Australian socialists: `Vote Socialist & Greens, put Abbott's conservatives last'
Sam Watson, Socialist Alliance Senate candidate for Queensland. Longstanding leader of the Aboriginal community of Brisbane, campaigner against Black deaths in custody and for Indigenous rights.
On July 24, 2010, Australia's leading socialist newspaper Green Left Weekly spoke to Peter Boyle, national convener of the Socialist Alliance, about the political climate of the 2010 federal election, to be held on August 21.
* * *
Many progressive people are feeling depressed about the federal election. How do you see it?
The Australian Labor Party and the conservative Liberal Party-National Party Coalition are in a “race to the bottom”, as Socialist Alliance lead Queensland Senate candidate and Murri [Indigenous] community leader Sam Watson aptly put it.
Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard's leadership coup against Kevin Rudd has accelerated this ugly race. But it is also a race that Labor cannot win. Every step to the right by the Gillard government is matched by a further step to the right by the Tony Abbott-led Coalition opposition.
On top of this, the major parties are increasingly adopting identical positions on other issues. And the convergence is even greater if you look at their real policies and not just the manipulative spin they are using to win the elections.
Fundamentally, both the ALP and the Coalition are committed to the corporate neoliberal agenda and they have found ways to signal this to the big end of town.
On climate change, although Labor says it may introduce an emissions trading scheme sometime after 2012, both parties basically stand for doing nothing. Under either the ALP or the Coalition, it is business as usual for the coal, oil and gas corporations.
Abbott says the anti-worker Work Choices legislation is “dead, buried and cremated” and promises it won't be resurrected for 100 years. I don't think anyone believes him.
But a large part of the former prime minister John Howard's Coalition government's Work Choices is alive and kicking under the Labor government. For example, Ark Tribe, an Adelaide building worker, faces a possible jail sentence for refusing to be interrogated by the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) industrial police.
Thousands of workers have marched in solidarity with Tribe. But unfortunately most trade union leaderships are muffling any public criticism of the Labor government.
There are some exceptions — notably the Victorian Electrical Trade Union (ETU) leadership, which has just ended its affiliation to the ALP after 86% of its members voted for making the break. This might seem like a small motion against the mainly rightward flow of politics, but it is a very important one.
It is a ground-breaking step to liberate the still powerful trade union movement in this country from the ALP, which has consistently served the interests of big business when in government.
The Victorian ETU members’ vote is not unique. We've seen the mood of workers at many mass rallies, especially over the past few months, at the rallies in solidarity with Ark Tribe. We've seen them cheer union leaders who announce support for the Greens.
These rallies were attended mainly by the militant construction and manufacturing workers. I have no doubt that if the ranks of other unions were given the choice to vote on breaking free from the ALP, they would vote the same way as the Victorian ETU members.
Would more trade union disaffiliations from the ALP help Tony Abbott's Coalition?
No. In fact by freeing themselves from the dead hand of the dominant ALP right wing (which now runs the government), the union movement can win its political independence and the means to rebuild and strengthen itself.
Unions can express themselves in the elections by supporting the Socialist Alliance, the Greens and other progressive candidates. Or they can field their own candidates on progressive platforms. This way they won't be silenced by the conservative ALP of Gillard.
Our slogan “Vote Socialist and Greens — Put Abbott last” sums up the best fighting stance for the labour movement and progressives. The alternative stance, still backed by most trade union leaderships, is “Vote Labor because we cannot let Abbott win”.
[Under Australia's preferential voting system, House of Representative (lower house) voters vote for the local candidates in the order of their preference. Should their first preference candidate be eliminated withouit reaching a majority, the vote is transfered to next preferred candidate still in the running, and so on until a single candidate scores 50% plus 1 vote. A similar voting system operates in the Senate (upper house), although is a multi-member proportional system with each state as the constituency.]
