Left Politics Down Under: Can the Australian Left Achieve Real Progress with the Return of Labor to Power after Eleven Years in the Wilderness?

By Archer, Richard; Schofield, Jo-anne | Soundings, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Left Politics Down Under: Can the Australian Left Achieve Real Progress with the Return of Labor to Power after Eleven Years in the Wilderness?


Archer, Richard, Schofield, Jo-anne, Soundings


Months after the November 2007 federal election you can still smell the political optimism in the air, following the victory of the Australian Labor Party, led by the former diplomat and Queensland public servant Kevin Rudd and supported by a union-led community campaign 'Your Rights at Work'. The ultra-conservative prime minister John Howard, leader of the defeated Liberal-National Party coalition government, not only lost power but also his own seat, a feat only achieved once before since Federation in 1901. The ALP now holds a 22-seat majority in the lower House of Representatives and, with the support of minor parties such as the Greens, can expect to pass legislation through the upper house Senate. In addition, ALP governments are now in power in all but one of the six states and two territories, making it a virtual clean sweep. In short, the political landscape has opened up dramatically.

After appointment of the Ministry and - notably - Australia's first woman Deputy PM (Welsh-born Julia Gillard), Rudd travelled overseas to sign the Kyoto Protocol, spoke - in Mandarin - with Chinese leaders, and argued for a future seat on the UN Security Council. He also met with American and European leaders and set the deadline for removal of Australian combat forces from Iraq in 2008. At home, the anti-labour law promoting individual contracts was repealed. Furthermore, the government has formally apologised to the Indigenous people over their treatment since colonisation, and particularly for the selective removal of Aboriginal children from their families, a policy in effect until the 1970s. Rudd also appointed Australia's first woman Governor-General (and probably the last G-G ), while 1000 attended a people's '2020 summit' to propose ideas for the future direction of Australia.

These and other events have produced a euphoria still felt in the media and everyday political discussion. Significantly, it has meant the end of a government waging culture wars from a mythic centre against the 'politically correct' pointy-headed elites, while slugging various Others in the process - refugees, Indigenous people, Muslims, Asians, single parents, gays. All of which served to implement its neo-liberal economic agenda and cover the associated cost-shift from capital to labour.

It is not since 1983, when the Hawke-led ALP government came to power, that Australia has experienced such a honeymoon period. The realisation of what the eleven previous years of neo-liberal rule meant for the country has dawned upon the Australian public. Meanwhile, the coalition acts in disarray, unaccustomed to opposition and snookered by an astute PM.

The terrain

While the political leadership has changed and set about proclaiming a new direction for Australia, the country retains many features that are common to the wealthy capitalist democracies, particularly in the English-speaking world.

Since the 1980s there has been a steady decline in manufacturing matched by an increase in service industries. The financial sector has expanded to serve capital accumulation, often in the form of speculation and asset-bubbles. The number of small and individual businesses has increased proportionally, while many institutions and activities of the public sector have been privatised. Managerialism has penetrated the remainder of the public sphere. Two-tier education and health services are well established, with public services chronically under-funded. Defined-benefit pensions are being replaced by investment-based schemes subject to market ups and downs.

Many other characteristics are depressingly familiar. While personal disposable income has on average increased, this hides a growing inequality in wealth and income, together with ballooning levels of personal - and national - debt. Real levels of unemployment and underemployment are disguised statistically. …

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