The way back: ‘moving forward’ in a progressive direction

ON LINE opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate Posted Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Shortly after the dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government on the 11/11/1975 a colleague of mine, Alec Pemberton, suggested we should write a book alerting our fellow Australians of the danger to social solidarity that the new right economic fundamentalists posed. I reassured him that these economic fundamentalists were a flash in the pan and that Australia would return to the progressive social trajectory it had been on since late in the first decade of the 20th Century. How wrong I was. Every government since Whitlam’s has been worse than the last.

There has been more extensive means-testing of social security, fewer universal payments, greater scrutiny of recipients, ever-increasing obligations imposed on recipients of social benefits. A larger percentage of Australians are living in poverty. The morbidity and mortality rates for Indigenous Australians remain a national disgrace and most Indigenous people earn significantly less than do other Australians. Their rate of incarceration is ten to fifteen times that of other Australians depending on what part of this vast brown land they live. “The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoner population in the Northern Territory comprised 84% of the total prisoner population, while Victoria had the lowest proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander prisoners (8%)” (ABS 2013). The increasingly vicious treatment meted out to asylum seekers who come to this country on boats sans papers should shame every one of us who calls Australia home.

In 2010 Australia’s only female prime minister, Julia Gillard, launched her re-election campaign with the slogan “Moving forward” but she was incapable of selling a vision of this country which embraced social solidarity in a compelling way. She pandered to those in her party who wanted increased means-testing and increased obligations demanded of social security recipients, harsher treatment meted out to asylum seekers and the continuation of the Northern Territory Intervention. She waxed lyrical about “the simple dignity that work brings” whilst at the same time cutting the number of disability support pensioners and slashing payments to single parents and their children.

As the 2013 election approached, she was replaced by the member for Griffith, whom she had removed from office in 2010. This happened because it had become obvious to the majority of Caucus members that, were she to remain as leader, the Labor Party was in for a trouncing.

Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, resolutely attacked her at every opportunity from the moment that Gillard had been able to form a minority government (with the assistance of the independents and the Greens). His dog- whistling assaults on her credibility were brazen and encouraged the loony right shock-jocks and cartoonists to engage in extreme misogynist attacks upon her.

Rudd, immediately upon regaining office, experienced a surge of popularity in the polls and should have immediately gone to an election. Within a couple of weeks it became clear to the electorate that the new Rudd was the old Crudd. Abbott’s three word policies suggesting he’d “stop the boats “and “axe the tax” cut through. Abbott has a substantial majority in the House of Representatives but a hostile Senate until July 2014.

Labor and the Greens will lose their control of the Senate after that date and Abbott will have to negotiate with a very mixed bunch of new senators who got there because of a very silly upper house preferential voting system. It delivers senatorial positions not on the basis of the popular will but rather on the basis of how clever some pretty strange bedfellows were in negotiating preferential deals. After at least 6 senators are selected, optional preferential voting above or below the line would make much more sense and would more closely reflect the popular will. This system would advantage the major parties, the Greens and possibly Palmer’s Party.

Abbott is very unlikely to support it. Not because he is concerned that it might be seen as an undemocratic move by the supporters of the Sex on the Back of Motor Bikes Party but rather because any advantage that would accrue to the Coalition Parties would not be as great as that of the Greens. Very little electoral reform has occurred in Australia on the basis that it is good policy or that it is more democratic. The party that thinks that it will benefit the most from any particular change introduces change to electoral laws.

The next two and a half years

People who think that the Abbott Government is in for an easy ride to victory at the next general election are kidding themselves. There are considerable divisions within the Coalition over:

  • the possible sale of GrainCorp to an American Company,
  • the sale of farm land to international entities,
  • the amount of support for the car industry,
  • the treatment of asylum seekers, and
  • marriage equality.

Palmer has shown with his recent trenchant criticism of the Newman Government’s assault on Queenslanders’ civil liberties and his attitude towards asylum seekers that there are many things he wants which will not mesh with Abbott’s agenda.

Abbott was the most successful Leader of the Opposition in Australia’s history. He had the capacity to cut through with a simple message. There wasn’t a day went by when he was not at some factory or other driving home his inane self-serving carbon tax message. He was able to maintain discipline in the ranks of his parliamentary party. But being in government is a much more difficult a task than being Dr No.

On his front bench he has some very experienced and competent ministers like Ian Macfarlane. But Macfarlane is constantly undermined by hard-line anti-subsidy advocates with who sit on the front bench. There are several cabinet ministers who don’t seem to understand how to avoid travel-rorting. Abbott has so far managed to navigate smoothly from being Leader of the Opposition to Prime Minister but he does have an inbuilt capacity to go off the rails.

His biggest danger in the foreseeable future is the hard men of the Liberal Party. Abbott knows this and has tried to control them by demanding that before Ministers consent to a media interview that the PM’s staff must clear it.

Whether he can keep the extreme industrial relation agenda of people like Senator Eric Abetz under wraps is an open question. Scott Morrison, who as Shadow spokesperson for denigrating asylum seekers flooded the airways with hourly interviews, now only appears from under his rock once a week and then with the intention of avoiding most of the questions asked of him. He’ll get away with that ploy in the short term but eventually he’ll have to tell the truth about what is happening on the high seas and in our offshore processing concentration camps.

The other thing that will eventually bring down some of the Cabinet highflyers is the difference between their statements on social and sexual matters and their actions. But who cares in the end? They’ll shuffle off this parliamentary stage to “spend more time with their families” or because of “their ill health”.

The overturning of Labor’s plan to tax superannuation income in excess of $100,000 per annum and scrapping of Labor’s $500 a year superannuation contribution to low income earners will ensure that there will never be a sizable contingent of Abbott’s battlers.

The untested question which Australians will be interested to have answered is can Shorten and Plibersek lead a united Labor team into the fray and whether they can build a coalition based on trust and respect with the Greens. Labor and the Greens attempt to appeal to a similar electoral base and often their past coalitions have been riddled with distrust and hostility. If they are to defeat Abbott at the next general election they must act in unison or at least in a mutually supportive way.