A surreal discussion


The Australian elections, the US Militant and the Green Left Weekly and Marxmail email lists

Bob Gould

Peter Boyle, at his Sunday best, recently put on the Green Left Weekly discussion site and Marxmail a quite sane and sensible balance sheet on the ALP and Mark Latham’s policy on Iraq.

This was obviously written with an eye to an overseas audience, and particularly Fred Feldman, Louis Proyect, Richard Fidler and other contributors to Marxmail. The other six days of the week, from Monday to Saturday, the DSP leadership implacably belts out a quite different story about “rotten Laborites” and their inevitable betrayals, with a few sotto voce additions from time to time by Alan Bradley and Nick Fredman about the supposedly strong likelihood of Green betrayals.

The full flavour of the day-to-day tactical line of the DSP was expressed, also by Peter Boyle, in a Socialist Alliance media release about the Laborites and the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement:

Latham’s FTA sell-out confirms: unions shouldn’t give a cent to Labor

“There’s zero left for Australian workers and pensioners in the Australian Labor Party”, Tim Gooden, the Socialist Alliance candidate for Corio in the upcoming federal election declared today.Gooden, who is also the assistant secretary of the Geelong and Region Trades and Labor Council, was commenting on the federal Labor caucus’s decision to endorse the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States.“Now we know that Mark Latham’s show of concern over the FTA was all a cynical pretence, a joke to fool pensioners dependent on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and workers like those in the manufacturing industry around Geelong into thinking that Labor was taking their concerns seriously.”

Gooden explained that the Labor caucus majority never had any intention of opposing the deal. He referred to a “prominent business figure” quoted by journalist Jennifer Hewitt in today’s Australian Financial Review.

According to Hewitt ALP trade spokesperson Stephen Conroy had told this business identity “not to worry about all the public statements, that it was all under control and that Labor would pass it in the end”.

Hewitt likewise reported that “US officials were similarly privately assured by Labor figures it would all be OK in the end”.

Gooden called on the trade union movement, especially those unions like the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union, which had been in the forefront of the fight against the FTA, “not to give a cent to the ALP” for its forthcoming election campaign.

He said: “The only clear beneficiaries of this deal are Australia’s big corporations. As for the economy as a whole four out of the five studies made of the FTA have concluded that it will at best bring only very slight overall benefit — and that’s without measuring its social impact.”

Gooden called on the ALP parliamentary left and the ACTU “to finally put their loyalty to a very important cause above their loyalty to the ALP”. Gooden added that rank-and-file unionists were becoming increasingly fed up with the thin excuses offered by these people for abiding by caucus discipline and for supporting the ALP financially and politically.

“It’s all very well for the AMWU’s Doug Cameron to say that ‘there are some politicians in the Labor Party who because of their lack of courage, because of their lack of spine, because of their lack of commitment to the overall situation for working people, will not get our support’, but nothing will change until unions like the AMWU stop fee ding the hand that bites them — the ALP as a party.”

The Socialist Alliance candidate said that it was now clearer than ever that “Australian workers need a party of their own”, rather than the non-choice between the conservative and liberal variants of the one “pro-corporate political machine”.

“Socialist Alliance is at the centre of the fight for a new workers party in this country and we have just launched our Charter of Worker and Trade Union rights to push this movement forward. Labor’s betrayal over the FTA shows just how urgently working people need that party”, Gooden concluded.

A vintage statement

The above DSP/Socialist Alliance press release is a vintage short statement of the political stance adopted by the DSP leadership towards the mass labour movement in Australia: the ALP-trade union continuum

This statement is driven by much the same analysis as Ron Poulsen’s article in Militant (to which Fred Feldman drew attention), and frequent articles on the World Socialist Web Site: the proposition that the mass Labor Party, with its trade union base, is just another capitalist political party, and that the conflict between Labor and the conservatives in Australian politics means little.

The steadily declining number of militants of all three groups (of which the DSP is the largest) implacably adopt the spirit of this Socialist Alliance press release, and Ron Poulsen’s Militant article and the WSWS articles, in all their day-to-day agitation, which tends to cut them off substantially from the overwhelming majority of the left of Australian society, the half of society who proceed in their day-to-day political lives through the ALP-trade union continuum and the Greens.

This kind of inveterate moralising sectarianism permeates Green Left Weekly, Militant and the WSWS, not the ever-so-rational alternative version given us by Boyle in his Sunday-best post, cited above.

