The Labor Party: The More Things Change…
By Ashraf Abdul Halim and Nix Herriot
After nine years of right-wing Liberal-National rule, Labor has been returned to power. On the campaign trail and since forming government in May, Albanese has promised significant change. “I want to change the way politics works in this country,” Albanese told journalists after claiming victory on election night.
Albanese posed for photos with the persecuted Nadesalingam family after they were returned to their home in rural Queensland. He submitted new climate targets, decried the rising cost of living and pledged to create a federal anti-corruption watchdog by the end of this year. All this invites the question: will Labor deliver real political change?
At home, profits are up and wages are down as the cost of living crisis continues to escalate. Inflation is expected to hit 7 percent by Christmas. Gas and electricity prices continue to surge as profiteering power companies rort the system.
Labor has made it clear that there will be little, if any, relief from the government. Instead, the party is tempering expectations and promising to “really put the breaks on federal spending”. Treasurer Jim Chalmers claims that “there’s not a bottomless pit of Commonwealth cash to solve everything”. Despite rising prices for essential goods, poverty-level JobSeeker payments will not be increased. It was Albanese, after all, who attacked the Morrison government’s JobKeeper wage subsidy as “too generous”, despite saving millions of people from poverty during the pandemic. Profits and billionaire wealth are soaring, while real wages and conditions continue to flatline and fall. Could it really be any different under Chalmers’ proudly “pro-business, pro-employer party”?
Albanese, hailing from the so-called Labor Left, has outlined his intentions to reform the economy in the spirit of notorious conservative Prime Minister, John Howard. This means Labor is unwilling to burden businesses with meaningful wage rises or take common-sense measures to ease the cost of living crisis like imposing a windfall tax on gas exporters, something even Boris Johnson has done.
Instead of developing renewable energy, Labor is supporting a massive gas expansion. Resources Minister Madeleine King pledged the party’s “absolute” support for the Scarborough gas project in Western Australia, an enormous carbon bomb equivalent to opening 15 new coal plants. “If coal mines stack up environmentally, and then commercially,” Albanese said, “then they get approved”. Coal, it should go without saying, does not and never will “stack up environmentally”.
One thing is for certain from the federal election. Ordinary people want real action on climate change. Scott Morrison’s term in office was marred by fires and floods that devastated much of the country. Little wonder, then, that climate was ranked the top concern by one in five voters, more than any other issue. Labor’s target of 43% emissions reduction by 2030, however, is less ambitious than the right-wing Business Council of Australia and far from the necessary measures needed to tackle the climate emergency. Radical action is needed to shut down the fossil fuel industry. The $170 billion earmarked for nuclear submarines could and should be spent on publicly-owned renewable energy.
The progressive media, echoing the new government, often portrays Labor’s inadequacies as crises inherited from the Coalition. But the temptation to judge Albanese in comparison with Morrison simply lets Labor off the hook on climate and other important issues.
Health Minister Mark Butler recently defended Labor’s decision to lapse pandemic-related sick leave payments and telehealth services as merely “decisions of the former government”. But, as ABC radio host Patricia Karvelas reminded him, “you’re the government now”. Labor can’t blame Morrison for its right-wing policy decisions such as retaining the Stage Three tax cuts for the wealthy. And although Minister for Climate Change and Energy, Chris Bowen, blames the ongoing energy crisis on the Liberals’ love for coal, Labor’s refuses to countenance any challenge to fossil fuels.
After all, serious climate action requires taking on the rich and powerful. It would mean undercutting the wealth of Australia’s mining magnates. This is simply unacceptable for a party desperate to prove its credentials as good economic managers of capitalism.
At first glance, this doesn’t seem to add up. Isn’t Labor meant to represent the working class? After all, for decades the party commanded the loyalty of millions who viewed their vote as a vote for workers. Unions representing hundreds of thousands of members play an influential role in the party. In 2022, however, Labor recorded its lowest primary vote since 1934 — by no means a show of loyalty by ordinary people. Modern Labor, it’s often said, needs to “get back to its roots”. But this is misguided.
Past Labor governments have introduced progressive reforms: expanding spending on health, education and social security, for example. But for every program seeming to benefit the public good comes caveats that ultimately help the wealthy. Gough Whitlam introduced free tertiary education, but it was Bob Hawke’s Labor government that reintroduced university fees. The thoroughly neoliberal Hawke-Keating governments oversaw an increasingly prohibitive social security net and introduced reforms to Medicare that make it fall well short of even the British NHS. In more recent times, even programs like the NDIS and the NBN range from middling to an absolute disaster. Yet again, the government has enabled the private sector to reap the financial rewards while taking the brunt of the financial burden.
So this gives a greater context to the nature of Labor — a pro-capitalist party claiming to express workers’ interests. In fact, Labor is an obstacle to developing working class power.
Consider the urgency of the climate emergency. Under the Liberals, Australia has seen a series of climate-related catastrophes. The 2019–20 summer bushfires saw Scott Morrison enjoy the sunny shores of Hawaii while volunteer firefighters struggled with ageing equipment and faced eviction from their homes. Devastating floods recently devastated southern Queensland and northern New South Wales. Images abounded of entire towns submerged entirely in water. Residents trapped on their roofs were rescued not by the state, but by the compassion of locals commanding their own fleet of macgyvered rescue vessels. All the while, Morrison waited more than a week to declare a “national emergency” and Labor did nothing to create a sense of political crisis commensurate with the climate crisis.
This is the situation we are in today. We cannot depend on parliament. Nor can we look to the courts who earlier this year found that the Environment Minister has no duty of care to protect young people from the effects of climate change. We have to recognise that under a government that maintains they will not negotiate on woefully inadequate climate targets, expecting anything progressive from Labor would be naive at best.
Real power that can pose a serious challenge to powerful and entrenched economic interests lies outside the electoral sphere. This is where the working class actually comes in. It is at the grassroots, through striking, protesting and organising, that positive change can be achieved.
Not that long ago, the New South Wales Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), Australia’s most radical union, did just that. Among one of their most famous campaigns during the early 1970s was a series of actions known as ‘green bans’. These were bans on socially and environmentally destructive development. Not only did union members refuse to work on ‘green banned’ sites, but they also actively defended them against developers by threatening additional strike action on other sites if work went ahead. By 1975, the BLF had managed to block more than $5 billion worth of development — saving parkland, heritage buildings and working-class neighbourhoods all over Sydney.
More recently, the prolonged campaign in solidarity with the Biloela family was a result of grassroots campaigning from supporters and, of course, Tamil refugees themselves. It was not Albanese who freed them. It was “Priya [who] fought for herself, fought for her family, and now they’re home in Bilo”, said Barathan Vidhyapathy, spokesperson for the Tamil Refugee Council.
It was, and always will be, collective action that forces governments to bend to the will of the people. With Labor back in the saddle again and promising such limited political change, we’d do well to remember this