Labor left must develop a platform for change

The last-man-standing of Bush’s coalition of the willing was unceremoniously dumped in last weekend’s Australian election, writes Marcus Strom.

Former Labor leader and party apostate Mark Latham called it the Seinfeld election, an election about nothing. Incoming prime minister Kevin Rudd’s “me-too-ism” aside, there was enough difference between the Australian Labor Party and John Howard’s conservative coalition government for the Australian electorate and the working class in particular to comprehensively demolish the conservative’s hold on Australian politics.

Howard’s “battlers” – traditional working-class voters won to the Liberals in the outer metropolitan mortgage belts – rejected the Liberal-National coalition in a 6.3 per cent swing to Labor. In rural and regional areas, particularly north Queensland, the swing went as high as 15 per cent. Only in the mining boom state of Western Australia did the Liberals hold their own. The middle-class progressive Green Party vote was squeezed, although it will regain the balance of power in the Senate with South Australian anti-pokies campaigner, Nick Xenophon.

Former Labor prime minister Paul Keating, defeated by Howard in 1996, rejoiced, expressing his “relief that the toxicity of the Liberal social agenda ... was over” (The Sydney Morning Herald, November 26).

The landslide victory for the ALP in last Saturday’s federal election reopens many political questions that were stifled during the Howard era. Republicanism, indigenous rights, environmentalism, sexual equality. However, the November 24 poll was effectively a referendum on industrial relations with the electorate emphatically rejecting the anti-union laws of the coalition’s Orwellian Work Choices legislation, laws which sought to force workers onto individual contracts and sideline collective bargaining. The ALP has said it will rip up Work Choices, but plans to retain sections of the anti-union laws, including laws to restrict union right of entry to workplaces. It will be up to the labour movement to push home its advantage.

Much of the Liberal’s campaign concentrated on “union thugs’’. The conservatives used images of beer-bellied unionists and the threat of militancy in an attempt to scare the electorate. It backfired. In the face of a grassroots trade union campaign which mobilised union members in strategic marginal electorates, the conservatives were outflanked and trounced.

The defeat of Howard is a victory for the labour movement and the working class but there should be no illusions. The ALP in power under Kevin Rudd will be a party of managerial capitalism. (The Australian share market climbed 2 per cent in the first day of trading after the election.) However, the fact that the unions played such a big role in defeating Howard means that the working class movement should be able to prise open considerable political space, but only if it acts with vision and audacity.

While the unions in Australia are not as strong as they were, this victory puts considerable spring in the step of the labour movement. One of the architects of the Your Rights At Work campaign, Unions NSW secretary John Robertson, can take considerable pride in his role. He is calling for the immediate scrapping of Work Choices in contrast to the peak body ACTU’s more gradual approach.

However Robertson has also rushed to put out the shingle of social peace. Rather than engage in class struggle, “Robbo” wants to “share the peace, not win the war” (The Australian, November 24). Further outlining his agenda he argues there is a “fundamental difference to the way the Liberals and Labor manage industrial relations. For the Liberals it is a battle with an enemy. For Labor it is a process to be managed to develop results that are in everyone’s interests.” Class collaboration in a nutshell.

It is not just the unions that are suing for peace. The new president of the Business Council of Australia, Greg Gailey, said on Monday that “business has worked with unions for a very long time. They’re part and parcel of the community. I’m absolutely confident that we will continue to work effectively with unions” (AM, ABC radio, November 26). A far cry from the “we’ll all be ruined” blather from the bosses during the election campaign. The BCA and other employer groups spent millions in an attempt to win the Howard government’s re-election.

There will be fallout from this campaign as employers seek to deal with the Rudd government. The days are numbered for Peter Hendy, the ultra-rightwing chief executive of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Hendy worked for Peter Reith, the former workplace relations minister, who sent the dogs and military against the Maritime Union of Australia in his unsuccessful attempt to smash the waterfront union in 1998. Hendy helped formulate Work Choices. I understand that the incoming ALP government is happy to work with the ACCI, but that Hendy will not even get in the door, let alone to the table. The ACCI board will get rid of Hendy within weeks.

Despite these moves to industrial peace, Unions NSW has vowed to keep the Your Rights At Work campaign going in some form. During the election campaign it collected tens of thousand of signatures in a petition directed at Labor leader Kevin Rudd demanding he rip up all of the Work Choices legislation. Rank-and-file unionists will need to insist that the campaign continues.

