The ruling Liberal Party is facing some difficult times. The latest national polls have the Coalition lagging behind Labor, 47 to 53 in two-party preferred terms. In particular, voters over 50 have deserted the government since they introduced changes to the aged pension earlier this year.
This follows on from the Liberals suffering a landslide loss at the Western Australian state election in March, and experiencing huge swings against them at recent New South Wales by-elections. Even in the well-to-do seats of Manly and North Shore, the Liberal vote dipped by 24% and 15% respectively. Tony Abbott’s relentless sniping from the back bench is but one expression of the deep divisions that exist.
That the government only scraped back into office by one seat at the 2016 federal election prompted the Liberals to commission a review into their electoral woes. While the review found that the party is facing something of a financial crisis, the main findings seemed to be that the Liberals needed to tweak their campaigning, making better use of social media and online technology. These suggestions miss the point entirely.
The root cause of the problems facing the Liberals is the fact that their middle class social base is shrinking, and their pro-business policies are totally at odds with the interests of working class people. While a long period of economic growth afforded them the space to bluff people, this is becoming much more difficult as the boom times end.
The crisis facing the Liberal Party is an extension of the crisis facing all capitalist parties around the world. As it becomes more apparent that the system is failing people, all those that defend it are seen as culpable. People are in search of political alternatives. While this process is much more advanced in other places it is certainly gathering pace in Australia.
Despite the fact that Australia has recorded one of the world’s longest runs of economic growth, people feel that their situation is worsening. According to recent Essential research 49% of people think their general standard of living is getting worse. There is particular concern about rising house and energy prices.
In relation to wages, one-third of workers say they feel that their incomes are declining. You can imagine why proposals to slash penalty rates and limit increases to the minimum wage, while giving tax breaks to companies, are going down like a lead balloon.
On the question of tax cuts to businesses, Essential found only 24% of people support them. 43% of people said that they would much rather the money was invested in schools, hospitals and other vital services. People understand that huge amounts of wealth are being transferred from ordinary workers to the rich.
There is frustration about that, but at this stage there is no major political force through which people can channel their anger. Both the Liberals and Labor are seen as part of the problem, and the Greens are widely considered to be desperate to get into bed with either. As a way of expressing their dissatisfaction 25% of people are experimenting with minor parties but for the most part they too embrace policies that benefit the rich.
Despite the proliferation of minor parties in recent years, 60% of people say that the quality of political representation is getting worse. When Essential asked which party best represents working people on average incomes, 26% of people said that they didn’t know. In addition, 34% said they didn’t know who represented pensioners, and 31% said they didn’t know who represented welfare recipients. 28% don’t know who represents working people on low incomes.
It is clear from these figures that people have little confidence, not only in the Liberals, but also in Labor. While Labor sometimes embrace populism to win votes, once in power they are little different. Take Western Australia as an example where their very first act in power was to announce cuts to social spending.
There is actually a huge amount of scope in Australia for a new party to be built with a social base of workers, students, welfare recipients and pensioners – the 99% of ordinary people. The challenge is for organisations like trade unions and community groups to take some initiative. A new party could grow quickly and enthuse hundreds of thousands of people by advocating working class and socialist solutions to the problems we face.
Editorial comment from the May 2017 issue of The Socialist