Just 18 months into its term and Labor is starting to wobble. While Albo’s victory halo lasted longer than might have been expected, the situation has now clearly turned. Frustration with Labor’s inadequate policies has now decisively replaced hostility to Morrison and the former Liberal government in the public’s consciousness. A broad sense of malaise has crept in, colouring almost everything the government does.
The overwhelming factor in all this is the assault on living standards that has gone on under Labor’s watch. Inflation has hit Australian workers hard, with incomes falling sharply when adjusted for inflation. The situation is much worse than the data shows, since the official cost of living metrics do not include the soaring cost of mortgage repayments due to higher interest rates. The resulting scenario of consistently falling living standards is unprecedented in modern Australian working-class history, where workers have steadily improved their living conditions in the 32 years since the last recession, albeit at increasingly slow rates.
While the government can’t be blamed for the global inflation crisis, it is absolutely accountable for its response. Labor’s economic policy team, led by the charmless Jim Chalmers, have deliberately chosen to sacrifice working-class living standards on the altar of macroeconomic orthodoxy. They have celebrated the achievement of a budget surplus – the holy grail of neoliberal economics – built off taxes on the booming mining industry and rising income tax on workers due to bracket creep. Meanwhile Chalmers has refused to adequately fund health, education and welfare reforms, or to commit the serious sums of money needed to regenerate public housing. In fact, because of their scandalous commitment to Morrison’s stage 3 tax cuts for the rich, Labor is actually planning to cut spending on the NDIS and a host of other public services.
More fundamentally, Labor in opposition promised workers real wage rises in an attempt to relate to the cost of living issue. It has already betrayed this promise by asking the Fair Work Commission to deliver nominal wage rises below the rate of inflation and, embarrassingly, below what the court subsequently decided was fair. While union leaders are celebrating the industrial relations reforms that Labor has pushed through, there is no sense in which the laws are designed to empower workers to fight their bosses by lifting the draconian anti-union and anti-strike legislation currently on the books. Rather, they turn the dial on the rigged arbitration system one notch in favour of union lawyers. Now, with Labor looking vulnerable, it is possible that the second tranche of these pathetic reforms might be abandoned, with Albanese set to revert to his favourite do-and-say-nothing, small-target approach to politics.
Sadly for Albanese and Labor, refusing to take a position doesn’t work as well when you’re actually in charge. Nothing has made this clearer than the debate around housing over the last year or so. The government has been under immense pressure to address the severe housing crisis that has made finding affordable accommodation a challenge for millions. Labor’s signature housing policy, trumpeted as an historic measure, is set to deliver a woeful 6,000 houses a year over the next five years. This is a vanishingly small figure that will have no impact whatsoever on prices, the liveability of our cities, or anything else. As with so much of Labor’s policy, the media spectacle around the Housing Australia Future Fund was seen as more important than any substantive attempt to improve the lives of workers, students and the poor. But newspaper headlines don’t help people feed, clothe and shelter their loved ones.
In the absence of policies that meaningfully address the soaring cost of living, Labor is losing support. And rightly so. A recent AFR/Freshwater poll has Labor’s primary vote at a lowly 33 percent, down from a peak of 37 percent last December. While this number seems healthy compared to social democratic parties overseas, the current figure mirrors what they achieved in the 2022 election: its worst showing since 1934. Other polls show different data, but the overall trend is clearly downwards.
How this plays out is yet to be seen, but the growing discontent can express itself in all sorts of ways. The populist furore about the government’s close ties to Qantas is indicative, where public anger at Labor’s slavish defence of corporate interests was able to be harnessed by the Liberals in favour of the pro-market slogan of “greater competition”.
The issue of immigration is set to be a flashpoint in coming years. Labor have opened the taps on migration, the benefits being the alleviation of labour shortages and allowing universities and other big businesses to make a killing on international students. The numbers are nearly triple the original forecasts, and in the absence of struggle or adequate social planning, probably are having a negative impact on wages and housing costs. Though migration is not the fundamental cause of these or any other social problems, it can be a powerful means of deflecting economic tensions onto racist terrain. Anti-migrant views are now regularly canvassed in the mainstream media and by various Liberals, despite the near universal backing that Labor’s border policy enjoys from big business.
