The following document was debated, and subsequently agreed to, at the 2016 Socialist Party National Conference held in Melbourne on August 6 & 7.
In many ways the recent tumultuous election reflects the start of a new era in Australia. No longer is the economy shielded by the mining boom and the political buffering that it provided. Australia is now much more vulnerable to convulsions in the world economy, and to all of the social and political ramifications that flow from that. The new Coalition government, surviving on only a slim majority, will have no choice but to grapple with this new reality and a more unstable period ahead.
While previously capitalist commentators talked about the unique resilience of the Australian economy, and its relative political stability, now they talk about “uncertainty” and “gloom”.
In the midst of approximately 23 years of continuous economic growth, it was easier for the capitalist parties to pretend that they represented “all Australians” while ruling exclusively for the big end of town. Up until now the mining boom has given governments the ability to stage out, and moderate, measures that were designed to protect profit making interests. Today, with a slowing economy, and few prospects on the horizon, both the major parties are forced to try and implement policies that are more sharply at odds with the bulk of the population.
They are confronted with the predicament: How to rule for the rich without creating mass discontent amongst the poor and working class? This is what underpins the political crisis facing the establishment – not just in Australia but around the globe.
In almost every country, the parties of the 1% are either split or in crisis – in some cases even without the presence of an opposition representing the interests of the majority. On every major issue and on every continent, capitalism is failing. As inequality deepens, class tensions are on the rise.
The world economy is still suffering from the global financial crisis of 2008 and governments are now desperately attempting to avoid a new recession or slump. In the US, still the largest capitalist economy on the planet, prospects are bleak, with the recent recovery faltering. China has acted as a prop to the world economy but now, there too, the economy is slowing down.
At root, the capitalist crisis stemmed from an inability of the working class of the world to buy back the products of their labour, resulting in falling production and employment. While capitalists have still been reaping enormous windfalls of profit, instead of being invested into productive industries capitalists are hoarding wealth or banking on more profitable payouts from financial speculation.
World economic growth since the 2008 crisis was fuelled by huge injections of credit, particularly in China, but this has only stored up further problems. This is because injections of credit to try and fuel growth have only been possible by amassing huge amounts of debt. Between 2007 and 2015, global debt grew by US$57 trillion – the equivalent of five Chinas!
The international slowdown has acted to slash commodity prices with massive repercussions for exporters of raw materials. South Africa and Brazil have been hard hit, with Australia too facing increasing problems as a result of lower commodity prices and slowing exports to China. We have most recently seen this impact the Australian economy via sharp crises in the steel, manufacturing, and dairy industries.
Capitalist response reaches limits
Central banks have resorted to extraordinary measures including further quantitative easing (the equivalent of printing money) and the imposition of negative interest rates – where smaller banks are required to pay a central bank to store their funds (an extreme measure being tried by the European Central Bank and the Bank of Japan). By making cash more available, governments hoped to convince capitalist investors to inject funding into industry to restore lost production and employment.
However, capitalists are more inclined to put their money into areas they can reap the highest profit, and currently that means hoarding it or speculating on financial markets rather than investing in necessary industry. Attempts to make borrowing and spending more attractive than hoarding are also undermined by the fact that capitalists have plenty of other ways to deal with their money that are better for them than reinvestment into the economy.
Australia itself has record low interest rates, making it easier to borrow and less attractive to save, supposedly encouraging investment. This has had some influence in encouraging spending on new construction in the eastern states, and there have been hopes that this will offset job losses in the mining sector. But the main effect of low interest rates, both now and in decades past, has been to provide the funding for a massive property bubble. Businesses have been reluctant to invest in productive industry, and property speculation has been touted as a better way for investors to use the available credit.
The Reserve Bank Governor Glenn Stevens has warned that measures carried out by central banks are at their limits: “Maybe we need to be clearer about what we can’t do … we are reaching the limits of monetary policy in boosting [global growth].”
Decreasing demand for the Australian dollar in recent times has made exports cheaper and therefore more competitive on the global market. This has been somewhat of a boost to manufacturers, the tourism sector, and educational institutions that offer courses to international students.
But at the same time the dip in the currency has meant that overseas goods have become more expensive to buy. This has been a negative to businesses and consumers needing to purchase products and services that have been imported.
