A new political party is required for Australia to tame the power of global neoliberal forces.
Since the 1970s, Australian has been governed federally by one of two major political parties, the Australian Liberal Party (LP), and the Australian Labor Party (ALP).* During this time, under the exclusive command of both political institutions, there has been an enormous shift in Australia’s wealth and culture, and the influence of neoliberal ideas is evident in the broad policy agendas of both governments.
During the past fifty years, we’ve not only witnessed the exclusivity of federal leadership within the limits of the ALP and LP but with it, a sharp increase in the globalised deregulated force of capital that has supported the transformative shift in market power, which remains unchallenged today.
Financialisation empowered global market capital to cease being guided by governments and reengineered the power dynamic so they set the rules that democratic governments would follow. The power backflip was possible because of political decisions to finance state expenditure via debt instead of taxation. What might have presented as a political dream come true, a shortcut to perceived prosperity, effectively secured puppet strings to states through debt, enabling the capitalists to pull these newly created policy strings at will, by adjusting interest levels associated with the debt.
This economic and political phenomenon wasn’t unique to Australia; many democratic governments around the world embraced the age of neoliberalism as it emerged in the 1970s. Subsequently, those same countries are struggling with growing disparities in wealth and a steady decline in confidence and trust in democracy.
Despite its many attempts, the ALP cannot differentiate itself from the LP in any meaningful way. Both parties have succumbed and benefited from the allure of global capital, and neither managed to restrain or regulate the influence vested interests have in Australian policy outcomes. The ALP have been guilty of perpetuating the myth behind their struggle to ‘balance the budget’ just as has LP have done, both pursuing the ‘state poverty’ illusion to justify the ongoing push for the privatisation of state assets.
However, in reality, Australia isn’t poor: it is rich beyond the imagining of anyone living in the seventies or eighties, but so much of that new wealth has been vacuumed up by a few, and so little paid in tax, that the public has been convinced that our country is struggling to pay its bills.
Despite this truth, neither ALP nor the LP highlighted this fact, and both parties have proceeded over the transfer of state assets to the private sector through multiple privatisation waves. The ALP under Hawke and Keating were initially behind the privatisation of the banking sector and the public float of the Commonwealth Bank, of which the LP government under John Howard completed in 1996. The LP under Howard also privatised Qantas, Telstra, and most (if not all) of Australia’s major airports.
Neoliberalism has not reduced the role of the state. It just bought it out and invested in the creation of new social and economic regulations that serve its purpose. It is this investment, that has reconfigured the state’s role, and it’s under no direct threat from either side of the political spectrum, a consequence, by design.
The Australian political system has been engineered, over time, to retain power within the limits of these two political institutions, both of which have been infiltrated by neoliberal forces, whether they wish to acknowledge that fact, or not.
The neoliberal political design is as simple as it is effective. One of the critical ingredients in the neoliberal political recipe is how extractive policies are framed to give the appearance of being in the national interest. The success of this framing is, in part, due to the concentration of Australia’s media industry, which has made it easier to control the public narrative. Australia has the highest concentration of media ownership in the world, and both major political parties continue to succumb to the influence global media powers exert, as many former Australian Prime Ministers have put on the public record.
Both major political parties have been unable to secure a free, open and diverse press for its citizens. Try as they might, each attempt at media ownership regulation has inevitably led to a higher concentration of ownership. So if we can accept the LP and ALP cannot address this issue, then is it plausible a new political party could succeed where the two majors have failed?
It might be possible, but it won’t be easy. Suppose a new political party were to emerge, one with the explicit plan to confront and tame the forces of neoliberalism. In that case, it’s most significant and immediate challenge would be cutting through the stranglehold on Australia’s mass media. It will be incredibly difficult for any emerging party to raise their profile, communicate policy positions or assert themselves with any authority as a potential contender within the constraints of the current Australian media landscape.
Media influence, while important, pales in significance to the influence neoliberal capital has on the political outcomes in Australia. As both major parties need to raise considerable money for relatively short election cycles, the funds raised come favours owned and traded. Both major political parties have blood on their hands in this regard. Both benefit from the maintenance of the status quo because historical deals and relationships built between both major political parties and private capital actors have locked each party into a glasshouse, of which neither have capacity nor incentivisation to smash nor destroy.
A new party with a clean slate and the ability to point fingers without an arm full of dried blood is necessary if Australia ever hopes to introduce meaningful political donation reforms and confront the lack of regulation concerning political lobbying.
A new political party would need to boost their profile, brand and reputation using smart, progressive policies designed to re-establish the boundaries against neoliberal ideology and influence is desperately needed. This new party won’t be able to raise and spend capital like the existing parties without succumbing to the very forces which limit the majors today. If a new political party is going to tame neoliberal forces successfully, it must transcend the limits of existing political discourse and transform the standards of civic engagement. It must present policies and plans to address the concentration of media ownership, the influence of global capital. Still, most importantly, it must successfully counter the prevailing neoliberal economic ideologies and combat fifty years of neoliberal propaganda through the demonstration of a feasible, acceptable alternative to the political and economic status quo.
* Since 1971, the Liberal Party of Australia (LP) has accounted for fifty-six percent of time in power; and the Australian Labor Party (ALP) have accounted for fifty-six percent of time in power.