The ink was barely dry on the Socialist Alliance press release when events went quite haywire for the views expressed in that document. The rather ingenious populist-Bonapartist Labor leader, Mark Latham, threw a spanner into the DSP’s works, but infinitely more importantly, into the works of the conservative politicians and the Murdoch press, by introducing two major conditions on endorsement of the US-Australia Free Trade Agreement.

One caveat was that Australian content on television should be protected, and the second was that multinational pharmaceutical companies should be prevented from evergreening their patents with the aim of dismantling Australia’s relatively cheap medical drugs scheme, the PBA.

The Liberals and the Murdoch press went hysterical about this for a few days, but eventually the Liberals caved in and accepted the Labor amendments.

Howard, the conservative prime minister, and the US ambassador, Tom Sheaffer, are still issuing dark threats that the successful Labor amendments may throw the whole trade deal into jeopardy, as it still has to be signed into law in the US.

It’s also worth stressing that 40 per cent of the Labor caucus, the whole left and some of the right, voted against the trade deal in toto, which lays the basis for a certain revival of the left of the ALP.

The clear Labor victory over Howard in the manoeuvring about the free trade agreement, and increasing evidence from retired public servants about Howard’s lies in the last federal election campaign, about the “children overboard” incident, seem to have produced a swing to Labor in the opinion polls.

The quintessentially sectarian tone of the DSP/Socialist Alliance press release is worth some comment. On every point where there’s some shift in the ALP to the right, ALP supporters and voters — about five sixths of the left half of Australian society – are presented with a DSP ultimatum that this is the final moment for salvation and they have to leave and join the DSP/Socialist Alliance. The problem with mass politics is that it very rarely proceeds in this way.

About 40 per cent of Australian society, including probably 50,000 activists of one sort or another, would blithely ignore such ultimatums and proceed down the political channels with which they’re familiar, often critically.

Australians often forget, and overseas observers probably don’t know, that the formal side of Australian electoral politics has some aspects that are the most democratic in the world, that draw the masses into the electoral process at the rare moments of elections. This is despite the domination of the electoral process to a large extent by the immense power of the reactionary media and the ruling class.

Australia has several electoral institutions that are extremely advantageous from a socialist point of view: firstly, there is a constant campaign by the Australian Electoral Office to get people with two years’ permanent residency to take out citizenship. In practice, of the 20-million-plus permanent resident population, all but about 700,000 or so are citizens.

Secondly, when people turn 18, some attempt is made by the electoral office to get them to enrol. In practice, many only enrol when the election is announced. Because the younger cohorts tend to vote for Labor or the Greens, the conservatives tried to bring in an electoral rule closing the rolls the day the election is announced rather than leaving it another couple of weeks to enable the young to enrol. Usually 500,000 people enrol in the two weeks after the election is announced. This reactionary manoeuvre was quite rightly knocked on the head by the Labor-Green-Democrat majority in the Senate.

The upper houses in six states and territories are now elected by proportional representation, which in particular gives the Greens representation in the state upper houses and the Senate.

Another important aspect of the Australian electoral system is preferential voting, in which candidates with the lowest number of votes are progressively eliminated, with voters’ preferences being distributed until only two candidates are left. This makes it possible for voters to support minor candidates but still have a say in the choice between the two main parties.

By far the most democratic aspect of Australian elections, however, is the institution of compulsory voting. People are obliged by law to vote, and about 95 per cent do so in every election, so you don’t get the bias towards the white middle class that you get, for instance in US elections. Australian elections involve the overwhelming majority of the population, middle class and working class, and in an increasingly multicultural country the overwhelming majority of immigrants as well.

This set of circumstances puts the conservative forces at a disadvantage, and they loathe the relative democracy that exists in the Australian electoral system. For more on this see my longer piece, The People’s Choice: Electoral Politics in 20th Century NSW.

With the election of Mark Latham as the Labor Party’s leader, Australian electoral politics have taken a fairly sharp turn. Despite his origins in the Labor Party right, Latham has proved, from the point of view of the bourgeoisie and the Murdoch press, an unreliable and mercurial Labor leader, to use words constantly invoked by the conservative government and the Murdoch media.

At the ALP federal conference in January, Labor leader Latham acquiesced in the ALP adopting, for the next elections, pretty well the full set of demands of the trade union movement and the Labor left on industrial relations.

The Labor industrial relations program, if carried out, will encourage a revival of trade unionism, and the conservatives and the Murdoch press have been battering away on that theme all year, pontificating about the danger that a revival of trade unionism under a Labor government would represent.

At the federal ALP conference, the right-wing leadership held the line against the full program of Labor for Refugees, on the refugee question, but nevertheless Latham acquiesced in a softening of the previous stance, with an emphasis on improving the situation of children in detention.

