Australia: National conference strengthens Socialist Alliance for challenges ahead

By Duroyan Fertl and Dick Nichols

December 13, 2008 -- Over the weekend of December 5-7, more than 150 people attended the sixth Socialist Alliance national conference, held in the Geelong Trades Hall, Victoria. The conference opened against the backdrop of the Alliance’s promising results in the November 29 Victorian local government elections, in which its candidates scored up to 18.9%.

The conference began with a special public seminar, "Financial meltdown: what working class response?", addressed by David Spratt, from Carbon Equity and co-author of Climate Code Red, economist and Victorian National Tertiary Education Union president Jamie Doughney, and Pip Hinman, from the Socialist Alliance.

For this forum Alliance delegates from around Australia were joined by Geelong locals, environmental and Aboriginal activists, and trade unionists.

Basing his commentary on former US Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan’s book The Age of Turbulence, Doughney charted the 2007-08 collapse of free market ideology and the new economic battleground on which the struggle for socialism will now take place.

Doughney told the conference that – despite the challenges the economic crisis poses to working people – he had “not felt so excited since he was a teenager” about the new openings for socialists in the struggle to transform society along equitable and sustainable lines.

David Spratt painted a condensed and powerful picture of the multiple environmental crisis, scoring the utter inadequacy of the measures being proposed against global warming by the federal Australian government, led by the Australian Labor Party's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and calling for the federal Future Fund to be used “to actually insure our future”.

Pip Hinman laid out her perception of how the triple crisis might be expressed socially and politically, and particularly how it would impact on imperialism’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — potentially sparking a revival of the anti-war movement.


The next session, on “Building the worker, community and environmentalist alliance against the crisis”, featured Dave Kerin from Union Solidarity, John Rice from the Adelaide Ecosocialist Network and Melanie Barnes from the socialist youth organisation Resistance, an affiliate of Socialist Alliance.

Their talks touched on different strategies needed to confront the crisis. Kerin stressed the importance of worker co-operatives as a way of both building up the social sector of the economy and of workers realising in practice that they are the bearers of the alternative to the waste, pollution and inequity of capitalist production.

John Rice focused on the need for ecosocialist networks as an “intersection set” where socialists, Greens, ALP members, politically unaffiliated people and people of different religious background could meet on neutral ground to discuss the vital issues of the day, and so develop their understanding of policy, strategic and tactical options.

Mel Barnes spelled out the main ingredients of the Tasmanian campaign against the Gunns pulp mill — community organisation, mobilisation and protest focused on uniting the very different constituencies opposed to the mill.

Discussion at the forum was oriented by a series of discussion points under the heading “What are the core elements of an anti-crisis program?”. These combined with the presentations to provoke a lively plenary discussion on what demands the socialist, left and progressive movements need to put forward in response to crisis. These demands should cover both the immediate, emergency defence of working people against corporate plans to make labour pay the cost of capital’s economic meltdown, as well demands aimed at transforming the system in the longer term.

After the discussion was lucidly summarised by Ballarat University’s Jeremy Smith, the forum agreed to ask the incoming national executive of the Socialist Alliance to draft a “dot point” action plan as the forum’s contribution to the development of an anti-crisis program, as well as further developing other proposals aimed at advancing anti-capitalist transformation.

Alliance building

The speakers who addressed the conference reflected the Socialist Alliance's successful work in building alliances with a broad range of socialist and progressive activists and organisations around Australia and abroad over the past few years.

Aboriginal Australia had a strong presence at the conference. David Tournier from the Wathaurong people of the Kulin nation gave a welcome to country, while the conference heard from Aboriginal activists Sam Watson and Pat Eatock in the session that adopted a new Socialist Alliance Charter on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Rights, and condemned the federal intervention into Northern Territory communities and the jailing of Lex Wotton for "rioting" during the 2004 Palm Island protest.

Sam Watson was also re-elected as the Alliance’s national Indigenous rights spokesperson, while donations were collected during the conference for the family of Lex Wotton.

Noel Washington – the senior vice-president of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) in Victoria, who has to date successfully defied the Australian Building Construction Commission (ABCC) industrial police agency – thanked the Socialist Alliance for its support in the campaign against the ABCC, and spelled out how the building industry unions saw it continuing in the new year.

Cam Walker (Friends of the Earth, Victoria) urged the Alliance to continue to play the leadership role in climate change policy that it had begun with the 2007 edition of its Climate Change Charter. He stressed that in a period of recession, when environmental issues can seemingly recede in political importance, it was all the more incumbent on the Alliance to speak the truth about the global warming challenge and maintain its active and committed role in the climate change movement.

