Marking pro-Liberal commentary over the last four years was the repeated occurrence of flashes of lucid insight into the nature and dimensions of the crisis of Laborism. Whether it was the hollowing out of Labor’s social base, the destructive actions of the factional power system, or Gillard’s inability to revive the party’s fortunes with appeals to the party’s material nature as the organised intervention of the trade union bureaucracy into politics, from time to time the most unpleasant and partisan pundits would grasp a key element of the party’s decay.
The problem, of course, was that they rarely bothered to turn a critical gaze back on their own side, to understand that the Right’s apparent ascendancy was much more to do with Labor’s tormented degeneration, hastened by the curse of incumbency. This, in turn, led to complacency about what would happen when the Coalition finally occupied government. A complacency probably strengthened by the apparent inability of the ALP to recover in opposition at state level.
I’m not expecting them to get it now (because their partisanship puts honest analysis out of their reach) but Abbott’s discomfort over MP expenses and the shocking 27 percent swing against the NSW Coalition in the Miranda state by-election are without doubt signs of greater turmoil to come.
Now of course the spin will be that there are specific “local” factors in the Miranda result, and indeed there are. The sitting Liberal quit for a plum job as CEO of the Gold Coast Titans, and a major investigation of council corruption allegations involving Liberal councillors and developers are major news locally. The returning ALP candidate is a popular figure. And of course it’s a by-election, so voters can “safely send a message” to a government with a massive margin in parliament. But the staggering scale of the Liberal defeat — which psephologist Antony Green says involved the largest swing ever recorded in a NSW by-election — needs more explaining than that, given it is only two years into the life of the O’Farrell administration, not its fag end.
Some on the Left have been quick to credit the creative intervention of the firefighters’ union (FBEU) connecting fire station closures to the bushfires raging across NSW. This undoubtedly had some impact, but apparently pre-poll voting before the fires hit was running similarly badly for the Liberals. In perhaps the most telling sign of the anti-government mood, the Daily Telegraph reported before the by-election:
The Premier has sent out his entire cabinet to Miranda to man train stations and push the claims of Brett Thomas, the Liberal candidate against former Labor member Barry Collier.
But that has proved a tough task, with ministers hearing all about the difficulties commuters have with the government’s new train timetable and less services on some stations.
All this while hapless ALP leader John Robertson was on the verge of being ousted by his own caucus over his inability to get traction against the seemingly impregnable Barry O’Farrell, and over the revelation that he’d been offered a $3 million bribe when still a union leader and failed to go to the police about it.
The point is not that the state ALP is now suddenly making inroads, but that the foundations on which O’Farrell’s dominance are built are much shakier than at first appeared, obscured as they were by Labor’s problems locally and federally.
Indeed, the end of the federal Labor government has not led to the automatic implosion of the ALP everywhere; rather, it has exposed the problems on the Liberal side of politics. And this is despite the ongoing self-obsession, bile, disunity and factional manoeuvres in Labor’s ranks federally.
The Right’s problems should have been more obvious if people had been paying close attention, but the excruciating ALP turmoil in Canberra served to distract from clear evidence that not all was well in LNP Land. To take three examples: (1) Having been parachuted in to save an apparently unelectable LNP, Queensland premier Campbell Newman’s run has been less than stabilising, despite a majority even bigger than O’Farrell’s. His health cuts have been unpopular and he’s held back from implementing most of the infamous Costello Commission of Audit for fear of voter backlash. Internally there has been crisis, with the loss three ministers to scandals in less than a year. (2) The Victorian Liberals ousted Ted Baillieu as leader in March after he could no longer maintain the confidence of a majority of the Parliament. And (3) only days later the NT Country Liberals ditched their chief minister, Terry Mills, by phone while he was overseas.
Which brings us to Tony Abbott.
We have to pause for a minute, however, to recall that this man is not only supposed to be the most effective opposition leader in living memory, not only supposed to have seen off three prime ministers (Rudd, Gillard, Rudd) with his strategic brilliance, not only heading a disciplined and ridiculously well-prepared opposition; he is also supposed to be delivering “grown up” government after the Labor antics of the last few years. In the imaginations of much of the Left, he is also not-so-secretly planning to deliver the Abbott Apocalypse, a government so dastardly, so neoliberal and neoconservative, that only uncritical adulation for Gillard/supporting Labor through gritted teeth/voting Greens in the Senate (pick one) could have saved ordinary folk from devastation.
Yet before even a single parliamentary sitting day, the Abbott project has proven underwhelming, to say the least. Have the boats been stopped? Er, no, but arrivals have stopped being routinely reported. Will the boats be turned back? Um, sorry, the Indonesians gets to run that bit of policy and besides we never promised that anyway. Has the Carbon Tax been repealed? Oh, not just yet, we need Bill Shorten to help with that by threatening him with a double dissolution we would really like to avoid. OK, so maybe your Commission of Audit will give you an excuse to privatise everything? Whoops, we’ve had to rule out privatising Australia Post and HECS debt in advance, putting our commitments to sell-offs in general in doubt. Maybe at least there will be big budget cuts to rein in Labor’s wasteful spending and save the country from The Budget Emergency? Well, actually, deficit spending on infrastructure as part of a gentle stimulus will be the order of the day.
Apart from a few expected sprays in the culture wars (which have gotten the usual suspects on the Left all hot and bothered), it’s all been strangely pragmatic and restrained, as if Abbott and his team realise the disparate assortment of voters they held together to win the election is largely uninterested in or hostile to classic Liberal ideological preferences. But if you think it’s been restrained, apparently right-wing Liberals think it’s been absolutely outrageous that Abbott — once thought to be the great saviour of the Liberal brand — has tied himself to a bunch of “moderates” like Peta Credlin, Julie Bishop, Joe Hockey, Christopher Pyne, George Brandis, and Greg Hunt, many dating back to Malcolm Turnbull’s shadow cabinet in 2009.
These Liberal warriors are not impressed with the possibility that after six years of opposition they will get something less than the continuation of the hardest and/or most personally rewarding aspects of the Howard years.
This same dynamic is even more intense over MP expenses. We have to be clear that most voters are furious that MPs get any of these entitlements, and don’t care as much as, e.g. the Greens, that “the rules” are obeyed in a transparent fashion. So the news that Liberal MP Don Randall, who it seems may have spent over $5000 in public funds (now hurriedly paid back) to fly with a family member to north Queensland to buy property is not going to be investigated by the AFP — i.e. that what he did was probably pretty close to being “within the rules” — is only likely to anger voters further. After all, an SMH web poll on “Should Don Randall be sacked if it’s confirmed he flew to Cairns to take possession of his investment property at public expense?” came in at around 97 percent “yes”.
Yet as former Howard minister Peter Reith made clear, Liberal MPs think these kinds of lavish entitlements are a basic part of the job. Worse for Abbott, even quite limited moves by his office to vet what MPs are claiming
has triggered dissent in government ranks, with disgruntled MPs claiming their private lives are being invaded and the PM’s office was indulging in a “power grab”.
“It’s one thing to ask ministers and parliamentary secretaries to seek permission but for backbenchers this is just ridiculous,” one Coalition MP said.
“These people are adults, they can make their own decisions. More experienced hands will just laugh this Stalinist move off.”
MP entitlements have been poisonous for Abbott, who has enjoyed much less than a classic honeymoon in the polls despite the ALP self-obsessing over its leadership election and prevented by factional interests from running hard on the issue.
On both the policy front and on entitlements, Abbott faces major contradictions between keeping the party happy internally by playing to their long-term ideological preoccupations on the one hand, and the requirements of running the state in a stable manner — including keeping an angry electorate at bay — on the other. So far he has been unable to do this especially well, with even some of his forays into the culture wars backfiring internally (e.g. over the number of women in his cabinet). It’s not that he hasn’t tried — but one gets the feeling that he will need to deliver much more to keep his side happy, and that means risking a major backlash.
While these contradictions are based in the historical peculiarities of the Right, they have a lot in common with the ALP’s problems at a more general level. In particular, the crisis of political authority on both sides is characterized by what Antonio Gramsci described thus:
At a certain point in their historical lives, social classes become detached from their traditional parties. In other words, the traditional parties in that particular organisational form, with the particular men who constitute, represent, and lead them, are no longer recognised by their class (or fraction of a class) as its expression. When such crises occur, the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous, because the field is open for violent solutions, for the activities of unknown forces, represented by charismatic “men of destiny”. [Selections From The Prison Notebooks, p. 210]
Gramsci is not saying here that the problem is that the traditional parties have grown less representative. Rather, he is pointing to how the reality behind the veil of “representation” has been increasingly exposed. This reality consists of the fact that the political class is part of a state that, far from expressing some “general” interest of society, has its own interests that are opposed those of the society on which it is founded. It is no wonder that in this kind of situation voters can so readily turn against parties they just voted into power, producing all kinds of volatility and unexpected results. Voters are not just angry with the political elite but increasingly have no real investment in the parties that once seemed to articulate their interests, however imperfectly.
Of course, a crisis of politics — not even one this protracted and intense — is not a crisis of society as a whole. But it does mean that, even in the absence of either a serious breakdown of capitalist accumulation or the rise of social resistance on a much larger scale (e.g. in places like Greece), those who govern us are in a far from strong or stable position. They may also be tempted to overreach themselves in order to try to resolve the conflicting pressures on them, but in doing so they will risk disaster — unless those opposing them let them off the hook, say by offering them unnecessary concessions or legitimising their actions. If you think you’ve seen how bad a crisis of politics can get, Abbott is very likely to prove to you that you ain’t seen nothing yet.