment, is the recent memory of Labor in office. Given its record, the idea that a Labor government would be dramatically different in any meaningful respect is not one which enjoys a great degree of credibility. This militates strongly against people showing interest in voting Labor when asked in polling interviews, whatever the disdain they might simultaneously have for Abbott and his budget.

For the ruling class, however, the failure of the government to sell the budget effectively has caused considerable concern. The fact that, as the Financial Review put it, “the whole budget process has gone seriously off the rails as a political exercise”,[22] affected the confidence the capitalist class has in the Abbott government. This will be discussed further below.

Social issues

Given Abbott’s reputation for 1950s conservative backwardness, his election might have been expected to give a renewed impetus to campaigns around social issues such as sexism, LGBTI equality or refugee rights. But instead, these issues have continued to decline as ones that mobilise people or motivate activism. This is partly a result of the cumulative effect of these campaigns’ failure to make decisive gains in recent memory, but is also a consequence of the government’s concern to avoid controversy around these questions. The sight of Abbott dragging his daughters around with him during the election campaign, ostentatious lunches with his lesbian sister and patting Aboriginal children on the head at every opportunity reflects a very studied attempt to craft a more modern image for himself and his government. Abbott-appointed Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson has taken up transgender rights as an issue his department is keen to promote, and Abbott’s friendship with transgender Lieutenant Colonel Cate McGregor has been widely publicised. As a result, the Liberals have provided less fodder for indignation and social justice action than might have been expected, and have not received the hostile reaction from these campaigners and groups that they in fact deserve.

The milieus around LGBTI activism are a prime example of how this strategy has worked for the government. Despite Abbott’s unapologetic homophobic track record, the prevailing reaction to his election was a positive one. Groups like Australian Marriage Equality rushed to adapt their demands to Liberal party sensibilities, whether emphasising family values or arguing for marriage equality in order to better defeat ISIS.[23] Activists critical of Abbott and his government have been widely reprimanded in the LGBTI press and on social media. This has generated no discernible backlash among any section of the community. Indeed there is a logic to these arguments: marriage rights have been won in a number of countries, including the UK and New Zealand, under and with the support of conservative governments. The argument that the marriage equality campaign should be seen as a civil rights struggle that challenges conservative notions of family structures and values, rather than one that aims to reinforce them, does not seem vital to a potential victory, and to more conservative forces it seems needlessly antagonistic. The individuals and groups with a more leftist orientation, who recognise that the struggle itself is as important to breaking down homophobia as securing legal equality, are isolated and small and unable to counter the shift to the right.

On the question of women’s rights, Abbott has similarly escaped serious challenge. Aside from appointing himself minister for women, he has avoided provoking major controversy despite his opposition to abortion and no-fault divorce. Ironically, his paid parental leave policy, which is far more generous to working parents than anything put forward by Labor, has been roundly attacked from the left and right.

On another front, the fact that the government does appear to have all but stopped the boats carrying asylum seekers for the time being means the refugee campaign has been sidelined; refugee arrivals are no longer the focus of ongoing public debate, as they were when the Liberals used the issue to wedge and attack Labor. This, combined with a general weariness among refugee supporters, has meant the campaign has struggled more than might have been expected to recover from the savagely anti-refugee election campaign.

This can become a problem for the government, given how dependent it is on jingoistic and racist scare campaigns to drum up support, put Labor on the defensive and take control of the political agenda in the lead-up to elections. As the final few sitting days of parliament in 2014 demonstrated, the refugee issue is still the safe house that the government hopes to return to when its fortunes are failing. Rushing through the Asylum Seeker Legacy Caseload Bill was a desperate attempt to regenerate some support and momentum for the government and to counteract the damage done by the defeat of so many of its budget measures. But without boats arriving, the politics of the refugee issue seems much more remote. No doubt the government hopes that terrorism and Muslim bashing will suffice as a credible and ongoing threat to the nation and its security. Whether it can upstage anti-refugee racism and help win elections in the long term remains to be seen.

The one exception to this general trend regarding social issues is the question of climate change, about which there has been substantial commentary and criticism, along with significant mobilisations since the election of Abbott. This was particularly evident at the G20 meeting in November, during which US President Obama embarrassed the government by calling on Australians to mount pressure on politicians over climate change.[24] The inertia that characterised efforts to organise around the issue after the introduction of the carbon tax under Labor, supported by the Greens, has been broken by Abbott’s enthusiastic repeal of the tax and his barely disguised climate change denial. Polling suggests that the issue continues to rank as one that overwhelmingly generates negative attitudes to the government.

