Parliamentary crisis reflects ruling class divisions over who can best serve their interests
Now that the dust has settled and the blades have been wiped clean, what can we make of the latest coup to unseat a sitting prime minister?
Whilst the entire focus of the mass media has been on the personalities involved – their egos, the personal motives of revenge, the infighting – what has been the class basis of the instability and division that we have just witnessed?
Comrade EF Hill, founding Chairperson of our Party, continually pointed out that the ruling class always discusses its tactics against the working class. Lenin pointed out that those tactics are not constant, but are subject to change:
“If the tactics of the bourgeoisie were always uniform, or at least of the same kind, the working class would rapidly learn to reply to them by tactics just as uniform or of the same kind. But, as a matter of fact, in every country the bourgeoisie inevitably devises two systems of rule, two methods of fighting for its interests and of maintaining its domination, and these methods at times succeed each other and at times are interwoven in various combinations. The first of these is the method of force, the method which rejects all concessions to the labour movement, the method of supporting all the old and obsolete institutions, the method of irreconcilably rejecting reforms. Such is the nature of the conservative policy …. The second is the method of “liberalism”, of steps towards the development of political rights, towards reforms, concessions, and so forth.
“The bourgeoisie passes from one method to the other not because of the malicious intent of individuals, and not accidentally, but owing to the fundamentally contradictory nature of its own position. Normal capitalist society cannot develop successfully without a firmly established representative system and without certain political rights for the population, which is bound to be distinguished by its relatively high “cultural” demands. These demands for a certain minimum of culture are created by the conditions of the capitalist mode of production itself, with its high technique, complexity, flexibility, mobility, rapid development of world competition, and so forth. In consequence, vacillations in the tactics of the bourgeoisie, transitions from the system of force to the system of apparent concessions have been characteristic of the history of all European countries during the last half-century, the various countries developing primarily the application of the one method or the other at definite periods.” (1)
According to the Marxist world view, instability in parliamentary political parties reflects contradictions inside the ruling class over when and how to subdue the workers through coercion and when and how to subdue them with concessions. Monopoly capitalists threatened by competition from other monopolising capitals and faced with diminishing returns on their investments tend to support more conservative and coercive measures; those who require continuity of government policy and social stability for a favourable investment climate tend to support concessions in relation to general rights and liberties.
How does this scenario play out in Australia? Lenin nailed it as early as 1913 when he observed that “the Australian Labour Party … is a liberal-bourgeois party, while the so-called Liberals in Australia are really Conservatives.” (2) From the very inception of federal parliament, the Australian ruling class thus had two political parties through which to exercise its options for greater or lesser coercion and greater or lesser concession. Instability in the conservative “Liberal” party reflected the conservatism that was its essential character, on the one hand, and on the other, the small-l “liberalism” through which it tried to broader its electoral appeal and keep the social peace and thus avoid rocking the boat of uninterrupted capitalist exploitation.
For its part, instability in the bourgeois-liberal “Labor” party “is born of the conflict between the bourgeoisie whom it really serves and the working class whom it pretends to serve” (EF Hill, The Labor Party? p. 7). (3)
While the logical extension of the “dry” or conservative position is outright fascism, the logical extension of the “wet” or small-l “liberal” position is capitalist social-democracy manifested in either a “left” Labor government (or, has been seen in some countries, a revisionist “Communist” or “Marxist” government). However, the “wet” or bourgeois-liberal position, as the middle ground between these two extremes, overlaps factions in both the Liberal and Labor parties in Australia, and is one reason for the frustration of many voters at the apparent absence of any real distinction between policy directions of the two main parties. This dissatisfaction is shared by both the right of the Liberal Party and the left of the Labor Party. The right in the former attacks and undermines its “wets” while the left in the latter rejects the neo-liberalism of its “dries”.
Behind the personalities that emerge in the course of these splits lie the different sections of the ruling class and the imperialist interests that they rely on and are dominated by. The sacking of Whitlam government followed its attempts to "buy back the farm" and its feeble strivings for independence - which had strong public sympathy but angered US imperialism.
Rudd had attempted to bring in a mining super profits tax as a revenue source for infrastructure spending that would have benefitted the general interests of the ruling class. But that section of it tied to mining flexed its muscles and brought forward a challenge by Gillard. In her acceptance speech following her successful challenge to Rudd, she said:
“There is another question on which I will seek consensus and that is the proposed Resources Super Profits Tax.
“Australians are entitled to a fairer share of our inheritance, the mineral wealth that lies in our grounds. They are entitled to that fairer share.
“But to reach a consensus, we need do more than consult. We need to negotiate.
“And we must end this uncertainty which is not good for this nation.
“That is why today I am throwing open the Government’s door to the mining industry and I ask that in return, the mining industry throws open its mind.” (4)
“Open the door to the mining companies” she did - immediately dropping the 40% resource super profits tax, amongst others, and becoming the darling of the mining monopolies and banks.
In Turnbull’s case, he was able initially to depose Abbott as Prime Minister because Abbott had lost the confidence of the Business Council and other peak bodies of monopoly capital in his ability to successfully carry through a program of attack against the working people. Turnbull paraded his smarmy affability and his leather jacket on Q&A and held out the promise that a “wet” could deflect the people’s growing anger and regain lost electoral advantage through “progressive” social policy. It seemed at the time a small price to pay for social stability and “investor confidence “. However, sections of the ruling class, and particularly those associated with fossil fuels and banking were not reconciled to the change: the coal and other extractive industries regrouped, while the banks were dismayed and angered when the Royal Commission slipped out of their control and began exposing too much of their theft and corruption.
Sections of monopoly capital within the ruling class began openly manipulating the far right amongst the conservatives to get rid of Turnbull and his soft liberals who could no longer be relied on for their complete loyally to protect the interests of that section of the ruling class (eg NEG, climate change, banking Royal Commission and company taxes). (5) Murdoch's News Ltd and resources monopolies had been undermining Turnbull for a long time and had a big hand in orchestrating the semi coup in which Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton have been their loyal puppets.
Observing this instability, this “revolving door” of prime ministers, has heightened people’s cynicism about parliamentary politicians. Talk back radio during the most recent crisis has been full of anger and disgust with self-serving politicians. But there is still some way to go before anger at politicians reaches a higher level of understanding, namely that parliament is a complete dead end for workers, that the parliamentary system and the politicians will never represent their interests, and that the working class needs to build its own institutions of democracy in an independent and socialist Australia.
(3) E.F. Hill, “The Labor Party? Dr Evatt – The Petrov Affair – The Whitlam Government”, Melbourne, October 1974
(5) See our earlier article http://www.cpaml.org/articles3.php?id=668