Tensions between the major imperialist powers are increasing. World relations are characterised by an increase of economic nationalism. In the face of diminished economic prospects nation states are trying to boost their position at the expense of their rivals. Attempts to unify different nations along capitalist lines are failing, most spectacularly in the ongoing turmoil throughout the European Union. Protectionist measures and currency manipulation are generally coupled with increased military spending at the expense of social services.
The Australian ruling class has outlined a number of potential flash points that could impact the domestic economic situation. The threat posed by the possibility of a Donald Trump presidency following his nomination by the Republicans in the US is a major concern, as is the continued fallout from the Brexit vote in the UK. Brexit itself is but one expression of the deep problems that the European Union faces. Alongside the rise of Trump it represents a certain shift towards economic nationalism.
There is also the spectre of increased conflict, and even war, in the Russian/Eastern European region and an ongoing global refugee crisis. Perhaps the biggest concern for Australian capitalists, however, is China.
In our region the main imperialist conflict is between the US and China. This conflict presents a serious dilemma for the Australian ruling class as they are forced to try and balance competing interests. On the one hand Australia’s economic fortunes are deeply connected to China, but on the other hand the ruling class has long held political and military ties to the US.
Conflicts between China and the US, particularly in the South China Sea, put Australia in an extremely difficult position. If these conflicts flare up it could pose very significant problems for Australian capitalism both in the region and beyond.
Strategists of Australian capitalism hope that somehow the Chinese economy will be restructured, that growth will continue, and in turn Australia will be able to return to exporting immense amounts of raw materials there.
On a capitalist basis, China must swallow painful restructuring, or it will face a debt mountain so large that a financial crisis becomes unavoidable. But restructuring has political consequences, so instead the Chinese regime is resorting to even more debt in order to avoid an even bigger slowdown.
The majority of Chinese people are on low wages; they lack the spending power to resolve the problems of ‘overcapacity’ (in reality, overproduction) and to turn China into a consumer-driven economy. Without this, the government keeps increasing the debt to avoid the total collapse of the economy. But this is only leading the economy into a prolonged stagnation, such as has happened in Japan.
The Chinese government cannot afford slower economic growth because it would mean social and political explosions. But in accumulating more debt it’s storing up huge problems for the future. Already we see that China has exported economic problems to Brazil, Chile, Canada and the former ‘miracle’ economies in Africa. Australia too is suffering due to the slowdown in China and we can expect much worse to come.
Lower commodity prices and fewer exports mean lower tax receipts for the government. This is the root cause of the budget deficits that concern capitalists. In turn this forces the government to make cuts to social spending as they try to protect the profit making conditions of their big business backers. Even parties such as the Greens back these measures when in power, as they hold that there is no alternative to capitalism.
The slowdown in mining has led to thousands of job losses in that sector. At the same time tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs are hanging in the balance as the major car companies prepare to wind down production.
The official unemployment rate is sitting at about 5.8% but some surveys put the real figure at more than 10%. It is estimated that somewhere close to 2.5 million people (almost 20% of the workforce) are either unemployed or under-employed. This is far from a great starting point when even tougher times lie ahead.
The capitalist class needs to find new profitable outlets to invest in. New sectors of the economy need to be opened up for capital accumulation. At the moment one of the only sectors propping the economy up is the property sector, but that is very unstable.
While both the major parties claim that they want to see more private investment in education and tourism, as well as science and innovation, left to their own devices these industries alone would not be enough to fill the huge gap that mining leaves. The Reserve Bank suggests that the government borrow from financial markets to fund infrastructure projects as a way of stimulating growth.
In different forms both the Liberals and Labor see investment in infrastructure as a potential prop, but even here things are not straightforward. At the moment, a scheme is in place whereby the federal government releases funds for infrastructure projects if state and territory governments privatise assets.
In other words, new infrastructure will only be built (in partnership with capitalists) if existing public assets are sold to other private profiteers. Essentially, in exchange for a piece of infrastructure, people are being asked to succumb to further exploitation on a number of fronts.
Traditionally governments would have resorted to a Keynesian approach where they spend up big on infrastructure projects as a way of stimulating the economy. But this too has its limits in the current circumstances. The recent budget predicts that total government debt will climb to $660 billion by the middle of the next decade. At the same time the budget deficit this year is tipped to hit $40 billion. The stimulus measures that were carried out in the aftermath of the GFC, while helping to stave off a recession then, wiped out the budget surplus and increased debt.
