Labor's role in the Liberals' crisis
For most people, including members of the Liberal Party itself, the ongoing leadership saga is more like a bad joke rather than something to be taken seriously. After all, there have been five leadership replacements in the party in the past 12 years. However, the Liberals' crisis is not, as some like to make out, the result of a sloppily run personality contest. Panache, leadership ability, even ideas — or the lack of them — have very little to do with why big business's alternative governing party is in the crisis it is.
The ALP is the major reason for the conservatives' crisis. Labor has not only won, but consolidated, support from key sections of Australian capital. For the moment, it has the privilege of managing the economy in the interests of its corporate sponsors.
After 12 years in government, the ALP has left little space for the Liberals to put up an alternative set of policies that seem credible to big business or saleable to a sufficient part of the electorate, especially without the support of big business and its media to enthusiastically sell them.
The other important reason why capital is, for the moment, backing the ALP, is the latter's exceptionally close relationship with the Australian Council of Trade Unions. The ALP's ability, through the Accord and its industrial relations laws, to police the unions has given it a unique leverage with both the labour movement and sections of capital that the Liberals lack.
Despite the new pose as a party of moderates, it's clear from Alexander Downer's recent "Social and Economic Charter" that the Liberals intend to push on from where Labor's economic rationalist agenda left off. Unfortunately for the conservatives, the option of smashing, rather than keeping in check, the union movement is too politically costly for big business right now.
This is largely because, with the exception of the Builders Labourers Federation and the pilots' disputes, the union movement hasn't been significantly weakened through a major defeat by capital.
While it's true that union membership is declining (young workers, in particular, don't see the point in joining an organisation which isn't prepared to defend their interests), it's also true that unions remain organisationally intact. The initial 1993 trade union-sponsored anti-Kennett mobilisations, the ease with which bureaucratically managed campaigns like the Transport Workers' Union's wages push happened last year, and evidence of how workers' anger can explode such as the Sydney store workers' strikes, are all reminders to big business that a revitalisation of the unions is not impossible.
Labor's ability to keep the union movement in check remains a policy option that the Liberals can still not better. This is what really undermines the Liberals' ability — at this point — to offer a credible alternative to big business.
But the Liberals still have to try to win broad electoral support. This is what has led them to zig and zag to find some way to expand their electoral appeal. A few years ago it was John Howard's attempt to appeal to racism. John Hewson made a brief attempt to whip up sentiment for economic rationalism, but the panic in Victoria and South Australia in the wake of the collapse of these states' finances didn't exist nationally. Only panic can make extreme austerity electorally appealing.
Then Hewson became the kinder-more-caring Hewson, and finally he was replaced by the kinder-more-caring-middle-Australia-everything-to-everybody Downer.
As he manoeuvres for a go in the top job, Howard is also trying to change his hard-right image with the electorate; he has softened his position on industrial relations and, more recently, backed away for his anti-immigration position. But the Liberals are hampered here by their, and the Nationals', own conservatism on social issues and big business's reluctance to help them repackage themselves through the media.
At the moment, regulated austerity and labour cooption are adequate to big capital's needs and preferable to a possibly premature head-on confrontation with the working class and the trade unions. But if unions continue their tame cat course, eventually the Liberals will be given their chance to show another way to skin a cat.