More of the same from Iemma's ALP in New South Wales

Socialists must take a more active approach if it wants to push the NSW ALP out of its managerial rut, writes Marcus Strom

It's no wonder that the good burghers of New South Wales are underwhelmed by the impending state election. What is on offer is more of the same bland managerial capitalism from Morris Iemma's ALP. It seems to have seeped through to most of the populace that Peter Debnam's NSW Liberals have been over-run by an extremist rightwing agenda. Budgie smugglers or not, we ain't buying it. It seems that NSW is destined to have four more years of the Labor machine.

The background noise to the election campaign is a burgeoning crisis of federalism. Under prime minister John Howard, power has been incrementally centralised in the most bureaucratic and undemocratic of manners. While this may rub against the grain of conventional Liberalism's support for state rights in our federal monarchial system, it points to how far Howard has taken the Liberal Party.

Under our constitution the states have become little more than bloated service delivery vehicles. It seems a shame that the only candidate calling for the abolition of New South Wales is the Democrat's Arthur Chesterfield-Evans.

At various Labor stumps across the state, there isn't a lot of celebration of the legacy of the Carr-Iemma government. Of the few meetings I've attended most spruikers have said that a victory for Iemma means that at least the state's public servants won't be handed over to John Howard's WorkChoices. This is of course true. But if this is the best Labor can campaign for then it says a lot about the current NSW government.

So what for socialists in the ALP and the broader labour movement? How should we approach such an election?

Labor Tribune wrote to every ALP candidate asking four brief questions. This was more of an exemplary journalistic intervention than an activist intervention, but still it points to the general approach that activists should take in the labour movement. The focus of socialists should be on those candidates that at least promote general values in accordance with the ALP's pledge for the democratic socialisation of production, distribution and exchange. In any campaign, this should be concretised around specific issues. I may not have chosen the best issues to ask, but I do think this is the appropriate approach to campaigning.

I'd hoped to approach candidates much earlier than I did but felt this was not possible while the Labor Tribune site was down for technical reasons. Given that the questions were sent (by email) two weeks out from the election, I wasn't expecting too many responses. To date, eight of the 93 candidates have responded. Only two sitting members responded: Peter Black (Murray-Darling) and Linda Burney (Canterbury).

The four questions I asked were:

1. WorkChoices

As a candidate, do you pledge to stop WorkChoices in NSW and commit the NSW government to never use WorkChoices or Australian workplace agreements in its work contracts?

2. Rank and file preselection

Are you committed to Labor Party democracy and the right of members to select candidates?

3. Public-private partnerships

As a candidate, are you committed to stop the practice of public-private partnerships in the provision of frontline public services?

4. Campaign donations

As a candidate will you refuse to take donations from property developers and be completely transparent in the source of all your campaign funds?

These go to the heart of some big issues in NSW Labor. The first question is a bit of a Dorothy Dixer, but points in a good class direction. Question two raises the issue of Sussex Street intervention that led to the knocking off of Newcastle's Bryce Gaudry. Gaudry is standing as an independent and I've heard at some ALP branch meetings a hope that he will win against the bland ALP candidate, Jodi McKay. Understandable sentiments you'd think. Scores of ALP members in Newcastle have resigned to back Gaudry. Given that the Green Party is preferencing Gaudry, he's in with a good shot.

Question three concerns the erosion of public services and the ALP's promotion of the profit motive into service delivery. Road tolls, tunnels, desalinsation plants, botched hospital deals and the like spring to mind.

The final question fundamentally points to a class interest. Whether or not it is true, NSW Labor is burdened by an impression of impropriety regarding funding. It is high time that the ALP rank and file and decent candidates drew a line in the sand on this matter and commit the party to refusing grubby money.

Labor Tribune received responses from: Monica Hayes, candidate for Port Macquarie; Wilma Chinnock, candidate for Bega; Peter Lanyon, candidate for Lismore; Stuart Holmes, candidate for Oxley; Peter Black, candidate for Murray Darling; Linda Burney, candidate for Canterbury; Linda Scott, candidate for Sydney; and Michelle Miran, candidate for South Coast.

Linda Burney is in a safe Labor seat. Peter Black is a member of parliament in a marginal Labor seat. Michelle Miran is a candidate in a marginal Liberal seat. The remainder of respondents are in unwinnable regional seats for the ALP.