On the Iraq war, Latham and even the more conservative figures in the Labor leadership, such as Kevin Rudd and Kim Beazley, have continued to stress Labor’s original opposition to the Iraq invasion, and one of Latham’s populist acts was to announce a withdrawal of Australian troops from any operational role in Iraq by Christmas, if elected to government, and he has stuck to that proposal, with minor modifications.

Even on the US-Australia free trade agreement, Latham gave himself a left face with the two amendments, and gained electorally by facing down Howard and forcing him to retreat.

Australia’s demographics are constantly changing. An intelligent comparison of swing seats, where the battle for government will be fought, with Australian Bureau of Census and Statistics figures since the last elections shows a constant increase in people born overseas, and throws up more and more intermarriage between different ethnic groups, which constantly dilutes the conservative Anglo factor in politics, and there’s a constant decline in Protestant religion.

Non-believers are now more than 25 per cent of the population, Catholics are about 30 per cent and Eastern Orthodox Christians, Hindus, Muslims and other non-Christian religions are about 15 per cent.

Notional Protestants have dropped to a little more than 30 per cent. The hard-core electoral base of the Tories is among notional Protestants and in the cohort of which I am part, the over-55s. New voters coming into the electoral process have a high proportion of Green and Labor voters, and very few tend to vote for the Tories.

All these demographic factors are constantly working against the conservative forces in Australian politics, which is why the Laborites and the Greens in combination now hold office in the six states and the two territories.

It requires considerable legerdemain by the Tories to counteract this underlying demographic disadvantage. To win these elections they desperately need another Tampa, but so far there’s nothing like that in sight.

These will also be the Greens’ elections. The Greens have positioned themselves well to the left of Labor, and the rough electoral polarisation will be: Labor 38-44 per cent and the Greens 8-11 per cent.

The reactionary Murdoch tabloid, The Telegraph, recently performed the exercise — on behalf of the Tories — of doing a tour and poll of the marginal electorate of Eden-Monaro, which contains residential overflow from Canberra, married to a conservative, far-flung rural area on the NSW south coast.

This is an electorate with the classic religious composition of modern Australia: a high proportion of non-believers and a large number of Catholics. The overflow population from Canberra, the national capital, has been steadily increasing since the last elections.

The Telegraph team’s polling mechanism had an inbuilt bias towards the conservative Coalition, and was in fact a kind of push polling on behalf of the Coalition, but even so the Telegraph had to report a dead heat. This has to be interpreted as intelligent private polling on behalf of the Coalition.

Similar factors apply in two of the marginal seats in NSW about which I know a bit: Parramatta, which has a high proportion of Catholics, including some Maronite Lebanese who swung to the Liberals in the last elections — the only non-Anglo ethnic group to do so. Parramatta also has a high proportion of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, all of whom vote solidly Labor.

The other NSW seat that’s increasingly tough territory for the conservative coalition is in northern NSW, on the Queensland border. This area has many people who’ve moved from Sydney and Brisbane for lifestyle reasons, and it has the most unusual religious makeup in the country. According to the census, the largest religious group is non-believers (30 per cent), the Catholics are about 27 per cent, non-Christians are a big proportion and notional Protestants are about 30 per cent.

It’s a rule of thumb in Australian electoral politics these days that the hard core of the Tory electoral support only exists in affluent city residential areas (such as Sydney’s North Shore), or country areas where notional Protestants are about 50 per cent of the population. Everywhere else, these days, the underlying demographics operate against the conservatives.

The coming elections are shaping up as an extraordinary test of political hegemony in Australian society for the foreseeable future.

Australian society is divided into a left, which includes the ALP-trade union continuum, which gets up to 45 per cent of the electoral vote, and is supported by the overwhelming majority of the organised labour movement, trade unionists and most migrant ethnic groups, and a substantial majority of Catholics, atheists, non-Christians and Orthodox.

The other component of the left side of society, is the Greens, who at the top end get up to 12 per cent, and are heavily based in the tertiary educated new social layers, and tend to act as a kind of leftist conscience to the Laborites.

The main game that dominates the thinking of about 99 per cent of those who are in any way politically conscious on the left side of society has two aspects: will the Labor-Green informal coalition beat the Tories, and will the Greens achieve their goal of a balance of power in the Senate. Both outcomes seem possible, and that’s the main game in the coming federal elections.

The hysteria of the Murdoch press and its constant and implacable campaigning against Latham and the Laborites, and against Bob Brown and the Greens, is a reflection of this real situation.

