GUEST POST BY SIMON COPLAND
Eight months in and the Abbott government seems to already be at the point of no return. After the disaster of the budget, the government has hit a new low in polling — one that, given the political “skills” displayed, seems very difficult reverse. As I’ve predicted in the past, the Government has become beatable.
The situation is part of a relatively extraordinary, although entirely predictable, turnaround for a Government that waltzed into office in September last year. As Left Flank has already pointed out, the Coalition has limped from crisis to crisis, as highlighted by its Gonski backflips, internal fighting over Paid Parental Leave, the departure of Holden and Toyota, the job cuts at QANTAS, the spying scandal with Indonesia, and its ongoing struggles with asylum seeker policy. There’s no doubt the budget process, starting with the release of the Commission of Audit Report, the failure of the lead-up communications strategy, in particular around the debt tax, and now the bungling of its rollout, has added to these problems. The Right is now clearly in crisis mode, with Abbott in particular looking weaker every day.
As Abbott stumbles there is a real question of how the Left should react. What should we do to capitalise on the crisis of the Right?
For many, the answer has been simple — go for the jugular. Many are now using every means possibly available to them — whether it’s calling for a vote of no-confidence or pushing for a #libspill to get rid of Abbott as soon as they can. We’ve now gotten to that fun point where we’re actively predicting Abbott’s impending doom — Bob Ellis, for example, actively predicting a new Liberal leader within coming days.
Of course, this desire is understandable. Part of this push is due to a visceral hatred of Abbott within Left ranks — a hatred that is probably well deserved. It is understandable that we all want to see the man, and the Government he leads, gone as soon as possible. But the strategy is fundamentally poor, and we need to figure out a better one.
The lack of an alternative
The biggest issue the Left faces at the moment is the lack of a clear alternative if and when the Abbott Government falls. Whilst many in the Left have quickly mobilised around opposition to Abbott’s policies, eight months on from the defeat of the Rudd government, the crisis of the movement — the crisis of where to go next — is alive and well.
This is best highlighted by two alternatives to Abbott’s leadership provided by many in the Left.
The first of these is a return to an ALP government. Strangely enough this approach is not being framed with any excitement about the prospect of a Bill Shorten prime ministership (apart from a small flurry during his budget reply speech), but rather through nostalgia for the Gillard years. For example, a meme is currently floating around with a picture of Gillard and the caption “Miss me yet?” Many in the Left are looking back on the Gillard years as a positive, hoping to recapture that energy if Abbott is toppled. As I’ve argued in the past though this represents a significant memory failure regarding Gillard’s record:
It is a record filled with locking up innocent asylum seekers, watering down the mining tax, approving coal mines, cutting payments to single parents (policy passed on the same day as the misogyny speech!), extending the Northern Territory intervention, cutting aid funding, cutting higher education funding etc etc. The list goes on and on. In policy area after policy area Julia Gillard actively took Australia further to the Right.
Very little of that has actually changed within the modern ALP. The ALP is still the neoliberal party it became in the 1980s and has been ever since. That is not changing at the moment and seems particularly unlikely to change with Shorten as its leader.
The other route many on the Left take is to gleefully talk about a #libspill. Many have focused their attention on Abbott as the sole problem, hoping beyond hope that if he disappears everything will get better. Much of this comes from an infatuation with Malcolm Turnbull. Ever since he lost the leadership over the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, and then came out in favour of same-sex marriage, Turnbull has become a favourite of some on the Left. It is a very weird kind of love. Malcolm Turnbull is in no way a progressive leader — he is a right-wing neoliberal champion just like the rest of his colleagues.
So here is the problem. The realistic alternatives we have at the moment are not real alternatives at all. A Bill Shorten prime ministership would just give us a “…labor government who are far more adept to implementing neoliberal policy & brutalising refugees without the PR gaffes.” The same can be said for Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull would not actually represent much of a progressive break from this Abbott Government, but would simply bring it a more popular figure-head.
And this becomes all the more difficult when we take into account how the left would react to these changes. The current evidence — the nostalgia for the Gillard years and the ongoing swooning over Turnbull — would suggest that a shift to either would see the left dampen its attack on these right wing policies. There is plenty of evidence of this from the Labor years — an unwillingness of many to attack the policies of the Government in the way we should have. In many ways we let the ALP have a free-ride, entrenching their right-wing agenda with it.
Whilst the alternatives we have to Abbott therefore are better in some policy areas, at the moment, in many ways, they are significantly worse. The willingness to let either the ALP or Turnbull have a relative free-ride — at least compared to Abbott — will remove our chance to capitalise on both the crisis of the right and the crisis of politics. And in doing so we will continue the propping up of the political class (through our new desire to support its leaders), further entrenching the rightward swing we are seeing in our society.
We need time
So what is the Left to do? There are a number of things that we should start with, and should start with soon.
First, we need to accept the situation we are in, and that we need to take time to rebuild. It has been a strange sense of irony that many in the Left have started using much of Abbott’s tactics to bring this government down — for example calling in a vote of no confidence in the Government, or arguing for parties to block the budget in order to force a new election. We even see people screaming for an ‘election now!’
Yet, these approaches are fraught with problems. They are about playing the very sort of political games that Abbott was so adept at — tearing down a government using whatever tactics available to him. And we only have to look at the evidence of how Abbott has succeeded to see what sort of result that will bring us. These are the very games that many in our community hate so much — games that have rightly led to a hatred of the political class.
So what do we do instead? I think Tim Hollo explains it best:
We’ve had years of a creeping shift to the Right, aided by Labor often, but really driven by the Liberals, years when we’ve been able to pretend to ourselves that we were still the egalitarian society we believed we were, long after it had been eroded beyond recognition. The bubble has now been burst.
That gives us the opportunity to really fight back. Not just to use right-wing tactics to kick out a government we oppose, but to actually do the hard yards of rebuilding a caring society, a daring society, a sharing society.
Tony Abbott provides us with an opportunity that if we capitalise on could lead to a significant shift. Not only is he exposing the crisis within the Right, but he is also exposing the crisis within the political class. He is laying it out for us all to see, and giving us the chance to turn things around. But instead of doing so we’re just playing his very games — with the only options we’re providing being ones that would further entrench both a right-wing agenda and the authority of the political class.
Instead what we should be doing is using this opportunity to rebuild a Left and an anti-politics movement. That is a difficult approach. It means accepting our lot for now — accepting that Abbott will be Prime Minister for now and dealing with it. But it also means recognising that we can use that to our advantage — highlighting the failures of the Right and the entire political class to shift people towards an alternative — to fighting for a society that’s focused on people rather than the elite.
The Right are already doing this — initially through the growth of the Katter Australia Party, but now through the Palmer United Party. Whilst the Left are insistent that Palmer only succeeded because of the money he spends on elections, another part of it has to be that the message he is selling — one of anti-politics — is working. Recent evidence out of Europe — the success of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain — suggests the Left has the capacity to do that too. It’s about creating a genuinely populist, left-wing alternative, which does not focus within the rules of the current system and the political class. It’s about articulating a new system.
The outline of that social system still doesn’t exist in Australia, but we now have an opportunity to start that discussion. Instead however we’re spending our time talking about votes of no confidence and demanding an “election now!” It may be fun in the short term, but it will not help us in the long run.