Keeping a lid on it: maintaining political stability under austerity conditions in Australia


As described in the previous post, Australian’s business press has recently featured several prominent communiqués from the economist and Labor government advisor Ross Garnaut, declaring that the coming decade must bring a decline in popular living standards.

Lower wages and salaries and ‘public fiscal restraint’, insists Garnaut, will be maintained over a ‘long period’.

Local ruling layers  for whom the economist’s media bulletins serve as a spine stiffener  should therefore ‘brace’ for ‘difficult times.’

Luckily for its purposes, Australia’s governing elite has had five years, since mid-2007, to prepare for ‘fiscal consolidation’.

Meanwhile it has had the luxury of observing, elsewhere, the public response to the austerity programs that have lowered popular living standards across the north-Atlantic countries.

Australian state leaders have had plenty of time, therefore, to plan and enact measures to increase the resilience of existing institutions.

They have known for some time, and Garnaut merely reminds them, that in coming years the entire social order will be placed under strain. Political stability will be threatened amid growing inequality and mass despondency induced by the denial of life chances.

In May 2010, the historian Simon Schama warned in the Financial Times that ‘in Europe and America there is a distinct possibility of a long hot summer of social umbrage. Historians will tell you there is often a time-lag between the onset of economic disaster and the accumulation of social fury.’ A ‘dangerously alienated public’ was being forced to ‘take stock of the brutal interruption of their rising expectations’. A ‘raw sense of victimisation’ hung in the air like sulphur: ‘we face a tinderbox moment’, Schama told the readers of the FT.

Citing 1789 as an example of where events could lead, he advised ‘our own plutocrats’ to ‘channel mass unhappiness’ into safe directions, before ‘fearful disorientation’ turned into the ‘organised mobilisation of outrage’.

I’ll come eventually to some of the safe channels, useful diversions and political blind-alleys into which the Australian state leadership and propertied classes will seek to shepherd people over the coming years, in order to ‘contain calamity’.

But, firstly, strategic planning has also proceeded along other fronts.

Over the past three decades, Australia’s domestic state has been reconfigured into a tool that can more readily impose unpopular measures (as unelected ‘technocratic’ administrations have recently done, on behalf of creditors, in Italy and Greece).

While many other federal and state government organs have atrophied, Treasury and Finance departments, along with the central bank and associated agencies (APRA, ASIC and the Productivity Commission), have been enlarged and empowered. Initiation and veto powers over government policy rests entirely with these finance-linked bodies, plus with the departments overseen by the prime minister and attorney general.

More generally the executive branch of the state (especially senior Cabinet and the administrative apex of the public bureaucracy) has been strengthened. Old restrictions on its power, held by the other (legislative and judicial) governmental arms, have been removed.

In particular, the counter-terrorism measures of the past decade have allowed a hypertrophic growth in the personnel, resources and repressive powers available to the security, intelligence and police agencies. (Or, as the government’s 2011 review of the Australian intelligence community put it, an ‘important adjustment’ has been made to the ‘balance we have struck as a nation between individual rights and the security of our community.’)

Legal instruments like ‘control orders’ and ‘preventive detention’ have been created, while other entities have been given the power to compel evidence from witnesses.

On several matters of great importance, a few cabinet ministers and high-level civil servants, located mostly in the four or five federal departments and agencies listed above, have acquired freedom from substantive or procedural restrictions on their exercise of authority.

A very small number of individuals has been granted personal control, free of former limits or serious oversight, over matters like the domestic call-out of the armed forces, the detention of individuals and the proscription of entire organizations.

Last year Australian Federal Police Commissioner Tony Negus confided to ABC radio that AFP officers were liaising with London police, to examine the latter’s response to urban riots that had taken place there.

The AFP was preparing for the possibility of local outbreaks:

There are a range of different communities who are feeling um, somewhat left out  and this is a very broad question for government in many ways, and the social issues attached to this, education issues and welfare and a range of other things…

I wouldn’t want to profile particular groups but there are young people in this country who are feeling disassociated with what’s happening in a broader sense. And I think that we saw some of that with the Cronulla riots many years ago where people have come together, and we’ve seen just recently in London with the riots over there.