Palestine

The first year of Abbott’s term was also one in which Israel engaged in yet another brutal war on Gaza. The seven-week “Operation Protective Edge” resulted in the killing of 2,194 Palestinians and the displacement of more than 100,000.[25] The government backed this atrocity, Education Minister Christopher Pyne taking the opportunity to visit Israel at the height of the massacres, explaining, “Good friends visit their friends in tough times. It is easy to visit your friends when things are going well. Fair-weather friends who come and go when things are on the up and up are easy to come by. Friends who come when times are tough – they are the real friends.”[26] This response has ensured continuity with the previous ALP government’s enthusiasm for Israeli war crimes, and has not dramatically altered the way in which sycophantic establishment support for Israel, or resistance to it, is manifested.

But there were several ways in which this war and the response to it differed from previously. On the positive side, Hamas defended itself against Israeli aggression more effectively than it has done in the last several assaults, and the revival of a fledgling but politically important protest movement in the West Bank added to the sense that Israel can be challenged.

Of significantly more importance, though, have been developments in the broader region. The fact that counter-revolution against the Arab Spring continues to advance under the banner of fighting Islamic extremism, from Egypt to Palestine to Syria, has disoriented many, especially Arab, supporters of Palestine around the world. This has affected the willingness of some sections of the pro-Palestinian constituency to mobilise and, combined with the cumulative effect of long-term broader depoliticisation, has resulted in substantially smaller pro-Palestine rallies this time around.

Finally, it should also be noted that Israel’s supporters were more aggressive in response to this war. Pro-Israel rallies were held in both Melbourne and Sydney, and an orchestrated campaign of repressing pro-Palestine activity was unleashed, focused mainly on university campuses. The atmosphere of intimidation that the Zionists have achieved is one that will not easily be reversed, but it is nevertheless important to resist.

Turn to Islamophobia

The takeover of Mosul by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in late June provided the Abbott government with the pretext it needed to dramatically change the focus of Australian politics. In language reminiscent of an over-zealous schoolboy, Abbott labelled ISIS an “apocalyptic death cult” and “uniquely evil in that it does not simply do evil, it exults in evil” which “has ambitions way beyond those of any previous terrorist group”.[27] Apparently unconcerned by, or possibly oblivious to, the substantial strategic difficulties facing the US in the Middle East, Abbott seized on these developments primarily with an eye to his domestic fortunes. Whipping up social panic about terrorism and a frenzy of anti-Muslim racism – two enduring themes in politics since 2001 – helped the government both to sideline the budget as the dominant political issue and briefly to regain some ground in the polls.

Central to this offensive was a series of much-hyped raids on houses of Muslims in Brisbane and Sydney, a hysterical campaign about terrorism and “home-grown jihadis” and the rushing through of a range of new anti-terrorism laws.[28]

The atmosphere created by these events, as was intended, provided a significant boost to the Abbott government. By late September, the government had improved its standing in the two party preferred polls. This reflected the fact that the Islamophobia of the government, although clearly driven from the top, met with little resistance among the broader public: a poll taken in October indicated that concerns about “terrorism/wars/security” were at their highest level since 2006, while Essential polls in September showed that nearly two-thirds of respondents supported increasing or maintaining the current level of spending on anti-terrorism measures,[29] and 59 percent supported extending the state’s right to detain without charge people suspected of terrorism.[30] A Roy Morgan poll showed a narrow majority supported the death penalty for people convicted of a terrorist act resulting in death.[31] Added to this, there were both numerous reports of low level harassment of Muslims on the streets and a number of better publicised violent attacks.

An important contributing factor to mass acceptance of Islamophobia and the hysteria about terrorism was the Labor Party’s stance, which, in stark contrast to its positioning around the budget, involved backing the Liberals’ terror hysteria to the hilt. The darling of the Labor left, Tanya Plibersek, cheered on Western intervention, while leader Bill Shorten indicated the government would have a blank cheque for terror laws and measures to rein in jihadis because “in the face of evil, nations of good conscience do have a responsibility to act”. He went on to describe ISIS as “the enemy of freedom, they are the enemy of tolerance”.[32] Just as Labor’s more leftist rhetoric around the budget was driven by polls and a perceived overreach by the government, its support for Abbott on the questions of war and racism was driven by the same self-serving considerations.

