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Australia: Howard disappears under a Labor party landslide
But workers should prepare for battles with Rudd government
THE SOCIALIST Party [Australia] is delighted to see the back of John Howard and the federal Coalition government led by the Liberals. Howard joins those other Western leaders who supported the war on Iraq, including Aznar and Berlusconi, in being booted out of office - with Blair resigning, and Bush on the way out soon.
By Socialist Party reporters
The Iraq war and subsequent disastrous occupation and Howard's close ties to the White House were an electoral weight around his neck. [Howard was set to lose his own seat after 33 years!] However, the election was overwhelmingly a referendum on Work Choices, the raft of laws aimed at extracting extra profits from the working class.
The Australian Labor Party (ALP) enjoyed an across the board swing of 6.03% on Saturday 24 November, greater than the 5% swing won by John Howard in 1996. However because of Work Choices there were even higher swings in working class seats where many voters had previously voted Liberal.
The ECM polling group reported that "among the crucial 10% of people who voted for Howard last time, but voted Labor on Saturday, industrial relations was the key issue – it caused the shift among 57% of them."
The Australian reported: "Of the first 22 seats to fall to Labor on Saturday night, 17 had above-average numbers of labourers, and 14 had unemployment rates above the national average. But 12 also had above-average numbers of single parents."
There are two main contradictions in the Labor win. The first is how a government can be booted out so unceremoniously during an economic upswing.
An answer was offered by the Socialist Party in the special federal election edition of our newspaper The Socialist that was delivered to 30,000 houses during the campaign: "Many people – some estimate two million – have been left behind by the boom such as the army of casual workers and those displaced in industries like manufacturing, which have been smashed by international competition.
"Those workers who have raised their net wealth during this boom have done so through overtime and debt. This makes them slaves to the banks when interest rates rise. The long hours worked also undermine their quality of life."
It was these people who were insulted when Howard declared that "working families have never had it so good" – a quote cleverly exploited by Labor.
The other main contradiction is that despite the elation from the thousands of ALP, Green and trade union-mobilised election workers and voters on Saturday night the ruling class itself was extremely relaxed about this victory.
In reality this election represented a victory of the representatives of one section of the ruling class over another. Vast chunks of the Murdoch and Fairfax media actually called for a Labor vote!
They believed that the Howard government had reached an impasse in driving through its counter-reforms. A federal Labor government, in close alliance with the State Labor governments and with a compliant trade union leadership, could drive through the changes sought by capitalists.
The last federal Labor government had succeeded in smashing two trade unions and introduced the main neo-liberal changes of the past period. The counter-reforms of the Howard government were modest in comparison.
The Liberals have been left in an absolute mess by Saturday's result, similar to the state of the British Tories after their 1997 defeat to Tony Blair. They are set to lose around 30 seats out of their previous 89. Over 500 ministerial advisers will lose their jobs.
The recriminations have begun, with Deputy Senate leader Helen Coonan declaring that "the boss stayed too long. It came to the point where he no longer had the full confidence of his cabinet. But none of us wanted to commit regicide."
It looks likely that Malcolm Turnbull will get the poisoned chalice and take over the party. The rapid shift from an unconquerable Howard government 12 months ago to their shattered, defeated, demoralised and divided state today is a sign of the rapid movements to expect in politics in this period.
The thousands of election activists mobilised by the ALP, Greens and the union movement's 'Your Rights at Work' campaign have next to no illusions in Labor leader Kevin Rudd, yet celebrated like there was no tomorrow on Saturday night. The mood was overwhelmingly anti-Howard, anti-Work Choices rather than pro-Rudd or pro-Labor.
There is a layer of less politically active workers who are hoping in desperation that Labor 'can't be as bad as the Coalition, surely?'
Rudd with his dry and heartless acceptance speech on Saturday night and his even worse speech the following morning, offered no promises to the millions of expectant Labor voters.
After an inevitable honeymoon, there will be clashes between the Rudd government and the trade unions, students, environmentalists and ordinary people.