So how did they respond? On questions one and two all respondents agreed, which is not a huge surprise. However I was slightly disturbed to see the response to question two from Linda Burney and Michell Miran to contain the identical phrases "There are no plans to change the current rank and file preselection system. The current system continues to serve the Party well, and is a major strength of the NSW Branch." Quite an amazing coincidence that the candidates for South Coast and Canterbury should come up with absolutely identical phraseology. And quite amazing given the imbroglio in Newcastle.

Comrades Burney and Miran also - miraculously - came up with completely identical responses to questions three and four. To her credit Linda Burney added the following to question four: "I am careful as to where my donations come from. If I believe they compromise me, then I won’t accept. Of course, I am transparent about campaign funds." And she added her touch to question three: "I think that there is a place for public-private partnerships. Not appropriate in all cases. Great care should be taken in public-private partnerships but I don’t rule them out per se." However the rest of what were quite lengthy replies were identical to Miran's.

The other six responses seem not to have had the Sussex Street filter applied. Linda Scott, candidate for Sydney, replied an emphatic yes to all questions, with the addendum that "Our Sydney SEC passed a motion calling for no donations from developers and we will declare our donations in accordance with the law."

Peter Black, the independently minded member for Murray Darling said that for questions one to three "I will support Party policy". However he said he will not take any campaign money from property developers.

Stuart Holmes candidate for Oxley on the NSW North Coast understandably expressed a "personal problem with private enterprise being involved with public service delivery" given the Port Macquarie hospital brouhaha just south of his electorate. He agreed with all questions put to him. On campaign donations he said: "I would never take a donation from a developer - 'you may as well sell your soul to satan' - I belive the electoral process should be legislated to restrict the amount to be spent to make it fairer for all and truly democratic."

Peter Lanyon, candidate from Lismore, said yes to questions 1,2 and 4. He said he needed to know more about the issue of PPPs to respond.

Wilma Chinnock from Bega responded similarly with emphatic support for the sentiments in questions 1,2 and 4. However she said of question three: "I can see a place for the private sector building the infrastructure."

Monica Hayes, candidate for Port Macquarie, simply stated: "In response to your email.  My response to all the questions is YES." Good for you comrade Hayes.

Nothing terribly definitive can be drawn from this. However this is a generally good approach for Labor activists and socialists outside the ALP to take to ALP candidates. On this brief survey, activists inside and outside the ALPshould put effort into having ALP candidates elected who responded positively. The stock responses from the candidates from Canterbury and South Coast does display an alarming degree of control-freakery from the Sussex Street machine, however.

Many socialists will want to preference the Green Party before the ALP and I can see a logic to this argument. Yet the Green Party still lacks a coherent alternative platform for the labour movement. Worryingly for the Greens, they are not polling much higher than previous elections. Given the ALP is pursuing a daft policy on desalination and given the high level of public debate on global warming, you'd think the Greens would poll well.

Without a coherent class program, the Greens will be stranded in the well-to-do inner city electorates for its base. Unless it can fundamentally change, it seems to have hit its high water mark.

That said, the preference deal between the ALP and the Green Party is to be welcomed. A united front of socialist activists in the ALP and the Green Party is to be fought for and encouraged.

In Auburn, former Guantanamo Bay detainee Mamdouh Habib is standing as an independent. His campaign has attracted the attention of the New York Times more than it has the Sydney Morning Herald.

On to the triviatae. The Democratic Socialist Party's Socialist Alliance is standing two lower house candidates and a slate for the upper house. They will barely register on the electoral scale. It's big idea for the campaign is a three-month trial of free public transport.

While she is clearly antagonistic to the ALP, I have many sympathies for Elizabeth Farrelly's assessment of the forthcoming election. There is not a lot good to choose from.

Many working class people will want to use the NSW election to give Howard a kicking as well. We should be with them on this. While it is difficult to be excited about the return of an Iemma Labor government there is hope in continued co-operation between leftwing ALP and pro-working class Green activists as well as in the ongoing struggle of the ALP rank-and-file for consistent democratic and working class politics.

March 21, 2007

Marcus Strom is editor of Labor Tribune and secretary of Summer Hill ALP


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