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Nasty but weak

Not exactly great news to wake up to but it’s not as bad as it might be.

Sure, it’s more likely than not that Tony Abbott will be the new prime minister, and the prospect of a conservative government propped up by sinister bumpkins like Bob Katter is pretty grim. Certainly, when Abbott became leader, I was among those who thought the move rendered the Liberals unelectable for a decade. But cometh the hour, cometh the man — and, hello, here’s Tony.

But there are reasons, if not to be exactly cheerful, than at least to put the razors away for a while yet.

Firstly, the incoming government will be unstable and weak. Given the conservatism of both parties, this can only be to the good. In the wake of that entirely empty campaign, what mandate could either party claim? An Abbott government, particularly resting on disaffected Nationals, will be very circumscribed as to what it can actually do. That doesn’t mean Abbott and his crew won’t be already hatching all kinds of evil schemes but it does mean that each new horror they unleash will be met with considerable scepticism, and so the prospects for resistance are better than might be expected.

Secondly, there’s the Greens vote. Adam Bandt in Melbourne, the Green senate result: it’s clear that a constituency exists to the Left of Labor. And success begets success. Bandt’s result in particular shows that alternatives are possible, that you don’t have to succumb to that old Labor mantra that outside the ALP lies only the wilderness.

Thirdly, the disastrous ALP showing might open a discussion about the strategies the backroom brainiacs in Labor have been pursuing for so long. One cannot underestimate the magnitude of the disaster the ALP has brought upon itself. As all the papers today note, for a first term government to go from where Rudd was in 2007 to where Gillard is now, well, words fail.

And it was so, so predictable. There’s an anecdote about how Robert Conquest, the historian of Stalin’s terror, was asked, after the collapse of Stalinism, to suggest a new title for his classic book on the Great Purges. He offered: ‘I told you so, you fucking fools’.

Well, quite.

The problem for Labor wasn’t about the replacement of Rudd by Gillard. It was about the repudiation of the very few progressive policies associated with Rudd on the basis of nothing other than opinion polls, and the assumption that Labor’s progressive constituency could be fobbed off by the symbolism of a shiny new leader even as the party shifted further to the Right. Shorten, Howes, Gillard and the rest of them (just in passing, can anyone explain what exactly Bill Shorten and Paul Howes have ever achieved?) calculated according to the wretched old formula where any votes lost on the Left trickle back according to preferences. But the problem with that — and it’s always been the problem — is that if you systematically demoralise and humiliate your supporters (and what were Gillard’s statements on refugees and the mining tax other than a systematic demoralisation and humiliation of her supporters?) then there’s no-one to campaign for you, there’s no-one to argue your case and there’s nothing enthusing the ordinary folk who normally convince their friends and neighbours to vote one way or another. Is anyone really surprised that this election saw a record number of informal votes?

And that’s the last point. It’s clear now, if it wasn’t already, that the immediate future of progressive politics lies outside the parliamentary sphere. Whatever unholy combinations take shape in Canberra (let me say again: Bob Katter!), what really matters now is the determination of people to organise, to campaign and to protest. It’s true the social movements are not exactly in a great shape. But, as I said, this government might be nasty but it’s also going to be feeble. So let’s not panic. The future’s not written yet.

Jeff Sparrow is the editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. Oh, Jeff. I needed to hear that. This was horrifying. I wanted… gods, I wanted the Labor party to finally have to hear us. I wanted the Greens to have the balance of power. But not Tony Abbott in power; not now, not ever.

    There’s hope, right? There’s still hope.

  2. I would have thought the Liberal party’s chances of coming anywhere near getting into power were feeble – but here they are. And the mining magnates throw their money in the air just like in that fantastic video. I’m glad you feel hopeful. I hope you’re prognosis is right and this is the beginning of something new, something better for political Australia. I don’t. I feel utterly disheartened and embarrassed.

