Temporary blog of the CWI

Making sense of the “quiet” Australian

The following is an excerpt from a political statement produced by the Socialist Action (CWI in Australia) National Committee. The entire document was discussed and agreed at the Socialist Action 2019 National Conference in early October. 

At an international level, capitalism is facing a number of serious crises. A new world economic downturn seems to have already begun, with the very real possibility of a 2008-9 type financial crash. This downturn is unique in the sense that it has been primarily triggered by geopolitical factors, although it has deeper root in the many contradictions of the capitalist world economy. 

Inter-imperialist rivalries between the US and China have now escalated into a new ‘cold war’, which threatens the stability of all regions of the world. This is combined with the outbreak of mass upheavals in a number of countries, especially in Hong Kong and North Africa.

We also have a revival of mass struggle around the issue of climate change, an issue that profit-driven capitalism is incapable of solving, despite scientists warning that we only have a decade or so to act.

These processes will have a huge impact on world and Australian politics, as well as on the outlook of millions of people over the coming months and years. It is through this international prism that we need to view events and developments in Australia.

While Australian capitalism was somewhat shielded from the worst of the 2008-09 crisis, things will be much more difficult this time around. For example, heightened imperialist tensions make large scale capitalist co-operation much more difficult than a decade ago. Instead of cooperation, rival imperialist powers are openly seeking to use, or even create, crises to destabilise each other now.

In addition, the world and Australian economies are now much more indebted. This makes it harder for governments to spend their way out of recession, meaning that the impacts on working class people are likely to be felt much more deeply.

The capitalist class themselves are in a deep crisis, in many cases unable to rule in the same way they did just a couple of decades ago. The Brexit fiasco in the United Kingdom is perhaps the starkest example but almost every country suffers from political and institutional crises to some degree.

Federal election

In Australia the political crisis has been expressed in the huge turnover of prime ministers in recent years, the drop in support for the major parties, and the inability of many recent governments to win an outright majority. This was the backdrop to the May federal election, which the right-wing Morrison-led Liberal–National Coalition won by the skin of its teeth.

They ran a small-target campaign putting forward very few policies. Their main message was that Labor couldn’t be trusted to run the economy, and that they would be better placed to maintain stability.

Morrison pledged to govern for the so-called “quiet Australians”, the people he claimed didn’t want any sort of drastic change and just wanted to quietly get on with their lives. But it wasn’t really the case that Morrison mobilised a layer of people around this message.

At the election both the major parties lost votes, it was just that Labor lost more votes than the Coalition. The Coalition voted dropped 0.6%, while Labor’s vote dropped 1.4%. The Coalition got over the line mostly thanks to preferences from small right-wing populist parties like Clive Palmer’s United Australia and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, who each won a bit more than 3% of the national vote.

There was no enthusiasm for the Coalition, but just enough people decided to stick with the devil they knew rather than switch to Labor. People voted amidst great concern about the future, but Labor were not trusted to deal with their problems. This was partly because Bill Shorten came across as fake, but also because Labor are not seen as any sort of genuine alternative.

In a number of the states Labor govern for big business, and the memory of the last right-wing federal Labor government is still fresh in many people’s minds. Shorten used some mild populist rhetoric during the election campaign but it didn’t gel with people’s experiences. As such, very few were inspired to vote for them. 

People see the major parties as practically the same. With that being the case, most don’t see Morrison’s victory as a blow. Similarly, they wouldn’t have felt boosted if Shorten had won.

For the most part, people feel disenfranchised by the political process. They feel that politics is mostly irrelevant to their lives. While many people care deeply about the world around them, there is widespread disdain for the entire political establishment. People are disengaged from politics and, in that sense, they do seem “quiet”. But more than anything, they are quietly waiting for a viable political alternative to the major parties.

Slow squeeze

Being quiet is different from being happy. People feel that their living standards are suffering from a slow squeeze and that both the major parties have contributed to it. They see big business and the state as corrupt, and the media as a mouthpiece for the rich and famous. They know the system is rigged but they feel that no one is fighting on their side, and can’t see how to fight effectively for themselves.

According to the ‘State of the Nation’ survey, three in four Australians are not happy with the direction Australia is headed in. People are most concerned about the cost of living. There is a widespread feeling that everything is getting more expensive while wages are not going up. Around 30% of people are worried about job security, and 42% of those aged 18-24 are concerned that they will never be able to afford to buy a house.

While deep dissatisfaction exists, the decades-long rightward shift of the trade unions, and the weakness of the social movements, have contributed to class struggle being at a low ebb. This has had real impacts with huge amounts of wealth being shifted from wages to profits.

According to the Australia Institute, wages as a percentage of GDP were 58.4% in 1975. In 2018 the share had dropped to 47.1%. Almost all of those losses have been transferred from working people to higher company profits.

Overwhelmingly people suffer from low pay, job insecurity, high levels of indebtedness, and many types of stress. They know that wealth inequality is increasing and that things aren’t right, but in the main people are not clear about what needs to be done to turn the situation around. There is no real appreciation of the latent power that people have as workers and of the fact that struggle is the key to driving social change.

There are very few reference points that mark out successful struggles, and no mass organisations that people see as offering a way forward. This, coupled with the unique situation where Australia has experienced 28 years of continuous annual economic growth, has had an impact on people’s outlook. People feel under pressure, but they don’t yet feel really pushed to struggle or to engage with politics. This situation however cannot last.

The long period without a recession is an anomaly by world and historical standards, and commentators from all sides agree that Australian capitalism now faces a raft of economic and political challenges. As we have mentioned previously, it is really the quiet before the storm.

The full document is available here: https://thesocialist.org.au/making-sense-of-the-quiet-australians/