Desperately seeking authority

by · September 26, 2010

That new paradigm thingy didn’t last long, now, did it?

At least not the world of “kinder, gentler” politics that Tony Abbott was promising. Nor the ability of rural Independent MPs to rise above the fray of deal-making and remain untainted by “old-style” party politics. Nor, of course, the dream of politicians finding more “consensus” rather than squabbling along partisan lines.

Yet there is a paradigm — one of growing social and political polarisation — that is playing itself out in a new way because of the election result, now unable to be hidden behind a mask of apparent governmental stability.

As Left Flank has argued before, the result represented something quite different to the outcome the political class has been desperately trying to deliver in the five weeks since. The voters effectively rejected handing power to either major party or the political class they represent, but for reasons quite different to those articulated by most commentators since 21 August.

With the writs returned, we can look at final AEC figures. From these, some very important facts about the election need to be stressed.

The first was that despite the 2PP vote finalised fractionally in their favour, the ALP had a disastrous election. From stratospheric polling as recently as late last year, they managed to see their primary vote crash from 43.4 to just 38.0 percent, a whisker higher than in the supposedly shattering Latham election. In raw figures they lost almost 677,000 votes, despite evidence that they benefited from a sophomore swing for their MPs newly elected in 2007. There was a primary swing away from the ALP in every state and territory bar Tasmania. It is no wonder that despite her apparently unparalleled negotiating skills in cobbling together a majority in the House, Gillard has not been able to assert authority as PM. The imbroglio over the Speaker and Deputy Speaker posts only reveals her inability to turn numerical advantage into political advantage.

The second main result is that Abbott has gotten the Coalition exactly not very far at all. It was a collapse of the ALP’s voter base and not a surge to the Liberals that delivered the hung parliament. Not only did the Coalition suffer percentage swings against them in Victoria, SA and Tasmania, the 1.5 percent national swing also hides a raw increase in votes of just 134,500.

To understand this last number it is necessary to turn to the third result, which is the high number of informal votes coupled with a low voter turnout. A legal compulsion to vote may partially hide growing voter alienation from the political system, but it cannot mask it completely. Tim Colebatch has delineated the trends well, pointing to the biggest collapses in voting and valid voting in traditional working class Labor electorates. Indeed, when one looks at all enrolled voters, only 71.5 percent voted for either Labor or the Coalition.

It is in this context — of weak major parties lacking any clear mandate — that we can understand the inability of either side to gain traction in the current circumstances. It also underlines that the Independents’ power is a negative one (whatever the reasons for their local success), that they have influence because of the weakness of the majors, not their own strength.

The one clearly positive result has been the higher Greens vote, up by almost half a million from 2007. While a section of this has undoubtedly also been the result of a “protest”, longer-term polling suggests that this is not as “soft” as many pundits want to claim. By articulating the closest thing Australia has seen to a social democratic program in decades, they were able to capture a larger section of Labor’s former left-wing constituency.

There are weaknesses in the Greens’ position. Their penetration of the white-collar working class and middle-class professional Labor vote is much more advanced than their ability to relate to working class voters, like those in Western Sydney, who have been abandoning Labor in droves. But Adam Bandt’s stunning demolition of a heavily union-backed left-wing ALP candidate in Melbourne speaks the symbolic importance of the result and a potential direction for the party.

There is another danger for the Greens: that they seek to rebuild political stability rather than use it to forge a new politics. Already the release of Treasury’s Red and Blue Books of economic policy priorities indicates that there will be pressure on the Government to slash public spending in line with international elite enthusiasm for savage austerity to overcome the global recession. It is in this context that we must see sudden big polluter enthusiasm for carbon pricing, as a part of a Treasury-recommended suite of measures to push reform to increase Australian capital’s advantage in a period of heightened international competition. The Greens’ enthusiasm for Marius Kloppers’ intrusion into the debate may seem like superficially good politics, but given how the BHP boss wants massive exemptions and givebacks to industry, it is hard to see what is worth agreeing with in his proposition, yet the Greens’ lack of an alternative economic critique leaves them open to falling in behind pro-elite climate action.

