Liberal and Labor federal and state governments are toeing the same line on the COVID-19 pandemic. And it’s going to kill many of us.
The establishment of a “national cabinet” of the prime minister and heads of state and territory governments has been followed by a new cabinet solidarity insisting that schools stay open. In response to teachers’ complaints that social distancing in schools is impossible, Queensland Labor premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said that it would be “catastrophic” to close them.
Catastrophic, perhaps, for the profits of businesses whose employees would have to stay home looking after their kids. Yet lifesaving, because closing schools will slow the spread of the virus and reduce the peak need for intensive care in hospitals.
The idea of a national cabinet comes from Britain. Labour politicians joined an “Imperial War Cabinet” in 1917 and 1918. It included representatives from white areas of the empire, plus white administrators and a couple of compliant, ruling class Indians. Tory reactionary Winston Churchill presided over a War Ministry, which included Labour politicians between 1940 and 1945. The primary goal of both was to maintain British imperial power at the expense of working-class lives and living standards.
There has never been a conservative-Labor coalition government in Australia. But the Australian Labor government during World War One, until it split over conscription in 1916, enthusiastically sent workers to kill and be killed in Europe.
The Curtin government introduced conscription and presided over a dramatic fall in workers’ real wages. It took a strike wave to break the wage freeze, which Labor had tried to continue well after the war.
But the two main parties’ positions on many issues have been decreasingly distinguishable at the federal level, especially since the 1970s. The Whitlam government’s last budget was the first monetarist, austerity budget in the post-World War Two period. The Hawke and Keating governments during the 1980s and 1990s pioneered neoliberal cutbacks, privatisations and deregulation of business.
The Rudd government may have “splashed cash” during the global financial crisis. But dictatorial, conservative and social democratic governments around the world were all doing the same. And now the Morrison government is too. Whether the question is climate, health or the right to strike, Labor and Liberal are virtually indistinguishable.
We need an alternative and to be sustainable it will have to be built out of and focus on expanding struggles on the streets and in workplaces rather than what goes on in the luxurious clubs which are Australia’s parliaments.