This is an international phenomenon with world debt presently standing at over $200 trillion, three times world GDP! Any new stimulus measures in relation to infrastructure spending would have to be extremely significant to even begin to fill the gap left by the mining boom. But even then this would add considerably to the debt and bring into question if the amounts could ever actually be repaid.
This in turn could lead to a new financial crisis with all the political implications that flow from that. In desperation a number of countries have carried out quantitative easing to save the financial system – a semi-Keynesian measure – but in reality this has meant ‘socialism for the rich’ and continued cuts for the poor.
The only other option from a capitalist point of view would be to increase taxation to fund these projects. Increasing taxes on workers reduces people’s spending capacity and reduces demand, therefore adding further problems. Meanwhile, increasing taxes on business has the potential to discourage investment and cancel out any perceived benefits. In other words, both the options of austerity and stimulus are fraught with political problems for the ruling class.
One of the ideas flagged by some commentators is to adopt the so-called ‘value capture’ model which is used in Hong Kong. This model essentially funds the construction of infrastructure projects like rail lines by developing high rise apartments around train stations and depots. This model is heavily reliant on property prices continuing to increase at record rates, which is highly unlikely.
The weakening economic situation and concern about what is to come next underpins the political crisis that affects all pro-capitalist forces in Australia at the present. This has actually been a major issue facing the ruling class globally. In many countries people have engaged in mass struggle to resist austerity measures levelled against the working class. In a number of places this has been accompanied by the collapse (or partial collapse) of the old establishment party system.
Even in Australia, where the full effects of the economic crisis have not yet been felt there is a severe crisis facing the political establishment. Turnbull’s government was wracked with division in its last term. That a total of 13 ministers left their jobs on Turnbull’s watch gives an indication of the political instability that exists. Their re-election has given them only the slimmest majority and increased the profile of the Greens and minor parties that Turnbull was attempting to push out.
The underlying issue is that the Coalition, Labor and the Greens all support the capitalist market system. That system prioritises the profit interests of big business before the needs of ordinary people. While representing the rich they need to secure the support of ordinary people to stay in power. In times of economic prosperity this contradiction can be covered over, but in an economic downturn the allegiances of political parties become much clearer.
This process has already developed in places like Europe, with huge swathes of people ditching the major parties, and new parties and figures coming to the fore. The rise of anti-establishment candidates like Sanders and Trump in the US is also a reflection of the crisis facing the traditional capitalist parties. In the US with Kshama Sawant, and in Ireland with the Anti-Austerity Alliance, we have been able to impact on this process in a small but significant way.
We are only at the beginning of this road in Australia, and with the economic situation set to worsen the real motivations of the major parties will begin to be exposed to greater numbers of people.
The recent rise of independents and the so-called ‘micro parties’ in Australia is an indication that people have already begun to punish the major parties. With these pro-capitalist micro parties essentially mimicking their larger counterparts, people can quickly become disillusioned with them and their seemingly meteoric rise can be matched by rapid falls. Witness the experience of the Palmer party in the last parliamentary term.
This is all part of the process of people testing out ideas and finding a path to genuine political representation for the 99%. In conjunction with economic conditions that force people to struggle to hold onto their gains they will look to create new movements and political organisations that genuinely act in their interests.
While such a process will open up huge opportunities for parties of the left, the lack of a strong pole of attraction in the first instance will also see the right attempt to take advantage of the situation. We have already seen an element of this process with the rise (and rapid fall) of Reclaim Australia, the breakthrough made by One Nation at the recent election, as well as the attempts of other far-right groupings to organise.
A contest of ideas will take place, with some on the right seeking to blame minority groups for society’s problems. The challenge for socialists will be to explain the true nature of the crisis and who the real culprits are. Side by side with defending the economic interests of working class people it will be necessary to continue to combat divisive racist ideas.
The only real way to address the crisis is for ordinary working people from all walks of life to come together and organise to defend their living conditions from those who seek to take advantage of us all. A united struggle against big business interests is the only way to stop the burden of the crisis being shouldered by ordinary people, and it is also the best way to lay the foundations for a new type of society that prioritises people’s needs instead of profits – the reorganisation of society on a socialist basis.