    • Hi Clare and Georgia,
      Look, it’s not as if a Gillard government would have been that great, would it? So at least this might occasion some discussion for the Left in forging a different direction.
      I can’t pretend that it’s good news to see a homophobic clown like Abbott with his hands on the tiller but, as I said, I do think he’s going to be quite limited as to what he can do. It’s not like Howard’s victory: Abbott can’t, for instance, claim any kind of mandate for workplace reform or anything much else.

      • After a coffee and discussion with trees, fresh air and the dog, my natural optimism is re-asserting itself. I am prepared to entertain the idea that ‘some discussion for the Left in forging a different direction’ is viable. Go Greens. Go Independents (but not you Katter).

        Tony Abbott and Bob Katter – oh for fuck’s sake. More coffee, more trees … where’s the bloody dog?

  3. It’s true it could have been much worse. In fact, given the micro-differences between Labor and the Lib/Nats, it’s probably the best we can hope for. But one thing that can be counted on is that Labor still won’t get it. The spin on their weird and bizarre performance over the past few years and their current parIous situation won’t change much I think. But I would expect that, whoever governs, over the next few years we’ll see increasingly frantic attempts from both Labor and the Lib/Nats to demonise the Greens and restore the status quo. Even if Abbott governs we’re not going to see a return to the Howard years, but we will see Abbott and Labor curiously united on the Greens and others \destabilising\ of the political process. Gillard is gone for all money, if not now then soon, but I don’t think her successor will deviate from the script much, as tired and stupid and mendacious as it is.

    • Yes, I fear you are right. It’s really the only script they know. Certainly, Maxine McKew’s comments seemed to foreshadow a bout of recriminations but Paul Howes seemed utterly unabashed. And, speaking of which, is his rise not utterly incomprehensible? A few years ago, he was a student hack in the Democratic Socialist Party. Now he’s a grown up hack in Australia’s Worst Union. What’s he done in the interim? On what, exactly, rests his claim to be some great strategist?
      Also, for those who haven’t seen it, this is the ad that kept Bob Katter, now Australia’s most important politician, in power.

      • Your point on Howes is interesting: what has he done? I recall him being in the DSP for few years in the late 1990s, although I’m not sure if he was on campus. If there’s one word that encapsulates my perception of him – and what people who I respect who were organisers and executive members in Sydney have expressed privately – it’s “manipulative”. I would refrain from giving a psychological analysis in print. His manipulative tendencies were often crude but sometimes effective. I suspect he became better at it.

        His subsequent trajectory was as a hired underling for the NSW trade and labour council, then into the AWU. Basically a career in the labour movement with no real experience as a on the shop floor worker or militant.

        Add together the underlying emotional and psychological tendency with the career trajectory and you have a superb encapsulation of what a chunk of the ALP leadership seems to be like. Costa was a similar predecessor.

    • Spot on about the Greens bashing Stephen; I’m listening to 3AW at the moment (don’t ask) and John-Michael Howson just said that the seat of Melbourne is now ‘little Leningrad’ and that the real name for the Greens is the watermelons, as they are pink on the outside…

      • Yeah, and it’s not just the usual (media) suspects who are dismissive of The Greens albeit a little more covert than the tabloid media. Take The Insiders this morning: very little analysis of the overall swing to The Greens, nor what this represents as far as the two-party system goes, or the changing attitudes expressed in voting even in marginal or seats traditionally held by Liberal or Labor. Andrew Bolt attacked Sarah Hanson-Young in typical style and was allowed to blather on endlessly during that interview and for the whole program. The framing of analysis and debate in the media in general, leaves The Greens out of the picture most of the time. The swing to The Greens not just in Melbourne which now stands at 13.3 per cent, as well as the informal vote, demands much more attention. I’m also disappointed to see The Drum website hosting commentary by Glenn Milne – don’t these Murdoch mates have enough column inches etc to express their views. Oh, but I forgot – the media is part of the problem.

    • But one thing that can be counted on is that Labor still won’t get it.

      I really, really need for that to not be true. Or an ever greater Green balance of power is the only thing I have to hope for.

  4. Left Flank has a similar reaction:’But while Abbott can savour some hubris for the moment, the election was hardly an endorsement of the Liberals’ contradictory grab bag of policies in search of a program.’

  5. Here’s Katter talking about the terms on which he’ll sell his vote.

    Mr Katter refused to divulge if he had been contacted by Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott, saying only that he’d received phone calls from “very powerful people” who could influence the course of events.

    He said improving the ethanol industry and broadband infrastructure were high on his agenda.

    “A privatised broadband, I mean, please, don’t even talk about it, privatised Telstra has been absolutely disastrous for rural Australia,” he said.’

    Would be ironic if Katter and co ended up supporting a minority Gillard government on the basis of broadband policy, the one old-school, big spending infrastructure project in the election.

  6. Great article & thanks for the link to Left Flank.

    Looked at objectively, the big vote for the Greens is evidence of a continuing Left revival. But there is nothing that automatically translates an 11% vote into extraparliamentary action, and the internal dynamics of the Greens pulls in two directions: a parliamentary/legislative focus versus an activist perspective. Most of the time these co-exist peacefully, but as the party’s influence in official politics grows it is increasingly tempted by an exclusively parliamentary route (even Adam Bandt talked of “stability” last night).

    For those of us outside the party, engaging with it as it has these debates will be vital to ensuring that history has indeed not yet been written.

    • Not sure I understand how internal dynamics of the Greens includes a pull towards an activist perspective? Historically it may well have, emerging from social movements of 1980s, but think that kind of dynamic is long gone. Would hate to see illusions towards ALP replayed in attitudes to the Greens. It’s going to be the parliamentary route all the way.

      • But given that whoever forms government will rest on Katter and co, who are hardened climate denialists, there’s almost no chance of action on climate from this parliament, even given the Greens vote. So surely some pressure on environmentalists to embrace civil disobedience etc.

      • Gary, the Greens have continued to relate to social movements in the period 1999-present, but they don’t do so in the way that (say) the revolutionary Left does. I take up some of it in my recent Overland essay (http://web.overland.org.au/previous-issues/feature-tad-tietze/).

        But to give some examples, they mobilised a large contingent for the s11 protests in 2000, mobilised for anti-war and pro-refugee protests in 2001-4, Kerry Nettle’s office was a major organising centre for the massive anti Iraq War protests in 2003, the NSW Greens have systematically backed and intervened in the NSW Teachers’ Federation’s industrial and political campaigns, the party mobilised for and politically defended the APEC protests in 2007 despite massive pressure to disown them, and they have backed controversial pro-Palestinian protests in Sydney.

        • Thanks Tad. Read with a lot of interest. Was present in early attempt to form Greens in 80s Qld at the same time as democratic rights protests emerging out of SEQEB dispute – lots of red-green discussion going on at the time. Saw them relaunch as part of the national organisation sans some of their internal critics of their electoral focus. Watched somewhat horrified at their directing of preferences to the Nationals in the 90s. As I recall, the Brown and Singer book defended this as some kind of leap beyond the old Left/Right binaries. Think you trace very well though the deepening electoralism which really sets the limits of their political vision but also interested in nuances you trying to draw in how the Left might orient towards them.

    • Yes the swing to the left: shift to the Greens was more than twice that to the Liberals in the primary vote. But the outcome of Green-Labor accords in Tasmania has never been great for either legislation of building any kind of resistance to neoliberalism.

  7. Rather than the tiniest bit of reflection on their campaign and the events preceding it or the slightest humbling or show of humility, we have Shorten looking to state politics to explain Labor’s poor polling and Howes staring down any criticism. I can only assume that nothing has changed nor lessons learned. Maxine McKew has been the only one not to keep to the the script – that will surely change. But perhaps as telling of Labor’s hubris, is Gillard’s appeal to the independents in her speech to the nation last night in which she points out how well she has worked with indpendents in the past. As we have seen in the recent past, when it comes to seizing power, Gillard doesn’t muck around.