Strengthened ties with migrant left

Dr Brian Senewiratne, long-term internationally known fighter for Tamil rights, gave a compelling account of the violent war being waged on Tamils in Sri Lanka, and criticised the use of "anti-terror" laws against the Tamil community in Australia.

Soubhi Iskander, a revolutionary Sudanese activist for over fifty years, also addressed the conference, stressing the need for socialist and working-class activists who have migrated to Australia to get involved in struggles for justice in this country.

Iskander, who stood on the Socialist Alliance ticket in the September NSW local government elections, also announced the formal affiliation of the Sudanese-Australian Human Rights Association to the Socialist Alliance.

Turan Ertekin from the Turkish Labour Party, and a candidate for the Alliance in the recent Victorian local government elections, also underlined the need for closer collaboration between the Alliance and migrant communities, stating that working with the Socialist Alliance was a valuable way for migrant communities to expand their political horizons and participation.

Both speakers referred to the experience of breaking with the Australian Labor Party as the self-proclaimed “natural” party of working-class migrant communities, and of their relief and pleasure at discovering a real working-class organisation in the Alliance.

Venezuelan Charge d'Affaires, Nelson Davila, who addressed a special conference session on “Latin America’s struggle for a new world”, outlined the latest victories and challenges of the Bolivarian Revolution while applauding the leading role played by the Alliance in building solidarity with Venezuela. The conference also heard from Oscar Fuentes from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front of El Salvador.

The conference received greetings from Grant Morgan of the New Zealand Residents Action Movement, who urged closer collaboration between the New Zealand and Australian socialist movements.

Written greetings were received from Chris Cain (Western Australian branch secretary of the MUA), the Socialist Party of Malaysia, the Saharawi Journalists' and Writers' Union and from the General Union of Saharawi Workers.

New wave of policy

The conference was a big step forward for the Socialist Alliance in developing and adopting its policy. Major steps taken were:

• The adoption of a new target for greenhouse gas concentrations of between 300 and 325 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide (in line with the indications of the latest climate science);

• A comprehensive Charter of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Rights;

• An energy policy framework that sets the organisation on the road to developing a practical and detailed policy for energy sustainability;

• Commitments to publish a booklet on socialism, a plain language question-and-answer guide to the federal Labor government’s Fair Work Bill and a new edition of the Worker and Union Rights Charter.

Other resolutions in the area of worker and union rights covered the campaign against the Australian Building and Construction Commission, ALP-inspired attacks on Electrical Trades Union Southern Branch secretary Dean Mighell, NSW electricity privatisation and the Pacific Islander “guest worker” scheme.

The area of international solidarity produced new policy on Bolivia and Palestine, as well as in opposition to the attacks on the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. A perspective of ongoing campaigning against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was also adopted.

The resolution on “Socialist Alliance Perspectives and Tasks in 2009” committed the organisation to continue to strengthen the campaigns in which it has featured, to build new branches (such as in Northern Queensland and Blacktown), and to continue to stand in elections while being open to joint tickets with other left activists.

A specific resolution on the Socialist Alliance attitude to workers' and trade union candidates in future elections said that the Alliance “would engage with any serious attempts to run progressive union-supported candidates”.


The conference elected the following national officeholders:

National co-conveners: Bea Bleile, Margarita Windisch, Dick Nichols

National trade union coordinator: Jim McIlroy

National environment coordinator: David White

National Arabic-speaking communities liaison coordinator: Soubhi Iskander

These national officeholders will serve on the incoming national executive with state and territory representatives, whose number was expanded by one each for New South Wales and Queensland because of Alliance growth in those states.

Also elected were two national spokespersons, Sam Watson for Indigenous rights and Pip Hinman for anti-war and civil liberties.

Finally, the conference wasn’t just endless work. Delegates and observers were also privileged to attend a “Great Socialist Middle Eastern Feast”, prepared by comrades active with the Afghan community in Rural Australians for Refugees. The delicious food combined perfectly with rousing and witty speeches from Margarita Windisch and well-known civil liberties defender Rob Stary, along with videos and a slide show capturing the highlights of the past two years of Alliance members’ activism.

All in all, a conference that strengthened Socialist Alliance and its activists for the serious challenges ahead.

[For more details of the outcomes of the conference, visit]