For some time, this blog has insisted that an Abbott government — far from getting a smooth ride, even with a big parliamentary majority — would most likely face “crisis and volatility” at least as much as the ALP had over the last few years. By way of contrast, the rapid accumulation of problems for Abbott in recent weeks has come as a shock to many on the Left, especially those who had — prior to the federal election — staked much on the all-powerful and apocalyptic nature of the coming Coalition regime.
This was the dominant narrative on the Left from at least the middle of last year, gaining extra currency because of the political interests staked in making such a case. For the ALP, especially before Kevin Rudd returned and boosted the party’s fortunes, there was a need to gee up demoralised troops for the campaign. There was also the hope that exposing the coming Armageddon would convince voters to step back from the abyss. For the Greens there was a need to find some reason for the party’s newer supporters to stick with it despite it having been tarred by association with Gillard.
All of this was really about obscuring the disastrous political performance of the centre-Left in government. That’s why it usually came with overheated rhetoric about that government’s legislative record (hundreds of laws passed!), and one-sided views of the government’s social policy achievements (although at least the Greens sometimes managed some distance from Labor on this).
For some of the radical Left talking up Abbott’s destructive potential was a way to get activists prepared for imagined epoch-defining struggles ahead, tied up with nostalgia for how previous conservative governments were fought (even if those fights ended in impasse or glorious defeat). Yet such talk obscured how much social movement activity had petered out under Rudd and Gillard, so that the brief flurry of relatively small demonstrations against the “PNG solution” could be seen as a major revival of protest. It begged the question: If radicals couldn’t make major gains at the ALP and Greens’ expense when they were in government, “selling out” their supporters, then what were the chances they would succeed under Abbott? More importantly, hyperbolic calls to action tend to discourage patient, long-ranging and complex collective discussion as to the nature of the current conjuncture, and therefore what kind of radical project might need to be built and what the possibilities are for building it.
The overestimation of Abbott is founded on a lack of appreciation of the general crisis of official politics in this country. This crisis is the product of a prolonged period of decay of the social bases of the established two-party political system, and in particular the decline of Laborism (defined as the organised intervention of the trade union bureaucracy into politics, based on a previously institutionally powerful but deeply conservative union movement). The crisis has led to voters increasingly seeing politicians and political parties as utterly detached from their social interests, and even to a hatred of politics. It is this that explains the fragmentation of the vote and the rise of forces deploying an anti-politics appeal, most recently Clive Palmer’s PUP.
The ALP’s part in this crisis has been especially acute in recent years, exacerbated by the party machine’s revolt against Rudd in 2010, exposing the machine’s inability to cohere an electoral majority whereas in the post-WWII period of nine consecutive federal defeats Labor’s primary vote repeatedly came close to 50 percent. As The Piping Shrike is fond of pointing out, Labor’s only federal election victory of the last 20 years was in 2007, when the party ran on Rudd’s brand rather than its own.
Labor’s crisis served to obscure the parallel problems on the Coalition side. In August last year I predicted an Abbott victory would bring such issues to the fore:
It seems almost certain that he wants to play a similar game to that of recently elected state Liberal premiers, launching a series of attacks around a theme of deficit reduction. But he will do so in a situation where, no matter how big his parliamentary cushion, he will have little popular base to rely on and no coherent program to win consent for. The result is likely to mean more political chaos, not less. ALP talk of Abbott being able to ‘do a Thatcher’ should therefore be seen for what it is: an attempt to mute criticism of the current government, even while it concedes most of Abbott’s agenda.
