The Greens’ victory in Cunningham

by

Bob Gould

The likely victory of Greens candidate Michael Organ in the seat of Cunningham is a very significant development in Australian politics. Cunningham is one of five seats nationally where a high concentration of left-leaning tertiary educated people working in health, education, the arts, etc, give the Greens a fairly large core primary vote, particularly in conditions where the Labor leadership adopts a conservative stance on matters such as treatment of refugees.

The 25 per cent vote achieved by the Greens is probably a little less than the average Green vote that will be achieved in those five seats, because the left-leaning trade union independent, teachers’ union organiser Peter Wilson, got another 10 per cent that would largely have gone to the Greens if he had not stood.

In these five seats Labor is very vulnerable to Australian lower-house preferential voting system, because once the Greens get ahead of the Tories, the Tories’ lesser evil vote will elect the Green over Labor, which is what happened in this situation.

The Greens got most of the preferences from the independent carrying the Tory banner, David Moulds, who got about 9000 votes (13.6 per cent). This is a pattern that is likely to be repeated in seats with a similar social mix to Cunningham, where a high concentration of voters from what I call the “new social layers” in some circumstances gives the Greens a vote of 25 per cent and upwards.

In addition, this election victory will combine with the almost terminal internal problems of the Australian Democrats to allow the Greens to leap way ahead of the Democrats as the electoral home for radical, tertiary-educated people.

Green politics has thrown up a number of parliamentary personalities or aspirants who are extremely impressive in the broader electoral arena. These include Senator Bob Brown himself and state parliamentary representatives in Brown’s home state, Tasmania; Dee Margetts and the state parliamentary representatives in WA; Pamela Curr, leader of the campaign for clothing trade industry outworkers in Victoria, who is likely to stand against Labor leading light Lindsay Tanner in the seat of Melbourne; Kerry Nettle, the new Greens Senator from NSW; Ian Cohen and Lee Rhianon in the NSW upper house, and the redoubtable local councillor Sylvia Hale, who is number-two on the Greens ticket for the NSW upper house in the next NSW elections and will very probably be elected.

Having watched Michael Organ, the newly elected member for Cunningham, on television, he seems to be a serious-minded, presentable, no-nonsense man of the left.

I might note in this context that a couple of years ago when I became involved in a public debate about historical revisionism on massacres of Aborigines, I had cause to do a kind of overview on published literature on the question and to organise a kind of book list of material on the subject as part of the argument against claims that there had been few massacres.

One very useful piece of imaginative primary research that I discovered was a monograph by Michael Organ on massacres of Aborigines in southern NSW, published about 10 years ago by Wollongong University. A very useful publication indeed.

The point of this is that Michael Organ is no new-chum to humane and progressive interests and causes, and in an area with the social composition of Cunningham he may well entrench himself as a powerful electoral fixture who will be very difficult to shift, just as the National Party is finding the independent Peter Andren difficult to shift in rural NSW.

It’s an electoral truism in Australian politics that by-elections often produce freak results. For example, a by-election in Canberra a few years ago resulted in a Liberal victory in a normally safe Labor seat, and Phil Cleary won the safe, heavily blue-collar, Labor electorate of Wills when former prime minister Bob Hawke retired.

In both those instances the electorates returned to their normal Labor allegiance in the subsequent general elections. No doubt the ALP leadership is counting on such a development in Cunningham.

In my view, that may not happen in Cunningham because Michael Organ’s election coincides with the dramatic “leftist” gentrification of the northern suburbs of Wollongong. The Wollongong seat in the state parliament, based on the Wollongong CBD, was held by the conservative independent Frank Arkell for several terms in the last 20 years.

The short-term impact of the Greens victory is very cautionary medicine for Simon Crean, the Labor leader, who was unwise enough to unleash the right-wing populist Latham on the electorate with a bizarre border protection story in an electorate where the seascape looks outward to New Zealand, across the Tasman Sea.

It’s also a very salutary warning to Prime Minister John Howard concerning the desperate agitation of his government to turn popular anguish over the Bali bombing into a groundswell of support for an imperialist assault on Iraq. Even the reactionary tabloids, such as the Sydney Daily Telegraph, are hedging their bets on this because they’re obviously aware of a bit of a strong element of a fairly healthy Australian isolationism even in the conservative section of the population, regarding a military venture. There is a sentiment that a military adventure, in which no clear, direct Australian interests are involved, may increase the possibility that Australia and Australians will be targets for terrorism, rather than improving security for ordinary Australians.

Trade union and Labor Party opponents of the war now have a powerful electoral indicator as to the possible unpopularity of this war, which they should use to argue the case strongly against the war.

