The 2010s ended with catastrophic bushfires raging across Australia. Liberal Party prime minister Scott Morrison was denounced for going on holidays in Hawaii while communities were being burnt to the ground. We’ll probably look back on this incident as the end of Morrison’s honeymoon period after he scraped over the line at the May election.
The decade was bookended with bushfires, and filled with great concern about climate change. But during that time neither major party was prepared to take on the coal barons who fund them, and no viable plan to significantly reduce emissions was put in place. Today, much more than in 2010, people see the major parties as stooges for big corporations. Both the Liberal and Labor parties have lost votes as a result.
In 2010 there was a certain amount of enthusiasm for the then Labor government. Gillard dethroned Rudd in a coup and became Australia’s first female prime minister. But she led a right-wing government that inevitably disappointed. Her coming to power signalled a new period of instability for the major parties where we saw six prime ministerships across the 10 years.
The main backdrop to the parliamentary instability was the world economic situation. The 2010s suffered from a long hangover after the 2008 global financial crisis. While mining exports and stimulus measures helped Australia avoid the worst of that crisis, behind the scenes the economy was being put under a great deal of strain.
The budget surplus was wiped out, personal debt levels rose and wages flatlined. Housing costs ran way out of sync with incomes because of government-encouraged speculation. While Australia managed to avoid a technical recession, it was at the expense of people’s living conditions.
Both the major parties alienated voters by putting the needs of big business above all else. Phrases like ‘wealth inequality’, ‘the gig economy’, and ‘housing stress’ have become popular alongside ‘record profits’, ‘tax avoidance’ and ‘wage theft’. This is an indication of the polarisation that has developed between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.
Decline of the unions
Part of the reason people have struggled to keep their heads above water is because the 2010s were generally a decade of decline for the trade union movement. From the Qantas lockout of 2011 and the trade union royal commission in 2014, to the dozens of disputes where employers moved to scrap collective agreements, the union leaders had no answers to the attacks.
Often, the union leaders refused to even organise protests, let alone strikes. Industrial action over the decade was actually at all-time lows, and this is directly linked to declining membership numbers. Because of poor leadership, and an unwillingness to fight, the vast bulk of workers question the usefulness of unions.
The union leaders’ response to almost every problem over the decade was to keep, or elect a Labor government. But it was Labor under Rudd and Gillard that introduced the very laws that the bosses have used to attack wages and conditions. It’s like a case of political Stockholm syndrome.
We end this decade with the definite confirmation that the pro-Labor union leaders’ strategy has been an utter failure. If we are to avoid letting them ruin the movement completely, we will need to chart a new course in the 2020s. A fight to put class struggle politics back on the agenda will be required.
The decade ended with most of the rosy predictions the government included in its May budget being downgraded. Economic growth and wage growth are set to be even lower than anticipated.
The government still hopes to bring the budget back to surplus this year, although that too is predicted to be less than forecast. If it’s achieved, the surplus will be a mere $5 billion, equivalent to a rounding error. Mostly it will come from cuts to desperately needed social services.
Behind the fudged figures the Australian economy is actually much weaker than it was 10 years ago. If it wasn’t for higher than expected iron ore prices, population growth, a deliberately inflated housing bubble and government spending on infrastructure, we’d certainly already be in a recession.
The drought, bushfires and a slump in business investment are combined with slow retail sales and high levels of underemployment. Millions of people still want and need more hours of work just to survive. Regardless of what the official figures say, people are ending the 2010s already experiencing recession-like conditions.
Despite income tax cuts, rebates and record low interest rates people have been on a spending strike. Christmas shopping was slow as people used any spare cash they had to pay down debt in preparation for even more difficult times ahead.
No confidence in system
Australia’s long run without a recession is clearly coming to an end. But what makes this different to previous downturns is that people have much less confidence in the system. Trust in the major parties, big banks, churches and governments is at an all-time low.
According to the latest Australian Election Study, only one in four people believe that the government can be trusted. This mirrors similar surveys from other countries, and it’s part of what’s driving the mass protests and unrest in many parts of the world.
People are seeing more clearly that the system is rigged, and that it hasn’t been working for them for a long time. They know that they are being ripped off and that the major parties have facilitated the whole rort. They are reaching the end of their tether.
Towards the end of the 2010s much of the anger and frustration that had been brewing under the surface began to come to the fore. We saw huge upheavals in dozens of countries including Chile, Hong Kong and Lebanon.
While Australia hasn’t yet seen mass protests, the very same issues are at play. People are fed up with wealth inequality, insecure work, corruption, cuts to services and a lack of action on climate change. It’s only a matter of time before the people Morrison calls the ‘quiet Australians’ begin to make their voices heard.
World more volatile
We predict that the 2020s will look very different to the decade that has just gone. The world situation is much more volatile, the economy is weaker, and people are losing faith in the system. The unique set of circumstances that saw Australia experience relative stability over the past 10 years will not be repeated.
The first recession in a generation is on the horizon and in an attempt to protect profits governments and employers will squeeze working people even tighter. More cuts to jobs and social services can be expected, as well as more attacks on workers’ and democratic rights. Struggle is inherent in the situation.
The so-called Ensuring Integrity bill, as well as the various anti-protest laws, are examples of governments preparing for a new decade of increased struggle and unrest. Working people too need to prepare and organise to resist.
The 2020s will see politics pushed upon people much more than the decade just gone. The need for a real political alternative to the major parties, and a return to struggling over the wealth we produce, will be posed ever more sharply.
We will need a new political vehicle that can challenge the major parties in elections, but more importantly to organise and lead the struggles that will arise. Socialist Action will champion that cause and do our best to make the 2020s the decade when democratic socialism was put back on the map in Australia and around the world.
Editorial comment from the January-February 2020 issue of The Socialist