Australia’s long-serving Tory prime minister John Howard suffered a dramatic defeat in last weekend’s federal election. The opposition Labour party won with the biggest swing in any election since 1975.
The prime minister even lost his own seat, something which has only happened once before in Australian history, in 1929.
The scale of Howard's defeat is evidence of a deep-seated rejection of his agenda of neoliberalism and war.
Howard came to power in 1996 after 13 years in which a Labour government introduced neoliberal policies that reduced living standards. A section of Labour’s working class support base abandoned the party to vote for Howard.
Although Howard's Tory government continued those policies, he was able to beat Labour in three successive elections. The government has also benefited from an economic boom powered by mineral exports to the feed the Chinese economy.
But radical new industrial relations law, introduced in March 2006, led to the government’s defeat. The law gives employers more power to cut wages and worsen working conditions.
It is among the harshest anti-union laws in an advanced industrial economy.
This combined with anger at the government’s continual lies and abuse of power – in promising to keep interest rates low, its backing for the Iraq war and its detention and deportation of refugees.
The trade union campaign against the industrial relations laws was the key to Howard’s defeat. By contrast the Labour party sought to minimise the differences between itself and the Tories. This allowed the Greens to score an impressive vote as a left alternative to Labour.
The new Labour government has pledged to maintain most of Howard’s industrial relations laws and follow strict neoliberal guidelines to limit government spending on public health and education. While it says it will pull Australian troops out of Iraq, it wants to send more troops to Afghanistan and is strongly pro-US.
The challenge now is to united unions, Greens supporters and anti-war activists to campaign for a real alternative to this agenda of neoliberalism and war.