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In the weekend’s council elections in Brisbane, the vote in my electoral ward was split almost equally between the LNP and the Greens. As counting continues, both parties are polling around 40% each, while the Labor vote has plummeted to 13%. This, in a comfortable middle class suburban ward only sparsely sprinkled with those the Murdoch media like to call the inner city elites.

Elsewhere throughout the city, the Greens vote has increased significantly; they are now claiming to have ‘broken up the two party system’.

Local issues drive this result, of course, and subsequent speculation is about what this means for the State election in October. Coupled with a massive swing against the Labor government (up to 18%!) in the two by-elections held on the same day, these results were bad news for a premier still tottering on his training wheels and reeling from a week of bumbling and stuff-ups.  

But the fact that the Green vote in the council elections came almost entirely at the expense of the Labor party may have serious implications for the federal government too.

Plenty of talk, but not much action

Reading between the lines, you wonder if those who sought change by voting for Albanese’s Labor have now seen enough. Maybe they are giving up on waiting for Albo.

Depending on where you sit, either the government is steady and disciplined, or their fear of the electoral consequences of decisive action (any decisive action) has them immobilized. The migration of Labor voters into the Greens camp last weekend suggests that the electorate is leaning towards the latter opinion.

Problems are at least being acknowledged — such as the entrenched inequities in education funding, the crisis in housing and rental affordability, or the need for major investments in aged care and childcare. Political performances of concern for those ‘doing it tough’ have become standard features of the daily media cycle.

But when bold and decisive action is required to address such problems, not that much happens. Even when there is popular support for change — and the obvious example here is the widespread support for increasing Jobseeker — the can gets kicked ever further down the road.

The obsession with the surplus

The current justification for deferring action is what has become a prized political asset, the budget surplus. This is not because dipping into deficit would actually be disastrous for the nation (everyone, really, knows that it wouldn’t). No, the reason why the surplus is so precious now is that it has become the key exhibit in Labor’s case for their responsible stewardship of the economy. So, to be clear, the obsession with the surplus is about politics, not economics.

Even if it were about economics, the orthodoxies that both sides of politics still doggedly rely on — the battered pillars of neoliberalism such as privatization, marketisation and slashing public spending — are now widely challenged. As it happens, one of the international leaders of the backlash against the myths propagated by neoliberalism, Italian economist Mariana Mazzucato, is in Australia at the moment telling all and sundry that some of our current economic strategies are just plain ‘stupid’.

She is particularly critical of government timidity about increasing the national debt. Going into deficit, she says, and she’s far from alone on this, is not of itself a risky strategy.

Rather, it depends on what that money is used for. If it is used merely to shore up political vulnerabilities for the short term (minimizing the tax take from the gas industry, say) then it is a poor use of public funds. If, however, it is used to build critical infrastructure or invest in nation-building developments in health or education, say, then it will pay both social and economic dividends well into the future.

The problem here, of course, is that ‘well into the future’ does not easily fit within the short term political cycle.

Somehow, we have implicitly bought into the idea that the primary, sometimes it seems like the only, purpose of our elected governments is to manage the national economy.

That’s a pretty narrow field of ambition. Recent years have taught us that you can have a prosperous economy but still be unable to adequately house, feed, educate and protect your citizens. The inconvenient truth is that even a prosperous economy actually requires significant state intervention to prevent it systemically producing rising levels of social disadvantage and economic inequality.

Many might now wonder if the continuing erosion of the dominance of the two major parties reflects the electorate’s gradual realization that it wants more from its government than just the responsible management of the economy.

The talisman of the surplus might be a big deal for the political class but it means very little to those who need adequate social welfare services, affordable and accessible healthcare, and a decent roof over their head.


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