Despite the weakness of the current government, what is clear is that Australia’s ruling class will expect it to drive further neoliberal policies in their advantage. Such policies have already provoked significant resistance outside parliament in recent years, especially mass union campaigns against privatisation in NSW and Queensland. While the fightback has not reached the levels of confidence or militancy that marked working class politics in the 1960s and 70s, it has been much more widely supported across the whole population. The ALP has been the main victim of this in the first place, with both those state governments likely to be hammered when they face elections.

But there is a more important decomposition taking place — that of the ALP’s eroding base inside the trade unions. The Queensland Nurses Union, a staunch supporter of Anna Bligh despite its opposition to her privatisation agenda, has apparently decided to disaffiliate from the ALP (here, paywalled). This is a decision of a negative kind, a protest against Labor’s failure to represent its traditional constituency. But it also opens the question of how to resolve the crisis of political representation, one that has been answered (at least in a partial and ambiguous way) by union backing for Adam Bandt in Melbourne. It is a continuation of this discussion — not in parliament but throughout society — that presents the hope for forging a genuinely new paradigm out of the current crisis.

Discussion7 Comments

  1. wrongarithmetic says:

    Two things.First. The further decline in people taking government seriously. I think one response, as always, will be to try and find ways to encourage people to vote. Or to see the decline in voting as a bad sign, rather than a positive one (well, a negative that is a positive–in the sense that it indicates nihilism). That the vote is important will not be questioned; it'll be a premise that we all want a 'robust' democracy, with robust debates, and robust pay-packets for those in charge. But it is important to actually be with the people on this one. The encouraging turn-off from voting should be part of talking about politics again.Two. It is interesting how neoliberalism was supposed to have collapsed when governments transferred huge sums of value to corporations a few years back. Now it is obvious that governments remain committed to it. What else would they become committed to? To change the paradigm of how those in charge see society working requires massive work. The neoliberals put massive work into shifting things in the 1970s. I guess the turn to greater public spending was an effect of both revolution and war in the twentieth century, rather than a deliberate push. In the same way, today the absence of any alternative way of thinking social reproduction means that there isn't the sort of movement whose EFFECT could be to force governments to not be so right wing.

  2. Boris Kelly says:

    Thanks for the interesting insights, as usual.Clearly, Abbott is doing his best to provoke a crisis, constitutional or otherwise. However, there remain deep rifts within the Coalition and they threaten to rise to the surface during the climate change debate which will present Turnbull with his next chance to move on Abbott, which is the only reason he remained in Parliament. Abbott's adversarial stance on everything is not widely supported but, for the moment, he remains the party champion. "..yet the Greens’ lack of an alternative economic critique leaves them open to falling in behind pro-elite climate action."I disagree with this in part, Tad. I agree that the Greens are weak on economic policy and need new talent within the party to drive the debate. Without a coherent and well prosecuted analysis of the economy they cannot, as you say, build a new politics. The 'steady state' approach is, IMO, a good start – I know you think differently on this.As to the second part of your statement, I do not think the Greens' use of the Kloppers intervention is an indication that they will greatly compromise their position on climate change. Kloppers has taken the lead on this because a) he knows a carbon price is inevitable; and b) because he thinks he can wind back or at least cap the MSPT – or however it is acronymed these days. Palmer and Forrest quite quickly fell into line after the Kloppers' speech and Gillard was then able, with impunity, to reinstate the issue as under consideration. (I suspect the hand of Bill Shorten in there somewhere.) As the parliamentary debate progresses, the Greens can hold the line on their policy and, at worst, allow an improved iteration of the climate change bill to be advanced knowing that, if the government lasts, it will pass the Senate come July.Finally, you have heard me bang on about the need for the Greens to strenghten their ties with the trade unions and, at last, we see that beginning to happen. The ALP will not be happy about this and there will be push-back (see Ferguson vs Brandt on uranium). The real challenge for the Greens, as you say, is to find the means of communication, the language, to speak to the disenfranchised sections of the working class that feel abandoned and have lost interest in the political culture. Unlike wrong-arithmetic, I do not see this as a good thing.For more on underclass alienation, you may be interested in my post linking Joe Bangeant and Mad Men

