The Ascendancy of Neo-Liberalism in Australia

By Fairbrother, Peter; Svensen, Stuart et al. | Capital & Class, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview

The Ascendancy of Neo-Liberalism in Australia

Fairbrother, Peter, Svensen, Stuart, Teicher, Julian, Capital & Class

ON 19 AUGUST 1996, thousands of trade unionists and others stormed the Australian Parliament protesting against the Coalition Government's Workplace Relations Bill. In a very visible departure from the years of cooperation and compromise with the previous Federal Labor Government, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) called on trade unionists and their supporters to demonstrate their opposition to the proposed legislation. This outbreak of anger might be thought to herald a reaction to heightened attacks on the Australian working class, ushered in by the election of the Coalition Government on 2 March 1996, which ended thirteen years of Labor rule under leaders Bob Hawke (1983-1991) and Paul Keating (1991-1996). However, while indicating a renewed activism by a disenchanted and alienated working class, this outburst of anger was not attributable to a sudden shift in the overall direction of government policy. Rather, it was an expression of a profound disenchantment with thirteen years of Australian `New Labor' and a fear of the future under a Coalition Government committed to the sharp edges of the neo-liberal agenda.

The Coalition Government, led by John Howard, comprised a traditional conservative alliance between the Liberal Party (the majority partner) and the rural-based National Party. Not surprisingly, the Coalition proclaimed itself the harbinger of a new era, promising to implement a strategy to boost job growth, opportunities and living standards; provide greater choice and security for families; restore incentives and jobs in the small business sector; give hope and opportunity to the young; enhance security for older Australians; revitalise regional Australia; restore a cohesive Australian society; and ensure national security and develop regional relationships (Liberal Party of Australia, 1996a). But, this was electoral rhetoric and the Coalition Government quickly underwrote the continuity of core economic policies with the previous Labor Governments. Nonetheless, there are differences in emphasis and a distinctiveness in the `socio-cultural policies' advocated by the Coalition Government which point to a shift in policy focus and its implications in the longer term (on the distinctiveness of Labor's advocacy of `anti-conservative socio-cultural policies', see Frankel, 1997).

So, while the Liberal Party promised change, there is a continuity of the core neo-liberal economic agenda, not unlike New Zealand upon the election of its counterpart in 1990 (Kelsey, 1995). This prompts the question: do elections matter in the neo-liberal world of the antipodes? In order to explore this question and provide the beginnings of an answer, four core features of continuity will be examined: trade policies; state restructuring; competition and privatisation; and labour relations. In order to develop an alternative politics, a `new old' left will have to rethink a radical economic and political agenda, rejecting neo-liberalism and radically democratising all aspects of life (c.f. Frankel, 1997: 32-33).

The Discovery of International Trade

The philosophy and practice of Australian 'Laborism' was erected in the early years of the twentieth century upon a tripod of `White Australia', conciliation and arbitration, and strong tariff barriers. The dismantling of those tariff barriers and other moves by the Labor Governments of the 1970s and 1980s to internationalise the Australian economy thus represents an historic change of direction for the Labor Party. This shift came about as policy makers attempted to meet the demands of an increasingly internationalised economy. Arguments took place within the Labor Party about how to create the conditions for a 'modern' Australian economy, with the ACTU committed to regulating the labour market and the Labor Party leadership advocating the twin policies of deregulation and 'globalisation' (Beilharz, 1994: 116-147). The ACTU was arguing for policies based on consensus and cooperation at precisely the time when key sections of the Party leadership had embraced a view of the world in which problems were seen to be 'economic' and international. …

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