The Queensland election on March 24 was the worst defeat for the ALP in the history of Australia. The party has been kicked out of power and (at the time of publication) is set to win a mere 8 seats. This denies it even party status in the State parliament.
All up the ALP lost 40 seats and suffered a 16% swing against it. The Liberal National Party (LNP) looks set to win 77 of the 89 seats and the new right-wing Australian Party won two seats. The election brought to the fore many of the contradictions existing in a State that accounts for a fifth of Australia’s wealth creation.
The ALP had won all eight State elections since 1989. Prior to that there was a long period of conservative rule, including the infamous reign of Joh Bjelke-Petersen. The string of ALP victories until now had been based on Queensland’s steady growth rate which was 8.9% last year. This growth is more similar to Asian rates than that those in western economies. It towered over the 1.6% growth rate in Victoria for example.
The Queensland growth is mainly due to its role in Australia’s mining boom, especially coal extraction. For the December quarter of 2011, Queensland contributed 0.3% to Australia’s Gross Domestic Product growth of 0.4%. At the same time business investment in Queensland rose 134% last year.
The floods in Queensland dented the growth rates temporarily, but now they are rising again especially with the reconstruction of devastated homes. So why the massive swing to the LNP?
Cost of living issues, the privatisation of electricity and resulting high utility prices were the key issues in the election campaign. The mining boom was not enough to cut across the fact that the ALP in recent years has embarked on a right-wing economic crusade.
The fact is that only 50,000 workers, about 2% of Queensland’s labour force, work in mining. The mining boom creates massive profits for some bosses and relatively high wages for mining workers but there are negative consequences for much of the rest of the economy.
The mining boom has pushed up the strength of the Australian dollar and the high dollar has made Queensland’s agricultural exports more expensive. This has been devastating for the tourism industry and has also hit the market for full fee-paying overseas students at Queensland’s universities. Side-by-side with mining growth has been manufacturing decline, with the inability of local industry to match the economies of scale of their Asian competitors.
Despite the mining boom unemployment in Queensland has grown to 6%, the second highest in Australia. A recent report from the Queensland Council of Social Services claims 480,000 people are living in poverty throughout the State.
The privatisation of utilities has seen power bills rise by 60% for ordinary people and will rise again by about $118 this year. The media report that there was a 6% rise in the number of people turned away from assistance from charities and a 73% increase in demand for financial services. The ALP has bent over backwards for the mining bosses but done nothing for ordinary people.
Politically there was little to separate the ALP government and its LNP opposition. As it is nationally, the major parties in Queensland agree on the neo-liberal basics and disagree only on the methods of implementation. This helped provide a vacuum which was partially filled by the right-wing Australian Party which was set up by Independent Federal MP Bob Katter.
Katter’s Australian Party has the usual religious right agenda on social issues such as same-sex marriage and immigration, opportunistically mixed with economic nationalism such as protectionism and even opposition to some privatisation.
Disappointingly some trade unions offered Katter’s party support. We say the future for workers is not in right-wing economic nationalism but in a new mass party that combines internationalism and progressive social values with a democratic, socialist planned economy. The Australian Party seek a return to a tried and failed insular local capitalism that will be destroyed by the retaliation of its competitors.
As the dust settles from this election, the political vacuum on the left will become even more apparent. The massive swing against the ALP is yet another indicator of the volatility that exists under the surface in society.
The millions of Queenslanders who are missing out on the mining boom deserve better than what is on offer from the various versions of pro-capitalist parties. We need a party in Queensland and nationally that unashamedly represents the interests of ordinary people.
By Stephen Jolly