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Lacking All Conviction: On the Australian Federal Elections

On the 21st of May, Australians will be heading to the polls for the first time since 2019. With a proliferation of minor political parties, and eroding confidence in the rightist Coalition government under Scott Morrison, the election is poised to deliver another stage in the development of the slow-burn political crisis that has wracked the body-politic of this country for more than a decade. This political crisis is now being intensified by an imminent economic crash, with the Reserve Bank fortelling immediate “price adjustments” in the housing market as a result of the most recent rise in interest rates. The situation looks grim for the Australian working class, a situation made grimmer by the moribund state of the political caste. With storm clouds overhead, the “Lucky Country” that made its way through the Great Recession more or less untouched is veering steeply into a profound social crisis.

Booms and Busts: The Australian Context

The Australian social formation has fared relatively well through the first two decades of the 21st Century. Held aloft through the worst of the Global Financial Crisis by a boom in mineral wealth that drove a high-tech export based economy sustained by high Chinese growth rates, the Australian profit rates have been dependent upon two pillars: the mining sector and the real-estate sector. This period of relatively high economic growth for a country in the imperial core, steadily rising housing prices, and a flow of cheap commodities from the global semi-periphery has made Australia relatively stable and peaceful - a social peace that has been maintained with harsh border policies and the growth of a massive state surveillance apparatus.

Through the crisis, the Australian state was governed by the Australian Labor Party, but soon after the fractious party was replaced by the current ruling Coalition - an alliance of the Liberal Party and the National Party. Now, with the mining boom subsiding, cost of living rising, and the looming threat of a housing price collapse that would annihilate the Australian economy, question is: who will take the poisoned chalice of government?

Presiding Over the Crisis: The Coalition

The Coalition is a rough beast. It is at its core an alliance between two political blocs that are fractious and confused in their own right. In an attempt to govern in the narrow sectoral interest of their base, they have had to scrape together a coalition which now possesses no capacity to develop a real plan for the future of capital accumulation on the continent.

The National Party is the traditional party of the agrarian petit-bourgeoisie (Australia lacking a yeoman peasantry due to the nature of its historical development). However, with the terminal decline of this class at the hands of agricultural, financial, and grocery monopolies, the party has been inherited by the largest and most craven of the rural bourgeois. In the name of the various dying rural communities, the National Party regularly trample and disregard those they claim to speak for - their only interest is in securing farming subsidies and regulatory cut-outs for their real base.

The larger of the two members of the Coalition is the Liberal Party. The Liberals represent a coalition of the urban petit-bourgeoisie (mainly owners of small firms and landlords), various moyenne bourgeois gentry, the right-wing of the professional classes, and of course the Financial and Mining capitalists. This reactionary bloc is driven solely by a sectoral need to gain short-term returns on their investments - as such the Liberal Party is rarely interested in planning for the future of capital as a whole. The general inability for the Coalition to offer a solution to the problems faced by capital accumulation is made worse by their ideological commitment to neoliberal economic doctrine that has been long abandoned by capital itself.

The Liberal Party is internally divided as well, between a neoliberal wing representing financial capital and professional class modernism, and a reactionary wing representing the most atavistic layers of the petit-bourgeois, the gentry, and the mining capitalists. On its right wing, the party blends with the far right, elaborating various shades of open white supremacy and nihilistic hatred for social minorities. This perhaps makes the Liberal Party distinct among its various contemporaries in the world of establishment conservatism - it has managed to metabolise a lot of the insurgent neo-fascist trends in right-wing politics without being consumed by it. This is perhaps partly due to their opaque system of vote farming from far-right microparties, as well as a general stability possessed by the Australian political consensus of the last few decades.

Capital’s Party of Labour: The ALP

The party of opposition at the present moment is the Australian Labor Party. For those outside of Australia, the party is often difficult to grasp - there are often easy conflations between this party and the British Labour Party or the social democratic parties of Europe. However, to understand the contemporary ALP, one must understand its historical development and its role in Australian capitalism - for the ALP, not the Liberals, is the primary party of capital in this country.