Labor’s me-tooism prevented the Liberals being able to use the issue to wedge them, as the Liberals have successfully done with the refugee issue. Their hard racist stance against refugees has been a major point of differentiation from the indecisive, flip-flopping position of the ALP, which has been constrained somewhat in its efforts to capitalise on racist paranoia by a concern not to alienate entirely the small-l liberal constituency within its own ranks and beyond that is sympathetic to the plight of refugees. Most often, the ALP ends up pleasing no-one; hence the Liberals are keen to push the issue to the forefront during election campaigns or when Labor is in government.

Unlike with the refugee issue, however, there is not as widespread a small-l liberal or left wing sentiment against anti-Muslim racism. Over the last two decades, the treatment of refugees has come to symbolise the racist and mean spirited nature of the political establishment, which, for liberals, constitutes a shameful blight on an otherwise supposedly open and pluralist society in which human rights are accorded respect. The persecution of Muslims, which has been vicious and unrelenting since 2001, has not in general elicited the same reaction.

A key reason for this is that Islamophobia is often framed, even by the right wing itself, in liberal terms. Pejorative characterisations of Muslims frequently appeal to or connect with existing liberal attitudes regarding women’s rights, the supposedly progressive nature of atheism and secularism, support for “tolerance” and aversion to “extremism” of any sort. Abbott has so far placed greater emphasis on this form of Islamophobia over the more familiar crude, unsophisticated racism epitomised by the 2005 Cronulla riot. The debate about banning the burqa demonstrated this well; while Abbott took the chance to express his (grossly hypocritical) disapproval for this symbol of women’s subordination, he shied away from carrying through a ban on the wearing of the burqa in parliament, as others in the Liberal Party were urging. Similarly, the government’s emphasis on the importance of multiculturalism, and that it is a minority of Muslims that are a threat to Western democracy, further served to give a gloss of respectability to what is in fact indefensible bigotry.

Acceptance of Islamophobia among many liberals as well as among the broader population has meant that Labor senses no advantage in opposing this form of racism relentlessly promoted by the Liberal party and the media. Indeed, had Labor taken a principled anti-racist stand, it would undoubtedly have suffered in the polls and given the government greater space to win support on the issue. As such, its positioning was entirely predictable, if contemptible. While the precious few voices prepared to speak out in defence of Muslims are vitally important, they have not been enough to break down the overall impression that there is a consensus regarding the legitimacy of Islamophobia, to overcome the demoralisation and intimidation many Muslims and anti-racists feel or to head off the further shift to the right that the Abbott government wants. The sparse turnouts to protests against Islamophobia, numbering in the low hundreds rather than thousands, sadly illustrated this reality.

Prospects for Abbott

Helpful as the racist frenzy was in enabling the Abbott government to recover somewhat in the polls, it proved only a temporary salve. By November, the government’s support had crashed back to budget-era levels. So lacklustre has its polling been, it is now the least popular first term government of the post-war era. The government has failed to maintain or reproduce the level of support it secured to win the 2013 election at any point during its term. By contrast, neither Howard nor Rudd, during their first years in office, saw their support drop below what they achieved to win government, and both recorded support as high as 60 percent at some point during their first year in power.

By late November, almost every right wing columnist in the country had penned an attack on the Abbott government, whether in relation to its lack of direction, its inability to capitalise on its political opportunities, its many gaffes or the mishandling of a range of political issues. Abbott himself has also come under savage attack. The problems that began for the government with its inability to sell its signature policy had snowballed by the end of 2014 into a generalised crisis that was shaking the confidence of the bosses and the right wing ideologues in the government’s capacity to get results.

So bad had the situation become that the outcome of the 29 November Victorian election was widely seen to have been decided in no small part by the unpopularity of Abbott. The Napthine government was voted out decisively after only one term, the first time in more than 60 years. The three percent swing to the ALP in the two party preferred vote, in the context of a Labor campaign that focused on jobs, supported the industrial campaigns of paramedics and firefighters and refused to distance itself from the CFMEU despite Liberal pressure, bodes extremely badly for the federal government and the bosses in general. The creation of a one term precedent not only adds credence to the possibility of a similar fate awaiting Abbott, but also adds to the general instability of the political climate and reinforces the lack of support for austerity.

