Legitimacy, mandates and the media

by · September 14, 2010

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”.

Profits share of total factor income
Wages share of total factor income

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.

Discussion8 Comments

  1. David Jackmanson says:

    Bob Brown's complaint that The Australian has "stepped out of the role of the fourth estate" sounds both quaint and conservative to me.Private media outlets have a perfect right to follow any editorial line they choose; if a left-wing group set up a website or newspaper calling for the destruction of the Liberal Party at the ballot box, thar would be utterly legitimate.The same goes for Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young last night on Q&A; she was almost begging the Nationals to join the Greens in being responsible, not "wreckers". It's like pore ole Gough basing his claim for re-election after the 1975 dismissal not on the grounds that the program he was elected on was being frustrated, but that Fraser and Kerr were violating constitutional conventions originally designed to bolster conservative rule.

  2. Dr_Tad says:

    SHY put in quite an unedifying performance last night. She also seemed to be reneging on Bob Brown's willingness to pass a version of Abbott's PPL scheme, saying that unless it was part of a balanced Budget the Greens would make no commitments. In her rush to prove that she *hearts* a Gillard government more than anyone, she has ended up attacking Abbott from the Right. Yuck!On the issue of the paid ideological prizefighters of the capitalist class, here is the ABC's own Alan Kohler attacking the Greens in Business Spectator: http://www.businessspectator.com.au/bs.nsf/Article/Julia-Gillard-Kevin-Rudd-Minister-NBN-Tax-carbon-t-pd20100913-98SRVThis is certainly not a clearcut "Murdoch v The Rest" issue, which is why particularist explanations of why The Oz is so rabid won't wash, IMHO.

  3. Dr_Tad says:

    Kohler's piece has even been published on the ABC's Drum website. No bias there, folks: http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/09/13/3009594.htm

  4. Boris Kelly says:

    You make a lot of sense Tad, but not enough IMO. The Left reminds me of a sheriff without a posse. It's all head and no body. Until the Left remembers how to actively engage with and build trust with the working class there will be no social movement building or consolidation of the gains made by the Greens. You may well be correct in your analysis of their shortcomings but I see no other cavalry on the ridge. The Left should put aside ideological quibbles and get on with the job or organising. The Greens seem to be taking the lead on that front too. Fact is, you have to take the people with you and not just a coterie of like minds. I'm just saying and mean no offense. You talk a lot of sense but I don't think this the time for highlighting factional divisions.

  5. Boris Kelly says:

    This post over at Crikey is relevant to the distribution matter.http://blogs.crikey.com.au/pollytics/2010/09/15/want-to-double-average-income-in-4-years/

  6. Dr_Tad says:

    The Left *is* terribly isolated from the "body" of the working class (as a class) but that is in part due to the fact the Left *lost its head* in the period of retreat from the late 1970s. It is hard to "build trust" when the leading cadres of the Left (first the CPA, then the ALP Left and now to a certain extent the Greens) run with programs that have delivered or threaten to deliver a negative outcome for the working class.I see two key issues worth pursuing, which I hope to keep developing here in future blog posts. First, that the Left has prioritised the incorporation of progressive demands into the workings of the capitalist state (as opposed to seeing them as being forced on that state by mass pressure from without). The Accord is the classic model of how incorporation led to catastrophe, but the Greens risk falling prey to it also with their lack of a critique of the state.Second, there is the Left's acceptance that it is in workers' interests to keep capitalism healthy, so that its benefits can trickle down to them. Yet if capitalism is a system of crisis that demands sacrifice from the working class to reinvigorate itself (such as we see in Europe and the US today), the health of the system is actually bad for workers. My attempt to dissect Greens economic philosophies is part of an effort to scrutinise such assumptions.I spent 8 years in the Greens, in its most left-wing state party, and held responsible positions within the party hierarchy. That experience convinced me that the Left needs clarity on a whole bunch of questions that are almost impossible to have seriously debated within the party — simply because the party is built on blindness around these issues. Furthermore, the party organisation has become more narrowly focused on electoral work over time and less able to interact with social movements except in a parliamentarist way. I don't raise my disagreements for the sake of factionalism but because I think we need to start preparing ourselves for the debates that the Greens' success will generate. Better to be critically supportive than uncritically hope the Greens MPs will work things out themselves.

  7. Boris Kelly says:

    Having been a trade union delegate during the Accord period, I am well acquainted with the incorporation of workers' representation into the government-business value chain. The working class have been abandoned to the manipulation of docile unions and spurious notions of aspiration driven by the Right. Tad, I understand and appreciate your motivation in critiquing the Green agenda (I am not a party member, by the way). My point, however, is that analysis is not worth much unless it leads to strategic engagement. Here, unlike you I suspect, I am not advocating a revolutionary politics but, rather, an extension and consolidation of the evolutionary, consensual approach adopted by the Greens. For all their faults, the Greens remain the most effective political force on the Left.I would like to see a broad-based national forum in which the future of the Left can be debated. National summit cliches aside, I do think the time is right to bring the Left together to discuss its place in the current political environment and to redefine its composition and mission. As I work through the list of prospective speakers at such a forum I am reminded of the depth of the contribution a revitalised Left can offer. What do you think of this idea, Tad? BTW, I don't see this as a Greens-focused event but one in which analyses like yours can be considered more fully.

  8. Dr_Tad says:

    I only recently left the Greens after deciding that I could do more effective work in promoting a (new) new Left outside the party's structures than within. I hope that for all my criticisms of the party, my Overland article indicates how vital I think the Greens have been to building a Left… and by extension my angst that the existing radical Left has either been uncritical or sectarian towards these developments, usually from a position of lack of serious engagement.I am very excited by your proposal… smaller-scale projects of this sort seem to be springing up in various forms around the place. I think that any such forum would have to find a place for more "revolutionary" views, not because we want the sects to come and disrupt but because the collapse of Stalinism and social democracy as meaningful projects means that the form and content of the debate is much more uncertain and open than it may have been 30 years ago.At some point I should tell you about our experience running the Sydney Greens Forums, a series of Left forums over the last 6 years or so.