Not only did conservative Australian Prime Minister John Howard lose the election last Saturday in a landslide, he may have lost his seat as well.
The Australian Labor Party now controls all nine Australian governments: State, Territory and federal.
Industrial relations was the key issue in the election.
Years of campaigning against the anti-Aboriginal and xenophobic racism of the conservative Coalition of the Liberal and National Parties turned what had been their most effective political tool into a liability.
The Australian union movement has been successfully mobilizing against the Government since its 2005 legislation that dramatically undermined workers’ rights to organize and forced them onto individual contracts. The new law banned ‘pattern bargaining’ (industry-wide campaigns) and deciding on industrial action at mass meetings. It restricted union officials’ access to members at work and abolished the prohibition of unfair dismissals.
The conservatives’ last, desperate racist maneuver was the distribution in one marginal electorate of a fake leaflet from a non-existent Muslim organization, which endorsed the Labor Party because it supposedly forgave the Islamist bombers who killed many Australians visiting Bali in 2003 and supported the construction of a new mosque.
A member of the State Liberal Party council and the husbands of the retiring Liberal member and the Liberal candidate were caught stuffing the flyer into letterboxes three days before the election.
Since before it won office at the federal level in 1996, the Coalition has drawn on and reinforced widespread racism in Australia to boost its popularity. In the 1996 and 1998 election campaigns, it attacked the land rights and organizations of Indigenous Australians.
Invasion, genocidal policies and ongoing racism mean that Aborigines suffer far worse health — not matched by government expenditure on health services for them — and live 17 years less than other Australians, have fewer years in formal education and are many times more likely to be imprisoned and unemployed.
The Howard government legislated to restrict new Aboriginal land rights granted by the High Court. It abolished the elected, peak Indigenous representative body and many specialized services run for and by Aborigines. In June 2007, it intervened to seize control of Aboriginal land and organizations in the Northern Territory and limited the right of Indigenous Australians there to decide on what they spent their welfare payments.
In 2000, hundreds of thousands marched in favor of reconciliation between Aboriginal and other Australians, after Howard refused to apologize for the history of racist policies. Even though the Labor opposition endorsed the Northern Territory intervention, there were substantial protests against it earlier this year.
After intensifying the previous Labor government’s policy of locking up refugees who arrived in Australia on leaky boats in concentration camps, the Coalition Government whipped up paranoia about them to win the 2001 election. Scandals in the detention system, including the deportation of a citizen, and especially the growing refugee solidarity movement forced it to soften its policies in 2005.
So the conservatives started to explicitly target Muslims. Australia’s participation in the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq and carefully crafted implicit messages from the Government had already reinforced anti-Muslim prejudices. Commenting on mob violence against Muslims and Arabs in the Sydney beachside suburb of Cronulla in late 2005, Howard denied that there was ‘underlying racism in this country’.
But a majority of people in Australia now oppose not only involvement in Iraq but also in Afghanistan. While Labor has promised to bring the troops home from Iraq, the new Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will keep Australian forces in Afghanistan.
The Government’s attempts to use race in the run-up to the election fell flat. People were not impressed by a new citizenship test, supposedly about ‘Australian values’, that amounts to a quiz on Australian history and sport.
Mohamed Haneef, an Indian doctor working in Australia, was targeted because he was a cousin of one of the people involved in the terrorist attacks in the UK at the end of June. The trumped-up case against him fell apart.
In October, the Immigration Minister announced that he had cut the intake of the mostly Christian refugees from Sudan because they weren’t integrating. This may have played well with convinced racists but did not strike a chord with wider sections of the electorate.
The Return of Class Issues
Australia has not had a recession since the early 1990s. The economy has been particularly buoyed by mining exports to China. Average real wages have been rising for years and unemployment is below five percent. These factors, largely beyond the Government’s control, helped keep Howard in office for years.
Yet he has failed to live up to his 1996 claim that he would make Australians ‘comfortable and relaxed’.
While the labor market is tight, most job growth under the Coalition has been in casual and part-time work. The conservatives’ industrial relations policies have led to declining job security and a vast growth in the amount of unpaid overtime. Meanwhile, inequality has increased, profits rates have climbed and managerial salaries have soared.
Levels of household indebtedness are high. Howard won the 2004 election on the promise that only he could keep interest rates on home loans down. But, in response to rising inflation, the Reserve Bank increased official rates several times this year. The latest rise occurred during the election campaign.
Concerns about debt have intersected with worries about work.
Levels of strike action in Australia are at their lowest levels since before World War I, while trade union density has been falling for thirty years. Yet, even before the introduction of the Government’s ‘WorkChoices’ legislation, the Australian Council of Trade Unions organized large rallies. These continued and expanded after the law was passed. Some participants stopped work to attend what were the largest union demonstrations in Australian history.
Early this year the ACTU campaign shifted from mobilizing unionists in direct action to election campaigning. Its slogan changed from ‘Your Rights at Work: Worth Fighting for’ to ‘Your Rights at work: Worth Voting for’. Most union leaders even fell in behind the Labor Party’s very weak industrial relations policy, dubbed ‘WorkChoices Lite’ because it promised not to repeal the conservatives’ fundamental attacks on union rights.
Although Howard has been defeated on a class issue, the Australian Labor Party today is more right-wing, its connections with the working class weaker, than ever before.
Rudd (accurately) describes himself as ‘an economic conservative’. He has promised to ‘take a meat axe’ to the public service, is committed to the US alliance, keeping troops in Afghanistan, and endorses Australian imperialism in south-east Asia and the Pacific. Unions are still affiliated with the ALP, but the influence of union officials in the Party has declined and its working-class membership is residual.
It is symptomatic that Rudd was himself a very senior public servant and consultant before entering parliament while his wife’s business earned her millions selling employment services which had been contracted out by the Coalition Government.
Australian workers will lose out if they rely on the good will of the Rudd Government. Events during the election campaign indicated that preparedness to act in their own interests can achieve results. Nurses in Victoria took militant, illegal and successful action that shut down many hospital beds, against the State Labor Government over wages and conditions. Three days before the election, ten thousand Victorian teachers struck over their claims.
If other workers, their self-confidence boosted by Howard’s defeat, follow this lead, they will not only improve their lives at work but also rebuild the union movement.
Rick Kuhn is a member of Socialist Alternative and a reader in political science at the Australian National University. He won the 2007 Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize for his Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism.