Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Now Is the Turn of the Right: 'Ditch the Base'

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Now Is the Turn of the Right: 'Ditch the Base'

Article excerpt


What are we to make of Tony Abbott's rise to leadership of the Liberal Party, his almost two years as Prime Minister1, and his eventual deposition by Malcolm Turnbull, the man he had deposed as Leader of the Opposition in 2009, and had, a mere seven months before his loss of the leadership, convincingly defeated in an earlier spill?

There are numerous ways of approaching this question, some deeper than others and all interconnected. On one level there is the question of Abbott himself - his political skills and lack thereof, his qualities as opposition leader and prime minister, his 'core values' and 'captain's picks'. On a deeper level there are questions of the competency and unity of the Federal Liberal Party and, deeper still, to its connections to those business and media interests (often one and the same) from which it draws its publicity and policy ideas while ensuring their public visibility and support. But on the deepest level of all we have an instance or example of a more general and international story; a story concerning a challenge all neoliberal committed political parties face in our representative democracies and, in the end, a challenge for representative democracy itself. It is the challenge of ditching the party base so as to free party elites from any commitments or loyalties that might hinder their determined pursuit of neoliberal policy ends. The interest in Abbott's prime ministership is that his rise and fall makes it clear that this challenge is not, as many have tended to think, merely for parties of the left - who have pretty much already ditched their base - but something that now confronts the parties of the right, and in ways that press even harder on the democratic credentials and political security of neoliberalism triumphant.2

Neoliberalism and the Parties of the Left: Convergence Right

There was a time in representative democracies when competition for office was, at its heart, a competition between the parties of labour and capital: a battle, in colloquial terms, between left and right, business and workers. That contest, and the use of these terms as fundamental to understanding the politics of representative democracies has, since the 1970s, meant increasingly less with the rise of neoliberalism as the bipartisan framework for public policy (a process in Australia to be dated from Hawke and Keating, though with green shoots already springing up under Whitlam3). This is because neoliberalism is unashamedly about foregrounding the interests of capital. Our business elites took the stagflation of the 1970s as an opportunity to undermine the Keynesian social democratic state that had delivered what still remains the highest levels of economic growth in human history, and had done so in a context of lessening inequality, which meant a rising share of profits being returned to that productive labour from which it arose.

In this context the established parties of the left did not, as one might have expected, unashamedly side with their labour base and look for innovative ways of mastering shocks that, in comparative terms, were far less than those neoliberalism produced with its rolling financial crises, culminating in the yet (if ever) to be emerged from the global financial crisis of 2008.4 Instead we saw a convergence of left and right on the need for business friendly, entrepreneurial, policies that meant a determined effort to outsource and privatise public services, infrastructure and assets; reduce 'red tape' on business interests and projects; reduce the tax levied on business and the rich generally; and to undermine the bargaining power of organised labour both directly, through restrictive legislation and penalties, and indirectly through a general assault on the provision of public goods and services as a morale destroying 'culture of entitlement', suitable only for 'leaners, not lifters'.

This convergence of left and right on the primary importance of the interests of capital - on the need for a business friendly, smaller, more efficient, 'fiscally responsible' government whose balanced budget imperative meant the end of Keynesian counter cyclical macroeconomic policies; a political policy refocus from full employment to managing inflation; and a move towards debt funded rather than taxation funded government spending - amounted in reality to a convergence that was a matter of the left moving to the right. …

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