In the next period the new government will be under huge pressure from big business to implement reforms that protect their profits. The period we are moving into will be markedly different from the relative stability of the past couple of decades. Many more people will be forced to engage with politics and an increasing number will see that capitalism does not work in their interests.
If socialists are able to relate to the new situation, and intervene in the developing struggles in a disciplined and principled way, it will be possible to win many more people to our ranks. In the immediate term there are a number of issues that already affect the working class and are bound to come to the fore in a much more profound way. One of those is the issue of housing.
Housing and banks
Housing is a major source of stress for working class people and especially young people. Officially more than 100,000 people are homeless while tens of thousands languish on public housing waiting lists. In recent decades wage levels have stagnated while property prices have ballooned. Weekly earnings over the past 25 years grew by just 25 per cent for under-25s and 59 per cent for people in their early 50s, while the cost-of-living grew by 80-90 per cent.
Between 1990 and 2013, the median price for all properties across Sydney rose by a staggering 262 per cent! This has put home ownership out of reach for millions of people. More and more people are being thrown into the clutches of greedy landlords, paying sometimes up to 50% of their incomes on rent.
Undoubtedly there is a housing price bubble in most major Australian cities. House prices are at historic highs compared to construction costs, income levels and rental prices. This situation began developing in the early 1990s in the aftermath of financial deregulation carried out by Labor that allowed banks to access cheap international credit. They then sold on this credit to workers as inflated mortgages to pump up their profits.
The property bubble has, at least in part, been contributed to by government policies like negative gearing and the capital gains tax discount. Most serious commentators warn of the threat of the bubble bursting at any time. Not only would this have a huge impact on the sector itself but it would have massive implications for the banks.
By some estimates, property is now Australia’s biggest industry, larger than mining or financial services. Last financial year it contributed 11.5% of GDP. This growth is funded by huge amounts of debt. At the end of 2015 mortgage debt over property issued by Australian banks had grown to almost $1.4 trillion. If the property bubble was to burst it would not only mean job losses in the construction sector, but it would significantly impact on the banks.
Sydney houses now cost 12 times the average annual income, up from four times the average annual income in 1975. The vast bulk of first home buyers have been forced to take out extraordinarily large mortgages with the average loan up from $189,300 in 2004 to $372,400 in 2016. In many cases loans of this size are only granted on the basis of two full time incomes.
If house prices fell, many mortgage holders could find themselves owing more than what their property is actually worth (negative equity). If for example one person in a couple was to lose their job, families could find themselves in dire straits very quickly.
Australian banks are overexposed to housing, with 60% of the major banks loans related to residential mortgages. If increasing numbers of people could no longer service their mortgages this would have a big impact on the banks. The banks are also much more exposed to convulsions on the world market compared to 2008.
One or more banks facing trouble would threaten the entire Australian economy. If the government let a bank fail it would have to suffer all the related negative consequences. If they chose to bail out a failing bank they would merely transfer the indebtedness to the state. This would transform a bad budget position into a catastrophic one.
With mining investment now drying up, prolonging the boom in the property sector takes on a renewed importance for the ruling class. The Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) legislation is connected to this goal. The government and the big businesses they represent hope that by reducing the construction unions’ ability to organise it will help them help lower costs going forward.
At the same time, on projects already under way, the construction companies have been prepared to pay for industrial peace in order to ensure projects can be finished on time with the least amount of trouble. The recent pay deal secured by the Victorian branch of the CFMEU highlights the contradictions between those capitalists seeking to secure short term profits verses those with the long term viability of the sector in mind.
The property sector, growth in the economy, the stability of the banks and the government’s budget position are all intimately linked with much relying on the precarious bubble in property continuing. Inevitably the bubble will either burst or deflate. The only question is when and how severe it will be.
If there was to be an immediate popping of the bubble the lives of millions of people would be impacted quite quickly. Even a slow deflation of the bubble will have dire consequences and force many of those already suffering from housing stress to struggle more intensely for the right to have a roof over their head.
In recent months we have already seen some protests against homelessness. This is just a precursor to more widespread struggles that are bound be thrown up around the issue of housing.
