For most of the Left the re-election, on a big swing and record vote, of Greens Senator Scott Ludlam will be the most cheering news from the WA Senate special election. The Greens campaign was carried out with a large army of enthusiastic and youthful volunteers — door knocking and staffing phone banks (the latter on a nationwide basis) — reportedly the biggest and most expert and professional “grassroots”, “people power” effort in the party’s history. Moreover, it came in the wake of Ludlam’s parliamentary attack on Abbott (the video of which went viral), a similar anti-Abbott sentiment expressed by the Marches In March, and a National Press Club address by Christine Milne trying to harness a new popular “vibe” against the government.
When we dig a little deeper, however, we are also seeing a much more complex set of dynamics that this blog has been tracking for some time, before Abbott’s victory seemed to interrupt them: The decomposition of Laborism, the weaknesses of the Coalition, and the rise of anti-politics.
Ludlam and his supporters deserve credit for their ability to seize the initiative, especially coming so soon after the Greens’ demoralising loss of support in September. Meanwhile the ALP suffered a large swing against it, dropping to its lowest WA Senate vote of the post-WWII era. The Greens’ approach of being more anti-Abbott than Labor, on a pretty traditional left-wing basis, has worked to break a large chunk of Labor’s voters to the smaller party. This is a return to the kind of campaigning the Greens did in their breakthrough years in the early 2000s, before they shifted to align themselves more closely with the ALP. It will provide breathing space for Christine Milne, who has been subject of incessant leaks about her leadership (although, ironically, the poor federal and Tasmanian state results that are used against her were both rooted in strategic choices she had been internally critical of).
There is no question that the overall WA result result — a 7.5 percent swing against the Coalition parties* — is a reflection of the federal government’s mounting troubles, just short of seven months in office. The mantra from the Liberals that this is a typical lower house style anti-government swing makes little sense. Not only has the government suffered a big swing against it in a state allegedly chomping at the bit to have the carbon tax reversed, but the spread of votes on the centre Left has swung to the more climate focused party. Similarly the result contradicts theses such as David Marr’s that the Right is successfully mobilizing “millions” of votes by appealing to racism. Not only did the Greens vote rise; the Right’s vote fragmented towards Clive Palmer, whose asylum seeker policy is more “humanitarian” than those of the Coalition and Labor.
The low Coalition vote comes on the background of Abbott’s being the poorest-polling new federal government since such things began to be surveyed. The entrance of the Coalition into federal government has exposed the Right’s problems in a way that was obscured by Labor’s rolling crises, especially under Gillard. Since Left Flank last looked at the Right’s weaknesses, its problems have continued to mount. Just in the last couple of weeks Abbott has lost (maybe permanently) Arthur Sinodinos to an embarrassing performance before ICAC, experienced a backlash within the political class and among ethnic community elites over Brandis’ ham-fisted sales job over 18C, and opened himself to ridicule by going around Cabinet to reintroduce knights and dames. It is the kind of situation that has made the government’s backers in the commentariat increasingly nervous.
But the deterioration in Coalition votes has not been matched by a big resurgence on the Left. The Greens did very well to take 15.9 percent of the vote, but this was only a 2 percent improvement on their previous high water mark in 2010. The combined swing back to the ALP and Greens since September is only 1.6 percent. This marks a major reshuffling on the Left in the context of catastrophic Labor decline. At 21.8 percent, Labor’s numbers fit with the pattern established by state elections in NSW, Queensland and (most recently) Tasmania, and which resemble the nadir of Labor opinion poll standing while Gillard was leader. That this latest disaster comes after the revelation that Labor’s lead Senate candidate Joe Bullock — a former union official from the right-wing SDA — sees his role as slapping down the Left and blocking gay marriage, crystallized not only general dismay with the ALP but exposed the nature of the party’s base in the bureaucratic elite of a union movement rapidly showing itself to have little remaining social relevance. No one noticed Bullock when he was first elected in September, but with all eyes on the Senate the nature of ALP politics has become much clearer and will give momentum to the party reformers seeking a more decisive break with the unions. Whether such moves will solve their difficulties is another matter.
Herein lies the danger of exaggerating the significance of Ludlam’s vote. While his campaign tilted the balance between the ALP and Greens, it has not brought the Left back into contention for government. Together the two parties won less than 38 percent of the vote, down 6 percent from their 2010 level. What it does show is that when the Greens are not in governmental alliance with the ALP they do better. Having improved their performance in election after election in the 2000s, the Greens’ forward march was slowed and then halted after they signed their deal with Gillard in 2010. They improved less than expected in Victorian and NSW state elections and then had an uninterrupted run of reversals at state and territory levels (and many council elections), culminating in the shellacking they received in Tasmania last month. But they also took a tiny step forward in SA, and now the WA special election shows they are far from a spent force. This should make clear that the commitment to a strategy of responsible participation in government is an electoral liability. And when they differentiate themselves from the ALP, they have a better chance of convincing wavering left-leaning ALP voters to make the switch.
What is clear is that the Greens still haven’t come to terms with why they were so roundly punished after the alliance with Gillard. Stating that Labor’s internal shenanigans tarred the Greens (as Milne and Ludlam have) doesn’t get to why Laborism is in such sharp decline (see here and here for a detailed analysis). Moreover, simply opposing Abbott will not be enough to tap into the wider mood of anger at all politicians. In this the Greens’ message has been similar to the one pushed by the organisers of March In March: Sure the ALP and Greens have made mistakes, but the overriding problem is the need to get rid of Abbott (with the implicit message being that we need the centre Left back in power). The WA result should indicate the problem with assuming that revulsion with the Right is driving voters, rather than a rise of anger at the political class more generally, just currently more focused on who is in government. The Greens may become ever more skilled at cannibalising votes from the ALP, but it will be within the bounds of a greatly diminished electoral base for the Left overall.
Which brings us to Clive Palmer.
The rise of PUP in WA, winning 12.5 percent of the vote has again wrong-footed mainstream and Left observers. Most still seem to think that attacking Palmer’s economically undeliverable promises will expose him as a fraud. Or that damning him for using (his own) corporate cash to win votes will reveal him to have no real support. Or that his erratic anti-politician persona, complete with scathing vitriol directed at the established parties, will simply show he is not to be taken seriously. Or, finally, that his status as a member of the business elite will repel people, as soon as people wake up to it. All these views miss what is happening, because in fact political attacks only increase the anti-political appeal of operators like Palmer. It confirms to voters that the insular, self-obsessed political class and its media lapdogs are simply trying to shore up their own interests against the threat he poses. After all, these same politicos don’t blink when the established parties makes promises they don’t intend to keep, amass corporate money for their campaigns, ridicule their opponents, and get entitled about their entitlements. Palmer’s success is a reflection of the disdain for politics that is the defining feature of the political situation today, and his nasty anti-democratic side matters little when voters see the sick state of actually existing democracy.
The WA result helps clarify the shape of things to come in the Abbott era: That the crisis of authority of the political class will continue to eat away at the major parties and that volatility will be the order of the day. We are now facing a period where the Right’s electoral support is likely to fragment with no automatic benefit for the Left, and politics is likely to get much more confused and chaotic for all involved. To date Australia obviously lacks the kind of social resistance that has transformed similar long-term political hollowing out in places like Spain and Greece into full-blown regime crises. Yet the parlous state of politics here suggests that if such resistance emerged it wouldn’t take much to push things over the edge.
*All vote details for the weekend’s election were taken from the ABC’s election website on Sunday morning, with 68.7 percent of the vote counted.