Queensland citizens have decisively rejected the privatisation agenda of the Liberal National Party led by Campbell Newman. Is it too much to hope that this result, combined with the ferocious opposition of public opinion and the Senate to the Abbott Federal government’s hard right neoliberal budget, finally signal to political and business elites that the Australian people reject the neoliberal agenda of privatisations, reduced environmental protection, ‘small government’, and attacks on the most vulnerable sectors of the community who cannot make their own way in the market jungle?
Neoliberalism has driven the policy programs of both Liberal and Labor parties in Australia since the Hawke-Keating era in the 1980s, although Labor has adopted a slightly more compassionate social policy to compensate for its market driven policies in other areas. As for the Liberals, they are a hard right party now and are clearly losing the middle ground of voters who are increasingly suspicious of the imposts of expanding marketisation of government services — which usually simply lead to higher costs for users, lower quality of service, greater inequality, nice profit streams to oftentimes overseas owners, and big fat fees for banks and consultants who oversee the transition to privatisation. In actuality, this neoliberalisation is simply a means of taxation by stealth – by outsourcing services to the private sector and charging back the new cost structures to the voter-consumer via the market. It should be added that part of this neoliberal agenda includes running a growing immigration program and liberalising the criteria for 457 visas — giving Australia one of the largest annual population growth rates (1.6 %) in the OECD — and used as a lever by business to exploit 457 visa holders and extract lower wages and conditions from working people.
Following the Queensland result, a number of commentators (eg Sheryle Bagwell) are now doing a nice line in hand-wringing that ‘reform is no longer possible’, ‘voters are too fickle’ and so on — this is becoming the conventional wisdom of many of the commentariat. There is lots of talk of ‘doing a better sales job’ — despite the fact that, as even Warren Truss alluded to an Radio National Breakfast (2 February), the LNP Strong Choices privatisation agenda was a lengthy, slickly designed, multi-stage public relations campaign that was resourced by at least $12 million in taxpayers money, with the objective of softening up public opinion and countering the usual objections to asset sales (eg the focus on long term leasing, and offering plenty of carrots in terms of new infrastructure spending). Business warriers such as Tony Shepherd and Kate Carnell (former and current heads of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), respectively) are bemoaning that the electorate cannot accept much needed economic reforms any more. Perhaps these pundits and lobbyists all need to step back and reflect on a couple of fairly obvious points:
(1) ‘Reform’ is not always necessarily and unambiguously a good thing. There can be good reforms and bad reforms. The neoliberal program has run its race, people are not going to cop it any more. It is time to move on from the knee-jerk neoliberal/business lobby response to any problem: privatise it, deregulate it or lower taxes and reduce government expenditure. This is not just about the sales job, or the quality of the salesperson (although it has to be said that Campbell Newman and Tony Abbott are both singularly unlovable salespeople). Tony Shepherd, Kate Carnell and a number of other commentators need to grasp the fact that the neoliberal program is of foul odour. It is not just style, it is substance; it is the message, not just the messenger. It is time to look at other options — of which there are a good many, but they may require the business elites to also do their fair share of heavy lifting.
(2) How quickly do some people forget that we just had a major ‘reform’, namely carbon pricing, which has been smashed to pieces by the excellent efforts of Tony Abbott with plenty of help from his mates in ACCI, the Business Council, the Minerals Council and the fossil fuel lobby. Abbot wrote the playbook on negative campaigning on the key issue of climate change, which more than any other deserves a bipartisan approach. But this is all glossed over by Carnell, Shepherd et al. Despite the daily mounting evidence that the planet is cooking (2014 the hottest year on record), and that according to CSIRO Australia in particular will suffer serious consequences, not a peep is heard from the business lobby. Their attention to the need for reform is very selective indeed (as, indeed, is their whole notion of what counts as ‘economic reform’).
The Liberals are a lost cause and will not change their ideological stripes; the question is whether Labor is now prepared to make a root and branch re-assessment of its embrace of neoliberalism to date. The message has been loud and clear in this Queensland election (and the previous 2012 Qld election): no asset sales! The Queensland result ensures that Labor can no longer equivocate on this particular mainstay of neoliberal dogma. Will it now go one step further to completely re-assess and distance itself from the whole neoliberal program which has been relentlessly promoted by think tanks and interest groups such as the Institute for Public Affairs, the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, with full support from the Murdoch media stable? Surely the time has come to reject it decisively.