    • What the hell – Maxine for PM.

      Trish, I sure hope ‘our Julia’ doesn’t muck around and uses her many powers of persuasion (that she appeared to suspend during the entire campaign) to bring ‘her party’ back from the brink because the spectre of Abbott really makes me want to puke.

      • Abbott for PM is disturbing and dreadful but there’s so little that separates the two parties and leaders I wonder in the end how much it matters – I can easily be persuaded that it does, though. But I do have hope that The Greens at least will use their influence for good whomever is in power. And I’ll second Maxine. Makes me think who else Overland bloggers think would make a great PM (putting aside for a moment that a leader is probably only as good as the party they lead).

        • Hey Trish – I do agree that little divided the most recent labor and lib … but something does – at least a history and a relationship with Australia’s workers and unions, with socialism, with something other than self-interest (however far they’ve strayed) and Julia at least does not have Abbott’s misogyny, his God-bothering and his disturbing need to inflict his near-naked body on the general public.

          As to PM – I’m only half kidding about Maxine. But my true choice? Jacinda Woodhead.

          • Okay, Abbott’s near-naked body’s convinced me (can you imagine if a female PM or potential PM were to appear regularly in her one or two-piece – doubt we’d respond nearly so affectionately).

            What about Kon Karapanagiotidis, CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre http://www.asrc.org.au/the-centre/CEO/for PM. He’s made a huge difference to people’s lives and inspires others to do the same.

  8. And I should have added power for power’s sake! Not to make the world a better or more equitable place particularly for those most in need, nor to make or begin change, or to be more compassionate or to serve any high ideals.

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  10. What has Bill Shorten ever achieved? Annoyed Quentin Bryce, that’s what. And our G-G may have the final say…

  11. Bob Katter(!) may not be a certainty of supporting a Coalition after he today called Barnaby Joyce an “unfortunateness”. He doesn’t seem to get along with Warren Truss too well either, and is down on the Coalition’s broadband plan.

    It’s true though that the ALP is woefully sold out. I was talking to a friend of a friend recently, she told me her son is at uni studying law and politics and has joined the ALP. She said he supported Greens policies and values well ahead of the ALP, but joining the ALP would be better career wise. It’s not the first time I’ve heard such stories, and I think really goes to the heart of the problem.

  12. Latest news is that Labor might be able to form a minority government with the Greens.
    This would be an even better result for the Left — in some ways, better than we had any right to expect.

    • Even last night I would have thought its 50-50. With Labour picking up in all likelihood 72 seats and possibly 73 it’s probably slightly in Labours. All three incumbent Independents stated that National Broadband and Communication was there major issue for their electorate. If that is so I don’t see them going into government with Abbott.

      Also Tony Windsor himself was involved in a minority labour government in NSW.

      As former nationals who have shifted and who have publically stated they don’t think much of Barnaby Joyce- and remember he is potentially a Minister under a Abbot Government- I’m not sure they are so certain to jump back into agreement there.

      Given that the Senate Balance of Power is with the Greens and all three independents have stated the desire for Stable Government it wouldn’t be a big surprise if they went Labor as there might be chance of negotiating things through Senate with a Green in a position of power in both the lower and upper house.

      Who knows what’ll happen this week. Be interesting though.

    • And although the Labor Party would never agree, a great outcome for them, not because they get to retain power albeit as a minority government, but because it might put them back in touch with what and who they once stood for. Okay, I’m feeling optimistic!

  13. After a horror night, I felt better too this morning for all the reasons you’ve stated here. Barnaby Joyce behaved appallingly last night on the channel 9’s coverage and the independent for New England, Tony Windsor, blatantly snubbed him. I also heard Bob Katter talk about the return to country party values and that they were more in line with the Labor view of working people etc. And yes, I also thought he was on-side about the broadband and sounding, strangely, on board with Labor.