Women have borne the brunt of the worsening economic situation in recent years and with more cuts to social services on the agenda they will likely continue to be in the firing line. The women’s rights movement has been held back by the complete lack of any independent working class voice for the past 20 to 30 years. Likewise, no prominent feminist theories have successfully highlighted that the fight for equality and the fight for socialism are inextricably linked.
While the women’s movements of the 20th century actively fought for improvements to the lives of women through mass campaigns and industrial struggle, the feminist movements of the 21st century, particularly those started on campuses and online, have been dominated by identity politics which focuses on challenging the behaviour of individuals rather than challenging the root cause of oppression: class society.
The collapse of Stalinism and the sell-out of the trade unions and the Labor Party led to an ideological assault on the idea that collective action could change our lives for the better, or that there was a viable alternative to capitalism. The pro-capitalist policies of the Labor Party and trade union leaders led to defeats and setbacks for the whole of the working class. In the women’s movement this manifested in a turning inward, to individualist solutions to oppression.
Many women can see that past gains are being eroded and have rightly turned to feminism for answers. While liberal feminism and identity politics will likely be the first theories they encounter, the ineffectiveness of these brands of feminism will become apparent at some stage. As the economic and social crisis worsens, more women will see the need for a deeper and more thorough analysis of their oppression. Socialists need to be ready to put forward a class based analysis of the history of women’s oppression and a class based response to deal with it in the here and now.
Much has been made of so-called “intergenerational inequality” in recent times. There is no doubt that in general working class young people are grappling with a more difficult situation compared to what their parents faced in their youth. This stems from the fact that young people today are experiencing a harsher form of capitalism.
To purely describe the problems as ‘intergenerational’ however is a mischaracterisation and puts the blame in the wrong place. There is a common sentiment that the blame for the situation lies on the older generation of workers, who enjoyed relative benefits in their youth due to lower house prices, free tertiary education and higher real wages as a result of a stronger union movement. The truth is that the rising cost of living and declining real wages have affected all workers, but the younger generation has been more sharply affected, and younger workers often find themselves in more heavily exploited and more highly casualised areas. Put simply, we are facing sharpening class inequality and young people are at the pointy end of the stick.
The post WW2 boom era which an older layer of working class people were born into was extremely unique. Capitalism today is no longer able to afford the types of concessions that were afforded in that period. Instead the system is forced to squeeze more and more from working people. This coupled with worsening working conditions and rising wealth inequality is the new normal.
This means that on every front young people in general are doing it much tougher than older working class people. In some places for example youth unemployment is hovering at around 20%, much higher than the national average. Both unemployment and underemployment is rising for young people, as is the blight of casual work.
Many of those who do get work are locked in low paid jobs predominantly in the retail and hospitality sectors. Casualisation and low pay means that young people are accumulating inadequate amounts of superannuation compared to the previous generation. If current trends are allowed to continue, young people today will be either retiring into abject poverty or working until they die.
Struggling to make ends meet, many young people are forced into debt in a way that previous generations were not. This is not only because of the high cost of housing and mortgage debt, but also because of the rising costs of higher education. If university fees are deregulated further, and regressive changes are made to student loans, this problem will only be magnified.
There is no doubt that economic conditions are putting young people are under extreme pressure. This is having huge impacts on their mental health. An ABS survey suggested that over 37 per cent of people under 24, and almost 30 per cent of people between 25 and 34, are white-knuckling through their days in moderate to extreme psychological distress.
At this stage millions of young people feel disconnected from the political process and are unclear about how they can affect change. This is reflected in the fact that despite a major push from the AEC, over 254,000 people under 24 did not bother to enrol to vote in the recent election. As well as feeling that none of the mainstream parties represent their interests there is also a growing awareness of the fact that the parliament itself has less control over economic affairs than it once did.
Most of society’s important decisions are made in boardrooms as opposed to the parliament. The privatisation of most formally public services and the monopolisation of many industries means that big business exercise immense amounts of control over our daily lives. That the major parties are beholden to these interests only disillusions people further.
That said when a viable avenue opens up to challenge the rule of big business, young people will be some of the first to utilise it. Witness the fact that millions of people have been enthused by the campaigns around Sanders in the US or Corbyn in the UK. Social movements like the one that spawned Podemos in Spain have also been predominantly youthful.