All year the Tories have tried to destroy Latham personally by trawling through his past, his first marriage, etc, and they have been particularly stung by his populist Bonapartism. They raise the awful spectre of the Spanish model of withdrawal from Iraq.

There’s no question that a Labor-Green victory in the coming federal elections would have a number of extremely progressive effects in Australia and internationally. Firstly, the international impact of the defeat of the first of Bush’s allies to face an election would be enormous. It would be a blow to US imperialism.

Despite the general commitment of the Labor leadership to the US alliance, the sheer impact of the one proposition — the early withdrawal of troops from Iraq — would be an important blow to Bush. There’s no reason to believe that a Latham Labor government won’t carry out its commitment, particularly in the context of the inevitable increased Green representation in the Senate.

The second progressive aspect of a Labor-Green electoral victory will be to revive the self-confidence of the antiwar movement, progressive forces in society, and the trade union movement. It’s also reasonable to expect that an incoming Labor government will come under enormous pressure from the trade union movement to deliver on the industrial policies adopted by the federal conference, and it will be very hard for a Labor government to renege on that.

The adoption of the industrial relations proposals will have a very material effect on the revival of the trade union movement, which is what the reactionary forces fear.

There will be considerable pressure from the trade union bureaucracy for the implementation of the industrial relations program, because despite the reactionary role that the bureaucracy often plays, it owes its existence to the trade union movement, and to some degree its interests require the revival of the trade unions.

Even on the refugee question, there’s some likelihood that an incoming Labor government, under pressure from the Greens, may do something that’s within the Labor tradition, despite heavy-duty rhetoric about border protection, that is, bring in an ostensibly one-off amnesty for illegal immigrants. There should be a considerable campaign in the labour movement for such an amnesty.

Fiscal considerations alone may very well push an incoming Labor government towards an amnesty. The mad, inhumane treatment of illegal immigrants, besides being immoral, anti-working-class and brutal, is also extremely expensive.

The far left and the elections

The three organisations in the IS tradition: Socialist Alternative and Solidarity outside the Socialist Alliance, and the ISO within the Socialist Alliance, have all adopted a relatively sensible attitude towards the elections. So, also, has the Socialist Party — the supporters of the CWI, formerly the British Militant Group.

All of these groups have placed a rational emphasis on campaigning to get rid of Howard, and consequently for the election of a Labor government, with an increased number of Green senators.

A representative expression of this view is a post by Kieran Latty on the GLW discussion list.

While appealing for a vote for the Socialist Alliance, Latty sensibly places considerable emphasis on defeating the Tories.

On the other hand, the Socialist Equality Party, the US SWP, and particularly the DSP — the dominant force in the Socialist Alliance — have persisted all through the build-up to the elections with an implacable campaign of “exposure” of Laborism, and of the Greens.

Nick Fredman’s post here is a vintage example of the exposure of Laborism.

This exposure mentality is associated, for all three groups, with an inordinate emphasis on their own, very limited and entirely symbolic, electoral campaigns.

In the early part of this year, Peter Boyle put about 30 posts on the GLW site about the “conga-line of suckholes” supporting Latham and GLW and the DSP leadership devoted their main efforts to the “exposure” of the Laborites, considerable “exposure” of the Greens, and most importantly to a completely eccentric over-inflation of their own electoral importance.

Readers who only relied on Green Left Weekly for information would think that the main electoral force on the left in the elections was the Socialist Alliance, which is surreal sectarianism.

All year, as the reactionary Murdoch press and the other bourgeois newspapers have been bombarding Latham for his mercurial “irresponsibility”, there has been similar yap-yap from GLW. There was no comment at all in GLW about the vicious personal attacks on Latham by the Murdoch and Fairfax papers and the government. Not even a hint of solidarity against this reactionary attack, just subsidiary attacks of GLW’s own.

On the GLW discussion site it has been hard to distinguish between attacks on the Laborites by right-wing trolls such as “Reagan” and the DSP leadership representatives, and rather hysterical DSP members such as Carl Kenner.

As far as can be observed externally, the material effect of all this moralising sectarianism has been a steady decline in the influence of the DSP/Socialist Alliance.

The main problem with the DSP leadership’s political project is its mistaken perspective. The DSP leadership appears to genuinely believe that it’s possible to construct an effective revolutionary socialist organisation in Australia primarily on the basis of counterposing the socialist organisation to the ALP-trade union continuum and the Greens as an immediate political and electoral alternative.