  14. One of the most telling things in this election, for me, is that the media and the pundits don’t know how to treat or analyse a minor party. Take for instance the ABC graphs. A 3.6% swing is higher, mathematically, than 1.6%: columns should reflect this. Or, as Trish mentioned, the Insiders’ election dissection.

    Rather than discuss the significance of the Greens vote — how it will affect the party, what the Greens expect from the majors, or why the swing to the Greens was so huge [not just climate change, IMHO] — they focus on ‘the leaks’. And everyone explains away the swing on the ETS, as if it was a one issue swing. What about refugees? Same-sex marriage? And…the wars?

    • The election coverage has been very, very, very, very weird, on so many levels. But yes, the strangest thing has been the almost complete lack of media-space given to the Greens, when even the most pinheaded Labor apparatchik and the dimmest newspaper editor must have known that the Greens were going to get a decisive presence in the Senate. The silence on things Green for me has been the creepiest thing in a very unsettling coverage of a very creepy campaign.

      • Indeed, creepy.

        You know, the Democrats are a case study of the rise and fall of a minor party. Different politics, but a similar base. Why isn’t anybody drawing the obvious comparison[s]?

  15. I agree. There’s been so much whinging about there being no visionary debates or statements etc. and when finally there is a party that has some of the broader brushstrokes in its vernacular, such as Adam Bandt saying that the Greens were for more love, the media don’t take a moment to understand what that means in all its guises, and in that they miss an opportunity for analysis.

  16. Couldn’t agree more with SJ, Stephen and Jacinda’s comments. Silence is not just creepy but also telling of the media – perhaps it’s been so forever that media, in particular Canberra Press Gallery, have reported on politics in terms of labor and liberal they don’t know what to say about a third force especially one that talks about compassion and love for godsake. And then as Jacinda points out, there are so many issues that could explain Green’s swing: one that might look like a sleeper but is coming to bite the bipartisan support on its bum is Afghanistan – two more Australians lost and two more injured. I don’t mean to sound dismissive of the Afghanistan people’s greater tragedy but the reality is that if Australians are dying in a war somewhere, the Australian people eventually want to know in whose name and for what purpose the lives of young Australian soldiers are being sacrificed.

    • My sister in Ireland says: “The election result – or non result – is getting news coverage here. The BBC reporter mentioned how Julia G has been portrayed as Lady Macbeth by the Aussie media.” She also says if Abbott is PM, she’s not coming back …

  17. You mean Gillard’s being portrayed as a woman in the middle of a nightmarish crisis of conscience who is so stricken by her evil and destructive and grasping actions that she’s about to throw herself out of a building? And I had her read all wrong..

    • I hadn’t really formed an opinion about the reportage – was just reporting another point of view. But your comment, Stephen, sparks me to reflect that I don’t see the rest of the pollies wandering about screaming ‘out damned spot’ – and it wasn’t murder, not with a real knife and real blood … not really. And nothing new for politics, either – perhaps just a little unusual in that Kevin was still in his first term and obviously ill-timed because of its effect on the election result. A man ‘steps up’ and does the ruthless leadership grab thing and it’s accepted without much caffuffle … a woman is Lady Macbeth, destined for insanity (it was probably inspired by her childlessness anyway) and had better just wander off and commit. Is that it?

      Personally, I always rather liked Lady Macbeth – more than I’ve ever warmed to Julia.

  18. I’m heartened by the outcome of the election so far. Great result for the Greens; the Wilkie surprise in Denison; both major parties now needing to negotiate with a minor party and independents (who are not all bad; and, most importantly, a shake up of a moribund political culture. I think an extended period of relative uncertainty is a very good thing regardless of which party forms a minority government. I think Jeff is right to characterise the position of either major party in minority government as weak, but that may not necessarily mean that the government itself will be weak, if I can hairsplit that distinction.

    The greatest danger facing the Greens will be success. This needs to be carefully and sensibly managed and internal forces (such as the intervention of Rhiannon into the federal sphere)will require considerable skill from Brown to keep the boat steady. Furthermore, the party needs to equip itself, intellectually and in its communications strategy, to counter the inevitable backlash which has already started, as others have observed. It is now or possibly never for the Greens, especially during the interregnum leading to the establishment of the new Senate.