  3. David C says:

    Hi, my name is David. I live in Melbourne and am a long term active Greens supporter. It was really fantastic on election night watching Adam romp it in. After many elections handing out HTV cards, it's nice to finally win a federal seat. And then to watch Adam's professionalism in the way he has handled it since then. In my experience (I've been in the party for 10 years and run three times) this marks a coming of age moment for the Greens as a party – especially in Victoria. Your comments about the need for a coherent economic and financial critique are well made, and I hope that greater literacy and policy development will emerge over the next few years. Don't underestimate the practical effect that union funding had on the professionalism of Greens campaigning, and the calibre of the candidates that we attracted in winnable seats. Adam's success was partly in getting his face everywhere, and many thousands of union dollars towards billboards made a big difference to the momentum of the campaign. Thanks for this blog, it's good to read thoughtful commentary.

  4. Dr_Tad says:

    Wrongarithmetic & Boris, I see the decline in voting as double-edged. I am certainly not arguing we must restore faith in the system, as many in the Greens would say (recall Bob Brown's spruiking of the parliamentary process after Mark Latham trashed it a few years back). The democratic deficit, as Left Flank has consistently argued, goes beyond the particular degeneration caused by the neoliberal turn of recent decades. Unless that negative (rejection) is tied to a positive (creating something new) then nihilism is all we are left with. Yet that kind of nihilism among young working class people has preceded past explosions of radical creativity, such as May 1968 (I will post on 1968 soon, with quotes from some excellent contemporaneous analysis of that revolt).But on the other hand, many people are clearly hoping that the Greens will fulfill a hope that society can change for the better through political action, even if it is within the existing system.It is out of those messy complexities and oppositions, elements of the old and the new, that we must build a new New Left.Boris, when it comes to the Greens' critique of capitalism (or lack thereof) I am less hopeful than you. This is because the Greens have an inconsistent and confused "line" on climate action consisting of rationally-based targets coupled with a stated assumption that markets will deliver them, if only they were allowed to. This actually contradicts the interest they show in steady-state economics.Such adherence to the market, if it gets implemented over climate, cannot but drive a wedge between them and current/potential working class supporters because it will be a climate solution in the interests of capital and not labour.PS Thanks for the link… I shall try to comment soon.

  5. Dr_Tad says:

    David, thanks for your comment. I thought Adam's two campaigns were inspiring, but mainly because they broke the mould of Greens campaigning which has tended to downplay class issues and avoid a serious orientation on breaking the ALP's working class base.From having been involved in the Greens' federal election campaign until I left the party just before the election was called, there was no coherent national *political* strategy of how to build a serious grassroots base that could withstand the swings and roundabouts of the media cycle.Adam's win, that of Lee Rhiannon in NSW, and the general unhingeing of the ALP's base open the possibility for the Left to advance more generally. But that will depend crucially on extra-parliamentary developments that can harness rejection of the neoliberal major parties into a meaningful social force. I guess this blog is trying to think and talk through what kind of politics the Left needs to take advantage of the new circumstances. Clearly the Greens will be a massive part of that equation, for better or worse.

  6. Boris Kelly says:

    Tad, that review is now posted on the Overland blog

  7. sansIcarus says:

    There's a potential interesting parallel from the federal results to the NSW state election next March. Labor NSW have shot themselves in the foot so convincingly so often that probably the best they can hope for is that a large proportion of those votes that run away from them run to the Greens, and that they end up in a minority government.This is probably a fairytale though, but maybe enough to help some of them get to sleep at night.