Australia: a changing scenery- interview with Kathleen Galea

Q: Kathleen, there was a change of guard in the last federal election, in which the Labor Party took office after almost a decade. Does this change signify a change of policies?

A: There definitely was quite a hatred by wider layers towards the outgoing conservative government, especially towards the end of their term. The Liberal-National Coalition has been in office since 2013, and a lot of people felt that this election was a refreshing change. But the mood is mainly one of celebrating the ousting of the previous government rather than being enthusiastic for the new one. 

The new Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, is certainly a more charismatic leader than the previous Labor Party leader, Bill Shorten. But he is also definitely not a radical left figure. He is actually considered a safer pair of hands to guide Australia in these turbulent times by many in the capitalist establishment. 

They’re not the same, but to give international readers an idea, comparisons can be made to the US elections where the Democrats came to power with Biden.  The former PM Scott Morrison was an overtly religious conservative figure – he is a member of the Hillsong Church – and many people saw him as embarrassing Australia on the world stage. 

So, while Labor scraped over the line to gain a majority, their vote was also historically low. It was actually lower than when they lost the last federal election. It’s too early to say for certain, but for the most part it seems that the change in government is likely to be more of a change in style and not substance, save for a few small gestures. 

Q: Did the covid-19 pandemic play a role in the outcome of the election?

A: The pandemic was not so much a feature in the election debate, which was interesting because the handling of the pandemic played an important role in why the previous government was so hated.

I think that when it came to the federal election, people were exhausted by covid, and it was also seen as more of a state issue because health is the domain of state governments. 

The botched vaccine rollout was still in people’s minds, but largely, there were more pressing concerns for people on a federal level such as climate policy and the cost of living. 

The landslide victories of the Labor Party in the state elections of Western Australia in 2021 and South Australia in 2022 were indicators that the federal election would not go well for the Coalition.

Q: What happened in those state elections? 

A: The WA elections saw Mark McGowan’s Labor party re-elected in a bloodbath that left the Liberals with only 2 seats. This was widely attributed to McGowan’s strong stance on maintaining a zero-covid approach and imposing a hard border with the rest of the country.

Former PM Morrison, and the Coalition as a whole, attempted to demonise the approach of state Labor governments where strict covid measures were imposed, however this did not go down well with voters. 

This could also be seen with the SA government where the Liberal government was ousted in favour of a return to Labor. Former Premier Steven Marshall’s covid policy was overwhelmingly rejected in an election where the health crisis was a major factor. 

Q: There were vocal so-called “freedom” groups and far right parties standing in more seats this election – did they make any gains? 

A: While these groups were definitely a vocal minority, they generally did not gain wider support. Billionaire Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party spent an insane amount of money to stand all across the country. You couldn’t escape the advertising, it was everywhere.

Similarly, One Nation – most well known for being anti-immigation, stood in almost all seats in the lower house but did not win any. 

I think that the left shouldn’t be complacent though, because these parties did poll well in particularly disaffected areas where people feel the major parties have left them behind.

The anti-vax agenda was not popular, but the more right-wing populist and nationalist rhetoric put out by both these parties does have an echo with certain parts of the population. 

Q: Did the war in Ukraine play any role in the outcome of the election? Is there a public debate in Australia around this issue? Is this connected to the wider debate around the geopolitical balances in the South Pacific area?

A: The war in Ukraine didn’t really play much of a role in the pre-election campaign because both the major parties had a similar position, supporting the NATO alliance and the Ukrainian government. At the same time, they both strove to be the most anti-China party, ramping up anti-Chinese sentiments.

Q: Does this anti-China feature reflect the feelings inside the population or is it just the rhetoric of the establishment?

A: I think that the Australian state has a unique brand of racism and nationalism, that does get brought out at election time. 

The fear of the Chinese dictatorship and the influence of the CCP is also exploited by the major parties and the media. 

This is reflected in numerous ways, with a disproportionate media focus on Chinese investment in Australia, particularly in the precarious property market.

Q: And where does the Australian establishment stand regarding the US-China conflict? 

A: China is still of course by far Australia’s biggest trading partner. Until some time ago the Australian establishment was largely trying to have it both ways, be connected to the western imperialist powers but also have good relations with China, in order to prop up its economy. 

This is now starting to change; Australia has decisively sided with the West and it is increasingly at tensions with the Chinese regime. As a result, there is a conscious shift in the supply lines, as Australian capitalists are trying to loosen their reliance on the Chinese market.

Q: Australia for a significant period of time didn’t have any important economic problems, and that of course was reflected in the level of struggle and consciousness. Is this starting to change now?

A: Yes, it is true that Australia didn’t experience a recession for 26 years as of 2017. It even had the record for the longest uninterrupted growth of GDP in the developed world. But that was also in some ways fake. 

For some time now, we were pointing out the fact that Australia had a two-tier economy. The mining boom shielded the economy from the world economic crisis, but parts of it were in trouble for some time now. There is a property bubble but this seems to be going for a slow deflation rather than bursting. 

Australia had a technical recession just before the pandemic, but the stimulus program of the government covered this up. Now, with the development in the world economy around inflation and the energy crisis, the economy is picking up where it left off pre-pandemic, which was not in a good place.   

The rise in the cost of living is a major topic of discussion, and it featured in the election campaign. But this is also related to the wider topic of supply chains and how they work under capitalism, particularly with the ongoing impacts of the pandemic. 

Extreme weather events, made worse by climate change, have also impacted the cost of food in particular. 

Just before the pandemic hit Australia, there were huge bushfires. This was followed by the north of the country in particular being impacted badly by floods, with many food crops being wiped out. 

