Let’s start this budget discussion with the spotlight on Andrew Wilkie MP and begin by acknowledging that we already owe Wilkie one helluva debt of gratitude which the current chaos and misery in Iraq reminds us of. In 2003, Captain Andrew Wilkie, then a secret policeman, blew the whistle on the lies about weapons of mass destruction being peddled by politicians and intelligence chiefs to justify the war on Iraq. We always need more of that courage and let’s note the date: 2003, before Julian Assange and Edward Snowden.
So when Wilkie, now an independent MP for the seat of Denison (basically the city of Hobart), advocated that the Greens and Labor vote to “block Supply” – that is, refuse to pass the budget bills, Appropriation Bills No.1 and No.2, in the Senate – we owed it to him to listen and consider.
His main point was the simple one: if Labor and the Greens really meant to “bust” or “block” the appalling budget of the Abbott government as they have been threatening, then it would have to start with refusing to accept the Supply bills in the Senate. The Senate – where Labor and the Greens have a majority until July 1 – has the power to send back to the House of Representatives the main Supply bill – Appropriation Bill No.1 with a request for changes to the budget.
As Wilkie pointed out, many of the nasties in the budget are in Appropriation Bills 1 & 2: huge cuts to CSIRO, ABC, SBS, Indigenous health and education, foreign aid, environment protections along with increases in funding for military spending and police presence in remote Indigenous communities. As well, the bills lay the basis for university funding changes – deregulation of fees and a real cut of 20% to federal funding of universities.
The issue remains relevant. Last week in Melbourne tens of thousands marched to ‘bust the budget’, while in Sydney, militants met in a standing-room-only meeting and supported the stronger ‘block the budget’ slogan despite attempts by union officialdom to hose down the union delegates and members. Left Flank writers may bemoan the absence of indignados in the streets and squares of our cities – me too – but there is widespread anger out there against this budget and this government. Opinion polls are running strong against the Abbott government – and the tide shows no signs of abating.
Not yet anyhow. But similar reactionary austerity budgets have provoked anger in other countries, only for the anger to dissipate or turn surly as right-wing governments hung tough and official political opposition proved ambivalent. Britain, post its first austerity budget and the trebling of university fees, is a good example of this.
Wilkie’s suggestion is in some ways a moot point as the parliamentary leaderships of both Labor and the Greens rushed to reject his proposal. I will come back to their weak arguments for doing this in a moment.
Labor feels no need to act for a variety of reasons, not least that it secretly agrees with some of the worst measures in the budget, and it is riding high in the polls. Labor and Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party have been the chief beneficiaries of the tide of anger at the budget.
The parliamentary Greens, becalmed in the polls, do have a strategy which partly chimes in with what Labor and Palmer are promising to do. The aim is to combine with them to reject in the Senate the Medicare co-payment and university deregulation. Under the constitution this would – if it occurred – provide a trigger for an early double dissolution election of both houses of parliament.
Trouble with that is that it’s up to the Prime Minister Tony Abbott to pull that trigger. He would be mad to do so in the near future with the Coalition languishing in the opinion polls. But he will have the option at a more opportune time. (Admittedly, it is possible if not probable, that Abbott – given his character – will suffer a rush of testosterone to the head and call an election despite the odds.)
In contrast to the double dissolution approach, bringing on a governmental crisis by refusing to pass Supply would mean the initiative is in the Opposition’s hands. However, that it is not going to happen and so keeping the extra-parliamentary campaign going is the one and only option we have.
1975: time to get over it
Two rhetorical arrows were used to shoot down the Wilkie proposal. First, “it’s what the extreme Tea Party does in the US” – refuse to pass budgets and bring government to a standstill. This ignores the fact that the Tea Party would support this neoliberal, small-government, pro-corporations budget – and the extensive electoral support the Tea party enjoys from a refusal to collaborate with budgets it deeply opposes.
The second arrow is more potent in Australia – blocking supply is what the Coalition did in 1975 which led on to the coup against the Whitlam Labor government, our last truly reformist government. The Left has been traumatised ever since.
Trouble is the analogy is nowhere near exact. In 1975 it was a Senate, corrupted by Senators hand-picked by Coalition state governments, which held up Supply. Into that situation stepped the Governor-General to use his reserve powers to dismiss the Labor government and appoint a caretaker Coalition government which took us to an immediate election which it won in a landslide. Those crucial factors – a corrupted Senate and a G-G willing to use the reserve power – are not present this time round.
In 1975 Whitlam was aiming to tough it out and call a Senate election to resolve the impasse. Undoubtedly Wilkie envisaged a similar scenario this time.
Even after federal Greens MPs made their decision – it was far from unanimous apparently – discussion has continued among party members. This was a sign that grassroots democracy is alive and well even if members were reluctant to repudiate their parliamentary representatives, especially a leader under pressure. Some were also concerned about delaying Supply and endangering the pay of public servants. Wilkie had an answer to this which can be seen here: http://www.andrewwilkie.org/content/index.php/awmp/home_news_extended/a_statement_about_the_budget_and_the_greens
The most pernicious and invalid argument inside the Greens against delaying Supply was that it would make the Greens look ‘too extreme’ or ‘too irresponsible’ and endanger our election prospects. Underlying such objections is the belief that we must move to the Right in order to garner more votes. It is an electoral strategy followed by some European Green parties with derisory results. In Tasmania such an approach has led to a halving of our vote.
As extra-parliamentary opposition to the budget shows no sign of ebbing, it is still worth recalling Shakespeare’s insight,
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures. (Julius Caesar, IV.ii.269–276)
That tide may yet surprise us – as Andrew Wilkie continues to do.
What’s in Appropriation Bill No 1 2014-15