Liberals punished as voters desert major parties

Issue 
Australians awoke the day after the election to an undecided result.

The morning after the July 2 federal elections, Australians awoke to a still undecided election.

Whether the incumbent Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull holds on by a slim majority, or is able to form a minority government, or whether Labor under Bill Shorten can form a minority government, or whether there is a hung parliament requiring new elections, remained unclear.

Some things, however, were immediately apparent.

There was a large swing against the Coalition, which won more than 90 seats in the 2013 election and will be extremely lucky now to win the 76 seats needed to form government.

The Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) will not be reintroduced. It was a statutory authority with draconian powers to police the construction industry and repress the legitimate activities of the Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union.

The ABCC was abolished by the Labor government in 2012. The Senate's refusal to pass legislation reintroducing it was the pretext for Turnbull calling the double dissolution election. However, the election result makes it almost impossible that a joint sitting of the two houses of parliament will pass the legislation.

A significant portion of this swing, about a third of it, did not go to Labor. The share of the vote going to neither the Coalition nor Labor has been steadily increasing in the past three elections and is now almost a quarter of the vote.

The swing away from the big two parties went to a range of independents and small parties, including some on the far right.

The third largest parliamentary party, the left-of-centre Greens, had a modest increase in their lower house vote and little change in the upper house. In both houses they made gains in some states, such as Victoria, but losses in others, such as NSW.

Greens MP for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, won with an increased vote. In the suburban Melbourne electorate of Batman, Alex Bhathal has a good chance of winning a second seat for the Greens. In two other Melbourne electorates, Higgins and Melbourne Ports, the Greens polled very well but were stymied by the major parties exchanging preferences.

The undemocratic nature of Australia's electoral system is illustrated by the Greens' struggle to increase their representation from one to two members in the 150-member lower house despite having consistently polled over 10% in recent national elections.

One beneficiary was Senator Nick Xenophon's modestly named Nick Xenophon Team, which did particularly well in his home state, South Australia, where almost one-third of voters rejected the two major parties.

Politically Xenophon projects himself as being between the two major parties, notwithstanding that the differences in policy between Labor and the Coalition are small.

The swing against the Coalition represents widespread opposition to the government's attacks on the health system, education, workers rights and welfare and denial of equal marriage rights for, and vilification of, LGBTI people. The government's highly regressive support of fossil fuel industries and opposition to even the most minimal carbon emissions reductions was also a probable factor, particularly as awareness of the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef has increased.

Some of Australia's more rabid right-wing media commentators, like Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt, have attacked Turnbull and argued that the Coalition's electoral failure was the result of the dumping of former prime minister Tony Abbott in 2015. However, this ignores that the Coalition government had significantly lower opinion poll results under Abbott, whose first budget sparked a protest movement that brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets.

Indeed, opinion polls show the Coalition's popularity initially rose under Turnbull, who does not share Abbott's hyper-aggressive political persona, but started falling again when it became apparent that the change in prime minister was not accompanied by a change in policies.

That much of the swing did not go to Labor reflects that their policies on many issues are little different from the Coalition's and that they have a track record, when in government, of backtracking on policies that are different.

It also reflects a growing disillusionment with mainstream politics in general, in some ways similar to a phenomenon occurring in all Western countries.

In the US and Europe there have been significant electoral breaks in both a right-wing and left-wing direction. In Australia there has been a small rise in the fortunes of far-right candidates, but it has been difficult for non-mainstream parties to make gains through promoting racism and xenophobia because the mainstream parties have already captured that political space.

Since John Howard's “Tampa election” in 2001, vilification and persecution of refugees has become the main vote-winning tactic of the Coalition and Labor has consistently responded by showing they can equal the Coalition's anti-refugee polices. The result has made Australia a world leader in abusing refugees, regularly denounced by the United Nations and international human rights organisations but cited as a model by right-wing politicians in Europe.

This seems to have run its course. In 2016 the boast of having “stopped the boats” seemed insufficient for the Coalition to win forgiveness from the electorate for their attacks on living standards. However, while opposition to abusing refugees is slowly increasing, it has not yet become a factor in losing the government votes.

The absence of a left-wing electoral break reflects that Australia has not experienced sustained mass movements against austerity like those in Europe and the US. This is partly the result of the mining boom shielding Australia from the 2007–08 global financial crisis.

The mining boom is over. Whether led by Turnbull or Shorten, the next government is likely to push greater austerity.

Falling living standards combined with growing disillusionment in politics-as-usual, against the backdrop of Australia's historically racist political culture, enhanced by almost two decades of extreme vilification of refugees, Muslims and First Nations people, creates a volatile mix.

The building of a mass people's movement against racism and corporate greed has become essential.

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