These events together with the war in Ukraine and the covid crisis, has created continuous problems in supply chains leading to huge price hikes. People are really angry and concerned about this issue.

Q: Australia had a big climate youth movement back in 2019. How do people see this issue and how was it connected to the elections?

A: I think the bushfires made world headlines, and we saw big protests during the fires with people demanding action on climate change. More people are connecting the dots that the severity and frequency of the droughts, floods and fires are connected to climate change.

This was a major election issue. The attitude of the previous government on the issue of climate change is very backwards, and was seen most clearly perhaps when former PM Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal inside the parliament and said “this is coal, don’t be afraid of it”. 

Another important feature of these elections is the crisis within the Liberal Party and their relationship with their coalition partner, the National Party. This was reflected in the “teal” independents who took a number of seats from the Liberal Party. 

Q: Can you tell us more about these teal independents? 

A: These independents stood in very wealthy seats, many of them being formerly involved with the Liberal party. They represent a layer of the Liberal party who are frustrated with the increasingly rightward shift of the party under figures like Morrison, and new Liberal leader Peter Dutton. 

The Liberal party has claimed it is a “broad church” for many years and this broad church is becoming increasingly factionalised and breaking apart.

The independents are more of the ilk of former PM Turnbull, who Morrison ousted in a leadership spill. They want to be seen as respectable, and campaigned on climate policy, integrity and the representation of more women – another big issue within the Liberal Party. 

Their campaigns were extremely well funded and their victories are significant regarding the future of the Liberal party and their base. They are also significant in the shifting landscape with more people voting for independents and minor parties than ever before. At the same time, it should be pointed out that these independents are not going to be friends of working-class people more broadly. 

Q: The Greens also seem to have done well in this context, is that right? 

A: Yes, with the climate featuring heavily, the Greens won seats in Brisbane, Queensland. They benefited from the trend away from the major parties, reversing their previous trend of declining votes. Under their current leader, from the left faction of the Greens, their policies are definitely an improvement from the last federal election. 

However, like the major parties, ultimately they seek to solve the climate crisis -and all crises-  within the capitalist framework. They have also not returned to their roots with grassroots campaigning, instead focusing on becoming “respectable” politicians. 

Q: With the teal independents and the Greens making gains, will this impact climate policy from the Labor government?

A: There will be a lot more pressure than before, and how this plays out remains to be seen. With the economy in rocky shape, there will not be much room to move from their point of view. 

It’s true that Labor’s policies on the environment are an improvement from the outgoing government, however that’s a very low standard!

Their programme is still too little too late to address this burning issue. Their emissions reduction target is a 43% reduction on 2005 levels, with a target of 2030. Environmental groups like the Climate Council have already said that this is nowhere near close to good enough.  

Q: In the last days, Australia is experiencing an energy supply crisis, even though it’s a major exporter of coal and gas. People in New South Wales are told to turn the lights off if they have a choice and some suppliers have refused to continue production. Can you tell us a bit more about this?

A: Yes, so it has been a very interesting time in the month since the election. We are in the midst of an energy crisis like we haven’t seen since the 1970s. It’s actually not so much a crisis of actual supply, but a refusal of private generators to supply us with energy. 

As a result of the weather events, the war in Ukraine, the pandemic and various other local factors, wholesale market prices for gas have jumped 300% in some instances! This has flow-on effects to the rest of the energy market in Australia. 

It’s insane that given how resource rich the country is, that we are being told to turn off our dishwashers to prevent blackouts!

The market operator, the AEMO, actually stepped in and took control of the market for the first time ever, and also ordered generators to operate. This was because they were refusing to supply energy as they deemed it unprofitable. 

Q: Can we go back to the issue of cost of living?

A: Of course, so obviously the cost of electricity and gas is having a big impact. It’s really like the icing on a very bad cake.

Inflation is currently at around 5.1% which is a major jump for Australia. Ordinary people are suffering through decades of stagnant wages, and now record inflation.

We haven’t seen inflation like this for around 30 years. The national minimum wage was increased by 5.2%, but given the stagnation and cost of living, this can’t even be seen as keeping up.

Inflation is predicted to hit 7% by the end of the year already. In effect, the rise in the minimum wage is gone even before it gets to the pockets of workers.

The housing market is still majorly inflated as well, although prices are starting to drop in some places. For most young people, buying a house on your own is not attainable, especially when half our wages are going on rent.  

Q: There was no national left force running in this election, and that absence is felt when somebody sees the election results. What is the cost of this?

A: It is clear that the absence of the Left on a national level is the major problem for working-class people who want to express their anger or frustration towards the establishment. 

This is why, like I mentioned before, we can’t be complacent when it comes to far right parties trying to establish a base, particularly in disaffected areas. 

The trade unions are controlled by the Labor Party and their leaders do not want to engage in any struggle against “their” government.

In the state of Victoria, the largest left group to stand in elections is the Victorian Socialists. This grouping is made up of affiliated and non-affiliated socialists and other supporters of the left.

They made some modest gains in the North and West of Melbourne, which they hope to build on in the coming state election and which we support. 

Regarding the cost of the absence of a strong left force, it’s clear that faced with a recession the Labor government will not hesitate to make workers pay for the crisis. 

What needs to be done in Australia, is much the same as we have seen in other advanced capitalist countries hit by economic crises. 

We need to rebuild fighting unions, to work together with different left organisations, movements, local campaigns and so on to organise resistance. 

Now more than ever, we need to be building a political alternative to the different faces of the establishment. 

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