The Morrison government suffered a historic defeat last month, losing a vote on the floor of parliament. This was the first time a sitting government has lost a vote on a significant matter for about 90 years, and it exposed just how fragile the Coalition’s grip on power has become.
The vote was on the so-called Medivac bill that allows asylum seekers languishing offshore to be transferred to Australia for urgent medical treatment. Originally put forward by independent MP Kerryn Phelps, Labor, the Greens and most of the crossbench combined to push the amendments through.
While the changes themselves are extremely modest, the loss of the vote was a big humiliation for the government. In a desperate move, they have responded with a cynical and dishonest campaign about border security.
They claim that the minor legislative changes – which only affect those currently on Manus and Nauru – will encourage people smugglers. Trailing in the polls, the government hopes that a bit of scaremongering can replicate what John Howard did in 2001.
At that time, Howard illegally denied 433 asylum seekers entry into Australia. He presented himself as being tough on ‘illegal’ immigration and played on fears that existed, especially after the September 11 attacks. In the end, he won what was described as an unwinnable election.
While there is no doubt that some people still have concerns about immigration many are also more sceptical now, having realised that Howard lied and manipulated people’s fears. This happened not just in relation to refugees, but also the Iraq war.
At the moment, a set of circumstances similar to 2001 does not exist for Morrison. That said, he will be desperately hoping that a boat or two arrives before the election planned for May. In anticipation of this, the government have reopened the Christmas Island detention camp in an attempt to bolster their scaremongering campaign.
But making things difficult for Morrison is the fact that he has very little political authority. Huge swathes of people don’t trust him and have switched off. While he will no doubt do his best, it seems unlikely that the issue of border protection will be the key thing that swings people’s votes.
The bigger issue in people’s minds is the economy. Millions of people are suffering from low wage growth and insecure work. Housing stress is severe and there is a lot of worry about the possibility of a property crash and a recession.
Declining house prices are hardly helping first home buyers as banks tighten loan criteria and less houses go up for sale. But a full crash would be even worse, leading to widespread job losses and an impact on the broader economy.
With all that in mind, people have started to shut their wallets. Less people have been applying for loans and more people are trying to save in anticipation of tougher times ahead.
As we go to press, the New South Wales state election also looms. This will be a huge test for the Coalition who face a tight race in Australia’s most populous state. A loss in New South Wales would almost seal their fate at the federal election so all eyes will be on that state in the coming weeks.
In Queensland, the major issue is the floods. These have come on the back of droughts and fires and will have an impact on the economy in the short term. The floods remind us of how climate change can hasten the frequency of extreme weather events and should encourage us to redouble our efforts to stop the destructive Adani coal mine in the Galilee Basin.
Perhaps the best news this month is the student strikes organised around the issue of climate change. The strikes are an indication that young people have had enough of environmental destruction and the general lack of a decent future they face.
If the trade union movement was to organise even a two-hour strike to coincide with the student walkout it would rattle this weak government, as well as all those who think they can put profits before people and the planet.
The only reason this government hasn’t already collapsed is because of the absence of a real opposition – either in the parliament or on the streets. If Labor do manage to win the next federal election, they, like the Liberals, will govern for big business. We need to prepare for that.
The trade unions should take a lead from the students and organise their own independent action that puts demands on both the government and Labor. It is from protest movements and strikes that a genuine alternative to the major parties can grow. That is the best way to push back at scaremongering and the big business domination of politics.
Editorial comment from the March 2019 issue of The Socialist