Australia: Swing to Greens a shift to left as neither major capitalist party wins a mandate

Newly elected Greens MP Adam Bandt with trade unionist supporters during the 2007 federal election.

By Peter Boyle

August 24, 2010 -- Green Left Weekly -- By denying both the ruling Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the opposition Liberal Party-National Party coalition an outright majority, in primary votes and in federal House of Representatives (lower house) and Senate (upper house), Australian electors on August 21 voted “neither of the above” for the traditional parties of government. The result after election night was a hung parliament, with several rural independent MPs and one Greens MP to decide which party will form the next government.

This followed an election campaign in which the major parties conducted an ugly race to the right, most notoriously by scapegoating the few thousand desperate refugees who attempt to get to Australia on boats.

The effect of this race to the right was to promote racism, further breakdown community solidarity, and bolster a range of other conservative prejudices on issues, ranging from climate change, to the economy, to same-sex marriage rights. Important issues like Indigenous peoples' rights and Australia's participation in the imperialist war of occupation in Afghanistan were totally screened out.

Greens' vote a left vote

However, there was also a reaction to this push to the right. The Australian Greens, a party with a record of taking positions well to the left of the major parties on many critical issues, enjoyed a 3.8% increase in support, gaining most of its votes from the ALP.

At the time of writing, the Greens had obtained 1,187,881 (11.4%) of the first preference votes in House of Representatives seats. Yet under the undemocratic system for lower house elections, the Greens only won one of the 150 seats in the House of Representatives, that of Melbourne. There were a string of other once-safe ALP seats that came close to being taken by the Greens.

The contradiction between the size of the Greens' vote and its small representation in parliament suggests the need for a grassroots campaign for democratic reform of the electoral system. It is not democratic that the National Party, which won a third of the the number of votes of the Greens, should get seven times their representation in parliament!

The power of corporate Australia to buy elections with massive donations and its domination of the mass media also has to be confronted.

The Greens won the seat of Melbourne with the open assistance of the Electrical Trades Union in Victoria and many other militant trade unionists. This was an important break from the total domination of the labour movement by the pro-capitalist ALP.

At the time of writing, the Greens had won 1,266,521 first preference votes in the Senate election and socialist candidates, including the Socialist Alliance, a further 39,186 votes. The Greens look like increasing its number of senators from four to nine — giving the Greens the balance of power in the Senate.

The progressive social movements, including the trade unions, will be looking to these Greens senators to offer strong support in the struggles ahead, no matter which major party eventually forms government.


The major parties are now desperately trying to negotiate agreements with three or four independent MPs and the Greens MP to form a minority government, while the outcome in a number of seats still remains uncertain. If a deal to form government cannot be made, the governor-general (Australia's appointed constitutional head of state) has the power to call another election.

While the three independent MPs certain of a seat -- Tony Windsor, Bob Katter and Rob Oakeshott -- are former members of the conservative rural-based National Party, all broke with it over their strong objections to particular aspects of the neoliberal agenda that has been pursued by both Liberal-National coalition and ALP governments since the 1980s.

Further, they have consolidated the hold on their seats by taking “community first” positions on issues directly affecting their electorates. So neither major party can be certain of their support.

Newly elected Greens MP for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, indicated earlier in the campaign that he would support a hypothetical ALP minority government but since August 21, he's been reluctant to be as specific. He told ABC TV's 7.30 Report on August 22 that the Greens were entering discussions with various parties and independents and “there's nothing on or off the table”.

Progressive independent Andrew Wilkie, a former Greens candidate, has a chance of winning the Tasmanian seat of Denison away from the ALP. He laid out a position, on the August 22 7.30 Report on how he would be prepared to support a minority government:

If I'm elected, the party I support will only be assured that I won't block supply, and that I won't support any reckless no confidence motion.

Beyond that, it's all up for grabs. I will look at every piece of legislation, every issue and assess them on its merits. I think it's self evident what is reasonable ethical behaviour and what isn't. And any acts of lying and so on, I won't accept that and I won't support legislation in that regard.

The Greens should offer to support a minority ALP government along similar lines, because clearly a Liberal-National federal government would be a greater evil. However, entering or making any further commitments to allow an ALP government would trap the Greens in a conservative government that will be bad for the majority of people, bad for Indigenous communities, bad for refugees and bad for the environment.

[Peter Boyle is national convenor of the Socialist Alliance. This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading socialist newspaper.]


By Tim Gooden

August 15, 2010 -- For many union leaders afraid of a Coalition victory on August 21, campaigning against Tony Abbott in the federal election simply means campaigning for Julia Gillard.

