What Does the New Government Mean for Working-Class Australians?
On May 21st, Australians elected a new government. After a decade of conservative rule at the hands of a coalition involving the right-wing Liberal Party and the National Party, Australia now has a Labor government. The election result certainly sparked joy across the country for many people. It brought a new sense of hope, particularly in sectors like education and the arts that the coalition had either ignored or used to fuel culture wars. The new government also brought renewed hope for other underfunded services, such as aged care and health. The election also bodes well for the environment too, since concerns around climate change played a big part at the polling booths.
One source of hope is the diversity of the new ministry. The new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, speaks with pride about his working-class background. He grew up in public housing and was raised by his single mother (who received a disability pension). His ministry includes many others from working-class backgrounds and who attended public schools. Almost half are women, and while most are white, this ministry has more racial, ethnic and religious diversity than we’ve seen before. This increase in diversity represents a significant move towards a government that is actually reflective of the Australian population.
But the big question now is what difference this will make for working-class Australians? Despite some working-class beginnings, will Albanese’s government work for the most disadvantaged and marginalised Australians? Or is the party too entwined with neoliberalism for any significant improvements to happen?
It’s early days yet, and governments need time to settle into their roles and draft new policies, much less reverse bad ones left behind by the previous government. But Albanese already faces pressure because, despite winning government, his party actually lost some support as voters turned to the Greens and to progressive independent candidates who ran campaigns focused on climate change and working-class issues. The Australian preferential voting system meant that those votes flowed back to Labor and secured their win. But Labor also knows that they will need to heed the message from Greens and independent voters: take action on climate change and address the cost of living, housing affordability, insecure work, and low wages.
During the election campaign, Albanese promised to ask the Fair Work Commission (the industrial umpire) to raise the minimum wage. On the campaign trail, he said that his government would support a 5.1% increase to keep up with inflation, and he has kept this promise. He will also have to deal with the Fair Work Commission itself, though, which more often than not rules in favour of the bosses during industrial disputes and is one of the mechanisms that makes taking industrial action so difficult in Australia. Will Albanese change the rules and give power back to the unions? How would this sit with the industry leaders that he will likely want to keep on side?
What will the Labor government do about housing? Analysts describe a crisis of housing affordability in Australia, with young people in particular priced out of home ownership and struggling to find rental properties they can afford. Albanese grew up in public housing, so will his government commit to a sufficient increase in the stock of public housing? They have committed to building 30,000 new homes and create a fund dedicated to public housing. But 164,000 families are waiting for homes, and the situation is very grim in some areas, particularly for Indigenous people who are forced to wait for years for housing with no solution in sight. 30,000 new homes is a start, but it isn’t nearly enough to remedy the situation for the currently homeless.
If, as the pundits say, this was the ‘climate change’ election, then the new government must act quickly to reduce emissions and transition to renewable energy. But to keep working-class support, they also need to create a ‘just’ transition that provides jobs and opportunities for working-class people who rely on jobs in the fossil fuel industries. They also need to invest in infrastructure and services to help prevent floods and fires and to look after working-class people who bear the brunt when fire and floods destroy homes and livelihoods. Working-class people are also on the front lines fighting fires, rescuing people from floods, caring for the injured, and cleaning up once the immediate danger has receded.
There is much to be done to improve the lives of working-class Australians. Will the new government invest in education so that working-class children can attend schools with up-to-date equipment, or will parent bodies still have to raise money to buy soap for the school bathrooms? Will the government make sure that working-class kids have access to the higher education opportunities that Albanese benefited from? Will they address the continuing gaps in education and health outcomes for Indigenous people?
I am always cynical about the willingness of those in power to actually create real change. Let’s hope the working-class backgrounds of the Prime Minister and a number of his MPs at the very least gives them a deeper understanding of the needs of working-class people. Better yet, they should commit to actually addressing disadvantage in Australia.
Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney