This weekend, thousands of people will take to the streets in the next round of ‘Bust the Budget’ rallies. The events will coincide with the sitting of the new Senate and organisers want to use the moment to turn up the heat on the Abbott government.
The latest round of rallies highlights the growth of left-wing activism since the election of Tony Abbott. Progressives quickly moved against his administration. In early 2014, for example, activists railed against Abbott’s position on industry assistance, particularly through the ‘SPC Sunday’ social media activities. This year, campaigners have taken to the streets for rallies to save Medicare, the March in March protests, and the recent Bust the Budget protests. At the end of last month the intensity picked up even more with the ‘J24’ movement, a ‘call-out for a 24-Hour National General Strike & Mass Rally to be held in every Australian capital city on the 24th of June, 2014 as a show of popular opposition to both the Prime Minister Tony Abbott, his government & the brutal Federal Budget recently handed down by his lying & corrupt crony Joe Hockey.’ A similar page calling for a vote-of-no-confidence in the government received over 100,000 likes on Facebook.
In many ways, the rise of this ‘anti-Abbott’ movement has been remarkable. After the dearth of activism during the Rudd and Gillard years, the Left has come out in force to oppose Abbott’s agenda. Even more remarkable is how this movement has brought so many new faces into the scene. While some of the largest progressive organisations in Australia – such as the ACTU and GetUp! – have been present in all of these events and campaigns, they have, to a large extent, played second fiddle. The largest of these recent mobilisations, March in March, ‘was organised by named members of the concerned public, remains unassociated with any political party or organisation and is devoted to total transparency’. The same can be said for the upcoming Bust the Budget events. Many of these events are supported by large progressive organisations – in particular, unions – but they do not seem to be driven by them so much as by community members. The anti-Abbott movement represents a genuine and grass-roots progressive force that seems to be gaining in numbers every month.
This is something that Left and progressive forces should be celebrating. For the first time in years there seems some form of momentum – a real grass-roots movement challenging our government’s right-wing agenda. It is exciting.
Nonetheless, we need to ask the critical question – are the strategies being used the best approach to achieve our goals, a shift to a progressive Australia? Because, while we should be excited about the growth in campaigning on the left, there are also some serious issues of concern.
Underpinning this movement are arguments similar to those Abbott used during his time in opposition.
The anti-Abbott movement has become all about being anti-Abbott. In so doing, it has taken a very oppositional trend. The Bust the Budget rallies are a perfect example, a movement that is being built solely in opposition to Abbott’s budget proposals. The organisers of the Sydney rally, for example, describe their event like this:
Tony Abbott & Joe Hockey have ‘hurt their way into history’ with a ‘slash and burn’ budget that has been called ‘inequitable’, ‘painful’, and full of ‘broken promises’. Their false claim that Australia needs to get back in the black has us seeing red – and we’re not taking it laying down.
It’s time to fight back against Abbott’s budget attacks. The first step? A huge show of force as concerned citizens all across our state turn out for a massive rally on July 6th, the day before the new Senate sits for the first time, taking a stand to make clear we won’t accept Abbott’s budget attacks on seniors, students and working families!
The movement has been built solely in opposition to Abbott: his budget proposals, his climate policies, his treatment of refugees, amongst other things.
Of course, on its own, this isn’t a problem. Abbott’s policies deserve to be opposed, and it is important we build strong movements to ensure much of his agenda is blocked. But, in the context of the other elements of the campaign, it is extremely problematic.
For instance, many on the Left have used tactics similar to those that Abbott used himself. There has been a focus on ‘lies’, ‘broken promises’ and ‘secrecy’, and campaigners have obsessed about Abbott’s intelligence, jumped on gaffes such as when he called Canada ‘Canadia’.
The Left has been using the tactics for which it derided Abbott for employing – personal attacks and the constant destabilisation of a government to force an opportunity to oust the prime minist as soon as possible. This has been particularly focused around the budget, with campaigners calling for oppositional parties to block supply to force a new election. Other activities such as the J24 protests have taken a more direct approach, calling for a vote in no confidence in Abbott or his resignation. One Change.org petition, which has gained over 100,000 signatures, has even called for the Governor General to sack the Prime Minister.
Much of this is based on an ongoing claim that the Abbott government is illegitimate, on the basis that the Murdoch media alone that got Abbott elected. The argument has been perpetuated by reference to Abbott’s ‘broken promises’ – activists have argued that the government lied its way into office.
But it’s impossible not to notice the hypocrisy. After years complaining about Abbott’s politics of destabilisation, the Left is doing the exact same thing itself.
And it’s not just the hypocrisy. In focusing solely on opposition, the Left may potentially succumb to the fate of Abbott himself by successfully bringing down a government only to replace it with one just as unpopular.
