By Laksiri Fernando –
In a context that almost all the Western countries are drifting to the right, xenophobic nationalism and even to the brink of neo-fascism, the results at the Western Australian (WA) election are undoubtedly a ray of hope for those who aspire for a better world, a balanced international relations and justice to the poor and the working people.
In Australia, it is more than a ‘ray,’ and heralds a clear possibility of bringing a Labor Government at the federal level, at the next parliamentary elections, in two years’ time.
The people of WA have decisively defeated the conservative Liberal Party by bringing the Labor into power, in a landslide victory, and throwing the much-touted Paulin Hanson’s One Nation party into oblivion, at least at this election. Paulin Hansen is the personification of Marine Le Pen in France or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, not to speak of Donald Trump of USA; her politics still not to be underestimated.
The Labor in Australia is also not like the wishy-washy Labour in Britain. I am sorry to say that. They have stood firmly against the ‘One Nation’ ideology, for the rights of the working people, the middle-class families (women and children), the indigenous people and the migrants. They have persisted for multi-culturalism in a balanced manner, and for political pluralism. The party does not express any antagonism with Asia.
The Liberal defeat is also marked by its electoral alliance (preference deal), at this election, with Pauline Hansen. If it continues, so much the better for Labor. At the onset of the election, the polls predicted over 13 percent primary vote for One Nation. But it came down to 4.6 at the election.
At the elections held on Saturday the 11th March, the Labor have almost won 40 seats in the lower house of Parliament out of 59 (the proverbial two-thirds in Sri Lanka), leaving the remaining 19 seats to the Liberals. No other party, including the Greens, could win a single seat in the lower house. Their chances are in the Senate. It would take little more time to issue the results for the Senate. The Labour have obtained 42.6 percent of the total votes with a swing towards the party of +9.4 percent. The Liberals have obtained only 31.6 percent of total votes, with a massive swing against them of -15.5 percent.
WA is the largest state in the Australian federal setup, with an area of 2.5 million sq.km. This is only second to Sakha Republic in Russia, as a sub-division of a country. This is more than 2/3 of the size of India. The population however is small, with little over 2.6 million and only 1 person for a square kilometre as an average (population density). However, 92 percent of the population lives in the south-west corner, Perth as the state’s capital. It has a highest number of recent migrants (45 percent), however mostly from New Zealand, Europe or South Africa. The present indigenous population is no more than 3 percent which is almost similar to the national average.
WA has a bi-cameral system like in many other states (except Queensland and the two territories), with a Legislative Assembly (59) and a Legislative Council (36). WA had been a reluctant participant to the federation in 1901 which created the Commonwealth of Australia and secessionism had been a recurrent issue until the mid-20th century. In creating the federation, the WA had to handover certain power to the centre, keeping the rest with them. This is somewhat a reverse of a devolution process. This was also the grumble that they had to surrender some powers to the centre. In 1933, 68 percent of the voters opted for separation and to join the British empire directly again, but the move didn’t work out as the Empire was reluctant. Now secessionism has subsided, the WA is a happy partner of the Australian federal state.
Australia shows that emerging extreme nationalism can be defeated not through extreme neo-liberal policies, but by realistic, balanced, and prominence given to the working people. This is also the challenge in Sri Lanka. Extreme neo-liberalism often give way to extreme nationalism, as the American election has proven. To say in other words, Hilary Clinton failed where Bernie Sanders could have succeeded. In the case of Australia, the liberals even allied with extreme nationalists!
The unfortunate predicament in Sri Lanka is the absence of a proper ‘labour party’ in the country. In Australia, the Labor have not been in power always. They have their own mistakes, and it is also not good for democracy for one party to stay in power continuously. They also should learn their lessons. In the recent past, there had been vicious leadership coups and struggles in the Labor Party, now contracted also by the Liberals as a disease. These struggles are also long standing.
A friend of mine, Rodney Tiffen (Emeritus Professor), launched his new book “Disposable Leaders: Media and Leadership Coups from Menzies to Abbot” the other day, which throws much light on the history of these ‘leadership coups.’ I still have to read the book carefully. Unlike me, Tiffen is completely above politics. That is a luxury that many academics in Australia could afford, because the system and democracy have stabilized. But the academics from Sri Lanka hardly could afford this luxury, as they naturally tend to express opinions, beyond giving evidence and making analysis. I am of the Sri Lankan category.
In respect of the Labor Party, there is some stability now after some reforms in the party structure. Hopefully this would prevail. In the case of Sri Lanka, particularly on the ‘labour’ side, when there are differences, people split the party/parties and form their own. These are considered great achievements. These are worse than leadership coups/struggles that happen within parties. That is why we don’t have one labour or socialist/social democratic party.
Moreover, in the case of Australia, there is a broad political culture created based on Labor policies and values. This is my reading of the situation, if I am not mistaken. This broad political culture is not a narrow ideology. ‘Labor’ is a ‘social trade mark’ in that sense. But there is nothing like that in Sri Lanka, although ‘Sama Samaja’ (equal society) concepts could have created such an effective ‘social trade mark.’ If it were created, it could have been a solution or approach even to the ethnic conflict.
My last point is this. It is abundantly clear from the trends in the West (Europe and America) that extreme neo-liberal policies easily give way to extreme nationalist trends. This is also clear from Sri Lanka. The neo-liberal policies (including extreme structural changes), knowingly or unknowingly, breeds into and generates the opposite, the insular/extremist nationalist policies of the type of the Joint Opposition. They also could encourage extremism in the North, giving dead ropes. Therefore, there should be a cause correction for the Yahapalana government which partly follows neo-liberal policies. The unfortunate predicament is that the traditional left (the LSSP and the CP), is aligning with the JO because of their opposition to neo-liberalism. Simply talking about suppressing the JO is utter nonsense in this context.
As shown by the Labor Party in Australia and its victory in Western Australia, there is a way out. If a middle ground could be created based on the aspirations of the working people, and also addressing the needs of the middle layers, in the North and the South, both extremes of neo-liberalism and primitive/insular nationalism could be opposed and defeated. One is an internal struggle, the other is largely external. The policies should be based on social democracy, inter-community cooperation, developing primarily the national resources and capacities; and emphasizing the ‘unity in diversity’ and pluralism.