There has been much discussion in the left-leaning blogosphere about the stridency of the Murdoch media campaign against the “legitimacy” of the Gillard minority government. As Left Flank noted on the weekend, The Australian has editorialised that it is committed to having the Greens “destroyed at the ballot box”.
In the AFR on Friday (paywalled, but article in PDF form here) Laura Tingle, perhaps the nation’s best mainstream political correspondent, analysed the tensions that had developed between Kevin Rudd and The Australian during the life of the last government. She also reported that Bob Brown had broached the topic, attacking the Murdoch flagship for going beyond its traditional Fourth Estate role in trying to get its preferred result from the electoral impasse.
The Coalition, meanwhile, has been on the front foot to destabilise the government by calling it “illegitimate” and some business groups have joined in the already familiar complaints about the “lurch to the Left” the Labor-Greens deal will allegedly cause:
“Rural and regional Australians should be very concerned (about) the Green alliance with the Labor party, which effectively positions Bob Brown as deputy prime minister,” Mr Cotter said. “Labor’s shift this far left is unheard of in Australian federal politics, and we should be wary that it will come at the cost of the industries which have underpinned Australia’s financial resilience.”
On Insiders, Gillard was forced to fend off questions about the tensions with the media, resulting in a spray that the three Independents had done more to expose Tony Abbott’s costings gaffe than the entire MSM. Her line, clearly directed at the Murdoch press, was that she wanted to read more “facts” in the media.
But behind the hysteria around “legitimacy” is a bigger problem for Labor and for all supporters of the minority government (including critical ones like The Greens or even us here at Left Flank). This election (and the deal stitched up in its aftermath) has highlighted three separate issues that, while related, are not identical.
The first can be easily disposed of. By any constitutional or electoral logic, the current government is entirely legitimate. Whatever we may think of the politics or the pork-barrelling, or what we think of the severe limits of democracy under capitalism, there is no evidence of significant fraud, corruption or subversion of the existing system.
But the second issue is that of mandate, and it is clear that Rob Oakeshott was absolutely correct in stating, “This is not a mandate for any government.” He, of course, meant it formally because neither major party won enough seats to gain a majority in its own right. This has been the source of the disproportionate bargaining power won by the Independents and Greens. But behind this lies the deeper question of what mandate, stated or unstated, any section of the political class has in driving its agenda.
If the crisis of political representation in the neoliberal era signifies anything, it is that the mass of the population is unhappy with both sides. Economic rationalism has delivered worse material outcomes for the majority of Australians, measured in a massive shift of wealth from wages to profits (see ABS graphs, below), growing inequality, rising working hours, erosion of public services, increased stress at work and a shift away from collective provision by the state to private squalor. Despite whatever superficial differences they concoct for the purposes of winning votes (usually, as with the NBN, pale shadows of policies that once defined the ideological differences between conservatism and social democracy), both sides treat the “economic question” as no longer in dispute. In this way, differences on questions of class, power and redistribution now appear irrelevant, and the shared orthodoxy can be presented as somehow “non-ideological”.
Yet on most economic questions a majority rejects the economic rationalist argument. We have seen this in action as the NSW and Queensland Labor governments have committed electoral suicide by pursuing privatisation agendas. Near-unanimous support for such policies among economic elites has proven less than sufficient to maintain even a semblance of popular consent among their traditional voters. Now with the hung federal parliament both sides have failed to win a majority for business as usual. The biggest winners were The Greens, a party with a serious, if contradictory, critique of the economic status quo, and Independents who had built some of their success by arguing against neoliberal policies (even if from the Right in Katter’s case). The election result reflects the collapse of neoliberal hegemony within the Australian polity precisely because a significant minority of voters have refused to simply accept more of the same on the basis of loyalty to the two-party system.
Therefore, for supporters of the current government to argue it has a mandate is misplaced. This is, rather, the government you get when mainstream politics loses its mandate and has to scramble about to retain at least some numerical legitimacy. It also explains why attempts to compare it with wartime minority administrations don’t stack up. Back then there was national agreement around the war effort, extending even to the influential Communist Party, thereby creating a social consensus in support of the political class that simply doesn’t exist today.
It is from here that we can better grasp the divisions opening up in the mainstream media over how to approach this novel arrangement. Since late 2009 global elite opinion regarding the economic crisis has shifted from an emphasis on quasi-Keynesian state intervention to concerns about “sovereign debt” and the need to drive austerity measures via swingeing cuts to public spending. At the Toronto G20 even Wayne Swan was a keen advocate of fiscal rectitude and dropped Australia’s past interest in a Tobin Tax on financial transactions. With gray international clouds casting a shadow over reports of local economic silver lining, Australia’s capitalist class worries about maintaining competitiveness above all. But with their overseas rivals able to drive down costs in the context of global stagnation, that means going on the front foot here. So they are wary that the Greens and Independents may force through dangerous ideas about taxing mining profits, imposing costly emission reduction, slowing the pace of marketisation and giving workers more industrial rights.
While some mainstream commentators imagine that the new minority regime can simply reinvigorate the failed pattern of promising one thing but delivering the same old economic program, others are fearful that the sudden outbreak of democracy on 21 August could result in paralysis should nasty attacks on the working class be required. It is in this context that the Murdoch media’s aggression can be best understood, as an attempt to discipline the ALP into abandoning any confusion about whose interests must be served. Of course Murdoch has other reasons to hate the ALP, but the real (and disturbing) point is that he is not alone in this belligerent strain of ruling class thinking. Analysing the role of the press and other social institutions in manufacturing ideology, Marx was on point to say:
The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.
Yet our political class has been so weakened that it is not at all certain that the efforts of the right-wing pundits will be enough to stop further revolts against economic rationalism. We on the Left must be clear, however, that when we defend the current government it against such conservative attacks and not because we want to make excuses for Labor’s foreseeable lack of movement on progressive issues. So, for example, while there are many good reasons for the Greens not to get tied up seeking a post in a minority cabinet, Bob Brown’s reason — defending Gillard from a potential “wrecking campaign” by the conservative press — simply ceded too much ground to the Right’s agenda. Announcing that this was what he was doing was even sillier.
In a recent interview Adam Bandt said he wanted to be a voice for social movements within Parliament. The Greens’ ability to do so will depend on whether we can build such movements outside parliament in the months and years ahead, and how much the Greens can be drawn into that process when there are powerful forces pulling them in the opposite direction. It’s high time for ordinary people, and not the political class, to exert a mandate for real change.
P.S. Alternatively, rather than getting all hot under the collar (or stabbing ourselves in the eye with a fork) because of Mr Murdoch, here is a far more productive approach.