Rebuilding Under Abbott: interpreting the Federal Election, its political economic context, and the challenges ahead…

// Ben Spies-Butcher



The election of the Coalition has already had an impact. New coal mines, turning back boats of desperate people and defunding renewable energy. There is little doubt that changing the government can change the country. But substantive change often happens despite the colour of government. Fraser sealed the Land Rights Act, Howard bought back guns and Keating introduced competition policy. Responding to a conservative government requires electoral opposition, but also a broader strategy for social change.


Many of the achievements of modern democracies have come over decades in response to people organising. Initially, workers joined unions, unions formed the basis for mass politics and this created pressures –industrial, ideological and electoral – for measures that would protect workers from the worst excesses of capitalist production. Unions shaped not only the agenda, but the party system itself. Since then new social movements around the environment, gender and race have reshaped both the agenda and the way politics is organised.
Alongside this, of course, another substantial shift took place. The rise of neoliberalism and global economic restructuring did as much as these movements to shift the centre of gravity of politics internationally. In Australia, the rise of new social movements and neoliberal restructuring came together through the Hawke and Keating governments. That initially led to a sustained period of electoral success, but it also substantially weakened and realigned the links between citizens, social movements and electoral politics, a legacy that can still be seen in the most recent election.
There is now clearly a large pool of disaffected voters. Labor’s primary vote fell 10% between 2007 and 2013 – and many within its own ranks claim it almost fell much further. Labor’s primary vote has not been this low since the Depression.  Yet, the Coalition received less than 4% of this. The rest largely flowed to Clive Palmer’s new party. The state results in NSW and Queensland suggest Labor’s challenges go beyond federal personality politics.
The support that gained Labor during the 1980s and 1990s has been eaten away. The traditional base of the party has shrunk and become less organised. The proportion of blue collar workers has halved since the 1970s. The proportion of unionists has more than halved. While blue collar workers remain more inclined to vote Labor, they have also become a more electorally volatile constituency.
Andrew Leigh estimates that had unionism been sustained Labor would have won almost all of the elections that were won by the Coalition under Howard.
That decline has at least partly been driven by Labor’s style of government during the period of restructuring. Union amalgamations, the aversion to confrontation and the acceptance by unions of real wage decline all corroded the organisational muscle of the movement. The policies of deregulation and privatisation achieved bipartisan agreement in the parliament, but even 30 years on, still fail to gain popular support.
Labor’s quasi-corporatism also saw a technocratic approach to working with social movements, not only unions but environmentalists and women’s groups. It left them more reliant on inside access to power and on the resources of the state. When Howard was elected in 1996, this left many vulnerable.
This policy approach did achieve gains. The expansion of targeted social payments did moderate inequalities compared to other English speaking countries. There were substantial environmental gains under Hawke and Labor policies did facilitate a rapid entry of women into the workforce. But Labor shied away from large confrontations. It targeted rather than taxed. The limits of this ‘small state’ form of social democracy became increasingly evident since the GFC as Australia developed a structural deficit and Labor instead turned to targeting vulnerable constituencies like single parents.
Labor’s Third Way mix of neoliberalism and social reform also opened the door for the Opposition. Howard’s relatively small target strategy in 1996 was designed to wedge Labor’s blue collar constituency from an emerging professional base by attacking ‘political correctness’. This strategy has since become central to the right’s culture wars and to the emergence of parties like One Nation and perhaps the Palmer United Party too.
Labor’s response was to shift to the right on social issues, leaving it unable to lead, or even really relate to, a rejuvenation of social movement protest. Instead, as
Liz Humphries notes, the new protest activity coalesced around the Greens.
The success of the Greens in harnessing social movement energies has been a useful bridge in reconnecting a more diverse class base to a progressive political agenda. Unlike the Democrats, who collapsed as the Greens emerged, the Greens have developed a distinct social base. Their membership is roughly double that of the Democrats, and their vote is more concentrated amongst university trained workers. This has meant their vote is both more stable and more geographically concentrated – reflected in the victory of Adam Bandt (and in NSW of Jamie Parker).
The Greens’ base reflects a growing diversity amongst Australian workers. The decline of male, blue collar jobs has been offset by a growth in employment for women and graduates. This constituency is clearly more focused on post-material issues, particularly human rights and the environment. But importantly, as
Shaun Wilson suggests, it is consistently progressive on economic issues, to the extent the Greens’ base is more supportive of taxation and public service provision, making them a more reliable partner for promoting broader progressive change.
There is
some international evidence that proportional representation and multiple party coalitions can facilitate progressive reform by making it easier to build coalitions across a diverse social base. The Greens also provided leadership to help bring together social movement actors and issues, and a structure that is far more participatory than is now the case of the former mass parties. All this provides a resource for rebuilding progressive politics.
But it also raises significant challenges. Labor has resisted the Greens success, not only because of its direct electoral threat, but also because it sees a trade-off between addressing the concerns raised by the Greens and securing its traditional base. Indeed, there is a potential tension here. But to date, Labor’s strategy has been one corrosive to a broader progressive agenda.
Gillard in particular appealed to elements of the culture wars in arguing the Greens do not share the same values of hard work and reward held by the majority of workers. Similar arguments about the Greens cultural elitism were raised in debates over refugees. The danger of this strategy is self-evident. It plays to the very wedge politics used by the Coalition.
It also misses an important opportunity presented by having the Greens combine post-materialist politics with a progressive political economy. After all,
Greens voters are actually more likely to be in paid work than are the voters of the other parties – something that is unsurprising when you realise the Greens voters are younger and support women at work. This helps explain the overlap of post-materialism and strong support for social provision that is true of Greens voters as much as its MPs. And it potentially opens up opportunities to talk about the common experiences of precarious work and expensive marketised services that confront manual, professional and care workers alike.
Alternatively, the Greens’ attempts to work with Labor also generate internal tensions.
Greens parties internationally have struggled when they are the smaller party in governing coalitions, forced to defend the Establishment rather than railing against it. As Tad Tietze claims, the fall in the Greens vote in 2013 is at least partly the result of this closer alliance.
However, the alternative for the Greens is less clear. Opposing Labor, or adding to the destablisation campaign run by Tony Abbott, was also risky, potentially winning the disaffected at the cost of alienating the party’s base. It is notable that the party’s strongest result was in its inner-city heartland of Melbourne, and its Senate vote likewise held up best in inner-city Sydney. Just as importantly, this was done by
strengthening ties between the Greens and progressive unions, including the NTEU, establishing a link between the party and its base industrially, not just electorally.
Managing the tensions between Labor and the Greens is helped by broader social mobilisation outside the now substantially weakened structures of party politics. Indeed, this is largely what happened in 2007. Rudd won despite the Coalition holding almost as many seats then as it does now. It came on the back of two important movements – Your Rights @ Work and the climate movement.
Both parties supported both movements and both were substantially aided by the grass roots mobilisation – and spending – these brought.
More recently, movements have not only weakened but become fractured. Opponents of climate action have too easily been able to divorce it from the interests of most citizens. Carbon pricing was linked to compensation. But both the environment movement and the legislative framework needed to do more to build the everyday connections between sustainability and equity that are needed to entrench support.
Likewise, Labor’s failure to expand the tax base, and to continue the legacy of marketisation, has left it vulnerable to a new type of conservative politics based on public subsidies of private services. This not only stratifies access and undermines solidarity, it also soaks up scarce public finances. While the Coalition has done most to fund private services, it was Labor that set up the systems of superannuation, private school funding and individual childcare rebates that make this strategy possible.