Let’s have a look at Abbott’s record. After tactics similar to those described, Abbott became one of our most unpopular opposition leaders and has become an extremely unpopular Prime Minister. Given the historical trend for first term governments to poll very strongly in their first year in office Abbott’s position is a remarkable one.
There is one real reason for this trend. The Coalition’s victory was one based largely on a vote against the ALP, not on a vote for the Coalition. The Coalition came in to government in a very weak position, a weak position exacerbated as it stumbles through its first year.
There are many lessons the Left might draw from the quandary in which Abbott now finds himself. Whilst Abbott did provide an alternative to the crisis-driven Labor government, it was not the broader alternative that people wanted. Abbott bought in to the crisis of politics we are seeing today – what can be described as a hatred within our community of the political class and everything associated with it, highlighted by recent polling that shows that Australian politicians are more unpopular than ever.
Indeed, Tony Abbott epitomises that crisis. From his negative style to his government’s cosying up to vested interests has done everything possible to build the crisis rather than to resolve it.
Which is why the Left needs to be careful. While in the short term the focus on ‘broken promises’, ‘lies’ and ‘secrecy’, as well as the moves to destabilise the government, may seem like a good strategy, in reality they represent the continuation of the political games of which so many people are sick. That is why, for instance, we should be so careful of blocking the budget. Moves like that have the potential to significantly backfire, as they seem like the movement’s playing political games at the expense of real people’s lives.
This is particularly relevant given the alternative – or, really, the lack thereof – that the Left is presenting. In opposition to Tony Abbott, the Left is not focused on shifting or even challenging our political discourse, but instead simply engineering the return of the ALP.
We have become so heavily obsessed with getting rid of Abbott that we have forgotten to think about a real alternative.
This blissfully ignorant campaign is built on part on a nostalgia for the ALP years. Many look back in fondness at the Gillard government in particular, forgetting about the right-wing policy she implemented. With our rose-coloured glasses on, we have forgotten that the ALP is woefully incompetent at shifting Australia to the Left.
This is potentially a major failure for progressive movements. In a time in which people are turning against our political classes, the Left – the movement that is supposed to represent ‘ordinary people’ – is focusing its energies on propping up one element of that class rather than presenting an alternative to it. In so doing, we are failing our own progressive ideals, settling for a right-wing agenda instead of fighting for a true progressive alternative.
We need to take a new approach. We need to use the anti-Abbott energy that many have so skillfully gathered but we also need to develop and present a real alternative, not only to the Abbott government but to the entire political system. We have an opportunity to build a new discourse that changes not only our government but our entire approach to politics. Tim Hollo explains:
Now is our moment to actually build change! Tony Abbott has made it easier for us by making this so explicitly about values and culture, about the kind of country we want Australia to be. Now is our chance to have that conversation, to shift the discourse, to demand the space to talk about making education more important than war planes, research and innovation more important than coal exports, people more important than the ‘economy’ we ostensibly constructed to serve us but have now allowed to overshadow and overpower all other goals.
More importantly, we have an opportunity to highlight the effects of our political class on society, to highlight how disconnected that political class – both Liberal and Labor – has become from our community and how it serves its own interests instead of ours.
There are many people who are already out there doing this work. Russell Brand’s comments last year, for example, struck a chord because of the way he took on the political class. Much can be said about the Occupy Movement in the United States as well. If we turn to Europe, in the latest European elections, two left-wing parties – Syrzia in Greece and Podemos in Spain – gained significantly through a specifically ‘anti-politics’ narrative. The rise of Podemos in Spain is particularly relevant. After only existing for a few months, the party took a remarkable 8% of the vote. Built out of the Indignados movement, Podemos campaigned on a range of issues, including establishing a guaranteed minimum income, lowering the retirement age to 60, and regaining public control of ‘strategic sectors of the economy’ (including telecommunications, energy, food, transport, health, pharmaceutical and education). These are the sorts of policy prescriptions that are hardly ever touched in the Australian political debate – even from the Left.
Importantly Podemos built itself through a direct rejection of many of the perks of the political class, with candidates donating much of their income to charities, refusing to travel business class, and publishing the details of lobby groups with whom they met. The party not only presented a left-wing policy agenda but one that was disconnected from the mainstream political class. In doing so, it aimed to be part of the rise of ‘citizen politics’. Its leader Pablo Iglesias argued:
It’s citizens doing politics. If the citizens don’t get involved in politics, others will. And that opens the door to them robbing you of democracy, your rights and your wallet.
This is the sort of work the Left needs and should be doing. We have already taken the first steps. The anti-Abbott movement is involving citizens in politics in ways many have not seen before. But it is also potentially disempowering these citizens at the same time. The movement has become about replacing one element of the political class with another, and so cutting out the community once again when that change occurs. This is largely because we have become so focused on attacking Abbott himself, instead of politics as a whole. We have ignored the need to build a new alternative.
This is a key opportunity for us. If we don’t take it, we will be sorry for years to come.