A pleasant Sunday afternoon in the life of an “old crank”


Bob Gould

Alexandria Town Hall, Sunday September 22, 3pm. Warm spring Sunday afternoon during the AFL and Rugby League football semi-finals season. A meeting is held as part of the official policy review process for Julia Gillard, federal Labor Party shadow minister for immigration, to hear the views of Labor rank and file members in the electorate of Sydney on the asylum seekers questions (there are 14 ALP branches in the seat of Sydney).

Meeting starts a little late, at 3pm there aren’t many present but by 3.15 about 70 have trickled into the hall. They are a representative cross-section of Labor Party members in the local area. They include a couple of pensioners, a large number of public servants and health workers, some union officials, a few shop stewards, the mayor of South Sydney, the president of the NSW upper house of parliament, some students including a couple of minor student association functionaries, a couple of lawyers, and about half a dozen visitors from other areas, including the convenors of Labor for Refugees from the ACT and Queensland, who are in Sydney for the Social Forum.

The Queenslander is a young official of the Australian Services Union and the ACT bloke is a student leader. The seat of Sydney, like four or five others around Australia, has a high concentration of tertiary educated people who vote Labor or Green.

The member for Sydney is a youngish woman, tertiary educated, of migrant background, Tanya Plibersek. She chairs the meeting. She rules that people from the floor will be allowed to speak in groups of five or six, with Julia Gillard responding after each bracket of speakers. Members queue at the microphone.

From the first speaker the rank and filers blast Julia Gillard for the supine attitude of the Labor leadership during the last elections on the asylum seeker issue. One speaker points out the moral dimension of the betrayal. Another adds to this the anger and bitterness of ALP members at the attempt of Gillard and the ALP leaders to avoid discussion of this question at the coming ALP federal conference. Another speaker points out that a number of people have left the ALP because of bitterness over the issue, and so it goes on.

I’m number five. I start by taking up the moral nature of the question and how, even if it were to have bad electoral results we should take a stand anyway, but I go on to point out the facts of political life.

I make a joke about how close was the internal ALP preselection ballot in which Tanya was elected and I make the assertion, which those present know is true, that I supported Tanya in that ballot and probably influenced half a dozen people, which was the size of her margin. Everyone laughs, and Tanya makes a joke of it and says everyone says that.

I make the point strongly to the meeting that I don’t want to see Tanya defeated in the next federal elections but there are five seats in the country, which due to their demographic makeup with large numbers of Labor/Green voters may well fall to the Greens unless there’s a turnabout by Labor on major policy questions.

These seats are, in order of vulnerability, Lindsay Tanner’s seat in Melbourne, Cunningham in the northern suburbs of Wollongong, where there is currently a by-election, Sydney is the third, and there are the two ACT seats.

I say that in these seats a comparatively small further drop in the Labor vote and a comparatively small increase in the Green vote will lead to the election of the Greens over Labor in those seats. I get a very large clap from the crowd for this assertion of electoral realities.

I go on to say we’re all pretty hard-headed Laborites, we all worked on the booths for Tanya on election day and we all went through the experience of people we’ve known all our lives giving us a hard time for sticking to Labor in these conditions. The booth I work on, in the Newtown North subdivision, had the highest Green vote in the country, more than 40 per cent. Probably a large proportion of us here in this room, while we worked loyally for Labor, gave our vote to the Greens, I say. I get an enormous clap for these assertions and a lot of laughter.

I then have a go at Gillard for resisting the demand for discussion of the refugee policy at the coming federal rules conference. I point out that five state and territory ALP branches have demanded that the mandatory detention policy be got rid of and we have the right to demand that this be discussed quickly at a federal conference. The rank and file have rights too. I get an enormous round of applause for this, too, probably the biggest of the day.

I conclude my speech because I’m running a bit over time and Tanya’s nudging me, in the usual good-humoured way, with the following anecdote. I recall the well-known historical story of the ancient Roman politician Cato, who used to conclude every speech he made in the senate or anywhere else with the ringing call: “Carthage must be destroyed”, and I say we, the assembled rank and file should end every speech on any topic with the call: “Mandatory detention must be destroyed.” I get a ringing round of applause.

