Winds of change as Labor wins Australian election

Jude Newcombe reports cautious optimism on the left with Greens holding balance of power

On election day, a boat of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka was intercepted by Australian Border Force as it headed to Christmas Island. Breaking his rule of never divulging information about “on water matters”, the outgoing prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced the interception. It is widely believed that he also urged the commander of Border Force to confirm the matter. His Liberal Party promptly sent ‘robotext’ messages to voters urging them to vote Liberal. This was a cynical and desperate attempt by the former conservative government to retain power; after all, this was the playbook that John Howard dipped into to defeat Labor in 2001.

Stories of “boat people” on the approach to Australia’s shores ramp up xenophobia and racism and make the claim that Labor is ‘soft’ on boats. Anthony Albanese stated that Labor supported boat turn-backs (although this is contentious within ALP ranks) and would continue offshore processing. The new government has instigated an inquiry into what role the former prime minister’s office had in publicising the story.

Fortunately, this time the manipulation of events and the attendant media coverage was unsuccessful. On 21st May, the Australian Labor Party, led by Anthony Albanese, won power. Despite Labor having a wafer-thin majority, a wave of profound relief and cautious optimism has swept through the left. This is only the fourth time Labor has seized government from opposition, and has been achieved despite the pervasive anti-Labor stance of the Murdoch press.

However, it is anything but a straightforward result. The ALP gained only 31% of the primary vote (that is, people who marked ALP as number one on the ballot paper). In Australia’s preferential voting system, preferences from those parties with fewer primary votes flowed to Labor to deliver 77 seats in the lower house. In the Senate, Labor will not have the numbers to pass legislation and will need to negotiate each time with non-Labor senators. The Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate.

The Greens have also increased their numbers in the House of Representatives, from one to four. Their election strategy targeted inner-city electorates, mostly those held by progressive Labor MPs. In their campaign, the Greens attracted throngs of passionate volunteers, often much younger than the Labor Party faithful.

The election saw the emergence of a new force known as the ‘teal independents’. They stood in inner-city electorates held by ‘moderate’ Liberal members. Though not forming a party, they are united in fighting for more urgent action on climate and the establishment of an anti-corruption commission. They have successfully unseated a number of high profile Liberal MPs.

Together, the Greens and teal independents make up a large cross-bench in the House of Representatives.

Climate action is front of mind for many voters. In the last two summers, extreme weather devastated the eastern seaboard: in 2020-2021, wildfires burnt towns and massive areas of forest and killed wildlife. Repeated catastrophic floods were widespread this summer. For Labor, the challenge (as well as the massive budget deficit, gas prices etc.) is how to facilitate transition to renewables and green energy industry so that trade unionists in the mines are not left behind. Labor’s target of 80% renewables and 43% reduction in emissions by 2030 will be difficult enough, and more ambitious targets as demanded by the Greens and teals have the potential, as described by the convenor of the Labor Environment Action Network, to break the “fragile truce” in mining towns.

The Albanese Labor government has four indigenous members, greater ethnic diversity and more women in Parliament and in the cabinet than ever before. Preparation for a referendum on constitutional change to provide an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, as called for in the Uluru Statement, has begun. A government submission to the Fair Work Commission will support an increase in the minimum wage to keep pace with inflation. Negotiations are underway to finalise a bill for a Federal Integrity Commission to come before Parliament by next spring. And, if ALP policy is implemented, our humanitarian intake of refugees will be increased “over time” to 27,000 a year, and thousands of asylum seekers languishing on Temporary Protection Visas will have a pathway to citizenship. Welcome winds of change.

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