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Australia’s Election and the Tasks for the Left: Interview with an Australian Socialist

Following Australia’s election which demonstrated a rejection of Scott Morrison’s anti-climate and anti-worker policies, we spoke with Red Flag writer Jerome Small for a socialist perspective on the political moment in Australia.

Left Voice

May 31, 2022
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Students in Sydney on March 25, 2022, during a protest highlighting inadequate progress to address climate change.
Image: Muhammad Farooq/AFP

The Australian general election took place on May 21. The results indicated a sweeping rejection of outgoing prime minister Scott Morrison’s anti-worker and anti-climate policies. Left Voice’s Sam Carliner interviewed Australian socialist, Jerome Small, about the election, how the results reflect a crisis for Australia’s traditional party of capital, and what he sees as the tasks of the Left in Australia. Small is a member of the Australian Trotskyist organization Socialist Alternative (not to be confused with Socialist Alternative in the United States). He is a writer for the publication Red Flag and ran as a candidate for Calwell in the Victorian Socialists party.

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What were the political dynamics that contributed to the loss of Scott Morrison’s government?

The appalling, right-wing Liberal Party government of Scott Morrison has been booted out, and the Labor Party has formed a government with a narrow majority. But Labor is offering very little to its supporters. And the scene is set for further instability as support for both of the main parties has fallen to its lowest level since the 1930s.

Along with the change of government, I think there’s three really significant developments in this election. The first is a major split in the Liberal Party, which has been the historic party of Australian capital since World War Two. Through the Liberal Party, the ruling class or the majority of it really organizes itself politically in this country. And there’s been a series of tensions over these what are called the culture wars.

Some leading sections of the Liberal Party steered a right-wing course, developing a very rabid sort of racist, climate change denying, socially regressive base among the middle class and some sectors of the working class. That’s played out on issues of same-sex marriage, which was an enormous internal brawl in the Liberal Party. It’s played out in terms of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander politics, in terms of refugees, and, most recently and most spectacularly, it’s played out in terms of the Liberal Party really tearing itself apart over how to deal with the climate crisis. Part of the problem for them is just that climate change is undeniable after the massive bushfires in 2019 and 2020. An area the size of France was burnt in New South Wales, Australia’s biggest state. Hundreds of people were dead from the smoke. More recently there have been catastrophic floods in New South Wales and Queensland.

But I think another fundamental problem for the party of capital is that there’s actually a big split among the business elites about how to deal with this because Australia for a very long time has relied on primary exports. Iron ore is our biggest export with gas and coal in second and third positions. So the fossil fuel lobby has effectively dictated climate policy to successive governments, both Labor and Liberal. There’s a sector of capital in Australia which is no longer happy with this arrangement. They’re saying around the world there’s going to be carbon tariffs like in the European Union. Maybe there’s business opportunities from the new economy, and they’ve been deeply unhappy with the extent to which the Liberal Party and their allies the National Party have stayed wedded to the fossil fuel industry. So there have been six seats which have been Liberal Party territory for decades which have gone to independents, while other seats have gone to Labor.

This split in the Liberal Party is very big news and I think sets the scene for further instability in the coming months and potentially years as the Liberal Party leadership continues to move to the right.

What were some other significant electoral results?

So I think point number one in this election really is the split in the Liberal Party. Number two, which is very significant, is the far-right vote in swathes of suburban working-class seats in Melbourne and in Sydney. Australia was very successful in 2020 in stamping out the coronavirus. For the whole of 2020 and half of 2021, there was very little Covid-19 in Australia. But in May 2021, the New South Wales Government decided to effectively let it rip and imposed a lockdown, which was, in my opinion, purposely designed to be ineffective and punitive, with very little or no income support for people who were affected by the lockdowns, unlike the lockdowns in 2020. The idea was only to stop the virus from spreading to the extent of overwhelming the hospital system. One of the areas in Sydney which was most impacted by this was south western Sydney. And looking at some of the results there, one of the seats affected has a far-right vote of over 20 percent. In the state that I was running in for Victorian Socialists, the total far-right vote was about 17 percent, and that’s in the working-class suburbs of Melbourne in the north. Similarly in Melbourne’s west there were very significant votes to the far right. 

There’s also a long-term erosion of support for the Labor Party. We used to have extremely powerful unions in Australia, but during the last 30 years, we’ve had a system of very well-organized and largely rigorously enforced class collaboration, which has lowered the amount of industrial struggle in this country dramatically — by much more than 90 percent compared to the 1980s. And this just has to have a long term effect on working-class consciousness. There’s a residual loyalty to the Labor Party, but it’s not really based on the sort of dense network of working-class activists that Labor used to rely on. And Labor in power continues to rule for the rich. So I think that sets the scene for the situation where some of the far-right parties can strip off 10 or 12 percent or more from the Labor vote in some places. None of these parliamentary seats have actually flipped from Labor to the far right or conservative parties, but long term, some of these areas are pretty unstable. It’s not clear how much that represents on the ground, but there were very significant far-right mobilizations over several months in Melbourne during the last year, and just seeing the electoral manifestation of that I think is a very worrying development.

So I think that’s earthquake number two. Number three, on a smaller scale, but still significant, is that the Greens have moved a bit to the left and increased their vote nationally. They’ve now got 12 senators in the upper house, which is a record for them, and three seats in Brisbane which is a breakthrough. So in the Lower House they’ve now got four seats. The Greens in Australia have always been a slightly unstable amalgam. Some are wealthy inner city voters who really don’t care about workers. You know, they like social justice a little bit but really aren’t attracted to protest politics. So there’s quite conservative greens, but there’s also a more radical and more left wing aspect of the Greens which supports street politics and more left-wing social positions. The Greens’ results in Brisbane and elsewhere have favored the left of the party, and demonstrate that there is an audience to the left of Labor.

