Lessons For Social Movements From The Federal Election

Lessons For Social Movements From The Federal Election

This is the first in a two part essay on lessons for social movements arising from the 2019 federal Australian election. Read part two here.

I felt empty on the night of May 18th when Labor lost the election. I had driven into Trades Hall for the Victorian union movement’s election night celebration. It was with bracing sobriety that I split my evening between hitting refresh on election night feeds while talking with disappointed comrades, some of whom suspected their parents had voted conservative for the first time in their lives. This was supposed to be an election which served as a positive endorsement on both climate action and wages. It all turned out to be somewhat of a fizza.

A lot of rubbish masquerading as political analysis was written before the election and continues to be written after the election. The truth is that the Coalition did not win the election; it just failed less badly than Labor. The Coalition lost 0.58% off its primary vote compared with the 2016 election, and Labor lost 1.40% from its primary vote. Some of this vote went to the Greens who held their ground in the House of Representatives but scored a measurable 1.53% improvement in the Senate vote. The overwhelming beneficiary, however, was the so-called populist right with One Nation/United Australia combining for an increase of their vote share by 5.22%.

This continues a multi-generational trend away from the major parties’ vote share. The net result being that the Coalition gained a seat and Labor lost a seat. A lot of noise, advertising money and activist energy was expended for the sake of a few inches of political ground.

In short, the Liberal-National Coalition may be in government but it is not in power. Its hold on a majority is tenuous at best. We are only two to three Conservative seat by-elections away from another federal election or a potential change in government. Scott Morrison’s government simply does not have the legitimacy to weather the gathering storm clouds of environmental, social and economic crisis that are closing in on Canberra.

The biggest danger facing the broader Left, including the union and climate justice movements, is that it draws precisely the wrong lessons from the election. Here are the five key lessons that I’ve taken from listening to how the Australian people actually voted on May 18th.

First, and most importantly, where there are organised communities there is hope. In Warringah and Indi, two previously safe Coalition seats, independents won primarily on the basis of communities stepping up to take climate action. Dr Helen Haines won in Indi fighting on a platform of climate action and energy democracy coming off the back of years of community organising to build up a network of 13 community energy groups in the region. It was the first time in Australian history where a federal seat has gone from one independent member to another. Meanwhile, Zali Steggall took down Tony Abbott explicitly on the basis of a community referendum on climate action. Both of these campaigns were rooted in communities using the election process to organise to take control of their own political representation. While this is only two seats, what matters is the relative difference between them. Whereas Warringah is urban, educated and relatively wealthy, Indi is regional and significantly below the national average when it comes to educational attainment and weekly income.

This matters because the second lesson goes to the impact of extreme and multidimensional inequality. For all the southern state chauvinist noise about Queensland and #Quexit as the election results came in, the headline results of two party preferred vote counts in states tended to obscure more than it revealed. Further, blaming the Queensland voting public will do very little to advance an understanding of anything much. It is, however, a good way of never having to take on the responsibilities of power. Rather, regional and relatively poorer electorates with lower levels of formal educational attainment generally swung towards the Coalition and there are a lot of these sorts of electorates in Queensland. This should not be read as Scott Morrison holding any meaningful sway amongst the working-classes compared with Malcolm Turnbull, but rather that many people in these sorts of electorates voted for right-wing protest parties led by the likes of Clive Palmer and Pauline Hanson, and that the Coalition was the primary beneficiary of these preferences. Those who are angry, alienated and isolated can most readily find a reflection of their pain in the confused, hateful rantings of the second-rate Bunyip fascists.

Piping Shrike draws the contention from these results that the class divisions of contemporary politics are melting away. I would draw precisely the opposite conclusion. Class divisions are growing within the electorate, as income and wealth inequality balloons, but like a crack growing in a shattered windscreen there are other fissures emerging. The original cleavage is deepening as social relations breakdown but Australian communities are fracturing along more and more lines such as education, employment, rural/urban, age and gender. This is not just a matter of nuance but goes to strategy especially in terms of successful climate action.

Third, Labor’s reforming agenda had very little relationship to the actual result. A lot of screen time has been wasted since the election about the role that the franking credit and negative gearing reforms had on Labor’s primary vote. When it comes to the best data currently available, those electorates with relatively high rates of people actually receiving franking credits and negatively gearing properties generally swung towards Labor. There is, in other words, no strong evidence that the prospective material impact of these specific policies had any negative effect on the support of the beneficiaries of the current state of affairs. This is reinforced by the fact that the Greens were generally seen as supportive of negative gearing and franking credit reform but increased their vote share.