The ALP emerged out of a labour movement that was shaped by the historical development of class struggle on this continent. The Australian settler colony has historically been faced with a permanent, chronic labour shortage - this shortage of cheap labour has led to above average wages being the standard for much of the country’s history. These relatively high wages have been secured by a labour movement that has been historically concerned with immigration and labour market restriction as a primary strategy for maintaining its priveleges. Combine this racial politics with the predominance of craft unionism and lack of a genuine bourgeois-democratic revolutionary movement, and the early Australian labour movement took on a fundamentally petit-bourgeois character - a fact accurately noted by Lenin at the time.

This petit-bourgeois character informs the nature of the Australian Labor Party. Rather than a fallen workers party, or a party inheriting the traditions of Chartism and Fabianism from Christian socialism, the ALP was a party of petit-bourgeois democratic reformers steeped in white supremacy and class collaboration. As such, this party has been the party that has facilitated the most important steps in the development of Australian capitalism - from the implementation of arbitration, the policy of White Australia and its eventual repeal, leadership through wars and economic crashes, all the way through to the ALP being the party that fought for and solidified neoliberalism through the Accord. The Australian Labor Party is Australia’s party of capital, with its base in the professional managerial class, state employees, and the trade union bureaucracy. This base allows the party to act in the interests of capital as a whole, as opposed to fighting for purely sectoral interests.

As such, the ALP’s politics are essentially corporatist - their politics are an elaboration upon the doctrine of arbitration, setting up the state as an arbiter in disputes between labour and capital, and integrating the union apparatus into the state and financial capital. They are the greatest defenders of the compromise at the foundation of neoliberalism, defenders of the superannuation system, the Fair Work Commission, and working class home ownership. They are a workers party against workers power, workers struggle, and workers historical task.

While the ALP has always been petit-bourgeois in character, for much of its modern history it has maintained a sizable base of support amongst industrial workers. To this day, many of its voters are members of the industrial working class - or what is left of it. However, in the main the ALP has not replaced its declining working class membership with support from the new layers of service workers - it has instead become staffed with careerist bureaucrats and corporate lobbyists. In the process, the ALP has metastasized into a truly bourgeois party.

In the current election, the ALP has pivoted to the right on a range of questions, attempting to win an illusive layer of disaffected moderates from the Coalition. Whether this strategy will pay off is yet to be seen, but either way, Capital’s Party of Labor offers nothing for the proletariat.

On the Left-Flank of Capital: The Greens

The third major party is perhaps the source of the most consternation amongst revolutionaries. Carrying forth a broad progressive platform, and supported by many proletarian youth in the cities, the Greens are seen by many as the left wing of the possible - in fact the state broadcaster quite explicitly made a chart that depicted the Greens as having the most leftwing position possible on the economic question. It is certainly true that the fractious and divided progressive party has taken a step to the left under the current leadership of Adam Bandt, and amongst its base and even elected candidates one can find all manner of self-professed socialists.

The Greens emerged out of the environmental movements of the 80s, and from its outset it has embodied the contradictions of that movement. In recent decades, it has cleaned up its image, dropping much of the “activist” gloss on the national level for the appearance of professional politics. In turn, the party has become riven by its own internal contradictions. As a party that adheres to strict federalism, one can find all manner of Greens around the country - from Tree Tories representing the “eco” wing of the petit-bourgeois, through to democratic socialists and mine blockaders.

The program of the Greens represents this contradiction. Refusing to confront directly the fundamental question of the capitalist mode of production, they instead offer a suite of social reforms, a mix of high social democracy and liberal social progressivism. The problem of how these policies are even possible in the contemporary capitalist world system is not confronted - instead it is simply assumed that such problems could be overcome. The Greens, rather than offering a genuine threat to the system, would almost certainly cave when their policies came up against the hard limits of capital accumulation in an epoch of near zero profit rates.

