Elections in Australia: retreat of the traditional parties, growth and challenges for the Left. Interview with Mick Armstrong.

By: Luis Meiners

On May 21 Australia held its Federal Elections. The conservative government led by Scott Morrison of the Liberal Party suffered an important defeat. Labor, the other major party of Australia, in spite of coming out of the election as the new government also saw a decrease in its share of votes. Other formations, both to the left and to the right, grew out of the fall of the two traditional parties. Victorian Socialists, a socialist electoral coalition of which Socialist Alternative is the main driving force, made a bold decision to run in more seats than ever before. It stood candidates in eleven seats, an important growth compared to the three seats it had ran for in 2019. The socialist coalition obtained good results, gaining between 3 and 5% of the vote in several districts. To analyze this election, the political perspectives and the tasks of the socialist left, we spoke to Mick Armstrong of the leadership of Socialist Alternative.   

Luis: First of all we would like to congratulate you on the good results obtained by Victorian Socialists in the recent Federal elections. We are going to talk specifically about that in a while, but first we would like to cover some of the more general aspects of the elections and the political situation in Australia. One of the most outstanding elements of the electoral result was the fact that both traditional parties of Australian capitalism suffered a setback. What can you tell us about this point, about its causes and consequences?

Mick: On one level, this has come as a confirmation of a more general trend that both major parties share. Their vote has been declining over the last 20 years. The Liberal vote was down substantially yet Labor did not gain a swing. There was a lot of discontent with the Morrison government but Labor offered nothing. They ran on a much more conservative basis than they ran on in the previous election. They blamed their defeat in the last election on that they were too left wing, and this time it was very much what they call a small target strategy. They didn’t inspire any enthusiasm, and that made people pretty cynical about politics, even though there was a strong resonance with the idea that the Morrison government had to go.

And then the Liberals lost votes to a variety of things. The far-right groups grew, which is a real smorgasbord of people disaffected with both sides. But the Liberals also lost a sort of moderate vote for a combination of reasons: general dissatisfaction with the way things are, a lot of hostility to Morrison himself, and in the professional, university educated people, Morrison was seen to be too religious and socially conservative, and real dissatisfaction with that, a vote against social conservatives. That elected candidates who, if you like, were right-wingers in any real class sense, but can be progressive on social issues. 

You have to understand that in Australia, unlike other countries, you have a preferential voting system. So Labor overwhelmingly got in, despite its primary vote not going up, but because there was a flow of the preferences of people who voted for small parties eventually going to Labor and the Liberals lost out.

Luis: This setback of the traditional parties was, as you were saying right now, also accompanied by the growth of other forces. Two cases that have received a lot of attention internationally, they got a lot of press, were the Greens, there was even talk about a “climate election”. And also some coverage of the Teal independents. Those two forces were discussed internationally in the press. What can you tell us about them? And specifically, what impact did the climate crisis have in the elections?

Mick: Well, firstly, there was a swing to the Greens, they haven’t finished counting – but, as this thing stands, their vote went up about 1.8% to 12.2%. Which is their biggest vote ever. It’s not so dramatic, perhaps, in percentage terms, but it’s more significant in terms of the seats. They won a lot more seats in the Senate. So they’ll hold the balance of power in the Senate. And they picked up a few seats in the Lower House of Parliament. And that was partly due to the climate issue. I mean, climate change was an important issue in the election, but it can be a bit overstated in terms of the Greens’ vote. I mean a section of it was that the Greens ran on a more left-wing platform, not just on climate, than Labor. Their formal policies on working class issues were better, though they don’t do anything about that in practice. They’re not active in the unions or anything like that. But across the board, their formal policies were a bit more left-wing, and we called for preferences for them over Labor. And they picked up loads of more young people as well, sort of progressives. Particularly in the major cities, the inner areas, which historically were the old blue collar working class suburbs, have been trendified and there’s more young people living there, university educated people, and a big chunk of them went to the Greens. 

The Teals are a different thing again. They’re not all uniform, but, by and large, the candidates were people that would have been sort of moderate members of the Liberal Party, well so called moderates. They are neoliberal, by and large, one or two of them don’t quite fit that bill, but most of them would be. In the past they would have been happy to be Liberal Party members. They made valid criticisms of the Liberals on social policies. All of the Teals are women, the ones that won, complained about the incredible sexism in the Liberal Party, which is true. And they ran on the climate issue, and on sort of classless issues that have to do with more accountability in government, against corruption, all that sort of thing. They didn’t take a huge number of votes away from the Liberals in real terms. In some of the seats where they stood a chance of winning, people that previously voted for Labor, or Greens went for them, put them first, because they thought they had a better chance of winning. And the Liberal vote went down a bit as well. It varied a bit. But also raising the point I made before, in two of the main traditional Liberal seats in Melbourne, where Liberal Prime Ministers used to be members, people reacted against Morrison´s brand of fundamentalist Protestant religiosity, it really got people’s noses in that area. And that had a sort of liberal middle class element. But not just middle class. Also, I think it has to be said that in some of those seats there is a change in social composition going on. There’s more and more apartment blocks being built. There’s more younger people living there as well. In one of those traditional Liberal seats, actually Labor won where there wasn’t a Teals candidate. So yeah, there’s a shift. That has been portrayed in the press as if it’s that progressive politics are now what the rich are for, that it is becoming like America, where rich people vote Democrats. I think this is largely bullshit. Because you can’t just judge on the basis of the average income in a district, you’ve got to look deeper, even in the better off districts there are lots of poor people, working class people, people that would have always voted Labor or voted Green. There has to be more studies done, but it’s pretty clear the divide is still overwhelmingly based on living standards and your class position in society. Though there was a certain percentage of people who are educated professionals, women in particular, middle class people that would have been happy to vote Liberal in the past, now vote for Teal, or maybe vote for the Greens.

Then there is the question of the far-right…

Luis: Yes, that’s the question that’s coming up. There was a growth of the far-right, at least to the extent of my knowledge, in some specific districts more than others. And we had also seen last year the anti-lockdown protests, which were pretty significant at one point, with a presence of the far-right in the streets. Do you think these two issues are linked? And more generally, what immediate and more structural causes explain the growth or relative growth of the far-right in the elections?

Mick: The far-right vote is at least seven or eight per cent, depending on who exactly you include as far right parties. A lot of them got very small votes. And then there were a lot of Independents that are far-right. Some of them got reasonable votes. Of the actual far right parties their vote increased by about 5%, to about 11.7% in the Lower House of Parliament. Their best votes were concentrated in specific areas. The more longstanding far-right party is Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, which has been around for quite a long time. It had a traditional base in Queensland, and particularly in more rural areas. Their vote went up. But that was considerably because they ran in a lot more Lower House seats than they had previously, they ran in every seat this time. In a lot of their traditional areas, their vote went down. But it’s still the case that Queensland, it has a more scattered population than the other Eastern States, still has the largest far-right vote and it went up. So Queensland got the biggest far right by about 5%. The other main far-right party, the United Australia Party, founded by this mining billionaire Clive Palmer, who spent about $100 million of his own money on the election campaign. So they had massive publicity. Its vote only went up 0.7% to about 4%. Their vote was more scattered. There’s another far-right party called the Liberal Democrats. The UAP are sort of a more populist far-right, and the Liberal Democrats are more sort of right wing neoliberals. As well there are a series of other smaller, fragmented far right parties. All of them supported the anti-lockdown protests, opposed vaccine mandates. So, so clearly that was part of their vote increase, no doubt about that. And they all related to the far-right protests. And there were a number of Independents candidates that ran on that basis, including people that had been arrested in far-right protests and people that are involved or previously have been members of openly fascist, Hitler loving parties, which were candidates. None of the parties are really fascists, though it’s a bit touch and go in some cases. But clearly, the lockdown stuff was a big thing, but it’s not the only thing by any means. Actually in Victoria, because the lockdowns were more extensive here in Melbourne, the far-right protests were biggest here. But actually, even though the far-right vote went up here, in aggregate numbers, it was the lowest in the country. So there’s a broader national dissatisfaction. And some of the dissatisfaction is about living standards but a whole variety of issues that leads people to be fed up with the mainstream parties, there’s a broader dissatisfaction. And part of the far right vote increase is because they ran everywhere. They are campaigning more, so they’re pulling out a chunk of the traditional Liberal voters who would have shared their views. The core, right-wing vote of the Liberal Party, maybe a quarter or a third of their vote is not much different, it shares the views of the far-right, merging into the fascists. And there’s always been a big far-right anti working class vote in rural areas, anti-Labor going back for decades. But the crisis gives them bigger opportunities. And now there’s a Labor government in federally – and we can talk a bit more about the future – the danger is that there’s a bigger space for the far right to grow.

Luis: Let´s shift the focus now towards Victorian Socialists. There was a decision to run in more seats than in any previous election. And this got a good result. What conclusions do you take out of the campaign of Victorian socialists? And what aspects about it would you like to highlight?

