Turmoil in the Labor Party over Iraq


The overwhelming majority of ALP members and affiliates oppose the war, while the parliamentary leadership vacillates

Bob Gould

Phil Ferguson (Oz students appeal for help), who has been silent about the very substantial opposition to the Iraq war in the Australian Labor Party and trade unions that has unfolded over the past month or two, sees fit to post a stupid little piece about Bob Gould being in the same political party as NSW Premier Bob Carr.

I plead guilty, as charged. I have committed political crimes in this arena even more extensive than Philip Ferguson could ever comprehend. I’ve actually held an ALP ticket continuously for 48 years. I joined the organisation in 1954 as a foot-soldier on the left side in the Labor Party’s civil war against the Cold Warring right-wing Groupers, who were an important force in the 1950s, and we on the left ultimately won that civil war, more or less.

As convenor of the Vietnam Action Committee/Campaign between 1965 and 1972 I was a loyal lieutenant of Labor leader Arthur Calwell in his determined policy of demanding withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam, and the fact that the Labor leader drew a grudging parliamentary Labor Party into that position was of very considerable aid to us, particularly in the early stages of building a mass movement against that war. (I was expelled from the official left grouping in the NSW ALP, the Steering Committee, for my “indiscipline” in getting 40 per cent of the delegates to reaffirm support for Calwell’s immediate withdrawal policy when the official left was supporting E.G. Whitlam’s more moderate policy.)

As a Socialist Left delegate from NSW at the 1971 ALP federal conference I almost succeeded in getting an amendment carried for the abolition of ASIO, the Australian political police. I’ve been a delegate and local leftist at many ALP conferences and public gatherings over that 48 years, etc, etc, etc.

More recently, in the past two years, I was one of the initiators of the Labor for Refugees organisation, which rallied the majority of delegates at five of the six ALP state conferences in support of refugees.

I might point out to Philip Ferguson that in the struggle against Bush’s imperialist war against the people of Iraq the overwhelming majority of ALP members and affiliates across the country in all states and territories have opposed the war, and that the participation of the Labor Party, by far the largest political force on the left of Australian society, has been the practical precondition for the enormous size of the mobilisations in Australia against the war.

On February 16, when about 1 million Australians marched against the war, a decisive component in the big cities and smaller centres were the, perhaps in Phil Ferguson’s view, rather pedestrian Social Democrats who make up the ALP and the trade union movement everywhere.

Without those forces involved it’s impossible to have a mass movement on the left in Australia. Every feature that has emerged in the mass movement in Australia against Bush’s war has contradicted the Phil Ferguson-Peter Boyle thesis that there’s no essential difference between the Labor and Liberal mass parties.

The presence of the Labor Party-trade union continuum in opposition to the war has in fact been the decisive factor in the breadth of the mobilisation.

In the Commonwealth parliament, the whole of the parliamentary Labor Party voted against the war, and not one Liberal or National parliamentarian did so.

The opinion polls, which often break down their results between Liberal and Labor voters, have consistently showed a vast difference in the attitude of Labor and Liberal voters to the war.

At moments when the war was distinctly unpopular, 80 per cent of Labor voters were against it, and only 52 per cent of Liberal voters opposed it.

When the shift in public opinion, which will be temporary, took place a week or so ago, with the onset of the patriotic euphoria that’s common at the start of a war, the 42 per cent still opposed to the war, according to the polls, included 56 per cent of Labor voters but only 20 per cent of Tory voters.

Premier Carr, despite his bellicose and unjustified attack on the student demonstrators, is only on record as opposing the Iraq war, and his deputy premier, Andrew Refshauge, spoke at the emergency mobilisation the day war was declared, saying he opposed the war regardless of whether the UN backed it.

It would be stupid and unnecessarily optimistic to blind oneself to the forces in the Labor movement that would like to retreat from forthright opposition to the war, but the presumption that they will automatically succeed, made by Ferguson and to some extent Peter Boyle, is unfounded.

As recently as yesterday (March 27) the Labor-Green-Democrat majority in the Australian Senate carried a motion, framed in a moderate way, for the withdrawal of Australian troops from the Iraq war, and the battle is proceeding on this question in the Australian labour movement at all levels, with the overwhelming majority of Labor Party members and trade union activists supporting withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq, and many of the Labor Party and trade union activists around the country are an important part of the forces demonstrating against the war.