Addressing these tensions is more likely to happen in movements that allow people in different communities to work on problems together. Organisations like Sydney Alliance and the campaign for community renewables [see also here] provide a mechanism to help people work together, build solidarity and see the connections between the issues they face. But these clearly need the backing of the existing infrastructure of the larger union and environment movements.

Encouraging participation also broadens the base of political parties, giving movements and communities better access to decision making, and reducing the short-run technocratic and electoral focus that can divide Labor and Greens strategies. In this respect, the democratisation discussion within Labor is particularly important. There have been some positive moves.


However, a leadership ballot between two candidates, supposedly from different philosophical orientations within the party but who agree on every substantive issue, suggests a change in form rather than substance. Hopefully the policy committee will have more success. The process also marginalises unions, rather than democratising unions by giving unionists a direct say in Labor governance.

This is less the case for the Greens. Members largely determine the party’s policy platform, pre-selection and preferences. There is considerable autonomy for local campaigns, and there has been a sustained attempt to build forums for members and MPs to come together to decide priorities and messages. That saw a messaging strategy based on well established policy principles and workshopped with members over several months.
Even so, the Greens also face challenges from a hostile media and a shrinking media cycle. Opening spaces for both members and supporters to meaningfully discuss strategic questions without unnecessarily exposing the party to media-fuelled division is central to ensuring real grass roots ownership over parliamentary politics.
But there is significant cause for optimism. Recent campaigns by female dominated unions over 
pay equity and linking pay to improved public services potentially mobilise a new constituency around a political agenda that unites Labor and Greens concerns. The emergence of GetUp! already offers an important avenue for distributing information and short-run organising, based on donations and signatures. It potentially offers new avenues for broader mobilisation, particularly if it works in concert with other movement actors.
In some ways, the electoral challenge is relatively modest. The loss for Labor is smaller than 1996 or 1975. The Greens still hold as many seats as they did before. The bigger and more fundamental challenges are to build the institutions to connect people and politics, to ensure that a more diverse progressive politics can be sustained, and to link a more diverse set of issues and concerns to a united political project. But if electoral success is to translate into broader change, it is essential.


About the author


Dr Ben Spies-Butcher lectures in Economy and Society in the Department of Sociology. Ben completed his PhD in Economics at the University of Sydney while working in the non-government sector on issues of human rights. His research focuses on the economics and politics of social and environmental policy, and political participation. He teaches courses on economic sociology and political sociology at undergraduate and post-graduate level. He is also a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development, a Research Associate at the Retirement Policy and Research Centre at the University of Auckland, and a member of the Centre for Research on Social Inclusion.

Disclaimer: Dr Spies-Butcher did not receive any funding from institutions, public or private, in the preparation of this post. He is currently the Co-Convener of the Australian Greens. The views expressed above are those of Ben and do not necessarily reflect those of the Journal of Australian Political Economy, Macquarie University or the Australian Greens.

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