Australian elections: historic victory for labor movement

News Analysis

The decisive defeat of the right-wing Coalition government in the Nov. 24 federal elections was a great victory for the labor movement, for the thousands of rank-and-file trade unionists and members of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), for YourRights@Work groups and thousands of rank-and-file workers. They gave their money and weeks of their time in the campaign to deliver millions of leaflets, to knock on countless doors and to hold many both big and small meetings. This was a victory for this army of workers who had one thought — to vote the John Howard government out. It was helped by the fact that Labor Party challenger Kevin Rudd outmaneuvered Howard, who attempted to play wedge politics to the end. A diverse range of other aggrieved and concerned groups also played their part in this historic defeat — community organizations active among parents, hospital workers and environmental groups, and new Internet-based organizations such as GetUp, which built up a membership of over 200,000 in the course of less than a year. The Indigenous people gave an emphatic thumbs down to the military and police intervention in their communities reflected in votes in the Northern Territory. All the hard work of many thousands of workers was rewarded with the defeat of one of the most reactionary, backward and mean governments ever elected in Australia. The sweetest victory of all was the personal removal of Howard from his formerly “safe” parliamentary seat. The myth making by his “new right” Liberal Party colleagues has now begun. They claim that he was the greatest prime minister after Robert Menzies (1894-1978) and that he had made an enormous contribution to Australia. Alan Ramsey, columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald, put forth a different view. He wrote: “Howard’s [defeat] couldn’t be more exquisite than that the Labor iceberg should take our outgoing prime minister down, too. Nobody is more deserving of oblivion. ... Howard’s enduring legacy is the utter destruction of the party to which he professed ... to ‘owe’ everything.

‘Nastiest, meanest’ “As for this last election, the one that kills Howard off politically, along with the nastiest, meanest, most miserable, self-absorbed Commonwealth government to blight Australia in living memory ... all that remains to sweep [Howard] out of sight is to get rid of the more obscene remnants of his governance in the months ahead.” Howard attempted to build an Australian society that was a mirror image of his own vile sentiments and “values.” His attempt has come crashing down, showing that there is in the Australian community a huge pool of people with high moral values who care about their communities, who are honest and motivated by goodwill. In many respects it was more a vote against Howard than an endorsement of the ALP. The ALP’s primary vote was about 44 percent, which climbed to 53.75 after the allocation of preferences. The National Party’s De-Anne Kelly, with a hitherto “safe-seat” margin of 10.1 percent, lost her central Queensland seat of Dawson in one of the largest swings against the Coalition of 13.4 percent. The electorate had experienced an influx of unionized mineworkers since the 2004 elections. They clearly made a statement against WorkChoices, the fiercely anti-labor industrial relations system that came into effect in 2006. Support for Indigenous population Another high-profile casualty was Mal Brough, minister for Indigenous affairs, who sent the troops and police into Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory. He was thrown right out in a swing of over 10 percent in the Queensland electorate of Longman, on the northern outskirts of Brisbane. The vote in the Northern Territory showed that the Indigenous people soundly rejected the Coalition government’s takeover of Indigenous communities. Labor Member for Lingiari, Warren Snowdon, reports 88 percent support for Labor — up from 78 percent in outback booths. This is a very strong condemnation of the Howard government’s appalling treatment of Indigenous Australians. Climate change was another critical issue that saw traditionally more conservative electorates undergo massive swings. The Australian Democrats were wiped out. The Greens have unquestionably emerged as the third party in Australian politics. Nationwide, the Greens polled an average of 7.76 percent in the House of Representatives. The exchange of preferences between Labor and the Greens played a critical part in the election of a number of ALP candidates, without them winning a single House of Representatives seat themselves. The Greens are expected to hold five Senate seats. The Coalition’s majority hold on the Senate appears to have been broken. The newly elected senators do not take their places until July 2008, leaving the Coalition in control of the Senate until then. The campaign by the party leaders was presidential in style as Howard and Rudd personally took over “ownership” of their parties and policies, often omitting to mention the name of their party. So-called policy statements poured out endlessly as embedded media packs scrambled for voice grabs, gaffes and photo opportunities. Their campaigns were superficial, mainly limited to the outpouring of billions of dollars of taxpayers’ dollars as they vied to buy votes.

While Rudd’s “me-tooism” stymied Howard’s attempts at wedge politics, it obscured and confused voters, many of whom came to see very little difference between John Howard and Kevin Rudd. High expectations But the electorate expects substantial change, real change in policy direction, particularly in the areas of industrial relations, climate change, health, education, Indigenous affairs, interest rates, housing, petrol prices, child care and foreign policy. There has been much talk coming from the newly elected prime minister of a vision for change. But whether Rudd’s vision, new leadership and change of direction accords with the expectations of the electorate is another question. The mixed messages which came through in the election campaign have left serious questions and doubts in many minds. The majority of the people of Australia firmly rejected the neoliberal economic and social policies of the political right, but the ALP has also endorsed these policies and implemented them in the Hawke/Keating years. During the election campaign, the ALP supported the Tasmanian Pulp Mill and the intervention in the communities of the Indigenous people. It will take more than saying “sorry” and putting something in the constitution to right the wrongs of successive governments.

It is what happens on the ground that really counts. Will the Rudd government send in armies of teachers, health workers and work out schemes and provide money to create viable jobs in Indigenous communities? Will the new Labor government take the opportunity to move away from a slavish following of U.S. foreign policy? Its policies suggest it will follow a more multilateral path and play a better role at the United Nations. These questions will be answered in the near future. In the meantime, we celebrate the defeat of the worst, meanest, most dishonest and manipulative government ever experienced in Australia. From The Guardian , newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia.