Federal election: None of them deserve our vote

Editorial 

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s shine has worn off and this could not have come at a worse time for him. The man whose rise to popularity was based on being nothing like Tony Abbott turned out to be not much different than Tony Abbott.

In terms of style and demeanour, the two Liberal Party leaders are opposites. In terms of substance, the policy put forward under their respective leaderships has been almost indistinguishable. The only thing helping Turnbull sleep at night is knowing that he will never be as dull as his Labor opponent Bill Shorten.

But personal approval ratings do not themselves win or lose elections. Last year it seemed a Turnbull Liberal victory at the next election was a given. Now it is in doubt.

Turnbull came to lead a divided Liberal Party on the primary promise of electability. But to win support within his own party he sold away most of the political positions that made him a slightly more palatable conservative than his predecessor in the eyes of many voters. On a number of popular issues such as marriage equality and climate change he had raised people’s hopes only to thoroughly disappoint.

Abbott’s strategy was to focus on boats and bombs (refugees and terrorism). By presenting refugees and Islamic extremists as the greatest threat to Australia, Abbott thought he could bamboozle us into accepting massive cuts to education, healthcare and social services. He was wrong.

So wrong that the first Abbott budget was not able to achieve the aim of slashing public spending to support tax concessions for business. Though many cuts ended passing through parliament, hundreds of thousands of people mobilised in the streets against his budget in a mass public showing of discontent that became the beginning of the end for Abbott.

Turnbull has promised to achieve what Abbott could not, but with a slightly different approach. Turnbull has targeted a new scapegoat of choice for his politicking, moving slighting away from boats and bombs. To be clear, Australia’s horrendous refugee policy has not improved at all under Turnbull. Neither has the suspicion directed at Muslim communities. If anything, conditions have gotten worse. But under Turnbull these contentious issues have been reformulated as moral challenges, not existential threats.

Currently, Turnbull’s chosen villain is a more traditional one: the union movement. While his scaremongering over union corruption is as equally overblown as Abbott’s antics, it is not for pure symbolism or mere distraction. Turnbull genuinely intends to crush the construction union (CFMEU) and, by extension, drive down conditions for workers in Australia.

The end of the mining boom has opened up an uncertain economic future. Big business wants the major parties to implement policies that offload the developing crisis onto ordinary people. This is to be done by shifting the tax burden onto workers, through cuts to government spending on social services, and by opening up new markets for business through privatisation and public-private partnerships. Labor was divided over how to do this under Rudd and Gillard. The Liberals have so far been divided too.

Every time a recent government – whether Liberal-National Coalition or Labor – has tried to implement an austerity budget they have faced a massive backlash in the polls. Turnbull’s manoeuvres are aimed at finding a way around this.

The shockingly poorly executed attempt to shift public education funding to the states – a policy announced by Turnbull that lasted about 72 hours before being dismissed at the recent COAG meeting (a meeting of state premiers) – was a medium term strategy to shift the burden of voter backlash to cuts from the federal government to the state governments. This would mean the electoral consequences of massive cuts to public schools would be localised and staggered across the states, rather that a continuing headache for federal governments each election cycle. Luckily, the states weren’t buying it, mostly due to self-preservation.

Similarly, Turnbull is struggling to come up with a strategy to sell widespread healthcare cuts without triggering the same voter derision Abbott evoked. Steps to further the privatisation of the health sector have stalled out of fear of a public outcry.

These challenges have left Turnbull with less ability to pass the kind of austerity budget demanded by business, especially in an election year. The budget in May was light on obvious cuts compared to what business demands, but it sets the scene for them in coming years.

What Turnbull has promised in the meantime is to weaken the organising power and conditions of workers, allowing business to reap more profits directly from their workers. This is what the promise to cut penalty rates is about. This is what the Royal Commission into Trade Unions was about.

This is why Turnbull has attached the authority of his government to the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

In Australia, the construction industry has historically been the strongest sector for trade union organisation. This industry has set the benchmark for wages and conditions. The high level of union organisation and ability to mobilise on mass has meant construction industry unions have formed the backbone of the broader labour movement.

Objectively, this is because of the special role of construction in the Australian economy, making up 7.6% of GDP and employing one in every eleven workers. This is the highest level in the advanced capitalist world, driven by the rapid growth of Australian cities. Subjectively, it is because of the role socialists have played in the unions, building union strength and militancy from the ground up, first in the Builders’ Labourers Federation (BLF) and later in the CFMEU itself.

The ABCC is a body with unprecedented powers to undermine and break the influence of the unions on construction sites across the country. It is an influence that has made the Australian building industry the safest and its workers the most well paid in the world. If Turnbull can destroy the CFMEU, like Thatcher defeated the miners’ union in the UK or like Hawke deregistered the BLF, he hopes to more easily introduce an era of lower wages and weaker workplace protections to boost business profits.

