Dump the Liberals, build a socialist movement

15 June 2016
Tom Bramble

There is an almost endless list of reasons why we should welcome the defeat of the Coalition government at the upcoming election.

There is the string of budgets that have spelled out savage cuts to social services, health and education. These include billions of dollars in cuts to hospitals and the gutting of Medicare, the scrapping of Gonski funding for schools, $2 billion stripped out of university funding and the introduction of $4 an hour internships for young workers and students. They also include reduced eligibility for age pensions and pushing out the retirement age to 70. And there are big cuts to Aboriginal support programs.

But Abbott and Turnbull haven’t restricted their attacks to these budget measures. Trade unionists have come under the hammer from the Royal Commission witch-hunt and face more of the same if the Australian Building and Construction Commission is re-established. LGBTI people have been subjected to endless delays before they are granted marriage equality. And Muslims and refugees have suffered a continuation of racist attacks in the name of “national security” and “border protection”.

After nearly three years, there can hardly be a worker, a student or pensioner in the country who hasn’t been kicked in the guts by the Abbott-Turnbull government.

The rich, by contrast, have been living high on the hog, with promises of $50 billion in cuts to company tax, income tax cuts for the wealthy and the maintenance of all the dodgy capital gains tax and negative gearing lurks that overwhelmingly benefit the top 10 percent. Not for them the ending of the “age of entitlement”.

Which Red Flag reader wouldn’t be happy to see Turnbull, Morrison, Dutton and Bishop crying on election night?

By the same token, it will be bad news if they win, and not just because the sight of their smug faces will be too much to bear.

The hostility generated by Abbott and Hockey’s 2014 slash and burn budget destroyed the political careers of the prime minister and his treasurer. Even after they were dumped, the legacy of that budget has continued to haunt the Turnbull government, limiting its room to manoeuvre.

A Coalition win on 2 July would give Turnbull’s economic “reform agenda” a new lease of life by seeming to legitimate its neoliberal onslaught. In the glow of a decisive election victory, we might expect Turnbull, Morrison and Cormann to come out fighting, unleashing all sorts of new nasties as the business lobby groups and corporate media go into overdrive demanding they act quickly.

Their defeat would send a strong signal that the working class will not cop these kinds of attacks. We stopped Liberal leaders John Hewson in 1993 and John Howard in 2007. A defeat for Turnbull in 2016 would send a message that our opposition to any government that will steal from the poor and give to the rich remains strong.


The ALP has tapped into the hostility towards the cuts agenda of Abbott and Turnbull and run with it ever since the 2014 budget, ensuring that it remains at the centre of political debate.

Labor opposed most of that budget in the name of “fairness” and criticises the Coalition as stooges of the super wealthy and the banks. It rejects the $50 billion company tax cuts. It promises to restore the indexation of the Medicare rebate.

Labor has committed to the Gonski funding of education and opposes $100,000 university degrees. It proposes to halve the capital gains tax concession and to pare back negative gearing. And it has pledged to set up a Royal Commission into the banks.

Labor has also said that it will review free trade agreements to eliminate provisions that allow multinationals to sue the Australian government over laws that diminish their profits, like plain packaging for tobacco.

In other words, Labor has tacked to the left during the Abbott-Turnbull government and has not been afraid to use hostility to the rich to win support.

This shift has produced the remarkable situation that Bill Shorten, the spawn of the cravenly pro-capitalist Labor right, is now accused by Malcolm Turnbull of being “the most left wing, anti-business Labor leader we have seen in a generation”.

The ALP has reaped the rewards of its “fairness” rhetoric in the polls – it led the Coalition throughout 2014 and well into 2015 until the Liberal party room dumped Abbott in September. But despite the Coalition regaining the lead under Turnbull over the spring and summer, it fell back to earth again as the realisation sank in that he was just Abbott in a better-fitting suit. As the saying goes, you can put lipstick on a pig …

But just because Labor has picked up a few popular talking points, that doesn’t mean that we can trust it. The opposition may be to the left of Rudd and Gillard but it is still committed to “fiscal responsibility” and worships at the temple of the country’s triple A credit rating.

And so at the launch of the party’s 10-year economic plan on 8 June, at which Shorten said that he “rejects vicious cuts to health and education in the short term”, he still made a big show of his commitment to so-called fiscal responsibility. Shorten declared: “We will not be a big spending government. We will apply rigorous budget discipline”.

The problem is that while some of the measures to curb the budget deficit are unexceptional or even to be welcomed, such as winding back negative gearing and a range of industry tax breaks and handouts, Labor will cut billions of dollars in funding over the medium term by reducing the rate of indexation for higher education support, limiting payments under Family Tax Benefits A and B and freezing thresholds for private health insurance and the Medicare surcharge.

Even things like increased penalties under the Crimes Act and ceasing private health rebates for natural therapies are just another way to slug the working class. Nor will Labor reverse the Coalition’s $1.2 billion cuts to aged care, its elimination of the baby bonus or the tightening of pension eligibility for middle income workers.

There is no plan for the kind of budget measures that are desperately needed, such as boosting the age pension and Centrelink payments to levels that would allow recipients to live decent lives. And Labor is absolutely committed to the $195 billion allocated by the Coalition for increased military spending over the next decade.

