Internationally, 2016 saw a series of major political developments. The election of Trump and the Brexit vote have had repercussions right around the globe. Trump’s presidency is likely to continue to dominate world events in 2017. His unpredictable approach, especially in relation to trade, has the potential to impact on the already fragile Australian economy.
Both the election of Trump and Brexit were examples of disenfranchised and frustrated voters pushing back at the status quo. The economic crisis which began in 2008 has had a big impact on people’s living conditions. People feel much less secure than they did a decade ago. And far from there being any end in sight, another economic crisis threatens to erupt.
In many parts of the world people have struggled intensely. Mass movements in response to the crisis have broken out from Europe to the US and in Latin America to name a few. But unfortunately, despite the many heroic struggles waged no clear alternative to capitalist misery has come to the fore.
People are grappling with how to best defend their living conditions but also with the politics that are necessary to solve the problems of the crisis once and for all. As part of this process people are beginning to look for alternatives to the major capitalist parties.
Major parties in crisis
People are walking away from those that show themselves to be servants of big business by implementing cuts and austerity measures. Governing from the so-called “centre” is becoming increasingly difficult for the old parties as the economic crisis has forced politics on people more intensely and polarised their views.
The potential for the left to offer an alternative to corporate politics was shown with the enormous enthusiasm around the self-described US socialist Bernie Sanders. His call for a political revolution and for an end to Wall Street domination excited millions of people. At the same time a number of new left formations have also begun to capture people’s imaginations.
However, in many cases opportunities have not been grasped and as a result right wing populists have stepped into the breach. For example, the Socialist Party and our sister organisation in the US called for Sanders to break with the Democrats and run as an independent. Such a bold move would have helped lay the basis for a new mass party of the 99% in the US and been an inspiration to others around the world.
Unfortunately, Sanders refusal to do this emboldened Trump and allowed him to posture as an anti-establishment figure. In reality Trump is part of the establishment and people’s hopes will be dashed soon enough. But in a distorted and rudimentary way many people vote for these types of figures because they are seeking out political change and an end to years of hardship. Disruption is the new normal as people grapple with the crisis of political representation.
While Australia has not seen disruption on the same scale as Brexit or Trump we have seen political instability despite the fact that the economy has experienced an unprecedented 25 years of economic growth. Both the major parties have faced leadership turmoil in recent years. A recent Newspoll showed that Turnbull and Shorten are the least liked leaders in 20 years. It would be safe to say that neither of them are secure in their positions.
Rise of Hanson
On a smaller scale Australia has also seen the rise of right wing populist figures, most notably Pauline Hanson. In a similar way to Trump, Hanson has tapped into a mood of frustration and a (correct) perception that none of the major parties represent ordinary people. While no doubt a layer of people that vote for Hanson are outright racist, many vote for her as often she is the only one acknowledging the jobs crisis and the social problems that exist.
A recent survey conducted by the Australian National University gave a glimpse of people’s attitudes and helped to explain how so-called outsiders like Hanson are able to make breakthroughs in the current conditions. The survey found that a whopping 56% of people think the government is run in the interests of big business. The same survey showed that voters have never before shown such dislike of the major parties. Incredibly the proportion of people dissatisfied with (capitalist) democracy has increased to 40% – the highest since 1979.
These findings highlight the huge scope that exists for a genuine left wing alternative in Australia. Unfortunately, the bulk of the trade unions, as well as a significant proportion of campaign groups continue to pin their hopes on either the Labor Party or the Greens. Both of which are wedded to the capitalist system and the source of all our problems.
Figures like Hanson are taking advantage of the timidity of the trade union and social movements. As long as there is an absence of a genuine left wing alternative people will flirt with right populism as a way of pushing back against ‘politics as usual’. Despite the fact that Hanson’s party is already suffering from infighting, it is likely that One Nation makes gains at the upcoming state elections in Western Australia and Queensland, in addition to the position they already occupy at a federal level.
The Socialist Party takes the rise of right wing populism very seriously. We work to expose its reactionary nature, and we fight against the racism and other discrimination that it promotes. We do not however agree with those who say that the rise of Hanson points to creeping fascism or that a festival of reaction is about to be unleashed.
While the working class and its organisations have definitely been weakened, it still has the potential to push back against the right wing if it is mobilised. In fact, figures like Hanson are likely to anger many, especially many young people. If Hanson was able to find her way into some type of government coalition, her policies would likely provoke people into action. Her anti-establishment shine would soon wear off and positive movements would develop – the likes of which we are beginning to see unfold in the US against Trump.
Australia in 2017 will no doubt see an increase in political instability. The economy is weakening and is now much more exposed to international shocks, for example in the EU. With the mining boom over, the only sector really holding things together is property. The property boom however is based on a bubble which threatens to burst at any time. China also continues to slow and that will further impact on Australia’s fortunes.
Big business is desperate to ensure that they are not forced to pay the price of the slowdown and are demanding cuts to social spending and corporate tax cuts. The government would very much like to implement these policies but they face a hostile electorate and an often-uncooperative Senate. Both the major parties and the entire crossbench are susceptible to pressure from the electorate and this is what lies at the heart of the instability.
The rise of Hanson has increased tensions within the Liberal Party and the Coalition. She has provoked a discussion about what the Coalition should do to stop their voters shifting to her party. The far right Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi has long been pushing for the Liberals to shift further to the right as a way of heading Hanson off. He has already raised the prospect of a split within the Liberals and has begun plans to gather together a conservative cohort. A formal split could not be ruled out.
With wages stagnant, and unemployment set to rise, and with governments at all levels set to push for more cuts, the ground is fertile for right wing populism to gain an even bigger foothold. Things will only be made worse by new economic ructions stemming from the EU or China, or a collapse of the property bubble here in Australia.
Build a left alternative
Overall the situation facing Australian capitalism is gloomy but the starkest feature at this point in time is the lack of any sort of mass left wing alternative on the political landscape.
While Australia has come through a prolonged boom, the proceeds of this growth were not distributed equally. The rich got richer while the rest of us either struggled to make ends meet or only got ahead on the basis of credit and long hours. The gap between the rich and poor continues to widen with millennials in Australia set to be first generation to be worse off than their parents.
For the majority of people Australian capitalism means hardship in the form of casualisation, low pay and housing stress. Right wing populism is a fraud. It has no real solutions to the problems we face. In fact, right populism takes the struggle against cuts and austerity backwards as it pits ordinary people against each other by using racism, and other tools of division.
What ordinary people need is a political movement, and a mass organisation, that unites the working class against all of those who seek to exploit and oppress us. On the basis of such a movement cuts and austerity could be pushed back and the basis for a new way of running society could be laid. Let’s make 2017 a year where make strides towards the building of a genuine left alternative to all of the capitalist parties, and put the ideas of democratic socialism back on the agenda.
Editorial comment from the January-February 2017 issue of ‘The Socialist’