Chaos and Fragmentation: The Minor Parties

In the last decade we have increasingly seen the emergence (or in the case of One Nation, reemergence) of a new wave of micro-parties in the Australian electoral field. Whilst a handful attempt to appeal to a vaguely left-liberal sense of progressivism like the Animal justice party or Reason, the vast majority, and certainly the most successful, are the numerous parties positioned to the right of the governing Liberal-National Coalition. Most Notable amongst this group are the United Australia Party and One Nation, both of whom currently have some degree of representation in Parliament. The United Australia Party, formerly the Palmer United Party, is largely the work of the Australian billionaire mining baron Clive Palmer, who is attempting to position his party as a pseudo-populist alternative to the three main parties, propping it up with his extensive mining wealth. The Platform of his party reflects this, being riven with contradictory policies that other far-right groups born out of petty-bourgeois antagonisms with the existing climate do not have, such as seeking to reduce the deficit whilst also promising free tertiary education and capping interest rates on Housing Loans. Indeed it seems like all his exposure is through a bloated marketing budget rather than through a real attempt at mobilisation of the reactionary sections of the middle class. The same however cannot be said for One Nation, which has risen Zombie-like from the grave it found itself in during the 2000s, to attempt another go at a far-right capture of Australian parliament, based on principles of petty-bourgeois nativism and opposition to the economic globalisation that has pushed them into competition with the broader global capitalist market. This has also led to some crossover, especially in rural areas, of what would be traditionally Labor voting blue collar workers shifting to a support of One Nation as part of the broader reaction to long term industrial decline and increasing competition with workers in the global south. It is important to remember however that One Nation, despite their notional opposition to economic globalisation, is clearly no friend of the workers, and their membership are quite openly hostile to Unions and any threat posed to them by the potential for workers to organise against their employers.

The final party of note, likely to experience a return to parliament but with no real desire to attempt at full federal representation, is the Katter Australia Party, helmed by eponymous Bob Katter. Katter himself is a man out of time, his economic policies reaching back to an age of paternalistic conservatism that has long been abandoned by the Liberal-National Coalition and most of the other far-right parties, but with social policies that also broadly alienate him from the left, despite self-proclaimed membership in the CFMEU industrial union. Whilst worker have little to gain from Katter, his continued popularity in what used to be known as the ‘Red North’, a place many on the left have dismissed as a reactionary backwater, does show the persistence of a parochial nationalist form of trade union consciousness - something that may metastasise into full class consciousness as the class struggle intensifies.

No Party for the Working Class

For those amongst us committed to the communist program, this election offers little hope. Regardless of what bourgeois party assumes the mantle of government, they will be tightly constrained by the exigencies of managing the capitalist state in an epoch of profound crisis. The state, hollowed out and barely capable of handling the public health of its citizenry, has little capacity for industrial planning or policy, little capability to rein even the most parasitic and odious capitalists. Where militants do run in elections, they do so not under the banner of communism, nor under the program of a communist party, but on a ticket of vagaries well to the right of the program of classical social democracy. This weakness is a symptom not simply of poor politics, but of the collapse of the proletariat as a political subject. For now there seems to be no plan for the restoration of profit rates and capital accumulation in Australia - a crisis of historic magnitude seems imminent. In the crucible of this crisis, it is possible to imagine the reemergence of a proletarian subjectivity in the struggles of workers against the daily injustices of capitalist society. Only on the basis of proletarian self-activity and subjectivity is the restoration of the communist party and its program possible. Our hope, if it should lie anywhere, should lie there.

Further Reading

On the contemporary crises and contradictions of the Australian social formation, we recommend the irregularly published With Sober Senses blog.

For a broad history of the development of Australian capitalism and the labour movement, we recommend A New Britannia by Humphrey McQueen.

About the Authors

Edith Fischer and Roland Thompson are militant communists and members of the Revolutionary Communist Organisation based in Meanjin/Brisbane.

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