Why nobody won in Aston

Issue 

@box text intr = The results of the July 14 Aston federal by-election said a lot about what the existing parliamentary parties will be offering voters in the federal election later this year. And what a sorry performance it was.

Despite Peter Costello's attempts to obscure it, the anti-Liberal swing was nearly 8% — a fairly accurate reflection of an electorate fed up with unfair taxation and declining social services.

Also unsurprisingly, the ALP "Opposition" suffered a 1.5% swing against it — fitting punishment for a party which attempts to convince us that it can be pro-business and pro-worker at the same time. This stance is epitomised by Labor's GST roll-back, a promise that a Labor government will get rid of the tax and keep it at the same time.

An unprecedented 25% of first preference votes went to small parties and independents. The main beneficiaries of this were the Democrats, who increased their vote from 7.5% to 8%.

The rise of Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja's comet may explain the fall in One Nation's vote to under 2%, as the disaffected middle class go back to the party they used to support.

The Democrats emergence from the ashes is bad news for the interests of working-class people. The Democrats ran a campaign based on avoiding policy, instead concentrating on Stott Despoja's "sexy" image and promises to mysteriously "change politics".

The success of the Democrats "no politics" campaign contrasts sharply with the pathetic showing of the Australian Greens, who, despite getting significant media coverage, received just 2.5% of the vote.

If the Greens intend, as they claim, to put forward a socially just alternative to corporate economic rationalism, Aston was a test they failed.

The by-election was an opportunity for the Greens to put a real alternative to the pro-corporate policies of the Liberals, Labor and the Democrats. This would have involved running the sort of campaign that was carried out — with far less resources and little media coverage — by the Socialist Alliance.

It would have meant slamming the GST for what it actually is — another mechanism to screw more money out of working people and to line the pockets of the capitalists. It would have meant going on the offensive to defend the rights of refugees to resettlement in Australia without harassment or imprisonment. It would have meant arguing for more public funding for schools, hospitals and public transport. It would have meant opposing the privatisation of key services.

Of course, all of these things are in the Greens' platform. But instead of running a campaign that really posed an alternative to economic rationalism, the Greens decided that only three issues really counted in this election: the signing of the Kyoto protocol, the end of forest destruction for energy production and the improvement of public transport.

The Greens were right to argue that these issues are important. It was wrong, and bloody stupid, to argue that were the only important issues in the by-election. But this is exactly what the Greens did.

By deciding to offer preferences to any party which agreed to support the Greens' position on these three issues, the Greens in practice threw the rest of their platform out the window. They denied themselves the opportunity to argue for a different vision of how society could be organised and run. The low Greens vote is thus no surprise.

It is true that many people understand the dangers of supporting continued environmental destruction. The total vote of the candidates who campaigned on these issues was high — but most of it did not go to the Greens, but instead to independent Gary Scates, who doesn't even clearly oppose the environmentally damaging freeway the government intends to build through the electorate.

The Greens' opportunist preferences policy in Aston handed the Howard government a propaganda victory. By abstaining from the broader political debate, they offered no real alternative to economic rationalist politics. In the absence of a widely publicised (which the Socialist Alliance was not) political alternative, most of the anger against the government was registered as a meaningless vote for the Democrats or Scates.

Half of this vote, and no doubt a significant proportion of the Greens' vote, actually returned to the Liberal candidate. This result does not indicate that the majority of the population support the GST, or the privatisation of Telstra. It indicates that they see no credible alternative to the Liberal-Labor-Democrat consensus.

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