Australia’s Slow-Motion Crisis

With both major parties widely discredited, turmoil rules in Australian politics.

Tony Abbott speaks during the Australian election campaign in July 2010. Tony Abbott / Flickr

On Tuesday morning, Australia woke up to its fifth prime minister in just over five years. Multi-millionaire investment banker Malcolm Turnbull had defeated sitting PM Tony Abbott in a party-room challenge the previous evening, just under two years into Abbott’s first term of office.

The irony was lost on no one, as Abbott had led the center-right Liberal Party–National Party “Coalition” to a landslide victory in September 2013 in large part by pointing to the disarray of the previous six years of Labor Party rule, which saw not one but two successful coups against sitting PMs. Indeed, in his final public pitch to keep his job Abbott claimed, “We are not the Labor Party.”

Just hours later he had been deposed by a vote of his fellow members of parliament, fifty-four votes to forty-four. This was a remarkable reversal from 2009, when Abbott successfully challenged then–Opposition Leader Turnbull.

The turmoil of the last five years at the federal level comes alongside frequent leadership changes in both government and opposition parties in state politics since the early 2000s. Counting Turnbull’s ascension, there have been sixty-six such changes at the state and federal level since March 2002.

Politicians and commentators have offered various explanations for this state of affairs. Some claim it is the result of party rules that make sacking leaders easy. Yet under the same rules between 1972 and 2010, only one PM was rolled while in office. Since 2010 it has happened three times. Others claim that it is due to the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the growth of social media, or an increasingly fast-paced technological world. Yet past changes in technology did not consistently produce political turmoil.

Some others have blamed ever-more-frequent opinion polling. But this cannot explain how the Liberals held onto their leader, John Howard, between 1996 and 2007 even though his government was behind in the polls for long periods.

Finally, some have blamed the “febrile” partisanship of mainstream media outlets and (more recently) social media. Abbott complained about this in his resignation speech, seemingly oblivious that he had been lauded for being “the most devastatingly effective opposition leader in Australian history” precisely because of his willingness to line up with the partisan frenzy of the Right.

Yet the most stable period of federal politics — the twenty-three years of conservative rule from 1949 to 1972, most of it under the virulently anticommunist Prime Minister Robert Menzies — was marked by far more deeply entrenched Left/Right partisanship.

So how to explain the chaos of Australian politics? After all, the country has not been in recession since 1991, living standards are relatively high, industrial action has been at a derisory level for over a decade, and social movement activity in that same period has been low compared with the past.

The most important driver of volatility is the hollowing out of the social base of the political system, and the growing detachment of the political class from the voting public. It’s a process that has been described in many countries, perhaps in most detail by the late Peter Mair in Ruling The Void, which mainly focuses on Western Europe.

The hollowing out can be measured along many dimensions: collapsing party memberships, declining voter allegiance, growing electoral volatility, the deterioration of associated organizations (such as trade unions), and increasingly negative social attitudes towards politics and politicians. While the global economic crisis and rise of austerity politics since 2008 have accelerated these trends, Mair’s empirical data shows them going back decades.

Mair also describes how, just as voters have pulled away from politics, so too politicos have worked to insulate themselves from voters with: the expansion of a paid caste of full-time staff around elected politicians, from which future candidates are drawn; increased state funding of elections making parties less reliant on popular backing; the convergence of center-left and center-right parties on economic policy; the handing of major policy decisions to unelected technocrats and “depoliticized”; and the transfer of policy-making power away from party structures to parliamentary fractions.

In summary, the mass representative political structures that dominated many Western countries for most of the twentieth century, with their stable (often class-based) social bases and their well-defined ideological differences, have experienced a long-run process of decomposition. This growing instability of official politics is a product of how political classes carry less and less authority in society. Finally, as they become unmoored from those they are meant to represent, parties often pander to the ideological obsessions of their most fervent supporters, leading them to be even less relevant to mainstream voters.

All this returns us to a structure of politics similar to what Karl Marx described in his early critique of politics and the state — that is, a more brittle and antagonistic relationship between the social and political spheres.

One consequence of this has been the rise of new political players who use popular disdain for the political class to their own political advantage. Perhaps the most obvious example has been Spain’s Podemos and its assault on “la casta,” the country’s corrupt political and financial oligarchy. Greece’s Syriza, despite its radical left origins, has also risen as a break from “the old politics,” while “anti-politicians” like the UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage and Donald Trump have shaken up the Right.