The unions, which have thrown millions of dollars and thousands of organisers and volunteers into Labor’s election campaign, are likely to get few gains if the party wins office. Shorten has already said that he will leave the fate of millions of those dependent on penalty rates to the Fair Work Commission, a body stacked by the Abbott government with bosses’ representatives.

Labor will maintain a separate punitive body to crack down on unionists in the construction industry. And the sacking of Labor’s candidate for Fremantle, a longstanding MUA member, sends a strong signal of what the Shorten leadership thinks of blue collar union militancy.

Little wonder, then, that despite Turnbull’s hyperventilating, the capitalists are quite relaxed about the possibility of a Labor win. They may object to one or two elements of Labor’s agenda but they know that the party is a safe pair of hands in government. When Shorten says that he will run the government like a trade union leader, the bosses can see from his record as head of the AWU that their profits will be safe under his stewardship.

And this is not to forget Labor’s appalling racism towards asylum seekers. Labor has followed the Coalition every stinking inch of the way towards more and more barbarism towards refugees. The ALP endorses offshore detention in the hellholes of Nauru and Manus Island, even to the point of urging the government to find ways to override the PNG Supreme Court’s ruling that detention of refugees is unconstitutional.

The ALP’s record on “national security”, aka bashing Muslims, should also be a source of shame for the party. No matter how depraved the measures that have been introduced by the Coalition and no matter how widely condemned they have been by eminent jurists, the ALP has confirmed its absolute support for them. The spooks in ASIO and the thugs in the AFP and Border Force can rest easy at the prospect of Shorten becoming prime minister.

The ALP also stands shoulder to shoulder with the Coalition on militarism. Its support for the biggest expansion of peacetime military outlays is just one part of the larger picture – Labor’s endorsement of the White House’s attempts to maintain its domination of the Asia-Pacific in the face of China’s emergence as a regional power.

This endorsement only makes Australia’s involvement in a military clash more likely, especially given the growing presence of US military bases and marines in the Northern Territory, the outcome of an agreement between the Obama administration and Gillard government. Labor also backs Israel strongly and can bring itself to make only the mildest of criticisms when it commits war crimes.

Given the overall conservatism of its platform and its failure to offer anything resembling a serious challenge to the economic and social agendas that have dominated Australian politics since the 1980s, it’s hardly surprising that the ALP has done little to enthuse its supporters. The party is a long way from the kinds of program put forward by Jeremy Corbyn in Britain or Bernie Sanders in the US, which aim to tackle the power and privileges of the rich.

The Greens

With Turnbull denouncing them as “an extremely left wing party in favour of every form of spending and every form of tax”, you might think the Greens would at least be a decent alternative to the two major parties.

On a range of questions, they are positioned to the left of Labor. Their industrial relations program is more pro-union; unlike Labor, they do support legislating to protect penalty rates, and their candidate for the seat of Grayndler, Jim Casey, says he’s a proud anti-capitalist. Their tax program is more progressive. While Labor promises to set up a Royal Commission into the banks, the Greens are for the immediate axing of $15 billion in tax concessions for the big four. They do not curry favour with big business for corporate donations. And their policies on asylum seekers and national security are better than Labor’s, even if this is not saying much.

Certainly they’ve got the Sydney Daily Telegraph in a tizz: the Murdoch rag is urging its readers to “Save our Albo” from the threat posed by the Greens to deputy leader Antony Albanese’s seat of Grayndler.

But policies are one thing; the positioning of the party is another. The Greens do not pitch themselves as a working class party but a party of the liberal, “enlightened” and usually quite well-heeled middle class. They are targeting seats taking in the gentrified inner suburbs. Their audience is people who think that refugees should be welcomed into the country – but not into the schools that their own children attend.

This orientation is reflected in the social composition of the Greens politicians: their economic spokesperson is a former investment banker, and their leader lives on a farm with a couple of au pairs.

Orienting to the middle class, the Greens don’t see the issue of Labor versus Coalition as a reflection of the broader class divide, which is why they refuse to commit to put the Liberals last everywhere they are standing. No surprise, then, that Liberal powerbroker Michael Kroger sees the Greens as a potential ally.

Like Labor, the Greens are hardly galvanising thousands of people or committing to a real vision of social change.

The alternative

It’s important that anyone standing up for a better world puts the Liberals last on 2 July. A Coalition win would give a green light to the right wing to resume the neoliberal offensive against the working class. A Coalition defeat would be a blow to this project.

But neither the ALP nor the Greens inspire any confidence that they are up to the task of defending the working class from the capitalists. Far from it. If elected, a Labor or a Labor-Greens government would loyally serve the interests of Australian capitalism. There’s nothing much to choose between the two of them.

The task ahead of us is to build the anti-capitalist alternative, a radical socialist movement committed to overturning the rule of the 1 percent, one that is not afraid to attack the perks of the rich, to slash military spending, to divert money to those in need and to put the interests of the working class first.

Whatever their shortcomings, the experience of Corbyn and Sanders shows that class antagonism is alive and well and that workers can be mobilised on a class basis. The mass support for these leaders shows that young people in particular can be mobilised by an unapologetic left wing politics that takes a stand against the stranglehold of politics as usual.

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