Australian political antics

Published in Freedom, Vol. 53, No. 4, February 1992, p. 4

In December 1991, the parliamentary members of the Australian Labor Party decided to dump Prime Minister Bob Hawke. This was the first time a serving Labor PM had been deposed by his own party.

In conventional terms, Hawke was doing fine. He had led Labor to victory in an unprecedented four elections, beginning in 1983. He was also highly popular with the public.

Hawke was replaced by Paul Keating, the Treasurer and second most powerful figure in the government for most of the Hawke period. Why was Keating preferred?

Not because he offered an alternative political direction. After all, he had been quite satisfied with the policies he and Hawke had implemented over the years. Nor had Hawke done something special to discredit himself.

Furthermore, Keating was and is much less popular with the public than Hawke. Indeed, Keating is perhaps the most detested politician in Australia. He comes across as exceedingly arrogant. He called himself the world's greatest treasurer and is renowned for heaping abuse on those who criticise him. (Hawke no doubt is arrogant too, but he projects a different image.) Finally, Keating is closely identified with the current recession which he said, before the economy became so bad, was "the recession we had to have." This quote is now frequently used against him.

So why in the world would Labor parliamentarians trade in a proven popular PM for a substitute who had no new ideas and was an electoral liability? The answer: infighting and media pressure.

Paul Keating is intensely ambitious and, unlike some politicians, isn't afraid to wreck things to get his way. Keating had long pushed privately and publicly for Hawke to step down so that he, Keating, could be official kingpin. When Hawke stayed on as PM longer than expected, Keating started yet another push for the top office, using various methods to destabilise the situation.

In essence, Keating became PM because his own campaign for the office was causing woeful damage to the Labor Party. Parliamentarians were being lobbied relentlessly by stalwarts for Hawke and Keating. Public pronouncements and leaks were embarrassing the government. The job of developing and implementing policy was an afterthought while the struggle for leadership continued.

After one of his unsuccessful challenges for the leadership, Keating moved to the backbench but maintained his campaign. Some parliamentarians eventually supported Keating because it was apparent that he would continue causing disruption until he became leader. They preferred an unpopular PM to continuing instability.

The other main culprit was the mass media, especially the Canberra parliamentary press gallery. In Parliament House, the main focus is personalities. Instability makes for a good story, and so readers were treated to interminable stories about behind-the-scenes power plays. Labor plotters and schemers always had a convenient outlet in the media.

The media helped turn "instability" into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The substance of governmental policy-making took second place to the ins and outs of power struggles.

The substance is that the Labor government has implemented more policies which have served big business and hurt the average worker than any previous Australian government. Following the ideology of the "free market," the economy was opened up to the "winds of competition." The exchange rate was floated, tariffs were slashed, controls over investment were eased. The result was an orgy of speculation by rich entrepreneurs, later followed by spectacular crashes. Rather than improving the economy, Labor's policies hindered productive investment and caused massive losses through speculative operations. Average real wages declined while the rich became richer.

There is insufficient space to mention the way in which the Labor government failed to implement its promises concerning Aboriginal rights, the environment, foreign policy and many other areas. Suffice it to say that the Liberals -- as the conservatives in Australia are called -- could not have imagined pursuing such a radically conservative programme.

The former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser has taken to writing newspaper columns. Fraser's government from 1975 to 1983 was considered then to be exceedingly conservative. Fraser now sounds like a left-winger as he criticises Labor policies, arguing that the government should do more to protect the workers and the disadvantaged!

Fraser is also at odds with the present Liberals, who have moved steadily right. Where else could they go with Labor taking over their most extreme policies?

There are a few familiar lessons from this depressing story. It is pointless to expect progress from a different party in government. Labor has been much more successful in bringing in serve-the-privileged policies than its opposition could ever have been.

Paul Keating, PM, symbolises the rule of ambition in party politics, which attracts the worst individuals and brings out the worst in those it attracts. I have not mentioned the personal friendships between Hawke, Keating and various wealthy (and, some say, corrupt) businessmen. Keating is a "working-class boy" but now is more noted for his expensive suits and his passion for expensive antique clocks.

Another lesson is that it is usually a diversion and waste of time to study the infighting within governments and parties. While it seems that journalists are providing an insight into the real operations of the state, the sort of perspectives they provide give only a spectator's view of struggles between personalities. Few journalists examine structural dynamics: the mechanisms of capitalism, of male domination, of state power. Fewer still question the role or existence of these social structures.

Recently I attended a meeting at which a young activist in the New Left Party argued vehemently that the left should be mounting a campaign over the next 18 months to make sure that Labor is re-elected and that the Liberals, with their ultra-right policies, are prevented from gaining office. This seemed very forgiving of Labor's move to the right since 1983 and its continual rejection of left views.

This is all the more amazing considering that a large fraction of members of the New Left Party are former members of the Communist Party of Australia, which has officially disbanded. It is plausible to think that if the Communist Party had somehow been elected by mistake, they would have ended up not much different than the present government.

The message is that the system of parties, bureaucracies and central administration shapes the people and policies, not vice versa. The system of representative democracy has a remarkably strong grip on people's thinking. The system has betrayed its believers numerous times and survived, and no doubt the believers will persist through quite a few more betrayals.

Brian Martin


Go to

Brian Martin's publications

Brian Martin's website