Malcolm Turnbull has so far delivered what he promised his backers in the Liberal Party: an improvement to the government’s standing in opinion polls. A Liberal Party victory at the next election was unthinkable just a few months ago under Abbott. Now, it’s looking more likely by the day.
Some have attributed this to Turnbull himself, painting him as a charismatic figure that has charmed voters into liking the Liberals again. However, Turnbull’s main strength is the political weakness of the opposition.
Most polls are showing the government either neck-and-neck, or ahead of the Labor Party, on a two-party-preferred vote. This is a significant turnaround in the government’s fortunes and the first time that the Liberals have been anywhere near par with Labor since March 2014.
While there has been no change to the substance of the Liberals’ policies, many people are happy to see the back of Abbott and, for the moment at least, are open to Turnbull. This has created some problems for Labor.
Up until now Labor had what was described as a “small target strategy” whereby they said as little as possible and relied on Abbott himself to blunder his way through. With barely a week going by without an Abbott clanger, this strategy was working for Labor. Now Labor have a more formidable opponent on their hands and they are struggling to adapt.
Against the backdrop of increasing wealth inequality and anger at the greed of the super-rich, Labor attempted to paint Turnbull as out of touch with ordinary people given his vast amounts of personal wealth. While there is much truth to this, Labor’s line of attack got very little traction.
The key reason was that people do not view Labor as party that stands up for the poor. When in power they too rule for the rich and with no fundamental difference between the approach of the two major parties, Turnbull was able to successfully paint Labor as making personal attacks and “engaging in the politics of envy”. When some Labor MP’s admitted to doing the same things they had accused Turnbull of doing, the farcical nature of their attack was exposed.
Labor, just like the Liberals, represent the interests of big business. Their dilemma is that they generally rely on the votes of working class people to win office. This contradiction sees them veer from attempts to discredit the Liberals on class questions one minute, to attempts to outflank them from the right the next.
It seems that Turnbull understands Labor’s dilemma better than the Labor Party itself. Somewhat in contrast to Abbott, Turnbull recognises this as a major weakness for Labor and he has begun to try to exploit it. The issue of penalty rates is an example.
Abbott recognised reducing penalty rates as a potentially contentious issue, with most people opposed to reducing them. Sections of business, particularly retail and hospitality, were disappointed that Abbott was not waging a battle on industrial relations. In part this contributed to the push that saw Abbott thrown from office.
Since becoming prime minister, Turnbull has been far more willing to advocate for a change to penalty rates. His frontbench has been vocal on the issue, and Turnbull has painted himself as a great moderniser whose reforms will benefit both workers and employers.
Turnbull has pre-empted Labor’s attempt to tarnish him as an anti-worker businessman by avoiding language indicative of class struggle. He has talked about reaching an agreement that suits all parties, and said that he wants to ensure workers will be better off overall.
Of course, reducing penalty rates won’t make workers better off at all. Employers’ institutions like the Australian Retailers Association have been quite open about the need of retailers to keep their costs down in order to improve their profit margins. This very simply means smaller pay checks for workers and larger profit margins for employers.
On this issue Turnbull has called bluff on Labor’s attempt to paint itself as the champion of low-paid workers. By refusing to acknowledge the class dynamic at the core of the penalty rate issue, the onus is on Labor to explain it. However, Labor is currently incapable of anything more than throwaway slogans in support of workers’ rights, as in reality Labor courts the support and approval of big business just as the Liberals do.
Turnbull has recognised the contradictions for Labor in attacking him on the issue of penalty rates when Labor leader Bill Shorten himself sold out workers when he was at the helm of the Australian Workers Union (AWU). In his former role as a trade union official Shorten signed off on deals that reduced penalty rates for his own members. Turnbull has also played upon the so called “sensible deals” that the right-wing union Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers Association (SDA) have done that reduce penalty rates in some of the major retail chains. These deals, signed off by Labor Party union leaders, have already reduced penalty rates for thousands of low-paid workers.
These dodgy deals were often done in exchange for financial contributions to the unions and/or assistance with signing up paper members. The Royal Commission into Trade Unions has exposed some of these deals, in an attempt to paint the entire union movement as corrupt. What has been exposed is that many unions are completely dominated by Labor Party politics and officials are not using their positions to ensure workers receive a bigger share of the wealth we create. In essence many agree with the economic arguments of the bosses about the need for growth at the expense of workers wages. This is, in effect, no different to the outlook Turnbull is advocating.
Turnbull is presenting himself as a pragmatist who is merely implementing some of the policies of Labor and the unions across the sector more broadly. In doing so, Turnbull hopes to neutralise their ability to wage an effective campaign against him.
Where Abbott and his ultra-conservatives falsely portrayed the unions and Labor as some sort of radical class warriors, Turnbull calmly embraces Labors failure to fight for workers interests and carefully uses it against them. While prosecuting the same anti-worker agenda as Abbott, Turnbull has approached it in a more sophisticated way. This suits big business, especially as we move into a much more volatile period.
With the mining boom having peaked, commodity prices dipping, and serious issues facing Australia’s major trading partner China, there has been a squeeze on the economy and government revenue. While there has been a boom in the property sector this has not been enough to offset the decline in other areas.
There is now relatively widespread recognitions that Australia’s property bubble risks bursting, an event that would hugely impact the big four banks. While the lower Australian dollar does help in some regard, when taken together with the imminent closure of the car industry things are not looking great for Australian capitalism. In this context big business are adamant that their conditions should be protected. Far from them paying any more tax, they are campaigning for cuts and austerity to be forced upon ordinary people.
In an ideal world, representatives of workers, students and the unemployed would resist this attack on living standards and fight for the rich to pay the price for their crisis. After all it was created by their profit driven system, not ordinary people. However, today in Australia working class people are without proper representation and this makes it easier for big business to get their way.
With Labor mimicking the Liberals at every turn and most of the unions having given up on struggle, a huge gap between rich and poor has opened up. With worsening economic conditions on the horizon people are less equipped to defend themselves against big business and government attacks.
While Turnbull is enjoying a honeymoon of sorts at the moment, it does not mean voters support Liberal policies. It’s because he faces a politically weak opposition in the form of Labor and the unions. While the ruling class has very conscious leaders and a clear plan to defend and increase their share of the wealth, workers have no strong leadership of our own.
The solution to this problem lies not in replacing Shorten with someone more charismatic than Turnbull, but in replacing the failed politics of the Labor Party. The political terrain in Australia would change dramatically if a real opposition to big business rule was built. Rather than debates about nothing, a real discussion about wealth distribution, and the needs of the majority, could be forced onto the agenda. From there real gains could be made.
There is no doubt that as the economic situation worsens the government will seek to escalate their offensive. People will be forced into struggle to defend their livelihoods but to have any chance of success new forms of political representation and leadership will have to be developed. New political movements will be strengthened dramatically if they can link the fight against cuts and austerity to the need to change the system that lies at the heart of all of these problems.
Putting an end to big business rule means taking control of the economy and using the wealth created to meet the needs of the majority. By removing the profit motive billions of dollars could be freed up to be spent on public services like healthcare, education, housing and transport. Not only would basic socialist measures like this eliminate the need for cuts but they would create tens of thousands of jobs.
This type of approach is in stark contrast to Labor and the unions. Despite the fact that there is widespread discontent with government policies, it is definitely possible that the Liberals could win the next federal election. Even if Labor did manage to scrape into office none of the fundamental issues would be resolved.