Given the disarray of the Liberal Party, Robertson and other militant union leaders may well become something of an unofficial opposition to Rudd’s Blairite path. But such opposition must be principled, thought-through and determined. There is a danger that some unprincipled sections of the labour movement will attempt to push through its agenda under the guise of militancy.

Other issues that decided the election’s outcome were climate change, the war in Iraq, rising interest rates and housing affordability, and indigenous policy. The great unspoken election issue was federalism.

Iraq and the war on terror

On the international stage, most interest has been in the fall of Howard, a staunch ally of US president George Bush and a member of the “coalition of the willing”, which invaded Iraq in 2003. Bush ridiculously called Howard his “man of steel” in reference to his unwavering support for US foreign policy and the “war on terror”.

During the election campaign Howard’s approach seemed to be “Don’t mention the war”. Rudd’s approach - “I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it” – was not much better.

While it is a victory for the anti-war movement that an ALP government will withdraw combat troops from Iraq, Rudd remains committed to increasing military operations in Afghanistan and believes Australia has an important role in policing the ‘arc of instability’ throughout South-East Asia and the Pacific, from East Timor to Fiji. The leadership of the Labor Party remains committed to Australia’s role as US imperialism’s policeman in the region.

The environment

It is somewhat of a paradox that one of the main issues in this campaign was the environment but the Green Party’s vote remained largely stagnant. In the Green’s current form, the party may well have hit its high-tide mark. Climate change, the drought, river and water management, agricultural policy, farm management and a controversial pulp mill in Tasmania dominated the environmental agenda.

Many disillusioned Labor voters have moved to the Greens in previous elections. In this ballot, many would have moved back to Labor to kick out Howard.

Howard early attempted to split the ALP over nuclear power by being a last-minute convert to the reactor as our saviour for climate control. But this wedge backfired and the Liberals dropped the issue.

The environment could well have played out in rural and regional areas hit hard by drought and water restrictions. The ALP successfully painted Howard as a Johnny-come-lately on issues relating to the environment.

Of course, Labor’s commitment to signing the Kyoto protocols is mere window dressing. It signals to the rest of the world that the incoming Australian government wants a seat at the table to negotiate the next round of agreements relating to carbon emissions. The problem, however, is that such agreements are generally an extension of existing power relations on the world stage. Kyoto is about further extending the market into controlling our natural resources, not about seriously addressing the issues of climate change.

Secondary factors in rural areas were the sale of Telstra, the affect of free-trade agreements and the handling of the Australian Wheat Board scandal, where the AWB sent bribes to the Saddam Hussein regime under the UN sponsored oil-for-food program. The minor conservative partner in the coalition, the National Party, lost three seats and is now down to just 10 seats in the new parliament.

End of the Liberal Party?

Labor achieved a remarkable political quinella: the ousting of the government and the ignominious defeat of John Howard in his own seat Bennelong, which he has held for 33 years. Howard becomes just the second prime minister defeated in his own electorate, echoing the fall of Stanley Bruce in 1929. That election, too, kicked out a government attempting to radically overhaul Australia’s industrial relations system.

The resounding defeat of the Liberals has sent them into shock. Labor holds power in every state and territory, and now has taken national government. With some seats yet to finalise, it seems the ALP will hold a 24-seat majority in a 150-seat House of Representatives. The Liberals are riven with factionalism, with the far-right Uglies in New South Wales held largely responsible for stuffing up much of the campaign in Howard’s home state. The discovery that the Liberals were distributing an unauthorised anti-Muslim leaflet, purporting to show Labor’s support for a mosque in the Liberal held seat of Lindsay, was the final nail in the campaign’s coffin. The Liberal Party lost the seat with a 10 per cent swing to Labor. The Federal Police are investigating.

Once on top, Howard ruled his party with an iron fist. This partly explains why Treasurer and deputy leader Peter Costello couldn’t summon the ticker to knock him off. Now Howard retires, leaving his party an empty shell. But is the party over?

It is highly unlikely that the main party of the Australian ruling class will disappear. There may be some blood-letting and years in the wilderness, but with what seems a compliant Labor Party in government, the rich and powerful will take time to rebuild their main political weapon.

In a country like Australia the main ruling class party can only be in power by winning a large minority of the working class to its conservative agenda. (The Labor Party traditionally takes power only if it proves it can rule responsibly in the interests of capital.) Thus it has always been since the advent of universal suffrage. In Britain in the 19th century, the Tories won a large slice of the protestant workers to their side over Ireland and catholicism. At other times it has been over protectionism and free trade. During the Cold War it was anti-communism. At other times open racism or just plain old national jingoism. Recently it has been the “war on terror”.