In many cases young people have entered these movements with an “anti-party” attitude, but the experience of struggling against the powers that be has shown them that political organisation is necessary to effect genuine long lasting social change.
For example, the youth movement that erupted in Spain in 2011 was initially in response to the rottenness of all the major parties. It saw itself mainly as a movement on the streets. This movement brought the issues of wealth inequality and austerity to the fore but it lacked a program and strategy that could actually lead to replacing the old capitalist parties.
The ebbs and flows of the movement highlighted some of its limits, and over a relatively short period of time people became open to the idea of more explicit political organisation and action. Podemos first stepped into the breach and now we have the coming together of Podemos and the United Left in a new electoral alliance with the debate now moving to a higher level.
The road to rebuilding political representation for the working class will not be straightforward. It is easy to underestimate the impact of the collapse of Stalinism and the pro-market, pro-capitalist ideological offensive that followed. Consciousness was thrown back, and when new left formations emerged around the globe, marking a step forward, they have often been politically confused and limited, as well as organisationally immature. Such formations are by their nature often unstable. However, under the pressure of events, they can be pushed in a left direction, as we have seen with the United Left in Spain, for example.
Currently in Australia there are no serious moves towards the setting up of a new left formation to challenge the establishment parties. As we have witnessed elsewhere in the world it is likely that bigger sections of workers will need to be thrown into struggle before the conclusion is drawn on a wider scale that a party of the 99% is needed.
This does not mean that socialists should sit back and wait. We should be involved in as many struggles as possible and raise the need for a political expression of those struggles. This can strike a chord with the best workers and youth.
The best way to prepare for the creation of a new working class formation in Australia is to be involved in building a revolutionary party. The presence of a stronger revolutionary organisation can assist workers in drawing the right conclusions quicker and can mean that any broader formation is set up on a firmer basis.
In the absence of a new formation we should argue that our fledgling labour and social movements are best utilised struggling jointly for reforms in our workplaces, schools and in our communities. Not only would this act as a check on the cuts and austerity that both the major parties support, but it would help lay the basis for an alternative to big business rule.
For example, a successful community and union campaign to win a mass public housing building program would not only help address social need but it would create tens of thousands of jobs. A similar approach could be taken in regards to health, education and transport.
Joint struggles involving trade unionists and the community would not only strengthen our respective movements but they would point towards the need for a party that gave political form to these struggles, and represented them in the parliament. Built with a fighting approach, and politics based on the needs of the 99%, such a party could quickly gain support and become a real tool for transforming society.
In the absence of a new formation being present, the Greens have been trying to fill the political vacuum that exists with mixed results. Under the leadership of Richard Di Natale the Greens have shifted to the right. Their middle class outlook hinders them from making inroads in traditional working class areas, and as such they are still only a threat to Labor in a limited amount of inner city constituencies.
Di Natale styles himself as a “moderate” and “pragmatist”, while many leading members describe the party as “neither left nor right”. The Greens policies are not radical in any sense. On core environmental issues they boldly promote market solutions to the climate crisis. While they claim to be at odds with the major parties on refugees, they still support the mandatory detention of refugees for 30 days despite the fact that it is not illegal to seek asylum.
While most of their candidates are from the doctors and lawyers set, compared to the Liberals and Labor they do have a much younger activist base. It is not ruled out that under the pressure of events sections of the Greens, including some of their MPs, could become somewhat radicalised and begin to more boldly reflect the anger of ordinary people.
Perhaps this perspective was also shared by the Daily Telegraph, hence their attempt to denigrate the Greens candidate in Grayndler at the recent election, Jim Casey. A leader of the fire fighters union in NSW and a self described socialist, Casey was subject to a red baiting campaign by this popular Murdoch daily. The paper even ran the front page headline “Save our Albo” referring to the supposedly left Labor Party MP Anthony Albanese.
Far from having any real concern for Albanese, it is possible that the Telegraph envisaged a scenario where Casey could have won the seat and occupied a spot on the cross bench. In the context of a more serious economic slowdown and an increase in struggle Casey could have been susceptible to being drawn in and around future social and industrial movements.
In such a scenario it is not ruled out that the Greens could tack to the left and certain members, especially those with an activist past, could find themselves in influential positions within these movements, as well as having the platform of parliament. A split with the more conservative wing of the Greens party might then become possible. This is but one way that a Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn type figure could arise in Australia.