Nothing is likely to galvanise Labor politicians more against a military adventure than the possibility that it may be electorally unpopular. Given the basic contours of Australian society and trade union and electoral politics, this victory for the Greens in Cunningham, in my view, underlines the necessity for Marxists to adopt a united front strategy both towards the Greens and towards the Labor Party-trade union continuum. Both are big social and political realities in Australian society, which Marxists will continue to confront for a fairly long foreseeable period.

For instance, in the short term, in the context of the absolutely necessary agitation against Howard’s war drive, the obvious demand to be placed mainly on the Labor parliamentary caucus must be that Labor, the Greens, the Democrats and independents with a civilised hue should oppose the war in the lower house (where it will be interesting to watch what some backbench Liberals might do), and in the Senate where the war drive could possibly be defeated if the lessons of Cunningham can be sufficiently driven home to the majority of the Labor caucus.

If there was ever a time in Australian politics for an energetic prosecution by Marxists of a strategic united front towards both Labor and the Greens, it’s right now, in the wake of the Cunningham by-election.

Discussing this result, Garry MacLennan wrote on Marxmail:

BTW I hope someone passes this on to Bob Gould. Nothing refutes his pro-Labor position more than the political reality that a defeat for Labor is good, very good for the Left not to mention humanity. The sad thing is that in Cunningham Gould, one of the great figures of Australian Trotskyism, would, if politically consistent, have been giving out how to vote cards for Labor.

Bob gets the relevant posts from the list faxed to him a couple of times a day. The following letter, which I wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald last week, has a description of the Cunningham electorate and election campaign. The Bali bombing, shortly after the letter was sent, swamped all the Australian newspapers, including the letters columns, and the letter wasn’t printed. It answers one or two of Garry’s points and provides some interesting background.

A view from the left: why Labor may lose the Cunningham by-election

I’m an old Laborite. I’ve held a Labor Party ticket for nearly 50 years, and I always work on the booth for Labor on election days. I hope Labor wins in Cunningham for the traditional reasons. Nevertheless, all the polls suggest Labor may lose, and it’s worth asking why.

I’ve just finished a study of NSW electoral politics for the last 100 years, a review article about the book, The People’s Choice, and what emerges from NSW electoral history is a steady improvement of the underlying Labor preferred vote over the 20th century because of a large number of ongoing demographic changes that favour Labor.

The underlying, steady improvement of the Labor vote is demonstrated by the fact that Labor governs all states and territories in Australia. Nevertheless, my analysis also throws up a new phenomenon: some electorates where a heavy concentration of urban, left-leaning tertiary educated people, of the sort who work in education, the arts and the public service, where the vote fluctuates between Labor and the Greens, and the Green vote dramatically increases when Labor does uncivilised things like, in the last elections, not standing up to the Liberal government over its barbaric refugee policy.

The five electorates most at risk to the Greens are, in order of vulnerability, Melbourne, held by Lindsay Tanner; Sydney, held by my friend Tanya Plibersek; Cunningham and the two Canberra seats.

Cunningham is in this category because many tertiary-educated left-leaning people who work in Sydney, live in the northern suburbs of Wollongong, Wollongong University is located there, and most tertiary-educated people from the South Coast live there. In the recent mayoral elections in Wollongong, so disastrous for Labor, the booths in the electorate of Cunningham delivered a very high Green vote.

In my view, Bob Carr and the ALP head office showed a certain lack of judgement in unleashing the bovver boy from Camden, the right-wind populist of the NSW Right, Mark Latham, on Cunningham. The bizarre spectacle of Latham standing like King Canute on a headland near a Wollongong beach, gesticulating out to sea, babbling about “border protection”, must have bemused the left-leaning well-educated voters of Cunningham. Where does Latham think the threat to Wollongong beaches comes from? New Zealand, New Caledonia, Japan, Chile, the US? Particularly in the Wollongong context, “border protection” in a country with an enormous coastline is a crazy construction used to justify a backward, chauvinist and barbaric policy towards refugees.

The by-election is taking place in the context of the rapidly looming Bush-Blair-Howard military assault on Iraq, which is so clearly a crude, imperialist war for oil, with no possible advantage for ordinary Australians. The long-time Labor federal MP, Laurie Brereton, a genuine expert on foreign affairs, has come out unequivocally against this harsh and unconscionable threat of war. In doing so he shows better judgement than many others in the federal parliamentary Labor Party. Given that polls suggest a large majority of Australians oppose Bush’s war (with probably an even larger majority opposed in Cunningham), the ALP would have been smarter to unleash Laurie Brereton on the electorate rather than the irascible Latham.

The way the Cunningham campaign has been handled, I fear that, when the numbers go up on Saturday night, the preferences from the 11 other candidates will pile up behind the Greens’ Michael Organ, and he will win the seat. If that happens, I hope that the ALP leadership will learn the necessary lessons, and rapidly line up behind Brereton on the impending war, and also ditch the refugee policy and start to fight the Liberals on the question of refugees.

Discussion

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