Potentially the impression that some people received about real or imagined policies refracted through the lens of social and mass media might have had a negative impact. In this scenario though the specific policies are symptomatic of the deeper problem — the lack of a strong social base. Normal people just don’t join political parties, and so most people will not have a strong personal relationship with someone they trust who is a party member and direct source of information about a party’s platform. It may flatter political operatives that a tweak of this policy here or there can deliver this subset of the electorate or that but it bears very little relationship to actually winning. A progressive party with some good policies that fall broadly within a neoliberal consensus disappointed in the 2015 UK election and in the 2019 Australian election. There is no shortcut past building a strong, effective and activated social base if we want to win lasting change and a safe climate.

Fourth, the leaderships of the union and environmental movements had little net impact on this election. As a union leader this is as much a self-criticism as anything else. It is not to lay blame on others or escape the responsibility that I share collectively with other union leaders. It is an honest assessment so that mistakes are not repeated in the future. The only target seats in the Change the Rules campaign, Corangamite, Dunkley and Gilmore, that passed from the Coalition to Labor were those that had been notionally redistributed to Labor or subject to internal Coalition fissures. The basic problem is that electoral activity should not be conflated with deep community and political organising, especially when that electoral activity is led by full-time staff and necessarily limited to the horizons set by the mildly reforming leaderships of Labor and the Greens.

Neither was the #StopAdani convoy into North Queensland particularly helpful. There are some within and around Labor who would blame the convoy for its Queensland results but if one action had the capacity to tank the entire election then there are deeper structural problems at work. The reason why I argue that the convoy was not helpful was that it was a wasted opportunity. It was neither a courageous set piece of direct action designed to bring an underlying crisis to a head nor was it the longer-term work of building up community consensus and structures around the transition. The #LocktheGate campaign should serve as evidence that both and both combined can work in rural and regional communities. Rather, the convoy was too easily dismissed as the physical evidence of another group of elites. This made the election for regional Queensland communities a choice between a group of elites who are promising that some in your community will get a job, and another group of elites talking about an abstract threat.

In order to win transformational change, key elements across the union and climate movements will need to reach out to each other and together rethink the basics of community and political organising. With hundreds of thousands of militant and educated members, the union movement still reaches deep enough in communities to make seismic changes to the political status quo. The key is that these people will need to be excited enough to be door knocking their neighbours and speaking to their family, friends and community contacts. For tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, to volunteer their precious and limited time to a campaign then its platform needs to be perceived as both truly transformative and achievable.    

This leads us to the fifth lesson, which is only a radical and strong egalitarian-internationalist platform can deliver a strong parliamentary majority with a mandate to take effective climate action. The policy platform has to be sufficiently ambitious to motivate the thousands of volunteers necessary to make organising on a large-scale possible. Don’t just take my word for this. Thomas Piketty’s Brahmin Left vs Merchant Right, a March 2018 longitudinal study of the demographic support basis for political parties in France, Britain and the US from 1948-2017, provides a voluminous statistical basis for the fifth lesson. Surveying the wreckage of Marie Le Pen, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, Piketty concluded that without “a strong and convincing egalitarian- internationalist platform, it is inherently difficult to unite low-education, low-income voters from all origins within the same party.”

That’s why I still hold the opinion that Labor unambiguously committing to stop the Adani project would have placed in on a much stronger electoral footing. Over 80% of Australians expect the federal government to do more on climate, and yet the electoral vote did not follow because Labor hedged on the critical question. Making a strong internationalist call on climate would have helped Labor to clearly define its position. It would have also given space for a debate on the necessary but radical egalitarian measures on jobs, wages and industry transition projects. It would have been the starting point for making the unknown concrete and manageable. As it stands, it is an open question as to whether any national political party will take the opening of an egalitarian-internationalist platform.

Once we grasp the need for a strong egalitarian, socialist form of politics it becomes readily apparent that pretending to love coal or projecting a conservative political outlook onto some sort of imagined authentic working-class will not work. Projecting one’s own views onto people you don’t know is not listening. It is, instead, a fake concern with the working class which is based on both a lack of familiarity with the class as it actually exists today and a lack of commitment to transformational change driven by the class. It is transactional survival motive that might buy some votes for the next election but poisons the ground for future generations.

It’s easy to feel like the next few years will be wasted, with the future postponed for yet another parliamentary term, leaving Australians a mere eight years to get our act together on climate. One should, however, resist the temptation to succumb to this siren call of passivity. The next three years should not be written off as lost to the wilderness. Deep social change, of the kind and scale required to build a new economy that is just, sustainable and democratic, is not incubated in the parliamentary sphere. Rather, the deep and transformational change required to properly deal with the climate emergency emerges in our communities and is later ratified by parliaments.

Nothing is determined, and how these five lessons can be applied in the next few months and years is critical. It is to this question that I will turn in the next part.