But a consequence of this stance is that Abbott wins anyway — either by having his policies implemented by a conservative ALP government, or — worse — by large numbers of workers voting for the Coalition because their leaders are not prepared to lead an independent fightback.
A strong and politically independent working-class movement is essential to stop the swing to the right. It is also the only way the climate change movement can go forward.
Recent events have shown the reality of class in our society. We saw big business smash an attempt to even begin to address the climate change emergency. We saw the big mining companies smash any attempt to make them pay a bigger share of their monster profits in taxes.
But we've also seen the potential of the working class. Abbott's nervous and desperate attempts to assure voters that Work Choices was “dead, buried and cremated” for “100 years” — small print conditions applying, of course — revealed the Coalition's real fear of the mass mobilisations against Work Choices that ultimately brought down the hated Howard Coalition government.
Abbott is fumbling on industrial relations because he is terrified of the working class being remobilised.
This should be a lesson for the climate change movement as well. No amount of persuading well-meaning professionals and less-shortsighted corporate CEOs is ever going to break the determination of Big Coal and Big Oil to make the most profits they can and to ruthlessly use class power to get their way. The movement needs to turn to the working class.
If the climate change movement is to go forward there needs to be a huge change of mindset and tactics in its activists and in the leadership of the progressive trade unions in this country.
This is very clear to us in the Socialist Alliance and it shapes our election campaign. It is also why we are organising the Climate Change Social Change in Melbourne this November. Our objective in that conference is to try to bring the progressive leaders from these movements together to address this critical challenge to the survival of humanity and the other species that live on this planet.
Do you support the Greens' push to win the balance of power in the Senate?
I hope the Socialist Alliance, the Greens and other progressive candidates get the biggest vote possible and that the Greens win as many Senate seats as possible and hopefully their first House of Representatives seats. Socialist Alliance members are campaigning not only for our own candidates but also for the Greens and other progressive candidates.
The Greens have made big electoral gains. The polls suggest they now have between 13% and 16% of the vote. This has forced the ALP to deal with the Greens on preferences. If ALP preferences don't give us another Stephen Fielding [a far-right religious candidate elected to the Senate with ALP preferences at the previous election] in this election that would be progress!
Such a progressive vote will be more than sending a protest to the Coalition and the ALP. If the Greens have greater numbers in the Senate, they may be able to slow down some of the bad laws the next government, ALP or Coalition, will introduce.
But any real step forward for the progressive side of politics has to be made beyond such gains in parliament. We have to build an ongoing people's power movement in the streets, in the trade unions and in the communities, not just cast a vote once in three years and leave it to the professional politicians.
Building such a movement requires the Greens, the socialists, the progressive trade unionists and community activists to commit to building greater political unity on many levels.
The Socialist Alliance was born out of the difficult — and still unfinished — struggle to unite the left in this country. We know how hard building unity is, but we are committed to it. Furthermore, we are committed to building more than left unity. The struggle for survival and justice requires us to build a broad left-green unity, one that will one day transcend the existing political organisations and alliances.
Soubhi Iskander, a refugee from Sudan, member of the Communist Party of Sudan, a former political prisoner and torture victim, is running for the Socialist Alliance in the Australian federal election 2010 for a NSW Senate seat.
Jess Moore is running in the Australian federal election 2010 for the lower house seat of Cunningham.
Rachel Evans is running in the Australian federal election 2010 for a NSW Senate seat.
Pip Hinman is running in the Australian federal election 2010 for the lower house seat of Grayndler.
Sue Bull, candidate for the seat of Corio, is as concerned about climate change as about workers' jobs. An industrial city like Geelong could easily develop a Green Jobs plan based on our needs not the markets. I believe that the community and the environment must come before corporate profits, big polluting industries and developers.
By Peter Boyle
Whichever of the major parties wins the August 21 elections, we know that the real job of fighting for progressive change will remain ahead of us.
It is not just because the ALP and the Liberal-National coalition parties have made this election campaign an ugly race to the right – which to the disgust of many they have – but also because real change has never come simply through a vote in the ballot box.
