SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 202 October 2016

Australia’s no-mandate government

The Australian newspaper recently noted that there is "something of a vacuum of political authority in national affairs". Liberal/National Coalition prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, emerged severely weakened from July’s federal election. He almost lost power, hanging on by just a single seat (out of 150) in the lower House of Representatives. In the 76-seat Senate, far from clearing out the crossbench (independent and minor parties), its numbers rose from eight to eleven. Labour’s vote barely increased while the Greens lost a senator. All the parties that represented the status quo were largely rejected by voters.

Instead of restoring stability, the government is in a state of ongoing crisis. Since the election, it has already been humiliated by a census debacle. Even the decision about whether to nominate former Labour prime minister, Kevin Rudd, as UN secretary-general, left it looking divided. The government has also had to contend with the child abuse scandal at the Don Dale detention centre in the Northern Territory. In an attempt to contain the situation, Turnbull called a royal commission, but within days the commissioner resigned. At every turn, the government is struggling to assert itself.

Of increased concern for the establishment are the economic situation and the federal budget. The ruling class is demanding that deep cuts are made to social spending. They want to ensure that big-business profits are protected and that the working class is forced to pay the price for the economic slowdown. However, the main reason the major parties were rejected was precisely because of ordinary people’s opposition to paying for a crisis they had no part in creating. The ruling class is concerned that, unless action is taken on the budget, a crisis out of their control could erupt.

Getting the agreement of the Senate crossbench for deep cuts will be difficult, especially as most of them posed as opponents of the government’s plans. Even if some of them agree to certain things, there is still plenty of scope to stop anti-worker measures. The question is whether the trade unions and social movements are prepared to put up a fight. Nonetheless, the conditions are ripe to push back Turnbull’s attacks.

Most pressing is the need to campaign against the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) legislation. This represents a major threat to all workers. It is designed to weaken unionised workers in the construction sector, but would open the gates to cut wages and conditions elsewhere, too. Depending on how the populist Xenophon Team and the anti-immigrant, right-populist One Nation party respond, the government may have the numbers to push the laws through.

While the double dissolution election was formally triggered by the ABCC bill, the government hardly mentioned it during the election campaign. It has not won the argument, and its fragile hold on power shows it has no mandate. The trade unions should immediately announce that, if the bill is brought back before parliament, a nationwide 24-hour general strike will be called. Such action could galvanise working people and send a strong message to the powers that be. It would exert immense pressure on the crossbench, and on the employers who are set to benefit from the laws.

A powerful action like a one-day stoppage would also give huge confidence to social movements. Anger is growing about the terrible conditions refugees on Nauru and Manus Island face. And if a plebiscite on same-sex marriage goes ahead, many people will use it to punish those who have held back this reform for years. The potential exists to unite huge swathes of the population against the government’s big-business agenda.

People are fed up with business-as-usual politics. At present, the main beneficiaries of the frustration are the right-wing populists on the crossbench. However, an upturn in activity from the unions and social movements would not only be capable of pushing the government back, but would also force left-wing and working-class politics back onto the agenda.

From The Socialist editorial (Socialist Party – CWI in Australia)

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