From the bosses’ point of view, the government’s intransigence on its budget measures was folly. The attacks on Medicare, pensioners and young families, while amenable to the corporate sector, are hardly core to their agenda. Insofar as it was needlessly inflammatory to the electorate, it was seen by the corporate sector as potentially jeopardising the ability of the government to deliver the measures they were demanding: tax “reform”, industrial relations and improvement in the terms of trade. The danger inherent in an incompetent government picking unwinnable fights and alienating the public is that it would be unable to secure public support for any policies throughout the remainder of its term. That it could, as a result, become a lame duck administration, unable to achieve anything much, was of central concern to the corporate sector and their ideologues in the Murdoch press.

There is certainly plenty for the bosses to be worried about in relation to the economy. For the last two quarters, GDP growth has fallen considerably short of official forecasts. Growth over the last year has been just 2.7 percent, well under the longer term average of 3.1 percent.[33] Nominal GDP contracted in the September quarter for the first time since the global financial crisis hit in 2009.[34] Part of this is due to the collapse in commodity prices; iron ore, making up one fifth of Australia’s exports, is worth half of what it was one year ago, while the prices of coal and oil are also falling. They are being joined by Australia’s new “star export”, liquefied natural gas, meaning that export income is on a dramatic downward trajectory. The accompanying 3.5 percent fall in the terms of trade has created what some economists are calling an “income recession”, ABS figures showing a 0.8 percent fall in per capita real net disposable income.

The heavy dependence of the economy on mining for income, investment and wages growth furthermore makes it vulnerable to changes in this sector. With the investment and construction phase of the mining boom largely over, earnings through exports have since 2012 become the mining industry’s dominant contribution to income and growth. The collapse of commodity prices and the still relatively high dollar mean that mining is in a much weaker position to hold up the rest of the economy, or to stave off the decline in real wages and rising unemployment that are in part a result of the winding down of construction in the sector.[35]

And while sovereign debt is relatively low by international standards, it is nevertheless growing rapidly. In the first 15 months of the Abbott government, gross Commonwealth government debt rose by $75bn to a record $348bn, and new debt by $48bn to $226.4bn, also a record.[36] There is no real dispute then among the capitalist class about the need for austerity, to reduce government spending and create a more business-friendly tax and policy environment. The widespread public concern for health and education provision over reducing the budget deficit is thus cause for exasperation among the corporate heads.[37] Overcoming this concern requires a political solution and a government that can win the public to the bosses’ economic agenda. [38]

Interestingly, the fire of the corporate sector and mainstream media has so far remained largely focused on attacking the Abbott government and its budget and austerity failure, while comparable vitriol has not so far been directed at the ALP. Given that it is the obstructionist stance of opposition groupings that is crucially prolonging the government’s agony, highlighting its ineptitude and keeping budget issues in the spotlight, pressure on them to pass the budget measures would alleviate the government’s crisis somewhat and give it some breathing space. Possibly this has not happened because the ruling class can see that, in the long term, it needs the political class to win the broader public to a vision and agenda for society, rather than just relying on the press bludgeoning the opposition into submission. Additionally, this leaves space for the ALP or others, if needed, to force through an austerity agenda on different terms if Abbott conclusively proves that the conservatives are not up to the task.

The battle Abbott is struggling to win is thus one with broader significance than just getting a single budget or a specific policy over the line. To carry out austerity successfully, the ruling class needs to undermine the widespread support for public spending and contempt for policies that unashamedly benefit the rich at the expense of the poor that continues to characterise Australian society. For all that neoliberalism has been hugely successful, resulting in a massive transfer of wealth from workers to bosses under the ALP’s class collaborationist prices and incomes accord in the 1980s, extensive privatisation of public assets and pro-business spending and tax policies, it has importantly largely been carried out under Labor governments, frequently with the backing of unions and the left. In stark contrast to the experience in the UK under Thatcher or Reagan in the US, neoliberal measures were not imposed in Australia by winning a critical mass of the population to a vision of an individualised, free market, big business-dominated utopia, but on the basis of promises about rising living standards, unions securing a role in governance and improved service provision (the so-called “social wage”).

It is this legacy that the Liberals are attempting to overcome. Hence Joe Hockey’s anguish about the “age of entitlement” – the persistence of the widely held idea that that society should provide for people when they are sick, unemployed, have young children or seek access to education – and Abbott’s failure to generate support among any section of the population for his budget. With the experience of more than 30 years of privatisation and economic restructuring behind us, and in a situation in which the economic outlook for many is far from rosy, the ability of any government to peddle the austerity that the bosses are demanding increasingly appears more a wild fantasy of Murdoch journalists than political reality.

