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9891Re LATHAM EXPERIMENT FAILS SPECTACULARLY

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  • Peter Boyle
    Oct 11, 2004
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      These are a few additional rough notes to my article in the current
      Green Left Weekly <http://www.greenleft.org.au/back/2004/602/602p3.htm> .

      Many people who are despairing at the Coalition’s re-election because it
      supposedly reveals how reactionary most Australians are. But the
      election result reveals no such thing. Opinion surveys continue to show
      that Howard is a minority on the Iraq war, treatment of refugees,
      Telstra privatisation, etc. Indeed Howard’s “mandate” is weakened by the
      fact that many people were terrorised into voting for the Coalition
      because of their extreme vulnerablity to interest rate rises.

      The Coalition victory was automatically gauranteed by the economic
      conditions of prolonged (if unevenly enjoyed) boom combined with massive
      household debt and home mortgages. Howard won these elections because
      Latham could not convince enough people that he stood for something
      different. While Latham did raise expectations with his headline
      promises (to bring the troops home from Iraq by Xmas, to defend Medicare
      and save the old-growth forests in Tasmania) he found it hard to win
      trust not only because each of these promises was hedged but because his
      promises had to compete with people’s actual experience of neo-liberal
      ALP governments in every state. "Sorry, I cannot vote for you because of
      Bob Carr", said a few voters in NSW booths on Saturday.

      The tantrum of post-election middle-class disdain, by some left
      intellectuals (the ex-Marxists who seemed to have embraced liberalism in
      their new home in the Greens are the saddest), for the economic worries
      of a significant section of the working class is nauseating. Fine for
      those not worried about meeting a huge mortgage payment or keeping their
      job. Latham failed to answer those insecurities, countering instead with
      a backfiring Costello scare campaign (which, as the Libs have pointed
      out, simply drew attention to the very economic issue which Latham
      sought to sweep under the carpet).

      However, for Labor (or any party) to address the material insecurity it
      would have had to raise, as Michael Karadjis argued on this list, a much
      more audacious policy would have to be advanced.

      The election result does not represent a major shift to the right in
      Australia political consciousness. Society is roughly divided down the
      middle on the neo-liberal and imperialist agenda and the shift
      registered by numerous polls on key issues reveals a progressive
      trajectory. Think Tampa to now (Howard's support dropped from 77% to
      35%). We also saw this progressive element in the historic February 2003
      mass demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq. That large dissenting
      mass retreated partly out of shock, demoralisation and then confusions
      when the millions in the street were ignored by the imperialist
      governments which invaded Iraq. Throughout much of last year confusion
      about whether or not a Western occupation should be opposed reigned in
      that dissenting layer but by last November, in the face of growing
      resistance by Iraqis, the tide was turning, as numerous opinion surveys
      showed.

      The increase in the Greens’ vote shows that an element of this dissent
      7-10% are also prepared to support political alternatives significantly
      to the left of the ALP. The shock among many Greens that it was not
      higher (the 10-15% that polls had predicted before the election) was
      also a symptom of a widespread attitude in this dissenting layer that
      prevailed this year: a hope that Howard's agenda will be thwarted
      through these elections. Leave the streets for now and let's fix Howard
      it in the polling booth. For some this meant voting Greens or for the
      Socialist Alliance or PLP. But for more it meant still voting for the
      ALP. Latham's taking of the ALP leadership fueled desperate hopes in a
      large number of people who had been close to breaking from traditional
      support for the ALP. We met them at the polling booths on Saturday, the
      ones who said "We voted Greens or Socialist Alliance but this time I
      think it is safer to vote for the ALP".

      This looking-to-the-Senate-to-save-us explains a large part of the
      disappearance from the streets of the great February million

      These features reflect broader trends in Australian politics since at
      least 1998. While the ruling class has remained on its neo-liberal
      offensive and working class has remained defensive (and there is
      thedeckining then flattening table of strike days that can be whipped
      out) and still making concessions (see Fragmented Futures: New
      Challenges in Working Life by Ian Watson, John Buchanan, Iain Campbell
      and Chris Briggs, Federation Press 2003), we have seen the beginnings of
      a turn around. A militant minority in the trade unions and in the other
      social movements has begun to fight back more aggressively and has done
      so in the context of a much broader, if still largely passive dissent
      against key elements of the neo-liberal agenda. Some on this list may
      argue that this is a "dangerously optimistic" but it's a working
      analysis that fits the dynamics of dissent in Australia in the current
      period quite well..

      In the last period, many in the militant minority in the trade unions
      and other social movements have looked to the Senate to ameliorate
      Howard’s attacks but if the Senate is actually or effectively controlled
      by the Coalition then the centre of gravity for resistance to Howard’s
      agenda will shift more to the streets. The Coalition’s “fresh mandate”
      agenda of more attacks on workers' rights and the sale of the remaining
      half of Telstra will provoke resistance. How strong this will be is yet
      to be seen. But socialist activists should their best to make sure it is
      as strong as possible.

      Peter Boyle
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