    I also believe the ascendancy of the Greens offers very real opportunities for a wider reinvigoration of progressive activism in Australia. The Left needs to reconfigure and reclaim the traditional relationship between workers and organised labour that has been on the decline since the mid 80s. Rising Green influence in the inner city is not enough. Progressive politics needs to speak more effectively to the mainstream.

    This is a time, an opportunity for engagement. Carpe diem, before populists of dubious intent do.

    • And of course you are right. Have amended. That’s what happens when you try to write stuff after too much election night gin and tonic. :-)

  19. Jacinda, the base of the Greens is actually quite distinct from that which the Democrats held. Socioeconomically the may look similar (the Greens voter base is dominated by white collar workers), but the political difference is striking.

    Democrats voters tended to self-identify as being in the \centre\ of politics, and to be drawn almost exactly equally from former Liberal and Labor voters. When their attitudes on issues were analysed they held middle of the road economic views and slightly more progressive views on social questions.

    On the other hand, Greens voters both self-identity as on the Left of politics (to the Left of the ALP) and see the party in similar terms. They sit on the Left of the spectrum on most issues, with similar views on issues to typical Left ALP voters. In past elections they were 75-80% former ALP voters (and there is good reason to believe on preference flows this time that the percentage could be getting higher).

    A look at the history of the Democrats v Greens vote shows that there is no easy relationship between the fall of the former and the rise of the latter. Furthermore, there is good evidence that most Democrats voters went back to the main parties (in equal proportions) as their party imploded, with only a minority coming to the Greens. Of course some key Greens activists and candidates today are former Democrats, but that is not because a large chunk of the Democrat base came over with them.

    (I have utilised Ben Spies-Butcher’s analyses of the Australian Election Study for most of this data, which I examined in my recent Overland essay on the Greens. Please keep in mind these are \average\ profiles of voters, not meant to imply complete uniformity.)

    • Hi Tad

      I was referring to their socioeconomic positions and did not mean to imply Dems voters had become Greens voters per se. My reference to the Democrats was as a case study of small parties. While the politics are very different, I don’t think we can just dismiss the implications. The Dems folded and their voters returned to the Liberal party [presumably]. Does a similar, albeit Labor, future await the Greens?

      Anyway, I was just following on from my original point regarding the media discourse surrounding the Greens.

      (Also, I have read your essay, and would recommend everybody else read it. It was a fascinating read anyway, but given the current political climate, it’s essential.)

      • Thanks for the kind words, Jacinda. I’ve also done some analysis of the Greens’ economic philosophy at Left Flank if you’re interested (more to come!)

        I agree the Democrats experience holds some lessons for the Greens, although their base (and membership) are not as internally variegated as the Dems were. That’s why Democrat voters went back to the main parties almost 50-50, but I think you are correct that Greens failure *should* see their votes leech back into the ALP.

        Yet that depends also on the state of the ALP. The prolonged dominance of neoliberalism within the party and its control by career politicians means that it will be harder for the ALP to tack Left to rebuild its traditional base. We may see splits in the ALP and the Greens if the political circumstances become acute enough, especially if the economic crisis hits Australia harder.

  20. All about the mining magnates, anyway – orchestrated, bought, sold, etc.

    reCAPTCHA is becoming increasingly hostile – or is that just me? It’s given me backwards letters and Chinese characters …

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  23. I’d have to question the verity of your last point Jeff. As many here have discussed re the Greens, I’m not sure at all that the immediate future of progressive politics will be outside the parliamentary sphere. As my recent post suggests, I think that the success of the Greens is likely to funnel a great deal of left energy into their organisation. This is true precisely because there is so little activity outside. If there was to be a rise of some social movements, then things might be different. In their absence, people will look for the thing that is most obviously “happening.”

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