In Australia, this is called the wedge. Howard’s Liberals have used migration, asylum seekers and refugees in some of the most nakedly chauvinist attempts to retain power. In 2001 they were remarkably successful.

The Liberal Party, however, was not dealt a death blow on November 24.

Kevin Rudd

The incoming prime minister ran an almost faultless mainstream political campaign. Some are comparing him to Britain’s Tony Blair. He may share some of Blair’s political agenda, but he is more alike to John Major in the charisma stakes.

Blair took power in Britain in 1997 and had unprecedented central power as a Labour leader. Rudd is attempting to echo much of this. Like Blair in his early days he is asking that he be considered the education prime minister. Rudd has set education reform as his first cabinet agenda item.

Rudd’s cabinet will be announced on Thursday. There has been much phooey written about this, with just about every political pundit in the press falling for the line that Rudd will name his own people and cabinet will not be determined by the factions. So it’s just a coincidence that Rudd is waiting until after the new ALP caucus meets that he names his cabinet?

Of course Rudd will have a lot of room to manoeuvre, but he cannot escape the tribal political world of the ALP with just one election victory. Factions will be a big influence on the cabinet and, as former PM Keating says, cabinets also have a tendency to pick themselves.

A big difference between Blair in 1997 and Rudd in 2007 is the trade union movement. The ACTU and the unions ran a parallel campaign to Labor. The union campaign started more than two years ago and has been unprecedented in Australian political history for its breadth and organisation. The largest workers’ rallies in Australian history have taken place in opposition to Howard’s industrial relations laws during this campaign. A slick marketing and advertising campaign has been married to concerted grassroots campaigning, with a data base of more than 180,000 supporters.

Despite the impulses to class peace from the union leaders, this is not a campaign that can be so easily turned off. They work quietly – at first – but the unions will expect their pound of flesh from the incoming government.

Rudd, a former diplomat, is a very conservative politician with no background in the trade unions. His initial policy statements are very Blairite, right down to the need to reintroduce compassion to society (but not to immigration policy). Like Blair’s alter-ego Rev ARP Blair, MA (Oxon) in the British satirical magazine Private Eye Kevin Rudd sings from a very similar hymn sheet.

The Labor left

The relative independence of the Labor left is a direct function of the relative political fortunes of the working class. To that extent, the ALP left has practically disappeared in the labour movement. Factions are now more about patronage than principle. It is hard to distinguish just what it is the Labor left stands for now.

However many in the Labor left continue to fight for socially progressive causes. But these are not galvanised into a political platform for Labor and the unions.

As the unions, progressive movements and the left enters into struggle with the Rudd government (as they inevitably will), the left will need to develop a coherent platform for social change if it is to be relevant to these movements.

This is the challenge before us, to do the heavy intellectual lifting and push for a democratic socialist agenda in the labour movement. A movement for a democratic republic and the abolition of state governments, for a treaty with indigenous Australia, for the withdrawal of Australian troops from foreign theatres and the abolition of all anti-trade union laws is the direction we should be heading.

November 27, 2007

Marcus Strom is editor of Labor Tribune

Postscript: the far left

The Democratic Socialist Party’s Socialist Alliance ran in 17 electorates and received an average 0.72 per cent of the vote. In the Senate, it ran in five states, winning 7392 votes overall, an average of 0.08 per cent of the vote. In all practical terms, this is a socially invisible result.

Politically the SA’s platform was in reality indistinguishable from the Green Party. It’s headline campaign issues were: tear up all of Work Choices; make poverty history; no nukes – phase out coal; Iraq and Afghanistan - troops home now; serious action on housing; land rights, not land grabs; end all discrimination; and scrap the anti-terror laws. Nothing different from the Greens there.

On posters during the campaign, the only distinguishable difference was that the Socialist Alliance called for free public transport, whereas the Greens called for “affordable” public transport. The Socialist Alliance also opposed the Australian military’s involvement in the Solomon Islands; the Greens are in favour of this. However, the Greens and SA are at one on the involvement of Australian troops in East Timor. Neither calls for withdrawal.

The Taafeite Socialist Party of Australia ran a single candidate in the seat of Melbourne where it has a sitting councillor. The result was derisory: 396 votes (0.61 per cent). The Healyite Socialist Equality Party also stood there, gaining 280 votes (0.43 per cent). The SEP stood in eight other seats gaining a similarly invisible vote.


Add a new comment

Only registered users can add comments.

Registering is quick and easy. You will need a valid e-mail account and you will make up a username and password

Click Register to register with us
or Login if you have aleady registered.