Workers need a new party
The disarray of the Federal government reflects an even greater crisis within the leaders of the industrial and financial worlds; natural supporters of the government. If we care to look, the divisions within the ranks of the Australian capitalist class are being played out before our eyes.
Those bosses who identify with the extreme economic rationalist approach, who want free trade, an end to tariff protection, the sale of government assets and the reduction of government services are standing behind Treasurer Costello and Industrial Relations Minister Reith.
Those Liberal ‘wets’ who retain some belief in social justice have been squeezed out and have little voice left within the federal party.
Prime Minister Howard bumbles round in the ‘centre’, pleasing neither side in the unfolding political crisis, the embattled Mr Magoo of Australian politics.
Tide turning against ‘eco-rats’
The crisis in Canberra is by no means unique. Governments around the world are facing similar pressures and in the last 12 months the election of Blair’s ‘New Labour’ in Britain and Jospin’s Socialists in France indicate that the tide is turning against hard right economic rationalist politics.
The Canberra crisis is also symptomatic of a crisis thought the world economy as economies stagger towards collapse or struggle to maintain modest growth patterns.
Corporate board room decisions to move industry, to take over and or wipe out competitors, have led to a frantic race of capital from one region or country to the next to increase a company’s competitive advantage.
Search for profit
At the same time the search for profit has led increasingly to more and more speculative ventures and the growth of trading in the stock market, in the so called ‘futures markets’ and the absurd ‘derivatives market’.
Speculation in the price of national currencies has become prevalent and the governments of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia have complained bitterly of individuals playing with their currency and in the case of Thailand destroying the economy as a whole in the process. Indonesia has called on the IMF to bail out its listing economy.
The tasks of economic rationalist governments are to create the conditions for multinational and national corporations to make profits to hand over public assets and to reduce real wages and to crush trade unions In the federal parliament it is time for a changing of the guard John Howard led the conservative coalition to victory in the last election. He was the compromise candidate in the faction-riddled Liberal-National alliance; a recycled politician drafted by the Liberal Party machine to take over from Alexander Downing who would have ensured another term for the discredited ALP.
Those contradictions were submerged by the desire to take office but they are now exploding into every aspect of government decision making. There are at least three separate interest groups at work in the Coalition at the moment: the hard line ‘dries’ led by Peter Costello; the soft ‘wets’ who are leaderless but who from the back bench represent community disquiet at the government’s progress or lack of it; and finally there are the pragmatic party machine interests whose main desire is for another term in office.
The Liberal machine is unused to long periods in opposition. They believe that they are ‘born to rule’ – and yet the majority of the current crop of conservative politicians have no previous experience in government. The sacking of ministers and advisors represents the unraveling of these past compromise arrangements.
Howard is desperate to demonstrate that he is in control and yet the vultures in the form of Reith and Costello are circling his damaged carcass and waiting for their moment to pounce.
The time has arrived according to sections of business to take the gloves off with the workers’ movement and they have no confidence that Howard is up to the task. The jockeying for the rights to succession will increase over the next twelve months in the lead up to the election.
Defence Minister McLachlan has prepared plans for the use of military in strike breaking roles. Reith is lusting to introduce scab non-union labour with military protection and he has an array of anti-union legislation ready to financially cripple any union that dares to resist.
The recent skirmish with the wharfies in Cairns ended with a whimper but it is a clear indication of what to expect if either Reith or Costello take control of the government.
Crisis within the workers’ movement
Yet just as the federal coalition is in a state of crisis, so too is the working class movement. The ALP remains a pale facsimile of the Coalition and the leadership of the trade unions, with a few notable exceptions, is supervising the continued decline of the union movement, apparently impotent in the face of the crisis.
The time is long overdue for a broad ranging discussion on these questions within the ranks of the whole of the labour movement.
Unions and the Left should be discussing how to respond, what to demand of the ALP and how to put forward a fighting programme that will defend the interests of working people and the unemployed. Whilst we in Militant do not yet have the authority to call a special conference of unions and the Left in our own right, it is high time such a conference was held.
Statement by the Militant Executive Committee
Originally published in the October 1997 edition of The Militant, the predecessor of The Socialist.