Looking back, I now think I was guilty of overestimating Abbott’s room for manoeuvre. As I wrote in June this year, it was becoming increasingly obvious how short a leash Abbott would be on, precisely because public disdain towards Labor did not mean active (or even passive) support for the Coalition. The ramshackle electoral constituency that Abbott was able to carry through 7 September was far more a negative one than a positive one. This meant that any election win, even if Abbott’s majority was sizeable, would be on the basis of very little authority on which to drive through the kind of dire “neoconservative” or “neoliberal” agenda that the Left was shouting about. The shallowness of Abbott’s electoral support can be seen in this graph (from ABC’s Insiders) comparing 2PP polling for his first three months in office with the same periods of the Howard and Rudd governments:
There is a reverse danger, however, that the Left may now get carried away with exaggerating its own role in Abbott’s crisis. Rather, we need to be clear that his problems have mainly been the result of the internal contradictions of his government and the Right, not a reinvigorated and effective campaigning Left (even if there are some early signs that the latter might be starting to emerge in some places). Let’s take a look at the seven major areas of Coalition strife:
- The Gonski double-backflip — conservative state premiers and even the private school lobby were outraged by the sudden funding withdrawal last week
- GrainCorp — pressure from the National Party
- Qantas — pressure from the belligerent Qantas boss, Alan Joyce
- Asylum/border policy — an Indonesian government sensing Abbott’s weakness
- The NSA spying scandal — an own goal in context of declining US power in the region
- The widening budget deficit and debt ceiling “debate” — economic reality impinging on pre-election bluster
- The MP expenses scandal — Abbott paralysed by an entitlement culture in his own party, with the final “resolution” lacking muscle.
As much as Bill Shorten and Christine Milne might hope they had contributed significantly to the Coalition’s problems, they have largely tailed these developments (or at best provided half-hearted criticisms). The bigger driver is the multiple simultaneous pressures faced by Abbott: the need to hold together his electoral constituency, high expectations from rabid socially conservative and free market fundamentalist forces within Coalition ranks, the electoral pressures on the Nationals, the frothing of nutty think tanks like the IPA, the dismay of some sections of business who want more application to their needs over other “sectional” interests, the inability to gain traction on asylum because of international and practical considerations, and so on. And all of these contradictory dynamics then produce a nasty positive feedback effect, where Abbott’s weakness, chaos and backflipping makes him look like he’s ripe to be stood over.
The anxieties this has provoked among more sensible pro-capitalist commentators can be seen in this piece by David Llewellyn-Smith, a risk analyst who publishes the useful MacroBusiness site:
What I look for in making my assessment is the system at work. What’s the frame of reference giving rise to decisions, not what does any one decision mean. On that score, the Abbott Government’s recent performance can be seen to flow from philosophies attributable to John Howard and Bob Santamaria; it can be interpreted as politicised, populist, nationalist, socialist, neo-conservative, realist, fiscally responsible and irresponsible, reformist, random, honest and mendacious, all at once.
That’s the problem. I see no pattern at all. No identifiable talisman of leadership.
The reaction of the government’s most reliable right-wing supporters — whether in the op-ed pages of The Australian or from the bowels of the IPA — has been one of dismay and rising anger at how things have come to pass. That some then argue for unhinged non-solutions (privatise the ABC, anyone?) shows how few ideas they have to address the crisis.
None of this means that Abbott can’t still do nasty things, especially to vulnerable groups like asylum seekers, and especially to try to address his lack of authority. His supporters may even demand a big bang reform package to stem the malaise, one that he will feel unable to refuse. But all this will be from a position of weakness not seen in a newly elected federal government since the Great Depression. While some aspects of Abbott’s weakness are specific to this government, they are also part of a general problem for the political class — and so simply awaiting the return of the centre-Left to government is no guarantee that things will stabilise. In fact, there are good reasons to suspect that the mainstream Left will be unable to marshal a sufficiently coherent approach to wrest back government, and we may see some variant of Howard’s early years where the Coalition’s electoral support splintered in multiple directions (including to the nationalist Right). Finally, there is no certainty that this political crisis will lead to radical alternatives emerging that are able to break free of the factors that led to the current situation, even in the event there is a rise in social resistance.
For such radical alternatives to materialise, they would need to be oriented on an understanding of why and how the existing political order has unravelled, and why Abbott has been unable to reverse the crisis. That means breaking with the existing ways of thinking about politics that led to overestimations of Abbott’s power. However, such ways of thinking still pervade the entire political spectrum, even at its radical edges. They do so because they are the representations in thought of the practice of bourgeois politics itself — weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living even as that project decomposes before our eyes.