Mick: Clearly it does indicate there’s a potential audience for socialist ideas. That just hasn’t been tested for a long time. If you get to speak to people, and if you’ve got the resources to do all the work, like door-knocking people’s houses, getting to have the conversations, you can convince people and win them over. And you can win over some people that could vote for the far-right. Because, actually, one thing I should have said about the far-right, one thing that a lot of people that see themselves as left-wing don’t want to recognize, in the Australian case, they associate the far right vote as being all about racism, and that it’s a totally white vote. It’s quite clear in this election that there was a strong People of Color vote for the far-right. For a variety of migrant communities, Arabs, amongst a lot of people from the subcontinent, and you gotta remember a very big percentage of Australia’s population is migrant; a third of population is migrant. People from India, Sri Lanka. There was an opening to vote for the far-right. And a number of the far-right parties didn’t campaign particularly on a racist basis. And to the extent that racism was an issue in this election it was more anti-Chinese racism. Well, that doesn’t necessarily repel people from a lot of these other countries. But Arabs in particular, you could bring some people over, they are just voting in protest against everything. In the suburban areas, they rightly feel neglected. And it’s not just the question of the lockdowns in the sense of the lockdowns; it was the lack of sufficient economic support during that period and the aftermath. So people said down with everything. And the far-right parties could get a certain protest vote. We could win some of those people over when we talk to them. 

But as well, we could win over people who might vote for the Greens, putting a more left-wing alternative to them. And all the sorts of people who would have been traditional Labor voters and migrant groups of traditional Labor voters. Labor has sort of a core ethnic vote of working class Vietnamese, Turks, Macedonians, people that pretty loyally voted for Labor, and we could win some of those people over as well by putting a more left-wing alternative. And then I think, as you got closer into the centre of the city, our core vote would have been young people who were looking for an alternative, looking for something a bit more radical.

Running in so many seats, obviously, stretched our resources a lot. But in many ways, it was a test run, because we’ve got the state elections coming up here in Victoria in November, where in the Upper House, because it’s proportional representation, there is a more significant chance of winning a seat. There are no guarantees, of course, but we think we have a chance. In particular there are certain things to our advantage politically. First, we will have a lot more time to campaign because it’s a set date. Whereas in the Federal campaign you only get about four or five weeks’ notice because setting the election date is totally in the hands of the Prime Minister. So we had little time to prepare, get everything going and to carry out a lot of the mass work for the campaign. Second, amongst left-wing people the argument went: don’t waste your vote voting for somebody like Victorian Socialists, even though you might agree with them, because the main thing is to get rid of Morrison. That doesn´t apply at the state election. Here in Victoria there’s a State Labor government. I think there’s disillusionment with the State Labor government, quite a lot. Some of that will go to the far-right. Some will go to sort of right-wing independents. But I think there’s also a left-wing vote that could be had, and I think the Greens will probably do reasonably well at the State level. So we’re fighting to win, but we’re also fighting to get the argument out there that there has to be an alternative. Working class people have gone from a period of years of stagnating wages now to significant wage cuts. Living standards, obviously, in Australia have been a lot higher than in most countries. But the pressure is going to be more with inflation starting to go up, with a Federal Labor government – basic class issues, austerity, cutbacks, living standards, and all that coming back as core issues. And we’re going to be fighting not just to say vote for us, but to say there’s got to be more resistance, there’s got to be more struggle. So the unions need to be standing up. In New South Wales, where Sydney is the capital, there are quite a few strikes at the moment by state public sector workers. It’s a state Liberal government there. So the unions are prepared to call some strikes. Here in Victoria, where things are just as bad, the unions won’t call strikes, because of the State Labor government. So we’re saying, well, we can’t rely on Labor governments to look after living standards, workers have to fight and if you put a socialist into parliament, we will champion your cause. So we’re quite optimistic. We think we can rally quite a lot of volunteers and supporters around us, but it’s going to take a lot of effort. But it’s an important project.

Luis: If it’s okay with you, we can move to the next questions, looking at the political perspectives. There was a defeat of Morrison and the Coalition government and the formation of a new Labor government. What political dynamics does this open up for the coming period? And what are the main tasks of Socialist Alternative in this conjuncture?