Julia Gillard, who is a confident person, a former lawyer, and cool customer, looks a little irritated at the emotional impact of the speech, or maybe at the speech itself, I can’t tell really. She tries to reply by saying in the outer suburbs which she represents in Melbourne, people are hostile to refugees. The meeting goes on for about two and a half hours and there are about 25 speakers, young and old, male and female. Amanda Tattersall, convenor of Labor for Refugees in NSW makes a rousing speech in which she emphasises the right of the rank and file to have the refugee matter discussed at the coming federal conference. She has been the main organiser of the agitation that has led the Queensland ALP executive and the executive in a couple of other states to demand that refugee question go on the agenda.

The Queensland and ACT Labor for Refugees blokes both speak strongly. Meredith Burgman, president of the NSW Upper House, makes a strong and intelligent case from the parliamentary point of view for taking a courageous leadership stand in favour of getting rid of mandatory detention. She makes the important point that Peter Andren, the independent federal member for Calare, came out strongly against mandatory detention in the last federal elections and suffered no obvious electoral penalty from the voters for his strong stand despite the conservative nature of his rural electorate.

In response, Gillard rounds on Burgman saying that before NSW gets so Bolshie about refugees we should put our own house in order about state government scapegoating of ethnic Arabs, a valid point, but a piece of demagogy on the refugee question.

Every one of the 25 speakers opposes mandatory detention and Gillard’s policy. About every second speaker after me at the end of their speech, grins, raises their fist and ends with “mandatory detention must be destroyed”, which becomes the mantra of the meeting.

The next day, Tanya Plibersek, who has been absorbing the mood of her Labor activists very carefully from the chair, makes a deliberate public statement completely opposing the Iraq war. To be fair to Tanya, this stand is not entirely new, but seeking publicity about it is new. And in my mind I can’t help associating Tanya’s sharper public stance with the mood of her local activists and the realities that were presented sharply to her at the meeting.

The moral of this story is that most of the people at that meeting — probably a large majority of them — regard themselves as socialists and left-wingers in the Labor Party. To preach to them in a pious way as the DSP does that they should forthwith tear up their ALP tickets and join the Socialist Alliance, is absurd. For people who have been involved in the Labor Party for much of their lives that’s their sphere of activity. How much better it would be if those people who think they’re superior Marxists were to adopted a united front strategy towards them, rather than lecturing them in a superior way.

And still it moves

Galileo Galilei, confronted by the pressure of the Inquisition to say that the earth was flat, still said doggedly at the end of the day, “and still it moves” (meaning the earth moves around the sun).

Much the same applies to rebellion inside mass labour parties based on unions, like those in Australia and Britain. Here in Australia, some sections of the Labor leadership are trying to soften us up for the imminent imperialist assault on Iraq, but a number of courageous parliamentarians, union leaders and others are standing up to that pressure and opposing the war.

On the mandatory detention question, John Robertson, secretary of the NSW Labor Council has indicated his intention of moving a suspension of standing orders at the federal conference to enable him to move the motion from the five states to remove mandatory detention from ALP policy.

In Britain, a substantial number of Labour Party affiliated unions have opposed the imminent war at the TUC Congress and will do so again at the Labour Party Conference. George Galloway and a number of other Labour MPs have circulated a very effective and comprehensive counter-dossier to Blair’s dossier, opposing the Iraq war.

To his credit, Norm Dixon of Green Left drew attention to this dossier a couple of days ago on the Marxism list. Maybe some glimmerings of common sense are beginning to dawn on the DSP in these matters. The general point I would make about all of this is the importance of a strategic united front towards these people on the left of the ALP-trade union continuum, who regard themselves as in some way as socialists or radicals, rather than giving them pompous and ineffective lectures on how they should immediately tear up their ALP tickets.




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