Australia provides one of the clearest examples of these tendencies. For most of the twentieth century, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) was the fulcrum around which all political life was organized. The party’s meteoric rise in the early 1900s led the warring pro-business parties of the Right to put aside their differences to stave off the Laborist challenge.

The ALP was based on powerful but conservative trade unions, whose coverage of the workforce between 1914–1990 dropped below 40 percent only once. And until late in this period unions were highly organized, with strong rank-and-file participation. Even when conservative PM Menzies seemed impregnable during the long boom (in part because of an anticommunist ALP split), Labor routinely won state elections and got close to 50 percent of the national vote. The growth of union membership during the militant struggles of the 1960s and ’70s (reaching over 50 percent of the workforce by the 1980s) further underpinned the ALP’s social weight.

The turning point was Labor’s 1983 election victory, after nearly a decade of economic crisis and stagflation. Under the Hawke and Keating governments the unions signed a social contract — “The Accord” — which held down real wages and gave senior union leaders unprecedented influence in government for the purpose of restoring economic stability.

Thus in Australia it was not the Right but the Left — with the active backing of the union bureaucracy — that drove through a rapid succession of neoliberal reforms. Between 1983 and 1991, workers sacrificed up to 12 percent of their real income.

Labor temporarily weathered voter backlash thanks to Australia’s “preferential” (alternative vote) electoral system, the unelectability of a Right then obsessed with being even more Thatcherite, and the continued support of the unions. However, the unions’ “restraint” was their undoing, as workers voted with their feet and dropped out of activity and, over time, membership.

The Accord was a success for the Australian state and capitalist class, delivering a massive transfer of wealth upwards, but it broke a political system extremely reliant on union power as the point of differentiation between Right and Left. Increasingly bureaucratized and passive, unions have continued to decline and now count just 17 percent the workforce as members.

The factional and ideological differences within the ALP have come to be more about patronage than representation of social interests. This is illustrated by the fact that the only Labor leader to outright win a national election in the last twenty-two years was Kevin Rudd, who in 2007 ran a presidential-style campaign, downplaying his party’s name and treating its union-based structures with disdain.

The ALP has also lost large numbers of voters to the left-wing Greens party, especially over its support for the “war on terror” and the barbaric treatment of asylum seekers. This is part of a general trend away from Australia’s two-party system, with minor parties, Independents, and voter abstention on the rise in recent elections.

The hollowing out of Australian Laborism has also had a profound impact on the Right. No longer able to credibly point to the dark forces of militant unionism or socialist ideology in their opponents, conservatives have increasingly fretted that their “brand” is indistinguishable. Indeed, to win and keep power the socially conservative Coalition government of John Howard (1996–2007) had to retreat from Labor’s radical neoliberal reform, and it was only the advent of the war on terror that provided Howard with some kind of coherent agenda, albeit temporarily.

Rudd’s ascent to the Labor leadership in 2006 brought all these trends to the surface. That the party’s union-based factional operators allowed him to take over was a sign of their desperation. But this meant Rudd’s own base was a narrow one, relying on electoral success to keep a suspicious party machine at bay.

Nevertheless, for his first three years as leader, Rudd was able to successfully position himself against the “old politics” and enforce total dominance over the political scene — defeating Howard in the 2007 election and provoking the Liberals to dispose of leaders Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull in short order. Rudd led his government’s response to the global financial crisis, engaging in massive government spending to avert recession while penning a widely read article condemning the neoliberalism of the Right.

Yet when Rudd withdrew his commitment to “the greatest moral challenge of our time” a few months after the disastrous Copenhagen climate summit, his opinion poll invincibility evaporated overnight. Suddenly the unpopular Tony Abbott (a social conservative picked for partisan differentiation rather than electability) looked to have a chance at leading the Right back into government.

Rudd was hated by much of his cabinet because of his autocratic leadership style and resented by factional warlords for stealing their party — and so they ousted him in favor of his deputy, Julia Gillard. In a stunning display of naiveté, some of the coup plotters even went on national television to advertise their maneuvers.