Mick: Well, as I said at the start, Labor ran on a very conservative program, promising a few reforms around the edges to do with improved childcare, and a couple of issues like that. More money for age care, and saying that they support an increase in the minimum wage, but most of it was just positioning. Then genuflecting with token gestures on issues like Aboriginal rights and women’s rights. On climate they ran on a quite conservative approach. And on the whole question of imperialist tensions with China, which is a very big issue in Australia, Labor played it a bit fast and loose. Their rhetoric was a bit softer about China than the Liberals, but their policies are essentially the same. That enabled Labor to pick up some Chinese-Australian votes and there’s a big Chinese population here. That was very significant in some seats. Because naively on their part, they think, oh well, maybe with Labor we can calm things down and bring some accommodation with China. There won’t be Morrison, there won’t be Dutton making all these outrageous statements. So Labor seemed less racist. And the fact that the Labor Foreign Minister Penny Wong is herself of Chinese descent seems less threatening to the local Chinese population. But the reality is Labor is just as hardcore a defender of Australian imperialism and the US alliance as the Liberals. And since they’ve won, there have been a series of campaigns and overseas visits by Penny Wong, Albanese the Prime Minister, into the region. To Indonesia, the islands in the Pacific, where China has been seriously campaigning to build up its influence. Quite clearly, the Australian ruling class is massively worried about the Chinese influence there. And also, it’s quite clear the Morrison government was coping flak from the Americans for not stepping up. The Australian ruling class sees this region as its own and is meant to look after it on behalf of Western imperialism. And now, China’s increasingly building up its influence. And so there’s a very strong campaign against that. Labor is just as committed as the Liberals to massive increases in military spending and so on. I know you have a question on Ukraine, if it was a major issue in the election campaign. It wasn’t, except in the general sense of China. In the sense that Ukraine shows why we need to stand up to China. China clearly was an important issue. But other than in the Chinese community, I don’t think it swung votes because both sides essentially have the same policies. Labor will be a rigorous defender of Australian imperialist interests, and very loyal to the American Alliance. And I think Biden prefers to have a Labor government because it seems much more like the Democrats and Labor will verbally say slightly less crazy things about climate change and offer token things on that sort of issue. 

Then there was the core economic issues, living standards, cost of living, prices, and so on, which are going to get a lot worse. There is increasing pressure in the mainstream bourgeois press, and in ruling class circles that Labor has got to turn to austerity. There’s a massive budget deficit, we’ve got to rein this in. The central banks have started to put up interest rates again. There is a real pressure building up on living standards. 

So I think we’re going into a quite volatile period. It’s obviously very early days into the government, so you wouldn’t want to predict things too strongly, but I don’t think this government is going to have a long honeymoon. I mean, it didn’t get a big swing to it anyhow. It got less than a third of the vote. But we’ll see. I think there’s going to be a lot of pressure from the establishment. The capitalist class and the Reserve Bank, they’re putting up interest rates, I don’t think they want to drive the economy into recession. And at one level the Australian economy, from the bourgeoisie´s point of view, is doing better than most economies. Because Ukraine is relevant at one level, it’s a real bonus to the Australian bourgeoisie because it’s massively pushed up the prices of Australian gas exports, coal exports and Australia’s wheat and other food exports. So there’s record profits being made, a massive shift away from wages to profits over the last few years. And this is increasing, but at the same time, I think the ruling class really want a serious recession. But on the other hand they’re determined to bring inflation under control by making workers pay. That doesn’t rule out a recession and we have to see what will happen in America but I think it’s going to be quite volatile times. So Labor is going to come under a lot of pressure. Gas prices and electricity prices are going up here, so there’s plenty of room for discontent out of which the far-right can grow, out of which the Liberals also can grow. It really poses the question of a fighting stance by workers and their unions if they’re going to get anywhere. But obviously, on the other hand it poses real challenges for the Left to build. And we as Socialist Alternative and the Victorian Socialists really see the need to step up.

Luis: I think we’ve covered everything. Is there anything else that you would like to add, on the elections, on the perspectives, the tasks of the Left? Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Mick: I suppose I can just add a little bit to that last question about times being more volatile. Australia has been one of the most relatively prosperous of the advanced capitalist nations, and much more stable for a number of years now. And it positions itself in a very specific way, in terms of the world market, to other capitalist countries. It’s not a major manufacturing power. On one level it’s sort of like a Third World economy, because it’s so much based on mineral, gas and food exports. But these are highly profitable, and massively advanced, high-tech sort of industries, tied into the fossil fuel economy because of that, particularly because of gas and coal. So that presents challenges for the bourgeoisie in terms of reorienting, at the same time, coming up to more challenges because of its imperialist tensions with China. So things are changing, things are being shaken up, and exactly where that goes you can’t be too definite. I think there’s going to be potential for a major restructuring of Australian capitalism, which partly the bourgeoisie is carrying out. On one level they’ve got coal and gas, but on the other level, there’s massive potential for profits to be made for the bourgeoisie out of the new industries, nickel, lithium exports, all the components which are necessary for the new sources of renewable energy. The way it is talked about is that all these things are environmentally friendly. But actually, to provide a lot of the minerals for wind power and all these things, batteries for electric cars, these are massively destructive mining industries as well. Aluminium, copper, nickel, lithium and a vast array of other metals. Australia’s enormously rich in that. So potentially enormous profits to be made. But these industries employ a very small proportion of the working class. So those industries can be extremely profitable, the workers in them can get pretty high wages. But I think we’re in more difficult times for the workers in the big cities, in teaching, health care, public services, retail, these sorts of industries. The ruling class is pretty much determined to impose the cost of the transformation of the economy on them.