How having the Left in government made life easy for Abbott

by · June 9, 2013

Unceremonious bundling out

Unceremonious bundling out

Here is an edited transcript of the speech I gave at the Secure Jobs in a Green Future Conference. Thanks to the Search Foundation for inviting me along, and to the other speakers on the panel: Sally McManus, Andrew Giles, Cate Faehrmann, Nick Martin and Hall Greenland.

You can now access many of the presentations from conference (held in Sydney on April 6 and 7) on the Search website here and by visiting their Youtube channel.

I acknowledge that we are here on the land of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation.

Rather than getting depressed about this crisis, I’d suggest that one thing the Left has been good at in the past is to have a material analysis of the crisis, and to understand also the weaknesses of the other side — our opponents.

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.

—Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p 276

We are living through a period that Antonio Gramsci described very well, a period of many morbid political symptoms, on all sides. I will talk about three points in this discussion, including some lessons and some ways forward that we can look at.

It is important to understand the ALP’s crisis not just as one of narrative and ideology, but of real material factors in the formation and constitution of the ALP. The trade union base of the ALP has really withered. It was over 40 per cent density between 1914 and 1990. Now it is 18 per cent. This is the real base of the ALP. Strike days are down.

The party organisation is famous for how withered it is compared to even 20 or 30 years ago. The primary vote has collapsed compared with its historic levels. Don’t forget the ALP was out of office during the Menzies years, averaging 45.7 per cent of the primary vote even with the DLP in existence. And look at the last two elections and where we are heading now.

Most significantly, and a really bright spot of the last ten years, there’s actually been a Left formation – whatever its problems – outside the ALP that the Left has been able to draw inspiration from.

The factions of the ALP have also lost their meaning. The higher you go in the party, the government and the politicians, that real connection with the working class is not what it used to be. As Sally McManus described, there are some very unrepresentative fiefdoms, it is more about patronage than about social interests. We have a formally Left Prime Minister who attacks asylum seekers, single parents and so on. What’s going on?

Yes, the party has lost its ideological reason for being. It is really hard to take Wayne Swann seriously when he attacks mining bosses and at the same time as helping design the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, which hits them with a feather. But all those problems of narrative and ideology have to be understood on the basis of something real and material. The Labor Party has had ideological crises in the past but never has it been so deep and dramatic. And it is a crisis of political representation.

I would argue that Labor’s greatest success of the modern era, the Accord period, was its undoing, because its success was a neoliberal success.


If you look at that graph, of the trend of average male wages in Australia, you see that when the economic crisis of the 1970s starts, actually this rising wages situation falls apart. In fact, if we are really honest about it, wages do worse under Hawke and Keating than they do under Howard. I’m not a defender of Howard, but we have to think what the implication of this is; of a progressive reform agenda promised as part of the Accord but which wasn’t actually delivered except for a few things people keep talking about, like Medicare. Even superannuation, given its returns, and the financialised industry it created — you have to wonder how progressive a reform that was for workers.

But neoliberalism is hardly a popular set of policies. Here is polling from Essential Media Communications last year, showing Liberal-National voters saying who did well out of this period of reform.

Slide 8

Gosh, 55 per cent said corporations did. These are Liberal-National voters. You can see across the community that there is a real class sense that this project was not the right thing. Yet then mainstream political parties want to carry on with it, want to celebrate this ‘golden age of reform’.

Labor is going to lose the election this year, possibly horrifically. I’m starting to think 55-45 is not unreasonable. But it is actually the whole official political class that is having these problems.

The ALP’s crisis is currently worse, because it has come off a long period of power in the states and more importantly federally. But actually the Liberal and National parties have a lot of internal problems. Let’s not forget that Campbell Newman was the solution to a dire crisis of the LNP in Queensland. And the Left has forgotten that it won in 2007 because Howard’s agenda was so exhausted he got thrown out of his own seat.

We’ve forgotten the great victory there because we’ve then looked to this government to deliver things. As the crisis has gotten worse, both sides of politics both unpopular, have looked increasingly to scapegoating to cover this up. You can’t correct this by having a few nicer policies to talk to the base. You can’t correct such a deep crisis that way.