Pressure on living standards

Abbott also does not enjoy the benefits of rising living standards that have characterised previous Labor and Liberal governments. During the Howard years, living standards were improving, especially among the government’s core constituency of self-funded retirees, the elderly, small business owners, better-off families and the upwardly mobile section of the working class. The situation for workers today is, by contrast, one of increasing unemployment, downward pressure on wages, high debt to income ratios, a rising cost of living and a housing market that is widely considered to be overvalued. While high house prices currently provide some sense of financial security to home owners, they can equally become a source of anxiety and potential instability when they begin to decline and many people have little room to move financially. Polls indicate that two-thirds of people consider the cost of living to be the most important issue facing the economy, followed by wages and employment, according to research done by JWS. The same study found that the percentage of people with a positive view of their financial outlook had reached a low of just 14 percent.[39]

There is a sound basis for this negativity. Wages today are growing at a slower pace than at any time since the early 1990s. In the year to May 2014, wages grew by only 2.3 percent overall, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 0.7 points below the official inflation rate of 3 percent. [40] The Reserve Bank is not predicting that this trend will abate any time soon.

At the same time, the cost of living is increasing.[41] The prices of many essential goods and services on which workers, pensioners and students spend a disproportionate amount of their budgets are rising rapidly. Electricity prices have gone up by 110 percent in the last five years, food prices by 41.3 percent over the last 12 and gas prices by 54 percent over the last decade. These are some of the biggest increases in the world, according to the OECD. A Choice magazine Consumer Pulse Report taken in August found that one-third of people found it difficult to get by on their current income, and two-thirds had cut back spending on non-essential items.[42]

Added to this, unemployment is on the rise, reaching 6.3 percent seasonally adjusted in November – the highest it has been since 2003. Roy Morgan estimates that real unemployment, which includes the under-employed as well as those without any work, stands at 18.2 percent, up 3.1 percent over the last five years.[43] Joblessness among young people is also at historic highs; 20.4 percent for people 15-19 years old and 14.1 percent for those 19-24.[44] This is not affecting only unskilled young people: the number of university graduates looking for work is also at a 25 year peak, with one quarter of graduates unable to find full time work.[45]

Given that the ruling class continues to demand that wages be pushed lower, tensions around economic issues can become a source of instability for and backlash against the government. This indicates the potential that exists for the unions to connect with growing concerns about the economic outlook and standard of living for workers and those on the margins.

Conclusion

Abbott’s first year in power has exposed many of the contradictions of the Australian political landscape. That the Liberals have so far proved themselves singularly incapable of pushing through an austerity program, despite the weakness of the union movement, mass disengagement from political affairs and a mass media inclined to rally support, indicates that more than three decades of neoliberalism have not eradicated every vestige of social democratic consciousness on our side. The widespread support that endures for spending on public services and broadly progressive economic policies limits how much slashing and burning governments are able to get away with. This is despite the chronic passivity that continues to imbue the mass of the population. For our side, the budget represented a key opportunity to turn around this passivity, put mass politics back on the agenda and begin to rebuild active unions. That this opportunity has been squandered by those in a position to lead such a campaign is a tragedy, and has so far been a key source of the relative stability and strength for the Abbott government.

Muscles that are not used wither, but they can be strengthened again. The current weakness of our side belies the fact that the working class still has the power to bring the economy to a standstill, paralyse profits and create a social crisis that can once again put the needs of the majority front and centre, rather than those of the corporate heads. In a society increasingly characterised by downward pressure on living standards and underfunded social services but a low tolerance for austerity, there exists an eternal spring of grievances that will be fuel for the struggles of the future. Arming our side with the arguments that can present an alternative to the passive class collaboration of the current union leaders and ALP, and building the sorts of organisations that our side will need to counter the attacks of the bosses and their representatives in parliament, is thus a vital necessity today. Hopefully we can take some steps in this direction as Abbott battles his way through the rest of his so far chaotic first term.

 

 

[1] Stephen Barber and Sue Johnson, “Federal election results 1901-2014”, Research paper, Parliamentary Library, 17 July 2014.

[2] John Black, “Where the ALP lost its longtime supporters”, The Australian, 14 September 2013.

[3] Australian Development Strategies, “Australian Election Report”, September 2013.

[4] Ian McAllister and Sarah M. Cameron, “Trends in Australian Political Opinion: Results from the Australian Election Study, 1987-2013”, Australian National University, 2014, p15.

[5] Barber and Johnson, “Federal election results 1901-2014”.