In these circumstances it does not seem to me that a dopey debating point from Phil Ferguson is sufficient reason for me to desist from the habit of a lifetime of agitating in the broad labour movement, including the ALP, for a civilised leftist position against the current war.

On a historical note, I’d also observe to Phil Ferguson that opinion in the ALP (the courageous leader Arthur Calwell aside) was much more muted initially in opposition to the Vietnam War than antiwar opinion in the ALP and trade union movement is now, at the start of the Iraq war.

Over a couple of years of agitation, we hardened up opinion in the labour movement against the Vietnam intervention, and in my view it won’t be too difficult to do the same in the labour movement in Australia over to the Iraq war.

The Australian media in the past couple of days have reported on the contradictions opened up in all factions of the federal parliamentary ALP caucus by the Iraq war.
On Wednesday (March 26), The Australian reported:

“Deep divisions have emerged within Labor ranks over Simon Crean’s latest policy ‘wobble’ on the Iraq war after two shadow cabinet disputes.

“The Opposition Leader’s attempts to reform Labor’s stand on recalling Australian troops once the war had begun came under pressure from senior colleagues, including his deputy, Jenny Macklin, during a spirited shadow cabinet meeting on Monday.

“The meeting was the second example of an alliance between Ms Macklin and potential leadership candidates Craig Emerson and Mark Latham, from the Queensland and NSW Right factions, over Iraq, even before the latest Newspoll showed 50 per cent support for the war and record low ratings for Mr Crean personally.

“Last week, the group successfully pushed through a hardline shadow cabinet resolution, which said that ‘Australian military forces should be withdrawn immediately’.

“The ALP caucus later changed the resolution after the intervention of former leader Kim Beazley — as John Howard committed Australian troops — to opposing ‘the use of military forces and urges their withdrawal’.

“Fallout from the meetings last week, Monday’s shadow cabinet meeting and public criticism of Mr Crean’s weekend comments on recalling the troops spilled over to heated meetings of Labor MPs from both Right and Left factions.

“In the shadow cabinet meeting, Ms Macklin and other left-wing frontbenchers Lindsay Tanner and Julia Gillard — as well as Dr Emerson and Mr Latham, argued for a stronger ALP line on recalling Australian troops.

“In the extended discussion, Mr Crean was supported by foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd and defence spokesman Chris Evans. Labor’s position now is that the troops should be withdrawn as soon as is practicable, and safely.

“At factional meetings, Mr Latham and Dr Emerson were criticised by their right-wing colleagues for adopting too much of a ‘Left position’ on recalling the troops.

“Backbencher Harry Quick, of the Tasmanian seat of Franklin, who publicly criticised Mr Crean, escaped an ‘admonishment’ from his left-wing colleagues after discussion.”

And on Thursday (March 27), the same paper reported:

“Labor’s stance on supporting Australian troops in Iraq was further tested yesterday, after the Senate endorsed a motion demanding their ‘safe withdrawal’.

“The Senate vote came as Labor’s leadership team attempted to paper over divisions on the Opposition’s Iraqi stance following a robust discussion at a Labor frontbench meeting on Monday.

“The Australian reported yesterday Mr Crean’s latest position on the Iraqi situation — which he describes as “realistic” — had caused divisions involving his deputy, the Left’s Jenny Macklin, and several right-wing MPs.

“The divisions were eventually resolved, according to Labor MPs. But in federal parliament yesterday the Greens deliberately put forward a resolution to test the Opposition’s stance.

“The Greens originally wanted their motion to demand the ‘immediate’ withdrawal of troops, a stance supported by many in Labor’s caucus.

“But in talks with the Greens, Labor Senate leader John Faulkner negotiated a different form of words acceptable to the Opposition.

“The final motion called for the ‘safe withdrawal’ of troops. The motion also called for Australia to support the troops ‘during and after the current deployment’.

“On Sunday, Mr Crean announced Labor’s ‘realistic’ position, recognising the troops had to complete their mission while still calling for their return home ‘as soon as possible’.

” ‘The Labor Party’s position is that while we support the troops, and the fact that they are at risk, the best way that we can support them is to bring them out of harm’s way, to bring them back home, to take them out of this unjust and immoral war,’ prominent antiwar MP Carmen Lawrence told reporters yesterday.

“Greens senator Kerry Nettle admitted the motion was a test of Labor’s commitment. ‘That will test the Labor Party to see what their real position on this finally is, or what it is today,'” she said.



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