The first months of 2020 have been marked by renewed government instability. The impacts of the bushfires and drought, and the onset of the coronavirus epidemic, has been made worse by the uncovering of a marginal seat vote-buying scandal.
Scott Morrison has struggled to reassert himself after his disastrous Hawaii trip during the bushfire emergency. His reputation took a further hit after it was revealed his office was involved in rorts that saw hundreds of millions of dollars funnelled to sports clubs in marginal seats during last year’s election campaign.
Given the damage caused, you could not rule out the possibility of a challenge to Morrison’s leadership in the coming months.
Morrison’s coalition partners, the Nationals, have already faced one leadership challenge this year as divisions continue to simmer in the rural based party. The rifts ultimately stem from political differences, and the issue of climate change, which has been brought to the fore by the drought and fire emergencies.
Initially the government was reluctant to acknowledge the impacts that climate change is having on the environment, but that became less tenable in the face of such a huge disaster and public outrage. Morrison feared that any softening of his position would exacerbate disunity in the Coalition but was forced to shift a bit given the mood amongst voters.
While the tensions within his Liberal Party are being kept in check for now, the Nationals, feeling more heat from smaller right-wing populist parties in rural areas have been unable to keep things under wraps.
The heightened political atmosphere that came about during the bushfire crisis put all the parliamentary parties under pressure. None of the variants of the pro-capitalist policies they put forward were seen as adequate, and an outcry from many of the so-called ‘quiet Australians’ forced them all to reassess to some degree.
The Greens leader Richard Di Natale stepped aside citing ‘family reasons’, but it’s clear his attempts to win people to the idea of a Green/major party coalition were falling flat. For now, it seems that the Greens will start using more populist rhetoric under Adam Bandt. This is an attempt to tap into the anti-establishment mood that is still developing in Australia and across the world.
Since being elected leader of the Greens, Bandt has promoted the idea of a Green New Deal. While some interpretations of this deal are openly radical, Bandt’s version seems to sit firmly within the capitalist framework. Rather than focusing on mobilising people to win progressive reforms, his first port of call was to beg big business to implement it.
These profit-mongers predictably laughed off the idea that they should take a hit for the good of ordinary people and the environment. Any real reforms will only be won on the back of a people-powered movement in opposition to big business.
While the Coalition, and many of the minor parties are in open crisis, Labor have not been able to take advantage of the situation. This is because they themselves are torn between serving their big business masters and vying for votes amongst ordinary people.
In the absence of any real progressive policies they are doing their best to fly under the radar, appear ‘respectable’, and hope that they can slide into power thanks to the unpopularity of the Coalition rather than because of genuine support for their program.
The bushfire, drought and coronavirus emergencies have brought both climate change and the economy to the fore. They have also brought out the inadequacies of all the parliamentary parties as well as the underlying weaknesses of the economy.
After Morrison fumbled the bushfire emergency he desperately wanted to be seen as being tough and firm in relation to the coronavirus. But the more measures he takes the more the already fragile economy is undermined.
We know that the travel bans have already impacted the education and tourism sectors in Australia and that China is facing major economic disruption. How much this hits Australia’s important mining, manufacturing and agriculture sectors is yet to be seen but it could well be enough to tip the economy into recession.
Regardless of whether it’s this or other factors that tip Australia into recession we can say that its almost certain that the government’s predicted $5 billion surplus will not come to fruition this year.
For workers, the unemployed and young people that’s not an abstract proposition. When the economy takes a hit who’ll be asked to cover the shortfall? You can bet that Morrison won’t be asking his big business mates to pay via higher taxes.
The go-to plan will likely include slashing jobs, cuts to social services, less money to deal with climate change and an increased burden on ordinary people.
When you take into account that people are already suffering from stagnant wages, underemployment, housing stress, growing inequality and deep concern about the environment, you have ask if people will be prepared to accept more attacks on their living standards?
With the right leadership, what seems like a desperate situation could in fact be turned into an opportunity for change. A political movement that refused to accept the idea that working people should pay for a crisis that they didn’t create could get a great deal of support.
Against the backdrop of the vote-buying scandal, and Morrison’s blunders, we should say clearly that this government is illegitimate. When you consider that the government only won the election by the slimmest of margins in a handful of seats its highly likely that the sports club rorts are the reason the Coalition are in office.
While we need to turf this government from office, the problem is that none of the other parliamentary parties represent any type of real alternative. We need to build a new movement based on the needs of people and the environment, not the profit-making agenda of big business.
A new movement that brought together the best of the social movements, including the climate strikers, community groups and the trade unions would provide a basis to build a genuine political alternative.
A movement like this could look to stand in elections as an alternative to the major parties, but most importantly it could organise mass demonstrations and strikes that could kick this government from office. This is what we need to work towards in the coming months.
Editorial comment from the March-April 2020 issue of The Socialist