Malcolm Turnbull would have been happy to see the back of 2017. For his government it was a year of absolute turmoil.
Throughout the whole 12 months he was forced to manage bitter internal divisions within the Liberal-National Coalition, while also dealing with mounting problems in the energy sector; increased tensions at Australia’s offshore detention centres; the dilemma of how to legislate equal marriage rights; and a dual citizenship crisis which almost saw him lose the numbers to govern.
Unsurprisingly, the Coalition trailed the Labor Party opposition at every single poll throughout the year. This is despite there being no real enthusiasm for Labor, and Bill Shorten being personally unpopular.
Turnbull will likely look to ‘reset’ the agenda going into 2018, but his predicament is that all of the underlying problems remain. His government’s agenda of slashing social spending in order to fund corporate tax cuts is at odds with the interests of the vast majority of the population. This is the main driver of the instability that exists.
People know and feel that inequality is increasing. They feel the pain when they make their mortgage repayments and when their car registration and electricity bills come in. They know and feel that they are less secure in their jobs than they were a decade ago, and they are most likely getting less hours. Making matters worse, their wages are stagnant and they see no prospect of the situation improving anytime soon.
People can also see that Australia’s rich are getting richer. In fact, Australia’s wealthiest 1% now own more than the bottom 70% of the population! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that the wealth we create is being redistributed – upwards. Ordinary people know that the system is rigged and that it does not work for them.
People are angry and frustrated about this situation, but they see no viable way to express themselves. Labor fundamentally agree with the Liberals on 99% of issues. And rather than fighting, the trade unions have blindly hitched their wagons to Labor hoping to be given a few crumbs if Labor are thrown into office at the next election. There are very few independent social movements to speak of.
The main way that people have been letting off steam in recent years is at the ballot box. Up to a quarter of voters are now voting for minor parties and independents as a way of punishing the Liberals and Labor for prosecuting their corporate agenda.
The election of a few people outside of the ranks of the major parties has meant that the Liberal-Labor duopoly has been undermined somewhat. The inability of a number of governments to control both houses has prevented them from carrying through everything they want. But even this has been limited.
Far from providing any sort of real alternative, practically all of the parliamentarians outside of the major parties support the status quo. While they may advocate this or that reform, none of them stand for breaking the hold that big business has over politics and the economy. This itself is another frustration to ordinary people and explains why some minor parties have disappeared quickly.
While it’s not yet openly expressed, there is a definite yearning for a political alternative that unashamedly stands for the interests of the majority. A party that stands for an increase in social spending, for raising taxes on corporations, a party that stands against privatisation and for an expansion of public housing, transport, hospitals and schools. For a substantial increase to the minimum wage, and for job security and a real future for young people.
There is not a single party or independent in the parliament that advocates for these sorts of basic reforms.
People rightly feel unrepresented and disillusionment sits under the surface, held back only by the fact that Australia has not suffered a recession in 26 years. But under capitalism all booms turn to bust at a certain stage, even the prolonged ones. When this happens, there is no doubt that the mood that exists will become more apparent and people will embrace politics in a much more open way.
There is a serious disconnect between what people really need and what they expect to actually get in order to improve their living conditions. There is no political representation to address this. These facts are being expressed in a political crisis that engulfs the entire establishment. This will continue throughout 2018.
The citizenship crisis for example is far from over and it could see a rearranging of the deck chairs for both the major parties. A federal election will most likely be held this year and while it’s possible that Labor could replace the Coalition, this would only mean that the problems are transferred to them.
Regardless of who forms government, it is likely that another weak government is elected. No doubt the trend of people moving away from the Liberal-Labor duopoly will continue.
This trend could produce a minority government at the next state election in South Australia, scheduled for March. State elections are also scheduled for Tasmania and Victoria in 2018. This will be in addition to a likely string of federal by-elections needed because of the citizenship crisis. Upsets should not be ruled out.
It is also possible that 2018 is seen as the year that Australia’s housing market peaked. Almost one million households are already suffering from mortgage stress. With news that house prices have begun to flatline, things are likely to get much worse.
If property prices dip further, tens of thousands of people could find themselves owing more than they own. This could be made worse by an increase in unemployment and has the potential to trigger a full-blown collapse. This would not only produce economic difficulties but also a social crisis on a level not seen in Australia for many decades.
On the industrial front, employers will respond to more complicated times by attempting to offload their burdens onto workers. This could include increased job losses, the cutting of hours or attempts to hold down wages. While wage growth is already flat, and there is a need to boost wages more broadly in order to increase demand, no individual employer wants to do this for fear of giving their competitors an advantage.
The only way to overcome the problem of flat wage growth is for the trade unions to launch a bold campaign to increase wages, starting with the minimum wage. This would require breaking from their timid and ineffective pro-Labor strategy and returning to the idea of industrial struggle and mass action.
In relation to the environment, the Adani coal mine in Queensland is likely to be the front-line battle. Despite the fact that the company has faced some setbacks they seem hell bent on proceeding with this disastrous project. This is an issue that goes much further than Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef, which remains under threat. This is an issue that affects all Australians. It not only incorporates climate change and environmental destruction but also corporate greed, big business and government collusion, and the question of sustainable jobs.
Socialists ague that far more jobs can be created if investment was made into renewables and public transport. The problem is not that the money doesn’t exist, it’s the lack of political will. Both of the major parties are subservient to coal interests and they need to be defeated alongside the multinational conglomerate Adani.
The desperate conditions faced by those fleeing war and persecution and seeking asylum in Australia will be another issue that needs to be taken up in 2018. While the Manus Island detention centre has been closed down, this has only led to an even worse situation for the refugees stranded in Papua New Guinea. The prison on Nauru remains open, with hundreds of people forced to live in squalor with no certainty about their future.
Almost $10 billion has been spent on Australia’s cruel mandatory detention regime over the past 4 years. It would cost far less to settle refugees in the community, but this is an issue the government uses to divert our attention away from their corporate agenda. They demonise refugees to divide us, suggesting that it is ‘boat people’ rather than their pro-capitalist policies that are the source of our problems.
Whether it be refugees, invented African gangs or some other minority, we cannot allow the government to divide us. Ordinary people have more in common with each other than they do with any of those who seek to exploit, oppress and discriminate against us. The rigged system that redistributes wealth upwards only stays in place because the majority, the 99%, have yet to realise their latent power.
No matter what the issue, if we unite and take collective action then no government, business or corrupt institution can ignore us. Their system does not work without us playing our role as workers. If we are organised around the right politics, and stop work en masse, we can force any change onto the agenda, not only reforms but a change of the system itself.
Let’s make 2018 the year where we begin to turn things around. A year where we say no to inequality and corporate greed. A year where we demand a much bigger share of the wealth. A year where we stop the government treating the vulnerable like garbage. A year where we say ‘no’ to the destruction of our environment for profit. And a year where we demand a real future for young people.
The Socialist Party will spend 2018 struggling to achieve these aims while doing our utmost to popularise the idea that a democratic socialist system would be far superior to the capitalist misery that we face today. If you want to help us change the world for the better, join us and get involved in the fight.
Editorial comment from the January-February 2018 issue of The Socialist