Even the elections that registered real victories, such as the defeat of the hated but seemingly entrenched Howard government in November 2007, have come on the backs of the sustained political action by millions of ordinary people focused primarily around the campaign against WorkChoices.
That powerful popular mobilisation should not be forgotten. Opposition leader Tony Abbott's strenuous efforts to assure workers that WorkChoices is “dead, buried and cremated” is a sharp reminder of the potential power of the working class in Australia today. But it also should not be forgotten because it will be necessary to mobilise that power again after the elections is over – no matter which major party wins government – and on issues beyond industrial laws as well.
Real change isn't just a political preference in our time. It is an urgent necessity. The clock is ticking on climate change and the gross inequalities and insane diversion of social resources imposed by three decades of bi-partisan implementation of the corporate-profits-first neo-liberal agenda, exposed so starkly by the still-unresolved Global Financial Crisis, are clearly unsustainable and unconscionable.
Real change can only come about through popular mobilisation through social movement that are independent of the political parties that serve as the trusted servants of the powerful elite.
As an organisation committed to real change, the Socialist Alliance does not stop or even slow down its campaigning after an election. Our members are back out in the streets campaigning when while the major parties' focus shifts to dividing the spoils of parliamentary office.
The sort of candidates we fielded in this election reflect this emphasis: Indigenous movement leaders Sam Watson and Sharon Firebrace; youth activists Jess Moore, Ewan Saunders, Zane Alcorn, Mel Barnes, Gemma Weedall and Ben Peterson; climate change and anti-war campaigners Pip Hinman, Duncan Roden, Ben Courtice, Trent Hawkins, Renfrey Clarke, Ruth Ratcliffe, Margarita Windisch and Alex Bainbridge; longtime trade union activists David Lowe, Ron Guy, Sue Bull, Sanna Andrews and Julie Gray; and in an election stained by the racist scapegoating of migrants, refugee and Sudanese community leader Soubhi Iskander and leading refugee rights and LGBTIQ rights campaigner Rachel Evans.
This is a team of political activists and community leaders not professional politicians. They are the sort of people who build the movements that make real change and not the people who seek to ride the back of movements to a comfy seat in Parliament.
However, the election outcome on August 21 will impact significantly on the progress of the non-parliamentary movements.
Most obviously, there will be an impact on the morale of these movements. Certainly, if the Coalition wins, a shock wave of demoralisation will sweep the trade union and other social movements. The conservative voices in the trade union movement that have urged rank-and-file unionists to go soft on the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments over issues such as the persecution of construction worker Ark Tribe under the anti-worker Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) laws, may become more insistent though there is now even less room for the ALP to shift to right.
But on the positive side, an increased momentum for a progressive break from the major parties, will also have its impact on the social movements. The Greens look set to win more positions in the Senate, and it is critical that those positions are used to strengthen and encourage the progressive social movements and foster their independence.
Right through the campaign against WorkChoices under the former Howard government, the still strong domination of the trade union movement by the ALP exerted a conservative drag on the forcefulness and independence of that struggle. But to the extent that this election consolidates the political break by a minority of militant trade unions from slavish support for the ALP, any replay of a mass political struggle after these elections will be stronger for it.
This dynamic connection between movement and party political struggle informs the Socialist Alliance's determination to play as active a role as possible in both these spheres of political action.
Furthermore our approach to party politics is a broad and anti-sectarian one. We stand for a unification of the broadest possible forces willing to fight for progressive change. We stand for putting what we agree on ahead of what we may disagree on in this process. And finally we conceive the sort of political formation that is objectively needed in our time as a strong, democratic, parliamentary and movement-based alliance between the left and the Greens. Such a formation remains an aspiration at this time. But it is objectively needed if real change in the interest of justice and ecological sustainability is going to be won.
[Peter Boyle is the National Convener of the Socialist Alliance.]