I think we’ve all got to be very careful and examine very carefully as a society what that means for Australia, and what we can do to prevent such actions happening here. ..

I’ve spoken to the Prime Minister personally about this. It’s something she has a great interest in and we’ll be doing our best to contribute to that whole of Government response to make sure that we’re appropriately ready here in Australia to prevent these things

The hysterically intolerant reaction from ruling circles to an innocuous recent political demonstration in Sydney gives a clue as to how any serious expression of dissent or unrest, should it arise in future, will be met. (Ardent support for repression is guaranteed from liberal quarters. ABC television presenter Leigh Sales preposterously introduced a recent report on the Sydney demonstration: ‘Everybody’s still talking about the violent and unpredictable Muslim uprising that took place in Sydney on the weekend. Police are starting to piece together who was responsible and they’ve found some alarming links to Islamic extremism’).

In September 2011, ASIO Director-General David Irvine told the Safeguarding Australia conference how ‘change in some of the most important drivers of our security posture is going to require us to recalibrate and reprioritize’:

We can all see change and fluidity in world events that matter to our security swirling around us… changes in the fortunes of war in Afghanistan and ongoing unrest in Iraq… groundswells of change in the ‘Arab Spring’… widespread unrest in Syria, Yemen and some Gulf states… the ousting of regimes in Tunisia Libya, Egypt, bringing with it all the uncertainty of the ‘new’… Economic shocks closer to home … unprecedented riots and lawlessness in the UK.

So state power has become increasingly concentrated at its executive pinnacle. This new political setup also corresponds, independently of intention or design, to the existing narrow allocation of wealth and social power, which it exists to protect, and which nowadays accrues to a tiny financial aristocracy.

But too great a compression of political and social power may limit the stability of status-quo institutions.

If Australia is about to have, as Ross Garnaut warns, a decade like the 1930s (replete, so he says, with spending cuts like the Premiers’ Plan!), then preservation of the existing order will demand assistance from sources outside the propertied classes and the state leadership.

Creating what members of the policy elite call ‘consensus on the need for reform’ requires the active participation, connivance and unwitting support of various other social fractions.

Treasury Secretary Martin Parkinson has suggested that the policy elite must draw lessons from the 1980s, when ‘a general agreement had formed among academics, policymakers and commentators’ on ‘the need for reform.’ The ‘government of the day then identified, prioritised and built community support for particular initiatives’.

Similarly Garnaut, for his part, mentioned in his recent interview with the Financial Review how under the Hawke-Keating Labor governments a ‘long period’ of ‘public fiscal restraint and incomes [i.e. wage and salary] restraint’ was made ‘politically possible’. This political feasibility derived, he said, from the willing participation of various ‘sectional interests’ in a common project.

Who were these ‘sectional interests’ that provided ‘community support’, and what did the latter consist of?

During the 1980s Garnaut was a senior economic advisor to Hawke. What he and Parkinson now laud about this period, and present as an exemplary model for the present day, involved (as I’ve written several times recently) the fulsome participation of the trade-union leadership, including key Stalinists, in a deliberate elite project (the Prices and Incomes Accord) to reduce the wages, job security and working conditions of Australian employees.

Three decades later, union officials still play the same parasitic foreman or overseer role. They suppress the political activity of employees and help to control the production process on behalf of owners.

Yet their part has waned somewhat following changes during the intervening years: the recomposition of Australian industry and the workforce (especially the reduction in heavy industry and manufacturing, and the rise of casual and intermittent work), the changed place of ‘corporatist’ institutions in negotiations over wages and conditions, the enhanced level of direct monitoring and supervision of workers allowed by new technology, the steep reduction in trade-union membership, and the acquisition by top union officials of social privileges that make plain the incentives governing their backroom efforts ‘on behalf’ of employees.

This removal of the social-democratic safety valve has increased the importance, for the pursuit of elite aims, of various other political diversions, theoretical casuistries and intellectual blind channels. These are presented to the working population by avowedly critical, ‘progressive’, left-wing, ‘radical’ and even ‘socialist’ groups and perspectives.