However, this is not the Greens current trajectory. Just as more people are becoming disillusioned with the political establishment, they are striving to become a bigger part of it. They consistently refuse to position themselves as a true opposition to the ALP. In the lead up to the election they put forward the idea of an ALP/Green coalition government, which shows where their ambitions lie. While approximately 26% of voters rejected both major parties in this election, the Green’s strategy netted them only 10% of the vote, less than half of this backlash. This was only a small increase on their 2013 result, and still below their 2010 result. Their attempt to make themselves part of the mainstream has failed to win any impressive increase in support among disillusioned voters.
While the Greens first came to prominence on the back of social movements, today they are a party of middle class professionals that is purely focused on elections. They could be thrown onto another path but it would take major upheavals and a willingness of sections of their party to intervene in struggle. Much more likely at the moment is that the movement for a new type of politics in Australia will bypass the Greens altogether.
Avenues of struggle
If people feel that they are being blocked from struggling by Labor, the Greens or even the trade unions, they will move to create their own movements. Within those movements prominent figures can develop and new parties can even be created.
The trade unions in their current form are riddled with contradictions. While they were born as organisations of struggle, and they still contain hundreds of thousands of workers within them, the current batch of leaders make up some of the most conservative layers in society.
These people more than anyone else have held back struggle over the last few decades and used their influence and resources to support Labor, a party that has consistently acted in the interests of big business.
Even in the recent election campaign Labor refused to commit to protecting the core union issue of penalty rates, yet still the unions spent millions of dollars and mobilised thousands of members to campaign for them. No one has done more to maintain the two-party duopoly, and to channel people’s anger into safe electoral channels, than the pro-Labor union leaders.
Their record is overseeing growing wealth inequality and some of the lowest levels of struggle in Australian history. As a result they have seen a huge drop in membership figures. They themselves have been protected by the long boom in many ways. The period we are moving into will see people less prepared to put up with sell outs and ructions within the ranks of the unions are likely as people search out more capable leaders.
That does not preclude the possibility that even nominally conservative union leaders can be pushed into struggle, especially in defensive battles. But in the main it is likely that the pro-Labor leaders continue to play a conservative role even as people’s anger increases and living standards are squeezed.
In previous years we have noted that because of the boom and the rotten role of the pro-Labor union leaders it was more likely that people struggled around social issues or in areas where these people do not have control. For the most part this has been correct. While even social movements have been at a low ebb in Australia, a number of protests have taken place around issues such as refugee rights, indigenous rights, same sex marriage, the environment and inappropriate developments. While on occasion the unions have pledged support to these movements they have been far from a decisive force.
While people will continue to struggle around these social issues we are now moving into a period where the conditions are being created for more economic issues to come to the fore. While you could have some sections of the union movement pushed into struggle, we are also bound to see community led struggles around cuts to social services, the implementation of austerity measures, and perhaps even the imposition of increased taxes on working people as the budget position deteriorates.
There is no doubt that students will be under attack in the coming years in relation to fees, student debt, cuts to courses and the general corporatisation of higher education.
Many of the social movements that have sprung up in recent years have been extremely positive, but most have been limited by the dominance of narrow identity politics, and the refusal of the up and coming leaders to draw connections between the different struggles and to appeal to working class people to join their cause.
The rise of more economic struggles can help to cut across the dominance of identity politics. With larger sections of people participating in struggle and testing out various ideas, class struggle politics can once again become prominent.
The huge vacuum of working class political representation is one of the biggest problems facing ordinary people at the moment, but that problem is unlikely to be overcome until a bigger section of the population is drawn into struggle and has politics thrust upon them in a way that we have not seen in decades. That type of situation is approaching in Australia.
People will search for a viable outlet for their anger, and when outlets are found we can expect to see sudden and unpredictable explosions of struggle. A new crisis is on the agenda and this time around Australia will not be shielded from the worst of it. Australia is moving into a new, more unstable era within which people’s anger and frustrations will be compounded. The disillusionment with capitalism that already exists will give way to a new openness to struggle and socialist ideas.
More and more people will be drawn toward struggle and the fight for a socialist society that puts an end to racism, sexism and environmental devastation and provides for all.