GREG BAILEY. Is the instability in Australian politics reflected in the society and economy?

Oct 25, 2018

Australia has had six Prime Ministers since 2008, with the likelihood of a seventh in May 2019. Is this an index of instability in Australian politics and society, one perhaps marked also by the massive swing in last Saturday’s Wentworth by-election? Is this instability a consequence of the emergence of a series of extremely ambitious, stubborn and vindictive individuals over the past decade, or is it something deeper which has penetrated the system and would continue even if such individuals were to be excluded  or absent themselves from the political arena? Does it stand in contrast to the apparent stability of most levels of Australian society and economy? 

Or has the country continued to run during this period with a level of stability that sometimes marks a long period of rule under a single Prime Minister? Saying this is assuming that the state of the country is now tied up in the image of the PM, as that office has become more presidential rather than being characterized by primus inter pares. Whilst one might argue that social changes–such as LGBT marriage–have occurred, marking a sharp break from the past, other changes in both political behaviour and especially in the economy have simply exacerbated what was really established from the first years of the Hawke government. Though even here there have been transformations.

With deregulation of the economy, the private sector has substantially increased in size and compass–moving into areas like energy supply, now various title offices and especially the finance sector, supplemented by the privatization of the various state and commonwealth banks and the growth of superannuation companies, that it had not previously occupied. The intention was to allow market discipline to regulate prices and quality of service.

Over the last decade or so, this deregulation has turned into a form of corporate welfare, as the royal commission into the banks and financial services has shown with great acuity. The banks’ financial status was effectively guaranteed by the state in 2009 and they have continued their practice of irresponsible lending and debt creation, whilst the two main supervisory bodies have fallen down badly on their watch. In the same period the large electricity companies have dramatically increased their prices and their profits, largely because of the creation of oligopolies sanctioned by the federal and state governments.

One might have thought this would create a level of instability at the middle levels of society where capital accumulation, though wanted, is simply not possible because people do not have the financial resources to engage in it. The substantial neutering of the union movement since 1983 has prevented an increase in real incomes, as has the rightward movement of the ALP. It has joined the neoliberal establishment, thus leaving many of its traditional supporters sidelined and suffering from decreased real incomes.  But this has not produced street demonstrations or sustained strike activity.

Perhaps because the Greens have taken up the concerns traditionally the brief of the left wing of the ALP, and have become institutionalized through parliamentary representation, direct action has been considerably lessened. This may change now that Ged Kearney is in parliament and Sally McManus is attempting to breathe new life into the union movement.

A sign of underlying economic stability–at least in the eyes of the mainstream media–is the constant catch-cry that Australia has experienced 25 years of economic growth, a better record than virtually any other country in the world. This claim falls apart completely when the level of economic inequality is taken into consideration, and only now with the exposures of the royal commission into the banking sector are some activist shareholders beginning to question the obscene levels of remuneration of many CEOs, a product of this stable growth. Their objections are not necessarily a sign of their desire to see the end of inequality. However, anger at the concentration of most capital resources within a very small percentage of the population will likely extend to other sectors of society, which will in turn express this politically even if only through a change of vote.

Finally, the historical apathy directed towards renewable energy and a response to anthropogenic climate change is a further reflection of underlying stability, but one which will invariably translate into instability as the manifestations of climate change inevitably worsen. Both major parties have consistently supported coal mining and export as a part of Australia’s larger dependence on mineral exports for its supply of hard currency. And apart from the Gillard Labor government’s carbon tax, there has been little serious attempt to lessen the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere or a move to renewable energy.

Yet now the number of solar conversions is increasing exponentially and all of the polls suggest the general public is finally waking up to the dangers of climate change and the need to do something about it. Indeed, this concern was partly reflected in the result of the Wentworth by-election.

Apart from groups like Getup and the ACF, little direct action has been taken even on climate change and it is difficult to see this changing, although the pressure may be somewhat lessened by the ALP announcing a move to 50% renewable energy production by 2030. This could bottle up any kind of direct action that if sufficiently disruptive could be construed as a sign of instability.

In summary, the kind of instability in our political class seems to be a characteristic of what that class has evolved into: a group of clashing egos, highly insecure in their own positions. For the majority of Australians there still exists a high degree of stability in most aspects of their life and collectively in society and the economy, though the potential for considerable disruption there is increasing.

Dr Greg Bailey is an Honorary Researcher, College of the Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Latrobe University.

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