Some of the latter will, over the coming years, amid an ‘accumulation of social fury’, help to harmlessly usher any popular ‘sense of grievance’ into Schama’s ‘safe channels’, preserving the existing distribution of property rights.

First of all is the familiar, time-honoured presentation of Labor (and its partners among the Australian Greens) as the ‘lesser evil’ to an Abbott-led Coalition. Once in power, it is said, the latter will inflict truly swingeing cuts, courtesy of a ‘budget razor gang’ (for whom state conservative governments have provided a ‘dress rehearsal’). To prevent this, the only prudent course of action available to a ‘progressive’ person is electoral support (holding one’s nose, if one must) for Labor or the Greens.

This cynical position is regularly coupled with the suggestion that austerity measures are imposed only because the ruling elite (or a portion of it) is in the grip of a misguided ideology. Rather than knowing their own interests and ruthlessly pursuing them, state managers and the propertied classes are said, on this argument, not to know what’s good for them. They are indulging, in fact, a bizarre ideological whim or fashion (‘neoliberalism’, etc.) from which they may conceivably be freed.

This conception is, in turn, related to an ‘activist’ brand of politics. An extra-parliamentary protest milieu has existed since the 1970s (when e.g. The Wilderness Society, Australian Conservation Foundation and Nuclear Disarmament Party were born). During this time it has served a useful purpose for the ruling elite, absorbing discontent and trafficking in various political illusions.

In these circles, the ALP and trade-union leaders are considered susceptible to being ‘pushed leftward’ by protest, suasion, cajoling, appeals to their reason or better nature, importuning, threats, urging, petitioning, etc. The ascent of a new ALP government or leader, the occurrence of an election, or the holding of a party or union conference, is inevitably presented by these groups as an ‘opportunity’ for activists to apply ‘pressure’ from below for better and more progressive policies.

Thus, even while the senior state officials of Australia (and the US, France, Italy, UK, Spain, Ireland, Greece, Portugal, etc.) insist in unison that existing living standards cannot be maintained, these activist groups imply that salvation may yet be won under the prevailing order. This licenses ‘left-wing’ political strategies based on that goal. Their upshot is to prevent any kind of ultimate break with the parliamentary system or independence from the political agents of capitalism.

These views thrive amongst well-meaning but politically confused and uneducated people, such as those students who make up the recruiting pool for various campus ‘radical activist’ groups.

But the persistence of these political illusions isn’t explained by the ignorance and gullibility of young people. There are social layers whose entire existence depends on such illusions enduring, and on the resulting perpetuation of existing institutions.

The role of full-time union officials, for example, has already been described. But we must look more widely.

Among these circles also dwell the practitioners of identity politics.

The most blatantly ambitious branch of this species is devoted to the particularist pursuit of careerist benefits for individuals on the basis of gender or ethnic identity. (The spoils may include a larger share of public-service jobs, parliamentary seats, procurement contracts, cheap loans, entry to university courses leading to professional accreditation as lawyers, doctors, etc.)

This lucrative arm of the business calls forth, and cross-subsidizes, its own pressure-group penumbra of lobbyists, journalists, ‘radical’ activists, etc.

The latter encourage or participate in protest politics, as described above. In this they insist on the political exclusivity of the oppressed group in question, which is held to possess its own specific goals  derived from the supposedly unique and shared interests of members  pursuit of which requires independence of ‘movement’ or organization. The fundamental interests of group members (e.g. women, young people, Dalits, ‘yellow people’ or Indigenous people) are held to conflict, in one way or another, with the interests of non-members of the category (e.g. men, old people, non-Indigenous people, etc.). The common interest of all group members, so it is said, is best served by supporting the advancement of suitable group representatives. Once in a position of authority or wealth, the latter will bestow favours that benefit the entire group.

In present Australian conditions, identity politics assumes an especially crucial role.

Of the meagre public goodwill that exists for Julia Gillard’s Labor minority government, a large share is accounted for by appeals to professional feminism. A recent opinion column published in Fairfax newspapers, written by a national coordinator of EMILY’s List, shows the depths of toadying, deceit and self-abasement to which members of this milieu must descend.