This is a disastrously unreal perspective. No mass socialist party in any English-speaking country has ever been established in this way. All of the historical evidence operates against this kind of perspective. All the immediate evidence also operates against this perspective. The ALP-trade union continuum has revived dramatically over the past few years, the Greens have established themselves as the electoral expression of leftist discontent with Laborism. These two circumstances are brutal and rather dynamic political realities.

Marxist groups are having themselves on, to an almost terminal extent, if they think they can establish themselves as a significant force by mentally massaging these realities in such a way as to create, entirely in their heads, a major, “open party” possibility for themselves in this situation.

The DSP’s “open party” perspective is completely mistaken in Australian conditions, and these elections will show this in sharp focus. The developing crisis in the DSP/Socialist Alliance, flows from this mistaken perspective. Nevertheless, rather than revisiting or reviewing this mistaken perspective, the DSP leadership is persisting with it and deepening it, and most of its political problems flow from that.

One feature of the DSP’s political crisis is that, despite all the rhetoric about a multi-tendency party, etc, the political atmosphere in the DSP is becoming more authoritarian, rather than less.

It’s clear that there’s a financial crisis in the DSP/Socialist Alliance flowing from declining activity and commitment of the members.
Several prominent members have departed from the DSP in recent times. In May, the DSP leadership completed its project of totally remoulding the Socialist Alliance to suit its needs and arrangements, and since that time DSP non-party “non-aligned” Bolsheviks, such as former SWP/DSP member Dave Riley, have delivered pompous lectures to groups such as Socialist Alternative that they’re splitting the socialist movement by not joining the DSP’s project.

The problem with all this ultimatism, towards the Laborites and trade unionists in the mass movement, towards the Greens, and towards other socialist groups, is that it’s counter-productive. No one outside the DSP ranks takes the slightest bit of notice of such ultimatums, except to become rather irritated when they encounter them.

The Socialist Alliance is on the ballot, and identified above the line, in the Senate in all states, and is running in selected seats across the country. In this case it’s possible to give a precise estimate of the likely electoral result. The Alliance is highly unlikely to get more than about 0.3 per cent of the vote. I base this on the votes in the NSW elections, in which Socialist Alliance was on the ballot, above the line, and in the Sydney City Council. In that council election the Alliance vote was an infinitesimal 0.03 per cent.

In the lower house in the federal elections it’s just possible the Socialist Alliance may get a vote of more than 1 per cent in a couple of seats — possibly where the ISO is running, because the ISO’s physical commitment to electoral work is likely to be greater than that of the DSP. In one seat in Tasmania, where the candidate is a medical doctor, there’s an outside chance that the Socialist Alliance will break the 1 per cent barrier.

There has been some discussion on the various leftist discussion lists internationally about whether the vote achieved by Respect in recent British elections was a success or a failure. Whether the Respect vote was a success or a failure, that vote was about 40 times the vote that is likely to be achieved by the Socialist Alliance in Australia.

The independent electoral activity of the Socialist Alliance has so little impact that it’s almost off the electoral radar in Australia.

Whether socialists independently contest elections, is of course a tactical question, not a matter of principle. What is a principle, however, from my point of view, is that socialists should avoid the unremitting moralising sectarianism directed by the DSP, the Socialist Alliance, the US SWP and the WSWS towards the mass organisations of the workers’ movement, the ALP-trade union continuum and the Greens.

The objective effect of their moralising sectarianism is, over time, to demoralise the adherents of these small socialist organisations. Their lack of any realistic perspective towards the existing workers movement and their simple-minded emphasis on the internal life of their tiny sects is so out of step with the external material world that it’s difficult for the adherents of these groups to find any effective point of contact with the rest of the left half of Australian society.

Associated with this, all three groups have an unremitting authoritarian internal atmosphere that goes with their political territory.

There’s no doubt that the coming elections are bringing a certain kind of sectarian politics on the far left very close to its death rattle, and Marxists have to look to the emergence of new forces and organisations that have a more scientific and energetic approach to existing mass organisations.

These elections will be of enormous importance to the future of the workers movement. I’ll be doing my bit working for the ALP on the booths, along with other members of the ALP left. Others of my associates on Ozleft will be doing their bit working hard for the Greens. The saner people in the Socialist Alliance, mainly the people in the ISO and the smaller groups, will be working hard for a vote for the Alliance and the removal of the Howard government and the election of a Labor government via the preference system.

After the elections, win, lose or draw, we will live in interesting times. If, as now seems likely, a Labor government is elected with a Green balance of power in the Senate, the task of socialists will be to organise an effective mass movement to extract progressive political outcomes from the Labor government and to keep it, in particular, to its promises to withdraw the troops from Iraq, and to restore a pro-union industrial relations system.


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