THE uncomfortable irony surely has not been lost on the Gillard government: the Labor Party, which is so weakened that large segments of its own electoral base are simply marching away, holds on to office only because four men who have never been part of the ALP have decided to give it a bare parliamentary majority.
—Shaun Carney, The Age, 8 September 2010
There is a fundamental confusion at the heart of most of the mainstream analysis of the 17 days of post-election crisis and its eventual “resolution” on Tuesday, a confusion that combines two quite separate dynamics into one. The commentators have correctly recognised that something different happened on 21 August because voters gave neither major party a mandate. But in reporting the novelty of the eventual outcome — a minority government supported by a variety of parliamentary actors — they have assumed that the political process that delivered this result had been primarily about addressing the problems voters were identifying.
The reality is that we had 17 days of the political class frantically stitching up an agreement to minimise the impact of ordinary voters on the status quo. Rather than representing a “new paradigm” of democratic openness and responsiveness to the popular will, the deal seeks to use changes in form and process as a smokescreen for lack of change in content. But most importantly, rather than this being a cause for complacency (or despair) that the problem can thus be laid to rest, it merely opens a new period of instability for the politicians and the powerful elite interests most of them are reflexively committed to serving.
If one theme has dominated Left Flank to date, it has been our critique of the games of the political class in what has been a uniquely empty election campaign. But our opposition to these machinations stems not from cynicism about “politics” in general, just its current identification with such narrow and meaningless phenomena. Indeed, the election result on 21 August was one of those rare moments when ordinary people manage to transcend the minimal, narrow and atomised democratic rights they are usually allowed within modern capitalist society.
Since the emergence of a neoliberal consensus between the major parties in the early 1980s, there has been a hollowing out of the political agenda of both sides, intertwined with the slow erosion of their stable voter bases. The pattern has been of federal and state governments of both sides driving through pro-capitalist reforms, until eventually thrown out by voters, only to be replaced by their opponents promising difference but delivering more of the same. This, rather than any number of other real limitations, has been the heart of the “democratic deficit” — at each election ordinary people have only been allowed to choose which side mis-represents them for the next term.
In this sense the hung parliament is less important than the fact that the Greens, a party that offers a semi-coherent left-wing program of reforms, has inserted itself into the mix with over 11 percent of the vote in the House, and even more in the Senate. To put the achievement into perspective, this is the biggest national vote for a left of Labor party in Australian history (with the special-case exception of the Lang Labor split of the 1930s). It is this that lies behind the cries of Liberal politicians that we will now see the “most left-wing government in Australia’s history”, and also behind the remarkable campaign being waged by The Australian to have The Greens “destroyed at the ballot box”.
At one level this can be seen as a typically hysterical attempt to implement a preferred right-wing agenda. But in a more measured explication of the same themes, consummate elite insider Paul Kelly spells out what is really at stake:
There have been two influential political traditions that never accepted the post-1983 pro-market reform era that delivered Australia recession-free from the recent global financial crisis. They are the unreconstructed rural interventionists that often mock the Nationals as sellouts and the ideological Left, once strong in the ALP but now at home in the Greens and sections of the education establishment where the Greens draw much support.
For the capitalist class, fattened up and intellectually lazy after three decades of economic rationalism and some lucky escapes managed through hitching itself to growth engines elsewhere (most recently China’s), the emergence of the Greens is far more significant than the party’s relatively mild reformist platform would suggest. Rather, the Greens are a palpable expression of the fact that the ruling class can no longer rely on parliamentary democracy to deliver only variants on “there is no alternative”.
The irony, of course, is that like most of the rest of the Left the Greens have no systematic critique of the project that has got us into this mess in the first place. They tend to see neoliberalism in terms of some of its more superficial features, like “deregulation” and “consumerism”, inadvertently whitewashing its class character. And the party is silent on the question of power and its relation to the state, instead projecting the utopian notion that winning a majority of votes for its project will allow it to be implemented — as if the current state machine and the capitalist class whose interests it manages are full of leopards who will simply change their spots. The fact that powerful interests are already looking to humble the Greens through a mixture of cooption and brute force will be a test not only for the party but for the wider Left.
It is to the project of rebuilding the Left that this blog is committed, but that’s not just about building and defending one organisation or another. It also means developing a discourse that seeks clarity about these big questions, too long left posed but unresolved. The alternative is that we stumble from crisis to crisis intellectually unprepared and risk being, once again, comprehensively outflanked by the Right.
If there is anything “new” about today’s politics it’s that their side is scrambling to regain initiative just as they thought they were guaranteed a permanent place in the driver’s seat. Today marks exactly ten years since the most important day of my life as an activist, S11 in Melbourne when the WEF summit at the Crown Casino was encircled and disrupted by anti-capitalist protesters (pictured). For a brief period, and for the first time since the 1970s, our side was on the front foot. It no longer seems unreasonable that we can get there again.