This type of article will be familiar to US readers of The Nation. The likes of Katrina vanden Heuvel and Katha Pollitt can always be relied upon to concoct a pressing need for women to support the current Democrat candidate.

Political leaders, in Australia and globally, are announcing themselves ever more brazenly as the servants of banks, creditors and the asset-owning classes. This service will now come, they declare, at the cost of the living standards of employees, their dependants and the broad population.

In pursuit of this project, the propertied classes form as ever a natural constituency. The massed machinery of state repression stands by, ready for use if a ‘dangerously alienated public’ threatens to turn the world upside down. For the moment, various symptoms of political ignorance and disorientation lead restless elements among the propertyless class into traps, diversions and crippling delusions. Meanwhile, in these circumstances, from outside elite layers, practical support for the prevailing order must increasingly depend on the adherence of political constituencies mobilized via flimsy ‘identity-based’ campaigns.


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8 Responses to “Keeping a lid on it: maintaining political stability under austerity conditions in Australia”

  1. Lucy Says:

    Daaamn. Now I’m scared and have no idea who to vote for!

  2. Nick Says:

    Thanks for commenting, Lucy!

    One of the points of this post was that voting for one party or another won’t make a difference to the outcome, in the following sense: whoever is in power will be obliged to cut spending drastically, and to seek ways to lower wages, etc.

    Nor is there any point seeking to persuade the political establishment to take a different course. Events in Europe, the US and elsewhere show that mass protests, strikes, etc. will not divert state leaders from their aim.

    We must start by acknowledging these – yes, scary! – facts, for only then can we develop an appropriate political response.

  3. Lucy Says:

    The scary part is though that if people like Garnaut knew shit was going down, why didn’t the government do anything about it other than preparing to immediately shut down any kind of civil unrest and keeping a tighter rein on suspicious individuals? (Assuming I understood your blog correctly) I understand what you’re saying re voting, especially since both parties seem so similar now anyway! I guess it just seems like there’s a positive and a negative way of viewing it: positively, whoever is elected has to sort this out; negatively, it doesn’t matter who you vote for!
    For someone who is employed in what many would consider a luxury profession (verses essential), the potential of another 1930s decade is terrifying!

  4. Nick Says:

    I have to run to work, but there are two reasons why the Australian government did not act otherwise to avert the current situation:

    1. This is a global crisis not a national-based one. The latest shortfall in Australian government revenue follows directly from overcapacity in Chinese steel production, causing firms there to suspend operations to preserve profit margins, leading to a decline in the world iron-ore price. In turn, Chinese problems follow from the protracted disaster enveloping that country’s biggest export markets, Europe and the US. The problem is international, while the capacities of national states are limited. It requires a solution on a global scale.

    2. A deep fiscal crisis is always useful for doing things that couldn’t be done in other circumstances: a pressing need to deal with a “budget black hole” allows a lot to be accomplished quickly. For example, business groups have been wanting various social programs (unemployment assistance, disability payments etc.) reduced or altered for many decades, and governments have been obliging. But a sudden and deep revenue shortfall allows cuts to be more savage and immediate. Thus, for the last few years, RBA and Treasury forward estimates of growth have been deliberately optimistic. Sad to say, policies applied to impoverished Aboriginal people are generally a good leading indicator of what governments and business want to impose on the rest of the working population in the future, but which is too obviously nasty to do all at once. That was the case with Howard/Keating’s “work for the dole” (first applied to Aboriginal unemployed people during the 1970s) and Gillard/Rixon’s “income guarantee/welfare quarantining”, first seen as part of the NT Emergency Intervention, now gradually being imposed across the country.

    What I’m trying to say is, there are longstanding aims held by the ruling elite – aims that in good times don’t get spoken about in mixed company. But a crisis provides an excellent opportunity to realize them.

    In the US, Social Security has been around since the 1930s, throughout which time (but especially the last 30 years) the Republicans have been trying to get rid of it. Only now, in the midst of the biggest recession since the 1930s, under a Democrat President, are they likely to achieve their aim.

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