The ABCC, first introduced under John Howard, is modelled on secret service type organisations. ABCC inspectors have the right to subject construction workers to secret interrogations for hours on end without the right to a lawyer. Workers under interrogation have no right to silence, a basic legal principle. Non-compliance runs the risk of the 6 month jail term. These powers means ordinary construction workers accused of no crime have less rights than people who have been charged with murder!

The purpose of the ABCC is to police a building code that will take away hard-won rights such rostered days off, shift allowances, safety conditions, the right to be consulted on redundancies, labour hire and numbers of apprentices. All of these conditions help keep constructions sites safe. Their removal would mean less safety for workers but reduced costs for construction companies.

Big business has been frustrated by the inability of recent governments to implement the policy changes they think are necessary. The 25-year long boom in the economy allowed Australia to bypass the kind of crises seen in the US and Europe, especially since the Global Financial Crisis. But the basis for this relative economic stability is drying up as the demand for mineral exports grinds to a halt and commodity prices drop dramatically.

A deep recession in the Australian economy is currently being held off by a booming construction sector, mainly in apartment construction in the major cities. This is being financed by massive debt and a property bubble that can’t continue forever. The construction boom masks the steady destruction of the local manufacturing industry and a transformation towards a finance and service based economy.

For the construction boom to remain profitable for a little longer business wants to drive down workers wages. This presents an opportunity, in the eyes of Turnbull and business leaders more broadly, to drive down wages and conditions of workers across all sectors.

This is why the fight against the ABCC is one that all workers have a stake in.

Turnbull has hoped to obfuscate this reality by claiming the ABCC is some kind of anti-corruption body. This has opened the door to a discussion about corruption more generally. The widespread tax avoidance highlighted by the Panama Papers has not helped Turnbull’s message on corruption, especially considering he himself was named in the Panama leak and has previously been associated with the offshoring of business accounts. Neither has the exposé of widespread rorting and corruption within the banking and financial services industry.

As is stands the re-introduction of the ABCC is not nearly as popular as Labor’s call for a Royal Commission into the banks. So while voters still might find Turnbull more appealing than Shorten, Labors focus on the banks strikes more of a chord than the Liberals focus on construction unions.

The move towards anti-banker populism is a smart one from Shorten, but certainly hollow. The widespread anger at the enormous profits banks extract annually from ordinary people is completely legitimate. But let’s not forget it was a Labor government in the 1990’s that deregulated the banking sector and privatised the Commonwealth Bank, opening up the space for the gouging and fraud we experience today.

The sad reality is that Labor has no genuine alternative. Labor is just as responsible for the problems facing ordinary people as the Liberals are. And people know it. A key factor driving the supposed “fickleness” of voters in recent years is a distinct lack of trust in either major party and a lack of enthusiasm for their policies of cuts and privatisation.

The most striking aspect of Turnbull’s announcement of the double dissolution federal election on July 2 was the lack of interest is garnered. People seemed more interested in the drama facing the 60 minutes crew in Lebanon and the ‘scandal’ surrounding Elton John’s personal life than the rare move to recall both houses of parliament.

It is not so much that people don’t care about the election, it’s more that they don’t care for the options in front of them. The Greens have disgraced themselves by joining with the Liberals to enact electoral reform that will reduce the ability of minor parties to enter parliament. Shorten and Labor have no genuine solutions to offer. Turnbull has proven himself a weak leader of a divided Liberal party when the ultra-conservative wing has been let of the leash.

The gaping hole in Australian politics is the lack of a voice representing ordinary working people.

In the US, Bernie Sanders – despite his limitations – is voicing the discontent of ordinary people and pointing out the class-based inequality we face. A movement has developed around him that, alongside social movements like Black Lives Matter and the campaign for a $15/hour minimum wage, is outside the direct control of the political establishment. People in the millions are stepping into the political arena, many for the first time. Donald Trump represents a similar process, but is trying to deflect this anti-establishment mood in a right-wing, xenophobic direction.

Socialists want to build a Bernie-style movement here too. Australia desperately needs a mass party of the Left to mobilise for policies such as free education, free healthcare, expanded public housing, public transport and renewable energy. What is becoming clearer in the US example is how such a program must be linked to structural change. We cannot achieve pro-people policies while the economy remains dominated by the pro-business elite. Genuine social change will require a political and social revolution – on the streets as well as at the ballot box.

The crisis of legitimacy facing the major parties will not be solved by Turnbull’s manoeuvres. Regardless who wins this election, the resulting attacks on workers will force opposition onto the streets. It is not ruled out that the public will not give either party an electoral mandate and a new hung parliament could be just as ineffective as the previous one.

As voters increasingly look away from the hollow politics that dominates in Australia, the Bernie Sanders phenomenon in the US is opening up the eyes of many people to the possibility of a real socialist alternative to the domination of big business over our lives. We encourage all budding socialists to join us in building the groundwork for our own political revolution in Australia.

 

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