And the crazy part is that people don’t think Abbott is going to be great. He is unpopular in all the polling. Essential polling shows that most people expect to be worse off under Abbott than under the existing situation. There is new marginal electorate research showing that even though a majority of voters in marginal electorates are going to vote for the Liberals and Nationals, a majority also want a Labor government.

There are all these kinds of morbid symptoms.

Slide 10

Here is that Essential polling, really excellent stuff, showing people’s expectations of Abbott versus the current situation. In almost every category people expect that things will be worse, including by a factor of nine per cent that they themselves will be worse off financially under Abbott.

You can understand that it is a crisis of official politics, and not necessarily some kind of rational decision about who has the better list of policies.

That is why Abbott is playing the small target strategy. He is holding together a very messy, very diverse constituency, a lot just united by being against this government. He knows he can’t go back to Howard or implement the full Institute of Public Affairs agenda. As he made clear at the IPA dinner the other night, he said, ‘I’m not going to be the Whitlam of the Right’.

If we think he is all powerful, we instantly become demoralized and despairing, and get stuck worrying about that.

Let’s look at LNP governments. We’ve had two leaders overthrown, one of them by phone call while overseas. We have Campbell Newman in a lot of trouble internally. The fact that the Left hasn’t had a political resurgence in any of those places doesn’t tell you anything about the weaknesses of the Right.

Abbott is a thug, but his government will be weak and incoherent, and if you predict an Abbott apocalypse all the time, you just make people passive in the face of it.

Slide 12a

Is there a basis for a new WorkChoices? No there’s not. Look at LNP voters opinions on penalty rates – overwhelmingly LNP voters think people should be paid penalty rates.

Slide 12b

Contract work – who does it help? The vast majority of LNP voters think it helps employers more than workers.

But the ALP’s morbid symptoms have been made worse by this period in government. It has attacked refugees, watered down the minerals tax, dropped climate action (and then been pushed by the Greens to do something). Then there are welfare crackdowns, the Northern Territory Intervention, gay marriage, 457 visas and nationalism — you name it. This is a government that has played to the Right. It has accepted the primacy of Abbott before he has even won an election.

The current leadership can’t even claim its one true achievement — saving us from the Global Financial Crisis — because that’s apparently when it was most dysfunctional under a psychopathic leader.

What sort of confusion do we get out of this? It attacks Abbott for not being pro-market enough on climate, not pro-market enough on paid parental leave. Is the ALP possibly now having its PASOK moment? This is a serious issue.

The Left, though, has dropped serious political independence from the ALP’s project. The ALP Left is caught up in that. Unions demobilized the Your Rights At Work and accepted a government that gave us WorkChoices lite.

And the Greens — this is a more subtle process. The Greens haven’t collapsed their program in the face of Labor, but they gave ground politically to Labor by entering a political alliance. They exchanged some policy sops and access for muting the kinds of harsh criticisms they used to make of the ALP. They actively demobilized supporters in the climate movement. They’ve thrown away their ability to stand against this crisis of the political class. Even now they talk like, ‘Labor is really terrible’, but on the other hand ‘it was really good that we were in power with them’.

To build a new Left we have to start by recognizing that the Left can’t rebuild while it accepts large parts of the neoliberal agenda. People want to hold on to bits of it as if you can add nice stuff to it. We have to recognise that this is a crisis of political representation but we shouldn’t join in it. We shouldn’t make excuses for bad policies because our side is implementing them. There has been too much of that under this government.

We should develop a Left program that doesn’t subordinate itself to first getting Labor and the Greens into government. Really we have to think about mass political action, the sorts of movements we saw in the early 2000s, the inspiration of Your Rights At Work and the Climate Movement, rather than governmentality.

I don’t think Abbott is the main danger. Are we actually prepared for a global financial crisis actually hitting Australia? Are we prepared for when Abbott goes into crisis? Because the Left in Queensland hasn’t been prepared for Newman going into crisis and hasn’t been able to take advantage.

It is really important that we understand that the ALP’s crisis is so deep that we can’t expect an automatic benefit for the ALP from a crisis of an Abbott government.

Finally, and perhaps most worryingly, this partisanship is bad, but it’s not so bad in terms of the general populace, because most people are not pulled along by it. But there is a hard Right constituency building, and not only is Labor having a PASOK moment, but we could see a Golden Dawn moment down the track as well. And that is a real concern, far and above Abbott.