Gillard came to power tainted, by virtue of being the figurehead of a party machine whose social relevance had long been waning. Initial public enthusiasm for the change withered, and after a disastrous election campaign in which she shifted rapidly to the right on key policies, she managed to cobble together support from the Greens and right-wing Independents to form a minority government — which then lurched from crisis to crisis under the pressure of abysmal opinion polling.

While international observers often found it puzzling that a PM trying to introduce climate action measures and willing to rail against the misogyny of the opposition leader could be so unpopular, it was an absence of political authority that dragged her government down.

During Gillard’s reign the ALP was recording levels of support not seen since the depths of the Great Depression. Labor politicos increasingly resorted to blaming a hostile media, a reactionary electorate, and the Right’s sinister powers for their own problems. At the same time they inflated Abbott’s minimal credibility by capitulating to him on key policies, most disturbingly when Gillard launched a contest with him over who could treat asylum seekers more harshly.

Nothing seemed to work, and the threat of Rudd making a comeback became a government obsession. When Rudd finally ousted Gillard in mid-2013, it illustrated the depths of despair to which the party’s apparatchiks had sunk.

However, weighed down by the party’s dysfunction and by compromises he had been forced to make to get his job back, Rudd lost to Abbott in the 2013 election (although by fewer seats than had been feared). He was replaced by one of the chief factional plotters in both his removal from and restoration to the top job, a former union official named Bill Shorten. Ironically, Shorten will benefit from new rules introduced by Rudd to make toppling a Labor leader more difficult, and his poor performance to date means he will probably need them.

Yet if voters thought that Labor’s return to opposition would lead to restabilization, they soon discovered the conservatives under Abbott were equally capable of unravelling. First the new government failed to get the usual post-election “honeymoon” in the polls. Then things turned worse as MPs found themselves mired in an expenses scandal, exposing how intolerant voters were of politicians’ entitlements, and the government made a series of unforced errors in basic policy areas.

To arrest the drift, Abbott played to “the base” — the hardened right-wing majority in the party room and the motley assortment of radio shock jocks, right-wing think tanks, and conservative activists who are socially marginal but politically influential. This mainly took the form of culture war forays alongside controversial appointments of key supporters to government bodies — designed to keep them happy while outraging the Left.

But as the polling got worse and business leaders began to complain that politicians were no longer capable of driving serious reform, Abbott surprised voters with a budget that viciously attacked a series of vulnerable social groups in the name of debt reduction while simultaneously expanding the deficit.

The government’s polling slumped even further, and until this week’s events had never really recovered. Despite flaccid opposition from Labor, the Greens, and the trade unions, Abbott flailed about, unable to find a way forward that would impress both voters and his right-wing backers.

Many of his most unpopular measures were watered down or abandoned. And even methods that had previously won over voters — like domestic anti-terror laws and a more aggressive foreign policy — failed to make an impression. Indeed, while national security should have been a winner for a right-wing government, Abbott repeatedly trashed it by overstating and sensationalizing the terrorist threat, promising to “shirtfront” a visiting Vladimir Putin over the MH-17 disaster and allowing his new homeland security agency, Border Force, to embarrass itself by threatening to do visa checks on random people on the street.

And then there were his “captain’s picks,” policies he cooked up himself that almost invariably blew up in his face. For example, in late January Abbott bizarrely announced he would be conferring an Australian knighthood on the queen’s husband, Prince Philip. The ensuing popular ridicule led MPs to demand a vote on Abbott’s leadership, and he lost the support of 40 percent of them despite there being no alternative candidate.

It was only a matter of time before a successful challenge could be mounted, although the socially liberal Turnbull has been forced to placate the party’s right by continuing most of Abbott’s agenda. Just as with Rudd and Gillard, you can now barely get a cigarette paper between Turnbull and Abbott on policy. Yet also like the Labor mess, the hatred and divisions inside the party mean that restoring authority and credibility requires more than Turnbull’s alleged talents for slick presentation and avoidance of basic mistakes.

In a sense the only novelty about Australian politics is that is has a more virulent case of the same disease infecting many rich Western countries — a weak and panicky political class, unable to rely on a serious social base and facing an electorate that has stopped seeing the political system as representative of its interests.

In such a situation, the best the political class can hope for is to stumble upon an internal reconfiguration that frees it from the dead weight of the hollowed-out party structures it has inherited from last century. Without that, and in the absence of a more serious social crisis or the return of mass social struggles, continuing dysfunction and chaos are likely to be the order of the day.