With a conservative win on the cards, unions have escalated their pro-ALP campaigning. The Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) — which has filled Labor’s coffers with more than $340,000 for the election campaign — has enlisted officials for ring-arounds in marginal seats.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has levied affiliates $1 per member, raising a further $1.8 million for electoral advertising. After three weeks of campaigning, it had spent $2.13 million on metropolitan TV and radio ads, with the Australian Nursing Federation adding $475,000 of its own.

Workers have every reason to be concerned about a Coalition victory: a triumphant Abbott would doubtlessly try to reintroduce aspects of Work Choices.

But can unions campaign effectively against Abbott by glossing over Labor’s record and the reality of its Fair Work Act (FWA)?

Unfortunately, in their desperation to build support for Labor, most unions are being dishonest about its industrial relations record.

For example, the ACTU executive’s pre-election resolution lists “protection from unfair dismissal for all workers” as a gain under Labor. But most workers in small businesses for less than a year have no right to appeal against unfair dismissal.

Another supposed gain is protection of delegates who exercise their workplace rights. But any union official who leaves the office desk knows union activists are regularly targeted and sacked.

Many hail Labor’s Fair Work Australia as a return to collective bargaining. Some FWA provisions do force the boss to negotiate. But this law also gives employers an arsenal of weapons to frustrate bargaining and no obligation on them to reach an agreement.

The right to strike remains one of the most restricted in any developed country and violates International Labor Organisation standards.

Workplace minister Simon Crean told the ACTU executive that there would be no “second tranche” of workplace reforms if Labor wins. It would also reintroduce legislation — blocked by the Coalition in the Senate — to replace the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), which targets building unions, with a similar body with “coercive powers”.

Labor’s only carrot for unions is its “Fair Entitlements Guarantee”, covering workers in businesses that go broke. This revamped version of the Coalition’s scheme significantly increases the guarantee to four weeks of redundancy pay per year of work.

A welcome reform, even if it comes too late for thousands hurt by the global financial crisis.

A number of unions have broken ranks. The Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU), which disaffiliated from the ALP earlier this year, is backing the Greens, as is the Victorian United Firefighters Union.

The Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union is calling for a Green vote in the Senate, citing the ABCC and the charges against shop steward Ark Tribe. But the CFMEU has also contributed funds to Labor’s campaign and is backing Labor candidates in the House of Representatives.

The argument that unions need to support Labor to keep the Coalition out is most plausible in marginal seats where the contest is between Labor and Coalition. It loses all punch in ALP-Green marginals such as Melbourne, where Greens candidate Adam Bandt came within 4.7% of winning in 2007.

Bandt, a former lawyer well-known for his work defending workers and unions, is standing again, facing ex-ACTU official Cath Bowtell.

Reflecting the polarisation within the unions, the Victorian Trades Hall Council’s August meeting hosted presentations from Bandt and Bowtell. In discussion, Victorian ETU secretary Dean Mighell asked the ALP candidate if she would be prepared to break Labor caucus discipline and speak publicly on issues of concern to unions.

Bowtell said she would make a judgement about “the most effective way to achieve reform ... sometimes you will get reform working quietly and sometimes speaking publicly.”

Bandt replied, “the ALP caucus is where progressive voices go to be silenced”.

Despite the Greens’ record in moving for the full abolition of Work Choices and the ABCC, some unions have gone into overdrive to support Bowtell. The ACTU has also approached affiliates seeking access to their membership data to allow a “cold-calling” campaign.

The Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Workers Union, Community and Public Sector Union and Australian Services Union have donated funds, staff time and office space. Left-wing unions such as the Maritime Union of Australia and AMWU are also reported to be assisting.

Responding to an ACTU request for membership data, Dean Mighell told the August 3 Australian: “I just question the judgment of the ACTU on a whole range of matters, given the Greens policy on industrial relations is far more favourable to Australian workers than the ALP’s, yet the ACTU issues a call to arms to support that party.”

On August 10, reported that CFMEU national president Dave Noonan said “a Bandt victory in Melbourne was a ‘zero sum game’ in terms of worker rights because it did nothing to keep Tony Abbott out of power”.

This is nonsense. A Greens victory in Melbourne wouldn’t deliver government to Abbott, but it would deliver an MP able to speak out against the ABCC — which all unions say they oppose.

Urging workers to put Abbott last would have been part of any serious union campaign at this election. But glossing over the reality of Labor in government only helps breed cynicism, confusion and disengagement.

Such a mood can let the Coalition back in and allows Labor to get away with its own anti-worker policies.

By contrast, if the Greens win the Senate balance of power at this poll, a returned Labor government will have to publicly block with the Coalition to keep anti-worker laws in place.

Unions have a duty to be honest with members. When workers fully understand Labor’s failure to deliver, they are hardly likely to vote for more punishment under Abbott.

They will look for other parties to support, those — like socialists and Greens — that really do defend our rights at work.

[Tim Gooden is a Socialist Alliance member and Geelong Trades Hall Council secretary. Written in a personal capacity.]