[The Essential tables are from this Pollytics blog post]

Discussion6 Comments

  1. Judy says:

    I think your suggestion for mass movements is appropriate. Easier said than done tho. However, the energy going in to propping up the mainstream parties, inc the Greens would be better spent building movements around the myriad issues we need to campaign on: workers conditions and equal rights, refugees and racism, climate and economic alternatives to coal. Historically, reformist parties have done best on the back of social movements. The recent TV program on Whitlam showed a caring modernising PM, but he was nothing without the social movements of the time. The movements were central in creating the the political context which made it imperative to modernise, recognise China and show some national independence, as well as implement Medicare/Medibank, pensions for supporting parents, equal pay and abortion rights, Land Rights and workers rights (esp. migrant workers). Even Rudd’s victory relied on the anti-WorkChoices campaign. I challenge the Greens in particular, but also Labor to establish movements ala the anti-Vietnam Moratorium. Can’t be done overnight of course, and needs very clear political arguments to carry off. Not just movement-building but party-building as part of the struggle, so need lots of political clarity. In the 1980s politics was dumbed down from above as was the struggle – the Accord.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      I don’t think I disagree in general, Judy, but I think you undercook the political aspect. There will be big movements in the (hopefully near) and reformist parties will be part of building them, but the real question is what politics win out in those struggles. In that sense the radical Left has been very weak at thinking through how this relates to “actually-existing politics”, which is always concentrated around the state. We cannot wish away that this is how politics operates in capitalist society, and so saying that (for example) “the Greens would be better spent building movements around the myriad issues we need to campaign on” is true in an abstract sense but doesn’t start from where things are.

      Since 2007 organised reformists have accepted that the Left’s role has been to govern, and not build an alternative politics based around a different kind of agency. After 2007 the ALP and union leaderships dismantled the revival of trade union politicisation embodied in YRAW, and then the Greens actively pursued the subordination of climate campaigning to their political needs (not to mention softening a whole host of criticisms they had of the ALP — including over refugees — during the alliance).

      I would argue that politically the Greens remain a very contradictory force: On the one hand proving the possibility that there is life on the Left outside the ALP, and on the other narrowing the range of what politics is allowed to be into governmental/parliamentary channels. This then has a profound impact on the very possibility of building movements, and (collectively) we on the radical Left have not found a clear set of arguments to challenge this, instead tending to fall back into arguments about “the need to build social movements” or “the need for struggle”. These are correct but one-sided.

      I’d argue we need to talk more about building an independent Left politics that can engage with the official politics that overdetermines every social conflict. Yet with all the talk of “revolutionary unity” going on around the place, this seems the furthest thing from most organised Marxists’ thinking.

  2. Ben says:

    It’s a good point to make that so many LNP voters don’t support the LNP agenda. Too many of the Labor diehards seem to be consoling themselves for their impending defeat by blaming it on LNP voters being sheep, tories, etc.It’s like “class” politics (as Labor once pretended, at least, to follow) turned into the mentality of football yobs: you barrack for them, so we hate you, etc.

    Actually, the problem is that Labor has not provided any standout principles to inspire more active support. And in the face of the murdochery’s assault on everything the ALP does, they would need to have strong principles and stand up for them to get traction. No hope – if anyone discovers principles alive in the Labor caucus, I’m doubtful they will be anything that would help the average voter anyway.

    One minor quibble: I think it’s exaggerating to say the Greens “actively demobilized supporters in the climate movement.” Their policy stance has implicitly done so, I think that’s definite, but I’m not personally aware of them discouraging climate campaigning, more often the opposite.

  3. Bruce says:

    Thanks. Most useful, especially the EMS polling. While you see signals in the data about recognition of class interests (under Abbott company profits up, workers rights & conditions down), it’s also clear that lots of LNP voters are just awfully confused or locked into their ‘cultural team’ despite the intentions of their MPs – and the ALP has done nothing to speak to that. That’s the great challenge for The Greens, to simultaneously be ecological anti-neoliberals and break in many ways the artificiality of the ‘2 sides of politics’. Can you please point to any insightful contemporary research on why people vote the way they do. Seems like a very obvious subject but I haven’t read much!

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