So far, the Liberal opposition has been unable to score any real victories on the politics of inflation, housing or any related matters. However there is a natural benefit to being in opposition: everything that goes wrong is someone else’s fault. As such, Dutton’s personal popularity is creeping up from a low base, and the gap between the two leaders has been steadily closing. As well, the resignations of popular premiers Daniel Andrews and Mark McGowan compounds the sense of drift, and means the Labor Party must face future challenges without two of its most effective leaders in living memory.
Where the Liberals have gained some traction has been the referendum on the Aboriginal Voice to parliament. Thanks to their concerted opposition, a policy that Labor had initially hoped would score them easy points with progressives, like the apology to the Stolen Generations, has become a political minefield. The Liberals have achieved this feat by using a confusing and often contradictory series of arguments. To begin with, their opposition was expressed as concern and doubt as to how the Voice would function, and whether it would sufficiently empower local Indigenous communities as opposed to bureaucrats in Canberra. But their arguments have become increasingly and openly racist, graduating to Jacinta Price’s open denial of the genocide suffered by Indigenous people in the colonial period. This evolution has happened as the No campaigners have picked up momentum from successive polls showing their lead growing, and the insipid nature of the Yes campaign.
The full significance of the likely No victory will only be clear in the aftermath of the referendum. But there are already lessons to be learnt. The Liberal Party has a loyal base which is highly motivated around issues of race and racism. This represents a solid third of the population who might have accepted the Voice had Dutton gone along with the token gesture, but were keen to go on the attack once a lead was given. Nothing that any of the most extreme proponents of the No side have said has given this group cause for concern; indeed the more rabid the racism, the more enthusiastic they have been in championing that side. Given the solidity of the Liberal primary vote – and their surge at a state level in Queensland and Western Australia – this hard-right approach is clearly not costing the Liberals any support.
Then there is the third of the population who are more consciously anti-racist, who stood on the side of refugees in the darkest days of the Howard years, and who overwhelmingly remain Yes voters today. They are horrified at the display of bigotry, but the official Yes campaign has made no serious attempt to mobilise these people outside of one major day of action in September. Yet the size and scope of these demonstrations, tens of thousands-strong in Melbourne and Sydney, thousands elsewhere, indicates that there is a solid base of anti-racism on which to build.
The real issue has been those in the middle, who started off as unsure or soft supporters of the Voice but turned to No more recently. These are mostly not rabid or necessarily even conscious racists, but simply people who don’t follow the issues and don’t care enough to find out. This softer bigotry, manifesting as disinterest in the plight of such an oppressed group, is given weight by the broader cost of living crisis which remains front and centre of most people’s minds. As well, the messy realities of a political contest can make sticking with the status quo seem easier and safer. This is especially the case given the lack of ongoing public activism or campaigning around this or almost any other question of Aboriginal rights. While Invasion Day demonstrations are something of an exception, it is still the case that only a third of people support changing the date of Australia Day, let alone the abolition of any celebration of the racist Australian state.
Key to all this is that the Labor Party and its associated institutions have failed to prosecute a serious argument either in favour of the Voice or against the No camp. For decades the ALP has sided with the conservatives on race-related issues. From refugees to the NT intervention, youth crime, counter-terror laws and more, Labor’s default strategy has been to duck for cover and back the racist position to avoid a polarisation. Given this history, it should be no surprise that they find it hard to challenge the Liberals when they are so out of practice. Yet their continuous retreat on the core issues is as remarkable as it is enraging. The Voice was supposed to be the first step, followed by a national treaty and truth-telling commission. Labor has now said it opposes a national treaty, the only element of the Uluru process with some possibility of leading to reparations and any semblance of self-determination. Labor and the official Yes side have refused to campaign against the clear racism on display. Each and every time the right have been criticised for their racism, the press have defended the bigots by attacking those doing the criticising. In this infuriating, topsy-turvy world, calling out racism is nasty and divisive while celebrating genocide is a legitimate opinion. The liberal media and the official Yes campaign have been just as happy to enforce this as the right; witness the criticisms of Marcia Langton and relatively small anti-racist actions organised by the left.
Alongside all this, big business, who initially indicated they would support the Yes campaign when they thought it would be an easy PR win, have quietly retreated. Neither the AFL nor the NRL used their finals series to back the Yes side, nor have any of the major supermarkets, airlines or other capitalist behemoths seriously intervened. The left should not expect or particularly demand such support from capital, but it is important to reflect on the cynical impotence of bourgeois anti-racism.