Already the head of Unions NSW (New South Wales), John Robertson, is calling for an immediate repeal of Work Choices and retrospective legislation so that people on the Australian Workplace Agreement (individual contracts) can get off them.
This puts him to the left of the ACTU (Australian Council of Trade Unions) who are much more compliant to Rudd and argue for a 'step-by-step' approach to repealing Work Choices.
Robertson has correctly pointed out: "There are already some in this (Rudd) government trying to rewrite history as though it had nothing to do with Howard's workplace laws. They were the platform for Kevin Rudd to launch himself – it was Work Choices and the 'Your Rights at Work' campaign."
New workers' party
The Labor Party will enjoy a short-term growth in membership as careerists enter to find jobs in the new regime. Thousands of new jobs in and around the federal government will open up now and this opens up ripe and rich pickings for the Young Labor elite.
However the central thesis of the Socialist Party, that the ALP is no longer a workers' party and is not a conduit for social change – remains true. The echo for our call for a new workers' party will grow in the months and years ahead.
The Greens had a slight rise in their national vote, but were squeezed by the polarisation of this election. Many left voters stayed with or returned to the ALP in order to ensure the defeat of Howard, notwithstanding the preferential voting system. They lost the most left-wing Green Senator, Kerrie Nettle from NSW, but gained possibly one or two others.
In the seat of Melbourne their left-wing candidate Adam Bandt did well, coming just behind the Liberal candidate on 22%.
The Greens are still largely a party of the more radical layers of the middle class and are based in the inner city suburbs. They are essentially a brand name based on the hope that the words they use to describe themselves mean something in reality.
In opposition, their politics are for cushioning the impact of capitalism on the environment and on living standards. In power, as seen in New Zealand, Germany, and Ireland and locally in Yarra Council, they crumble under the pressure of the ruling class.
The more radical layers of the Greens actually see the party as a stepping stone to, or part of, a future new workers' party.
The Socialist Party, almost alone on the Left, has refused to collapse into a 'vote Green' position – in fact some groups go further, with the ISO and Solidarity groups on the verge of collapsing into the Greens.
Our principled position of politically criticising the Greens but working side-by-side with them where possible on concrete battles has allowed us to have a closer relationship with this party and its membership than anyone else on the Left.
The socialist vote was squeezed in this election. In Melbourne our candidate, Unite union President Kylie McGregor, was up against the best Green candidate in Australia and, scandalously, also faced competition from another socialist group, the Socialist Equality Party.
With 66% of the vote counted, Kylie got 389 votes, with 264 votes to the SEP. In the eastern half of the seat where we have Australia's only socialist councillor, Steve Jolly, our vote was roughly twice the level of other areas.
The trade unions mobilised thousands of campaign workers in this election. But a sober look at the experience of unions under Blair and Brown in the UK, or under State Labor governments here, shows that the fundamentals will be the same as under a traditional Tory regime.
In fact the 'Third Way' approach of Labor, where neo-liberalism is thickly coated with advertising budgets, feasibility studies and lots of committees, has proved to be more successful for the ruling class than the blunt approach of the likes of Thatcher and Kennett [former right-wing Liberal premier of Victoria state].
In that sense a Rudd government could prove to be more dangerous, not less dangerous, for the trade union movement and the working class as a whole. Why else is it supported by Murdoch?
The conflicts to come with Rudd and his State colleagues will raise the political consciousness of millions. The idea for a new workers' party will gain in support. On a whole number of battlefronts – the environment, in the workplace, on campus – there will be militant action and a rise in support for socialist ideas.
We can enjoy the fact that Howard is in the dustbin of history for now, but must be prepared to fight against Rudd in the not too distant future.
Provisional election results for the House of Representatives:
Labor Party 4,501,333 (first preference votes) – 58.76% (%age share of seats)
Liberal Party 3,689,452 – 33.33%
Greens 778, 407
National party 553,502
With most votes counted Labor had 83 seats in the 150-member parliament.