If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.
– Emma Goldman
NSW voters can be forgiven for taking an axe to the ALP government that held state power for sixteen years. Last Saturday’s election gave voters the opportunity they had been waiting for and the ALP was dumped with enough conviction to keep them out of office for two terms and perhaps longer. Not only was the party reduced to around twenty seats but it was structurally decimated root and branch with only the frailest of buds remaining on the old tree. For a good laugh read Eddie Obeid’s post-mortem of the election result and for a hint of things to come read Keating’s love letter to the leader of the parliamentary party, John Robertson, whose most admirable quality could be Keating’s loathing of him. No doubt Labor will regenerate, probably under Carmel Tebbutt once Roberston is spent, but that could be more of a problem than a solution to the state’s political atrophy. A Labor resurgence would inevitably be built on the back of a neoliberal agenda virtually identical to that about to be rolled out by the freshly minted Coalition government – but with new faces and better image management deployed to airbrush the sins of the past.
There is not sufficient evidence in the public domain to accuse the four-term Labor regime of corruption. But the perception of dirty deeds was so olfactorily present that hard evidence wasn’t needed to convince voters. Talk of rats and ships proliferated as during its last term of government eighteen MPs resigned. The slow rot gained pace as the election loomed.
Consider these two examples. In late 2010 the government rams through the first stage of the privatisation of the state’s electricity assets and then shuts down parliament to gag debate. Not content with that, in the weeks leading to the election, rumours of frenzied document shredding filtered through the media as Planning Minister Tony Kelly approved large numbers of development applications in record time, some of them very big projects indeed with E. Obeid’s fingerprints all over them, it is alleged.
Not surprisingly, one of the first announcements made by the incoming O’Farrell administration was to point to a ‘black hole’ in the ALP’s operating budget and in doing so foreshadowed inevitable cuts to services. This is standard practice for all newly incumbent governments. Its predictability is material for satire. The hard truth is that Coalition dominance in parliament will provide a generational opportunity to reform every aspect of economic and social policy and despite O’Farrell’s avowed moderate credentials he will be under considerable pressure to grasp the opportunity with both hands and transform the state in the image of what he has hyperbolically called a ‘limitless future’. (Apparently, the limitless future will not include bicycles. Among the reforms O’Farrell proposed in his election campaign was the removal of bicycle paths, which is a sampler of the kind of mentality we can expect of this mob in government.)
The ALP defeat exposes the profound inability of the party to sustain and respect its legacy. Labor long abandoned its historical role as the party of social reform and the representation of working-class people. (Does anyone in the ALP even know what class is anymore?) The Coalition, at the federal and state levels, is assuming that deserted post with alacrity. Labor no longer walks the talk. For those in the ALP with allegiance to the values of pre-1983 Labor, the best course of action would be to advocate a split in which the left wing peels away to form a new workers’ party backed by sympathetic trade unions and aligning itself on key issues with the Greens, a party desperately in need of a means of reaching out to working-class voters. A genuine Green-Left alliance would present a serious alternative to the neoliberal agenda of the major parties in their current form. Who would or could broker such an alliance is a known unknown but it is the best hope we have for a genuine Left alternative in Australian politics. I believe it would attract considerable support from voters tired of Labor’s whiffy fumbling and the Coalition’s rising extremism, especially at the federal level. Chances of it happening? Next to zero.
The second aspect of the Labor rout I find vaguely interesting (let’s face it, there’s only so much one can stand of this stuff) is the impact on Abbott’s leadership. In both Victoria and NSW we now have moderate (in conservative-speak) Coalition governments in place under Baillieu and O’Farrell at a time when Abbott is driving the federal party to the hard right. The bizarre move by Campbell Newman in Queensland to move from local council to de facto, arm’s-length leader of the Opposition supports the general trend in the Coalition towards moderates on the throne. Abbott’s taste for the extreme is not going unnoticed in Coalition ranks. Tensions exist within the Coalition and will intensify as Gillard prosecutes the government’s case for a price on carbon and takes the fight up to Abbott and his MSM chorus line. When the Coalition primary vote begins to dip in the polls (Abbott’s personal approval ratings remain consistently low) there will be a move against Abbott in favour of someone more palatable to voters. Someone like Joe Hockey, perhaps, who is regarded as having the common touch without the extremism that underlies Abbott’s mode of operation. Abbott should just go off and build the boofy, right-wing party he dreams of.
For mine, the most important take-away from the NSW election result is that, in the end, it will not change the fundamentals of government to any appreciable extent. The stench of corruption will abate momentarily but will rise again over time. Corporate influence will work its magic on incumbents keen to make their mark. New alliances will be formed and existing ones consolidated. The unions will get antsy for a while after the cuts then settle down for the long haul as Labor touches up the same derelict edifice with a lick of new paint over the gaping cracks. The Coalition will pretend to be the party it isn’t by playing up to deep-seated prejudice over immigration and inflaming substantive issues like climate change with campaigns of disinformation. The politics of sniping and negativity will drone on in state and federal parliaments as if that is what democracy is. The NSW Coalition will accuse Labor of fiscal profligacy while it moves to privatise everything but Government House. Restraint will be the catchword for both majors, state and federal, even as corporate profits in mining and banking go stratospheric.
There will be no real plan for the future beyond digging the next hole for the miners to ship the nation’s assets and their profits offshore. There will be no ‘limitless future’ that doesn’t include longer hours for workers on less pay that buys less at Coles and Woolies, under Labor or the Coalition. Because in the end they are political parties deeply compromised by powerful vested interests and their promises to govern ‘for everyone’ are a pretense for governing for the wealthy elites that control them. I’m not saying there aren’t good people working as politicians in the major parties. But somewhat sadly, they are little more than middle managers doing the bidding, knowingly or not, of those with loftier ambitions and the means to achieve them, if only for the sake of demonstrating that they can.