As we go to press this month, the results of the Wentworth by-election are being recounted, but it seems almost certain that the independent Kerryn Phelps has beaten the Liberal candidate Dave Sharma.
The loss of this seat wipes out the Liberals one seat majority and the entire Coalition government now hangs by a thread. Every single piece of legislation will now need to be negotiated and the government is vulnerable to a ‘no confidence’ motion if just one vote changes hands.
The by-election itself came about after the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull was ousted as leader and resigned from the parliament. Despite Wentworth being considered a ‘safe’ Liberal seat situated in a well-to-do part of inner Sydney, Phelps looks to have secured a massive 19% swing away from the Liberals. It is the biggest swing against a government at a by-election in Australian history.
While the Liberals were routed at the by-election, Labor and the Greens also saw their votes drop. This highlights the deep disdain that people have for all of the mainstream parties at the moment.
It seems that many of those who voted for Phelps were angry that their local member had been ousted as prime minister. But the weeks leading into the by-election were also a disaster for the government, doing little to bolster their chances.
Firstly, there was a backlash after the Sydney Opera House was used as a billboard for the horse racing industry. This provoked a protest and much anger from those sick of big business domination over our lives.
Bizarrely, government senators then voted for Pauline Hanson’s “it’s OK to be white” motion, later saying that this was done in error. Prime Minister Scott Morrison topped things off by toying with the idea of moving Australia’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, mimicking the provocative moves of Trump.
People were already in the punishing mood but after these events they decided to take things to the next level.
As the Coalition now limps towards a federal election due to be held before May 2019 the blame game is now in full swing. Failing to understand that people are fed up with parties pursuing policies in the interests of big business, the Liberals are now tearing each other apart and arguing about what other schemes they might implement to try and woo voters back.
Nothing is likely to work and this weak government looks to be on its last legs.
In fact, no government in living memory has been weaker or more vulnerable than the Coalition under Scott Morrison. A mass movement would have the potential to wring huge concessions at this time but instead of bringing pressure to bear on the government the trade union leaders are channelling the anger that exists into an electoral campaign for the Labor Party.
‘Change the rules’ rallies were held all over the country in October, including the 100,000+ demonstration in Melbourne. But instead of bringing all of the protests together as a one-day national stop-work action demanding that improvements be made now, the union leaders used these events to spruik Labor.
While people are clearly unhappy with the Coalition, and will most likely punish them come the federal election, there was no real enthusiasm for Labor at any of the October protests.
People know that Labor being in power would not result in any significant changes being made. Many are well aware that the very rules we are trying to change were implemented by Labor themselves. Where they are in power at a state level Labor are far from impressive and people can also see that they are already positioning themselves as a safe pair of hands for big business.
The danger for both Labor and the trade union leaders is that if Labor do come to power there will be some expectations on them to deliver. Amongst other things, people will want to see pay increases, improved job security and big business paying a much bigger share of tax.
Those things are at odds with the interests of the corporations that back the Labor Party and expect them to manage their system. Things will become even more tight if the economy contracts as is expected. So far from opening up a period of stability the coming to power of Labor could in fact provoke a political shift.
It is in this context that support for struggle can increase and demand for a political alternative to Labor can grow. Just as we have seen in other countries, socialist ideas can also get a new lease of life as people search for an alternative to profit-driven corporate rule.
We say punish the Liberals but have no faith in Labor, we need to build a new party for working people.
Editorial comment from the forthcoming November 2018 issue of The Socialist