Millions will be happy to see Scott Morrison forced to admit defeat on election night if, as looks likely, the Coalition loses. But you can’t expect more than half a cheer in the living rooms and pubs of Australia if Bill Shorten claims government. 

Australian politics is torn between the unacceptable and the unedifying.

The Liberals deserve to be booted out. They are a nasty, mean and vicious gang of class warriors who have spent two terms in office doing their best to reward their friends in big business at the expense of workers, students and the poor, while stoking racism and bigotry to try to divert popular opposition to their class attacks.

But Labor is hardly inspiring any enthusiasm. The party does have a story to tell: its policies on taxation, public spending and industrial relations are more progressive than the Coalition’s, even if they are by no means transformative. Public support for what the Murdoch press generously calls Labor’s “class war agenda” has given the ALP a consistent lead over the Coalition in opinion polls since the Coalition was narrowly re-elected in 2016.

But Labor has never been able to establish a commanding lead. And Shorten, who faces no internal challenges, unlike successive Coalition leaders, has always come off second best in polling for preferred prime minister. 

Why is it that the ALP is unable to cut through? One explanation is that Bill Shorten is a lifeless political functionary whose inauthenticity is obvious as soon as he opens his mouth. And the leaders of the left in the party, those who might traditionally have been expected to quicken the pulse of Labor loyalists, are no better. 

But there’s a longer term and more profound explanation. Labor has been suffering long term electoral decline. The party, which for decades garnered a primary vote of around 45-50 percent, rarely scores more than 40 percent these days. At the 2013 election it won only 33 percent. The Liberals under John Howard fared a little better, but they too now share the problem of declining party loyalty among their ageing base. The traditional parties may not be collapsing in Australia as they are across Europe, but they are not in good health.

The roots of Labor’s current malaise lie in developments in the party in the 1970s and 1980s. Labor responded to the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975 by shifting sharply to the right. 

The Hawke government, elected in 1983, made clear from the outset that it was committed to a right wing economic program. Australian capitalism was to be revived by boosting corporate profits at the expense of workers’ wages. 

The Fraser government had given this a go but had been beaten back by union resistance. The Hawke government had one major advantage over its predecessor: the Prices and Incomes Accord it signed with the ACTU, in which the peak union body agreed to wage restraint and a moratorium on strikes. The bosses were rewarded with a big boost to their profits, and the fortunes of the super-wealthy began to soar. 

More damagingly, the Accord gutted the unions as union leaders now saw their jobs as disciplining unruly workers. The strike rate collapsed and, with it, union coverage. 

In the early 1990s, enterprise bargaining was introduced, which formalised the end of industry bargaining and the solidarity that went with it. Under enterprise bargaining, every group of workers was on its own.

Little wonder, then, that in 1996 Labor was driven out of office in a landslide, its primary vote down to just 39 percent, 11 points lower than it had scored in 1983.

Labor’s long years in opposition during the Howard government did not cause the party to retreat from the political program it had pursued in office under Hawke and Keating. By now it was firmly wedded to neoliberalism. 

Labor at times opposed specific Coalition initiatives, but for the most part it tailed the government. Many of the Howard government’s attacks – on the welfare state, on union rights, on public education and on refugees, for example – only took what Labor had done and extended it one or two more steps. Disaffected Labor supporters began to throw their support behind the Greens, which began to break through in the early 2000s. 

With Labor defeating the Coalition in 2007 off the back of the ACTU’s [email protected] campaign against the Howard government’s anti-worker WorkChoices laws, Kevin Rudd became prime minister. But the two terms in office of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd leadership did nothing to restore any enthusiasm for the party. 

Other than a brief flurry of government spending to stimulate the economy during the global financial crisis, something done in many other countries at the time, the Labor governments of these years were utterly committed to the same right wing program that had been normalised by Labor and the Coalition alike in the 1980s and 1990s. The needs of big business came first. WorkChoices was repealed, but the Fair Work laws that replaced it maintained all the restrictions on the right to strike. Policies towards refugees became even more draconian. When the government was put out of its misery in September 2013, not many were left to mourn.

