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Issue #1672      February 11, 2015

A government in disarray

The Liberal/National Coalition is staggering after losing state government elections in South Australia, Victoria and Queensland and a coup in the NT which was trumped by the Chief Minister who then made the coup leader his deputy. This week a seething battle for power within the federal government came to a climax resulted in Prime Minister Tony Abbott narrowly avoiding a leadership spill. A motion to spill the Liberal Party Leadership was defeated on Monday February 9, by 61 to 39 votes.

Abbott’s ruthless economic agenda items have included (among other things) imposition of a GP co-payment, deregulation of university fees, abolition of social security entitlements for young people, the downgrading of pensioner indexation and the raising of the pension eligibility age and an attack on organised labour.

The combination of that agenda with Abbott’s slapstick diplomatic blunders (including the reintroduction of knighthoods and the proposal to knight Prince Phillip) left the Coalition with virtually no hope of winning next year’s federal election under his leadership.

The jostling for power between Abbott and the Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull has been conducted with a bitter determination that exceeded personal rivalry and reflects a massive struggle between opposing blocs of capital.

Abbott is absolutely committed to preserving the dominance of the fossil fuel industries, particularly those involving coal and gas extraction, and his policies have inhibited the development of renewable energy production.

The coal industry wants coal production to increase and, if that proves impossible, to slow the rate of transition to renewable energy production.

And Abbott is in lock step with their interests. Despite the global threat posed to the environment and human life by the mining, export and combustion of coal and gas, he has claimed publicly that these industries must grow without restraint by government.

On the other hand Turnbull, who has never been offered a ministerial portfolio involving energy policy by the Abbott regime, has lent a sympathetic ear to the renewable energy industries and their backers, which include some of the banks and insurance corporations.

His statements indicate he accepts that human industry is a major contributor to climate change, that sooner or later the demand for fossil fuels will lessen, and that Australia has a great opportunity to benefit from development of renewable energy technology.

But would he be willing or able to act on those convictions as Liberal leader?

Trouble, state and federal

In NSW, the Baird regime is in difficulty because of a series of disclosures about secret police investigations which appear to have been aimed at cutting off the flow of information about police corruption and inappropriate behaviour by top police officials.

The government is also facing growing concern over (among other things) the piecemeal privatisation of public transport and the massive, grossly invasive WestConnex motorway. Also the plan to sell off government assets, including half the state’s “poles and wires” electricity infrastructure, (the proceeds of which would be used to build a new harbour tunnel for a privately-run railway), and most recently the proposal to issue compulsory purchase orders to people who refuse to sell their homes to big property developers.

The federal government’s popularity fell two percentage points after the Prince Phillip knighthood fiasco, and if Queensland’s two-party swing of 13.5 percent was repeated in NSW at the next elections Labor would be only one seat short of taking office.

Baird refused to answer questions about his willingness to have Abbott appear at his side during the Coalition’s campaign for next month’s NSW elections, and last week Jeff Kennett, former Liberal premier of Victoria, declared bluntly that Abbott should be dumped immediately, to minimise electoral damage to the Coalition in NSW.

In Queensland the Coalition’s reputation has taken another battering after Tony Fitzgerald, (who conducted the inquiry that helped shatter Bjelke-Petersen’s vice-like grip on power), issued a scathing report on the conduct of the recently-deceased Newman government.

The report analysed the Liberal National Party’s now icy relationship with the legal profession, which resulted in part from the Newman government’s nomination of two of its cronies who were legal novices for the key positions of Chief Magistrate and adviser to the Attorney-General, as well as its attempt to overrule judicial decisions.

The party also refused to endorse a statement which supports the provision of prompt and accurate information about government actions, and which opposes party influence in public appointments or the provision of special access to governments, or influence on governments by individuals or corporations. All this accompanied by widespread cuts to the public service and the privatisation of public assets.

At the federal level, when in opposition five years ago the Liberals split over Turnbull’s proposal to introduce a carbon trading scheme, and at that stage Abbott only beat Turnbull by one vote in a battle for the party leadership.

Moreover, the party’s pro-coal faction (“the fossils”) is still very strong. According to a Fairfax report former Liberal frontbencher Arthur Sinodinos suggested he would only support Turnbull if he promised not to reintroduce a carbon tax after gaining the top job.

And in any case, although carbon trading is better than Abbott’s totally ineffective “direct action” plan, it has generally proved to be appallingly unreliable as a means of mitigating climate change.

To achieve a just and productive national life the Australian people will have to look not just beyond the Coalition but indeed beyond the two-party system.

Unstable system, unstable government

The bourgeois democratic system is always vulnerable because it is inherently unstable, a reflection of the system from which it comes. Even in the context of the relative short period from the global financial crisis in 2008, it has become evident that capitalism’s characteristic cycle of periods of economic boom followed by a disastrous (for working people) bust has itself been severely curtailed – where is the boom?

This in turn is reflected in the crisis in the political system itself, in Australia and in governments globally that are attempting unsuccessfully to manage the crisis on behalf of the capitalist ruling powers. Also in the ongoing and escalating conflicts being inflamed around the world.

The whole point of the supposed superiority of capitalism is that it claims to provide a system for the natural and unencumbered functioning of private property ownership. Since that system has been “discovered” – a truth found, like gravity – the less government, the better. Indeed, with such a system, government itself is but a necessary evil.

Last week in the SMH writing on the leadership challenge, former Howard government minister Amanda Vanstone revealed the nature of the parliamentary process based on individualism and personal ambition. She said she approached the then Senate leader Fred Chaney about the behaviour of some backbenchers. Chaney told her that every MP is an important person.

Not because they had been democratically elected to represent the interests of the people, but, “Because it is only through them that you will ever get the chance to be a minister”.

The fact is, as Rob Gowland noted in his Culture and Life column last week, this federal government is carrying out the greatest attack on living and working conditions in the country’s history, an attack occasioned by the crisis confronting capitalism across the developed world.

Working conditions and wages won over 200 years of often bloody struggle are being stripped away at the whim of capitalist governments facing economic “difficulties” for which they have no solutions.

These current ructions will continue: this was fundamentally not about leadership but was a small eruption in the increasingly dysfunctional process that is held up as a beacon of democracy.

Next article – Editorial – Tax – a one-sided “conversation”

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