Overall then, the Voice has brought some of the dynamics of global politics to Australia. It has given the hard right a focus around which to build, and exposed the inability of the political centre to respond to this terrible development. Whether the right can continue to make gains following the referendum is unclear, but this whole experience is a clear indication of the need to build a socialist alternative to the reformist and centre-left forces. It is a problem that this stark situation has been so misread by the tiny groups and individuals around the “progressive No” campaign. By failing to comprehend the central dynamic of the referendum and respond appropriately, they have in practice provided useful cover for the bigots. Emblematic of this has been Indigenous Senator Lidia Thorpe’s attempts to reach out to the racist No side, offering to work with Warren Mundine and Jacinta Price on multiple occasions.
Foreign policy is perhaps the only field where Labor is enjoying a clear run, on the basis that they are aggressively championing the cause of US imperialism in the Pacific region. Foreign Minister Penny Wong has been on an endless tour of the various island nations, holding out the carrots of aid and work visas in exchange for joining Team America. Labor has also given the green light to turn Australia’s north into an American military outpost, where it is highly likely that nuclear weapons are now being deployed alongside B52 bombers. And while “budget constraint” has been Jim Chalmers’ phrase of choice, the government has renewed its support for acquiring nuclear attack submarines. This outrageous decision makes Australia’s involvement in a war with China more likely, will cost the taxpayer upwards of $400 billion and will tear a gaping hole in the global non-proliferation treaties surrounding nuclear technology.
Paul Keating and Bob Carr, experienced attack dogs for the Labor Right, briefly galvanised opposition to AUKUS, albeit on an objectively pro-imperialist and nationalist basis. Their talking points – that the money could be better spent on other weaponry and that war with China was not in Australia’s interest – have dominated the anti-war sentiments expressed in the mainstream and on the broad left. This manifested briefly within the ALP itself, centred on sections of the party with anti-nuclear traditions, notably the Electrical Trades Union. But after early success in passing an anti-AUKUS motion at the Queensland state conference, the machine quickly turned the screws to prevent the members “embarrassing” their leadership. For a party with such a long imperialist history, preparing for war with China and maintaining the US alliance are not up for discussion.
As is often the case under Labor governments of late, there has been little left-wing opposition to any of Labor’s right-wing agenda. The remnants of the old anti-war movement have been unable to mobilise more than a few hundred people, so too those campaigning for the 13,000 refugees languishing on inhuman bridging visas that need to be renewed every six months.
On the core issue of inflation and living standards, only the union leaders are in a position to act. But the current batch seem largely content to run our movement into the ground. Strikes and union density are at historic lows, and there is no prospect of a turnaround. It is historically unprecedented for union membership and activity to be declining at a time of full employment and high inflation. It is even worse when you consider the fact that growing numbers of young workers are increasingly hostile to the rich and open to left-wing ideas.
Under Adam Bandt the Greens have consistently positioned themselves as a clear left opposition to the ALP. They have consciously sought to fill the social democratic space Labor once occupied on issues of welfare, healthcare and education. Most recently, it was housing where they made their biggest splash. By holding up the government’s legislative agenda for months, the Greens were able to put renters’ rights on the map for the first time in many decades. This stood in stark contrast to their earlier approach in waving through Labor’s mild rebranding of Tony Abbot’s climate policy. Yet just as the public had been won to policies once seen as radical, such as rent caps, the Greens capitulated, despite Labor making no changes to the appalling status quo for renters. So overall then, despite rhetorically shifting left, the Greens remain a loyal opposition to the ALP. As Eleanor Morley wrote in Red Flag:
The Greens have developed their own rhythm in tandem with the government. First, they criticise proposed legislation for not going far enough. Next, they pass it anyway, amid claims that they extracted great concessions. Finally, they insist they will keep fighting, despite having lost all leverage.
The various failures of the moderate left, the radicalisation of the mainstream right, and the growing economic and political tensions all point to the need to build a socialist movement in this country.
Bowe, William 2023, “Voting Intention”, Poll Bludger. www.pollbludger.net/fed2025/bludgertrack/
Morley, Eleanor 2023, “The Greens capitulate on housing”, Red Flag. https://redflag.org.au/article/greens-capitulate-housing