Australia: polarisation increases as government is defeated on immigration

This month was significant in Australian politics, because it was the first time since 1929 (a period of over 90 years) that the sitting government lost a vote in the House of Representatives. The vote was over Australia’s controversial immigration policy, and the bill – proposed by the opposition party and opposed by the government – would make it easier for sick refugees held offshore to enter the country for medical treatment.

For some time, Australia’s immigration policy has sent asylum seekers arriving by boat to detention centres on the nearby islands of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Over 1,000 asylum seekers live in squalid conditions in “Offshore Processing Centres”. Medical experts have warned of inadequate medical facilities and resources on the islands. The UN has described the camp conditions as "inhumane". This abhorrent policy has been condoned by both major parties historically, and is increasingly a point of contention amongst the Australian public.

Most recently, this year, the immigration policy made headlines when a Kurdish-Iranian asylum seeker being held on one of the islands wrote a novel via WhatsApp, sending the messages to a friend, and won the 2019 Victorian Prize for Literature; the country’s most prestigious literary award. The depressing irony of the situation did not go unnoticed by the Australian public. The push for this proposed law change came from Australian activists putting pressure on the government and the opposition (the Australian Labor Party) following harrowing reports last year of serious health concerns, including mental health problems, for the asylum seekers there.

Both main parties lose support

The current centre-right Coalition government has presided over Australia since 2013, when they won against the incumbent centre-left Australian Labor Party (ALP), who had their worst election results since the early 1990s. Much as is the case in many developed bourgeois democracies, both parties have spent significant time in government over the last 100 years, and have de facto constituted a two-party system.

The fact that the government lost this vote to the opposition is significant, not just for the immediate medical needs of refugees on the islands, but for Australian politics more broadly. The current government is due to call the next general election by May this year – and pressure is on for them to call it sooner rather than later. But the government is not keen to do so.

Since August 2018, Australian opinion polling data puts the ALP ahead of the centre-right Coalition, despite the fact that in the same period, when asked “Who do you think would make a better Prime Minister?”, the Coalition leader and current Prime Minister Scott Morrison beats the ALP’s Bill Shorten consistently. What this shows is that, despite the complete weakness of the ALP leadership, the centre-right Coalition has been haemorrhaging support recently. Australian polling agencies in February 2019 put the ALP set to win a general election with a swing of +2.5 percent of the vote.

ALP Image Flickr David JackmansonAustralian opinion polling data puts the ALP ahead of the centre-right Coalition, but neither party is especially popular, showing increased polarisation in society / Image: Flickr, David Jackmanson

However, what is most interesting is that neither party seems to be very popular at the moment. Voting is compulsory in Australia, so turnout at the polls is always close to 100 percent. But at the 2016 federal election, votes for minor parties hit their highest level since 1949. First-preference votes for minor parties leapt from 12 percent in 2004, to 26 percent in 2016. People are looking outside the normal political establishment more and more. What this will mean for this year’s elections remains to be seen.

This historic loss for the Australian government over immigration is an indication of the beginning of the end of the period of political stability that Australia has enjoyed for so long. Much like had been the case in much of Europe and America in the previous period, the two major parties have enjoyed a regular changing of the guard system, virtually agreeing on most major policy questions. While this is only one policy question, it represents the beginning of the decline of consensus politics in Australia. Divisions in the ruling class are a portent for periods of political energy and mass movements.

Australia entering stormy waters

While the 2008 crash hit America and Europe very hard, Australia avoided the worst impact of the world economic crisis. This was due to Australia’s close ties to China’s economy and the Keynesian policy – such as the handing out of $1000 to every Australian to spend – pursued at home. In fact, Australia has not seen a recession since 1991.

On a world scale though, the impact of the 2008 crash, and subsequent austerity policy, declining real wages, and housing crisis, have polarised politics. No longer do all politicians look like the same, bland, centrist cut-outs; now new characters from both the left and the right have entered the political stage in countries all over the world. The political instability in the world today is only a reflection of the economic crisis.

Now Australia, almost entirely dependant on China’s economy, is about to join the rest of the developed capitalist world in entering a state of political unrest. China’s economic forecasts are being watched very nervously from Australia. A collapse in the Chinese markets, and a subsequent period of generalised capitalist decline, will accelerate the process going on in Australia leading to political polarisation and an intensification of the class struggle. Last week, all imports of coal, which used for steel making in China, were stopped by the Chinese authorities leaving ships anchored out at sea waiting to go into port. Additionally, only 12 million tonnes of Australian coal will be allowed into China next year. As the Chinese economy weakens, it will try to unload the worst of its woes abroad, meaning countries such as Australia and New Zealand will have to carry the brunt of the downturn. The further decline in the Chinese economy will have severe devastating consequences on the Australian economy.

But this will also mean a sharpening of the class struggle as the capitalist class will attempt to pass these losses onto the working class. This in turn will pull the powerful Australian working class back onto the scene of struggle. As in other corners of the world, the crisis of capitalism will eventually create the system’s own gravediggers.

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