I should say something about the incoming Labor government as well, which is the consequence of all of this. So the Labor government will be right wing. Anthony Albanese, the new Prime Minister, has signaled this from the very start of the election campaign. He actually indicated that there would be no increase in payments for unemployed people and others dependent on income support, at least in the first year of a Labor government. Labor is to the right of even the Business Council of Australia on this issue. 

One of the big issues obviously is the cost of living around the world. Inflation last year in Australia was 5.1 percent. Inflation on essential goods, including petrol and housing, was 6.6 percent, and average pay rises have been averaging around just 2 percent for a lot of Australia’s workers. Right now the Fair Work Commission, the central industrial tribunal, is deciding on an increase in the minimum wage. Labor said during the election campaign that they would make a submission supporting a significant increase to the minimum wage. This week, the first week of the Labor Government, the Treasurer didn’t seem to be able to remember that they had made that commitment. Then, later in the week, they announced the new government would support a pay rise — but would not specify how big that pay rise should be! 

On the issue of climate, Labor has been elected on a platform of increasing the woeful targets of the previous government which wanted to cut emissions by 26 percent by 2030 (compared with 2005 levels), which is a pitiful level and that commitment was full of loopholes. Labor’s commitment is a 43-percent reduction in emissions over that same time scope, but really with the same loopholes. You shouldn’t put money on Albanese wanting to push past the sort of very tepid commitments that they took to the election. On refugees, which has been a touchstone issue in Australian politics for 20 years, Labor has announced bridging visas for one high profile family, a family of Tamil refugees who have been stuck in community detention in Perth for many months and stuck in actual detention for years before that. So it looks like that family will now be able to return to their original home in Biloela in regional Queensland. On the other hand, Labor hasn’t announced any measures for the many thousands of other refugees who are less high profile, but in exactly the same situation. Late in the campaign, they announced that they were backing the outgoing government’s commitment to send a bill for every day spent in immigration detention to the people who were in detention, including refugees. It’s a really vicious punitive policy which Labor endorses. I think all of that paints a picture of the sort of government that we’re dealing with and points towards some of the tasks of the Left. 

What role should people expect this new Labor government to play in the context of competition between the United States and China and U.S. imperialism’s reliance on Australia?

What to expect from Labor is a direct continuation of the war mongering and imperialist preparations for war that we saw ramp up in the final year or two of the Morrison government. The last year saw the announcement of the AUKUS Treaty, which signed up Australia to be a key part of the U.S. empire’s war fighting machine as it turns towards China. Honestly, it didn’t feature that much in the campaign. Though various Liberal ministers, like Peter Dutton who will be the leader of the Liberal Party in opposition, declared that the country had to prepare for war with China. And none of that got any disagreement from the Labor Party. 

We, Victorian Socialists, were making the point that it’s crazy that our government has committed to spend $200 billion over the next ten years on building nuclear-powered submarines. During the recent floods in the northern New South Wales city of Lismore, thousands of people were displaced, and the total resources available for the State Emergency Service to deal with the impact of those floods was to select two small boats with an outboard motor. So we can’t afford anything for flood relief, but we’re being told we can afford $200 billion for nuclear powered submarines to prepare the world for war. I mean, people were sympathetic to the argument. I can’t say that it’s been this major issue in the election simply because Labor has been vociferous in agreeing with the war mongering of the Liberals. 

China has signed cooperation agreements with the Solomon Islands and now with a series of Pacific Island nations. Australian imperialism has always seen these nations as sources of profit and strategic interests for Australian capital. So Australia’s Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, is now on a tour of Fiji and other Pacific Island nations attempting to shore up Australian imperialism. I think the Australian Left and working-class movement has a huge task in front of it to develop an anti-war and anti-imperialist consciousness.

What did your participation in this election look like and what conclusions have you drawn?

I should preface this by saying there have been no socialists outside of Labor in any Australian Parliament for a very long time — since the 1950s in fact. Because of the peculiar structure of the upper house in the Victorian Parliament, it’s possible for smaller parties to get elected though. Victorian Socialists is an attempt to increase the reach and the credibility of socialism and to help to rebuild a socialist movement in this country by getting one or more candidates elected to the Victorian upper house. Our vote generally held up around 4 percent in the north, with results in some working class areas up to 10 percent or more where we could put in a bit of work in advance, where we could engage with people and talk about how billionaires in this country have doubled their wealth in two years. 

We asked people what their concerns were. The two biggest answers I got back were cost of living and climate change. And this was in a very working-class area where we could have that sort of discussion and talk about what having a socialist in parliament would actually mean, we got a decent vote. You know, building up the struggle, trying to pull politics in a different direction. We showed it is possible to rebuild the socialist movement in the working class heartlands of Melbourne. There’s a lot of cynicism, there’s a lot of despair. So it’s great that  a socialist message of hope and resistance and not damn well giving up certainly can strike a chord. And we’ll be busting a gut to see if we can build on these results in the Victorian election, which is on November 26. So there’s a lot of work to do between now and then, sifting through the results, working out exactly which areas to prioritize, how the campaign will run, and then actually running a campaign on a scale that the Socialist Left hasn’t conducted in this country for so many years.

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