Letter from Australia

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Australian voters delivered a vote of no confidence in both major political parties at the recent election, resulting in a hung parliament, writes Judy McVey.

Photo: Mystifyme Concert Photography

Labor prime minister Julia Gillard has scraped back in by forming a minority government supported by the one Green Party MP and three independents. Despite the close call, with Tony Abbott's Tories almost taking power, larger numbers than ever signalled their desire for a left wing alternative.

Nearly 1.5 million people voted Green, giving them 11.8 percent of the vote, an increase of nearly 4 percent. "Together we have made history today," Adam Bandt declared, as he became the first Green to win a lower house seat in a general election, in the seat of Melbourne. They will have nine seats in the Senate (upper house) and the balance of power.

The Greens stood as a principled alternative. They called for an end to the demonisation of refugees, for ending the war in Afghanistan, for serious action on climate change, and for gay marriage. They also opposed the racist "Intervention" into Northern Territory Aboriginal communities and stood up for union rights.

Bandt ran a left wing activist campaign and won the backing of left trade unions whose members have had enough of Labor's betrayals. Labor did not address the high levels of poverty and homelessness.

The unions played a major role leading a mass campaign to oust John Howard in 2007, supporting Kevin Rudd's Labor government to change the hated WorkChoices industrial relations laws. Yet the anti-union Construction Commission remained in place, and one trade unionist is facing a jail sentence right now. Just three weeks before the election 1,500 workers in the Pilbara region (Western Australia) were warned they faced fines of up to $28,000 (AUD) each if they were found guilty of taking illegal strike action.

Labor declared climate change the greatest moral challenge of our time - then dropped it this year - and a million people walked away from them in the space of two weeks. The vote underlined the political vacuum left after the last election. While there have been significant strikes, the level of struggle is low and the far left is smaller.

The Rudd government responded to the financial crisis more successfully than other governments, helping to prevent a recession, but this owed much to the minerals export boom fuelled by China's economic growth.

But China, the potential double-dip international recession and Australia's role in the world are the big questions which no politician addressed. While a majority in Australia want troops out of Afghanistan, and four soldiers were buried in the lead-up to the election, the major parties did not discuss it.

Rudd was replaced by Gillard eight weeks before the election and Labor shifted further right - capitulating to the mining bosses, delaying action on climate change and, most shamefully, competing with Tory leader Abbott about which party would more effectively stop asylum boats. As Labor extends the worst detention centres in Australia, sets one up in East Timor and incarcerates children, people are wondering: how is Labor policy different?

The Greens are an alliance of the left, the right and environmentalists. Bandt made it clear that he was against the prospect of an Abbott government and advocated voting 1 for the Greens and 2 for Labor in Australia's "preference" voting system. Unfortunately many other Greens' local campaigns treated Tories and Labor as the same.

Key figures in the party want to position it as a moderate centre party that is open to forming a coalition government with either Labor or the Tories.

Over the next three years Gillard's government will have to negotiate every piece of legislation with the independents - who have promised only to pass the budget and block no-confidence motions. Some have celebrated this as a break with "the two party system", but it is a recipe for a further rightward parliamentary shift. And there could be another election soon if Labor loses the independents' support. To stop Abbott next time, Labor must move to the left, but that will mean looking outside parliament.

The Greens' vote shows there is a substantial left base outside parliament to support the unions and build the existing campaigns to support refugees, Aboriginal rights and renewable energy. This is where hope for real change lies.

Judy McVey is a member of Solidarity.