Under the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments, the Labor Party has tacked a little to the left on economic questions. Sensing the vulnerability of the government during its attempts to force through its unpopular 2014 budget, and picking up on the international anti-austerity message being popularised by Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, Labor opposed the Coalition’s hard right wing economic agenda. 

But the ALP remains committed to much else: boat turn-backs and offshore detention; national security legislation targeting Muslims and removing civil liberties; expanding the military budget, drumming up anti-China sentiment and maintaining the occupation of Afghanistan.

The Coalition has been promoting toxic nationalism and racism for decades now – the fascist massacre in Christchurch is the just the latest and most awful symptom of the impact that this agenda has had. But Labor has refused to fight this on any principled basis. Scared that standing up for refugees would lose it support, and committed as the party is to Australian nationalism, Labor has time and again simply fallen into line with the Coalition. The result is that the entire mainstream political agenda takes another step to the right and the far right feels still more emboldened.

And while Labor opposes give-aways to the Coalition’s affluent middle class voting base, it backs big business. Labor opposed the call for a royal commission into the banks for years, and its industrial relations policies are hardly causing business sleepless nights. It is so committed to budget frugality that it is now attacked by the Business Council for refusing to lift Newstart payments.

This is the context for Labor’s inability to enthuse its supporters. This is obvious not just with the lukewarm support in the polls but also the weakening of the party machinery. Active party membership is down so significantly that the party is now completely reliant on the union bureaucracy to carry out its election campaigning.

The union leaders, for their part, have put no pressure on Labor to shift to the left. The Change the Rules campaign has been from the outset a fairly cynical initiative to generate election campaigners for the ALP. 

The lack of enthusiasm for Labor does not mean that the electorate has shifted to the right. You only have to see the support for figures like Sanders and Corbyn to see the enthusiastic audience that exists for a progressive political platform in Western liberal democracies. Even though the context is different in Australia, regular surveys demonstrate the appetite for a social democratic agenda in this country.

The resources are certainly around to repair the social safety net. A quarter century of continued economic growth means that the money is available to do things to make people’s lives better: properly funded schools and hospitals, infrastructure spending to take the pressure off people’s everyday lives, treating refugees and migrants decently. All this would only cost a fraction of what the Australian government spends on the military each year.

But Labor will not go there because they are slaves to the bourgeoisie as much as the Liberals are. The capitalist class wants all of society’s resources put towards increasing the profits of business. It wants governments to keep stoking racism towards refugees and Muslims to ensure resentment does not flow towards them.

Finally, what of the Greens? In the early part of the previous decade, the Greens seemed to be a breath of fresh air. They stood up against the Howard government’s attacks on refugees. They opposed the war on Iraq in 2003, and when George W. Bush came to speak in parliament, Greens senators were thrown out of the chamber for interjecting. Greens’ support surged in this period, and they appeared to resemble a genuine alternative. 

Today, however, the Greens no longer positions themselves as insurgents. They are now safely ensconced in the political establishment, part of the club. Further, they have no ambition to challenge Labor for support in the labour movement or in the big blue collar, migrant-dominated suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney. As a result, they face a natural limit to their electoral support and any project they might have had of supplanting Labor as the dominant force on the left of Australian politics.

The Labor Party and Greens are unwilling to turn politics in Australia upside down, to prioritise working class needs and interests and to give the establishment a good shake. 

Two things are needed to start to turn things around. First, we need a sustained revival of struggle outside parliament. The fact that workers’ strikes are at their lowest in a century underpins a lot of the sense of disengagement in politics today. Politics is simply something that the politicians do. 

This needs to change: the high school climate strikes, the strike by Chemist Warehouse workers, egg boy and the snap street protests in solidarity with the Muslims of Christchurch all point to the kinds of action that are needed. 

But we also need to build a fighting left wing political alternative to Labor and the Greens. One example of such a political alternative, albeit still very small, is the Victorian Socialists, who are campaigning in the federal election in Melbourne.