[6] Essential Report, “Federal Politics – voting intention”, 28 October 2014.

[7] Margot O’Neill, “Poll data reveals Australia’s waning interest in politics, decline in support for democracy”, Lateline, ABC TV, 12 August 2014.

[8] Australian Electoral Commission, 2013, http://results.aec.gov.au/17496/Website/ HouseInformalByState-17496.htm.

[9] Tim Colebatch, “Record dud vote tally”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 September 2013.

[10] McAllister and Cameron, “Trends in Australian Political Opinion”, p47.

[11] McAllister and Cameron, “Trends in Australian Political Opinion”, p50.

[12] Nassim Khadem, “Abbott’s promised tax cut for 750,000 companies welcomed but business wants GST on table”, Business Review Weekly, 7 August 2013.

[13] Essential Report, “Leader Attributes – Tony Abbott”, 2 December 2014.

[14] Lisa Cox, “Julie Bishop most popular cabinet minister, Joe Hockey least popular with voters: poll”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 September 2014.

[15] Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), “Employee Earnings, Benefits and Trade Union Membership” cat. no. 6310.0, June 2014.

[16] ABS, “Industrial Disputes”, cat. no. 6321.0.55.001, September 2014.

[17] Stephen Drill, Ellen Whinnett and James Campbell, “Union corruption royal commission to get up to extra year to probe dodgy dealings”, Herald Sun, 7 October 2014.

[18] Essential Report, “Opposition vote on specific Budget issues”, 3 June 2014.

[19] Essential Report, “Government decisions”, 7 October 2014.

[20] Essential Report, “Management of the economy”, 7 October 2014.

[21] Essential Report, “Taxes and services”, 7 October 2014.

[22] Laura Tingle, “Treasurer Joe Hockey struggles to build a bankable image”, Financial Review, 9 August 2014.

[23] Rodney Croome, “Marriage equality will show what Australia is fighting for”, Melbourne Community Voice, 12 October 2014.

[24] Latika Bourke, “G20 summit: Barack Obama puts climate change at fore in speech at University of Queensland”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 November 2014.

[25] United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Protection of civilians”, Reporting period 21-27 October 2014.

[26] Primrose Riordan, “Christopher Pyne says Australia on ‘the right side of Israel now’”, The Canberra Times, 2 August 2014.

[27] Mark Kenny, “Abbott declares war on the Islamic State ‘death cult’”, The Sydney Morning Herald, 15 September 2014.

[28] See the article on Islamophobia by Vashti Kenway on page 55.

[29] Essential Report, “Spending on security”, 2 September 2014.

[30] Essential Report, “Detention without charge”, 30 September 2014.

[31] Roy Morgan Research, “Small majority of Australians favour the death penalty for deadly terrorist acts in Australia”, 19 September 2014.

[32] “Bill Shorten Press Conference: Melbourne – National Security 3/10/14”, quoted at billshorten.com.au, 2014.

[33] Greg Jericho, “Australia’s dreadful GDP figures – six things you need to know”, The Guardian, 4 December 2014.

[34] Laura Tingle and Jacob Greber, “What went wrong?”, Financial Review, 6 December 2014.

[35] Jericho, “Australia’s dreadful GDP figures – six things you need to know”.

[36] Stephen Koukoulas, “Budget surplus a distant dream as Coalition presides over spending surge”, The Guardian, 2 December 2014.

[37] Phillip Coorey, “Environment back as a top order issue”, Financial Review, 6 December 2014.

[38] Editorial: “Joe Hockey must go for broke”, Financial Review, 6 December 2014.

[39] Phillip Coorey, “Forget the debt, it’s the cost of living that bothers voters”, Financial Review, 16 August 2014.

[40] Simon Frazer, “Wage growth: Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show pay rates growing at rate below inflation”, ABC News online, 13 August 2014.

[41] Zoe Daniel, “High household debt and cost-of-living pressures causing depression, suicide attempts”, ABC News online, 24 November 2014.

[42] Andy Kollmorgan, “CHOICE cost of living report highlights tough times for many”, CHOICE online, 8 August 2014.

[43] Roy Morgan Research, “Unemployment and Under-employment Estimates (2007-2015)”.

[44] “Young people struggle to find work as youth jobless rate hits post-2001 high of 14 per cent”, ABC News online, 7 August 2014.

[45] “Australian graduates having toughest time in 20 years finding full-time work”, The Guardian, 30 July 2014.