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John Passant

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August 2011
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Another year of hard Labor

The last 12 months have been a concentrated example of everything that is wrong with modern Labor. A year after the 2010 federal election, Gillard’s minority government is in complete shambles, besieged on all sides and despised by both the left and the right.

Her relentlessly right wing agenda has not only led to demoralisation and despair among the left and traditional Labor supporters, it has also galvanised the Liberal Party and Tony Abbott’s lunatic cheer squad of shock-jock radio hosts and Murdoch opinion writers.

The great tragedy is that the union movement and the left have not been able to provide a left alternative to Gillard, leaving it open to the right to shape the political agenda.

Within days of taking over the leadership last year, Gillard abandoned one of the few popular policies of the Rudd government – the Resources Super-Profits Tax – completely capitulating to pressure from the mining billionaires to drop a tax that had clear majority support.

Next she dropped any pretence that Labor had a humane refugee policy, vilifying asylum seekers in a desperate bid to outdo Abbott’s vile “stop the boats” rhetoric.

The election campaign was a festival of inanity. Infantile manufactured debates about “the real Julia” did little to disguise the fact that on all the substantial issues Labor and Liberal had essentially the same policies. As Ben Hillier wrote in Socialist Alternative at the time:

Both parties are committed to locking up refugees behind razor wire and denying them their rights; both are committed to continuing the genocide of Aboriginal people; both want the unions neutered; both want to undermine workers’ rights and fawn over the ultra-wealthy; both want to steadfastly continue the slaughter in Afghanistan; and both will ignore climate change.

The stifling consensus between Labor and Liberal on all key policies relegates the pressing issues of our time to afterthoughts, behind Speedos, hairdos, party leaks and likeability.

The result of Labor’s me-too election campaign was that the widely hated Tony Abbott came within a whisker of forming government. But far from learning from its mistakes, Labor continued on its right wing course.

On social issues, Gillard has gone out of her way to antagonise Labor’s own supporters.

In spite of an increasing majority in society that supports same-sex marriage, Gillard has repeatedly emphasised her opposition to changing the Marriage Act.

Refugee policy is perhaps the most dramatic example. The crisis in the mandatory detention system has escalated dramatically as protests and riots have erupted across Australia’s vast network of detention centres. The levels of anger and despair in the camps – which currently hold around 6,000 people – is now as great as at any time in the Howard era. And yet instead of considering an even slightly more humane policy, Labor is trying to implement the so-called “Malaysia solution”: a plan that involves deporting 800 asylum seekers to one of the worst hell-holes on the planet.

Labor is doing nothing on climate change. Instead it is implementing a reactionary carbon tax that will end up hurting workers’ living stands while doing nothing for the environment. Predictably, this has only further alienated Gillard from working class voters.

All of this has strengthened the hand of the Liberals, who would win in a landslide if a poll was held today.

While anger at Gillard has galvanised the right, much of the traditional left has failed to provide any alternative to Gillard. The trade unions have done next to nothing to fight for jobs and conditions, more public spending, or to reverse anti-union laws. Instead they have, in the main, accommodated to and apologised for the Gillard government.

Most disastrously the unions, along with the Greens, most climate activists (outside of the socialist left), and many others, like GetUp!, have backed the carbon tax. This has created the ludicrous situation where Tony Abbott can pose as a friend of the workers, defending them from taxes that will undermine living standards.

The Greens, while maintaining their poll numbers nationally, have not been able to gain from disillusionment with Gillard. In the Victorian and NSW state elections held at the end of 2010 and the start of 2011 they polled well below expectations.

The difficulties of the last 12 months stand in stark contrast to the atmosphere created by some on the left in the immediate wake of the 2010 election. The improved Green vote, Adam Bandt’s victory in the seat of Melbourne, and above all the fact that the Independents gained the balance of power, were all heralded as signalling the birth of a new era opening up opportunities for the left.

Long-time left wing activist Tim Anderson, writing in Green Left Weekly, said:

A great opportunity for social change has emerged…There is now room for a range of new voices, including the Greens, including the maverick MPs, but also including all those of us who have been disillusioned with conventional politics.

An article I wrote which cited the above quote was stridently attacked by Simon Butler in Green Left. After reiterating Anderson’s argument, Butler said:

The failure of either major party to win a majority, and the high Green vote, is a partial break from Australia’s two-party system. This is new in Australian politics — something the socialist left should welcome and seek to deepen.

Unfortunately this was a total misreading of the election result.

The fact that the independents hold the balance of power doesn’t signify “a break with the two-party system”. It just means that the election was close and the independent MPs – who are hardly a new phenomenon – held the balance of power. If Tony Abbott got his wish and an election were held tomorrow, the independents would instantly become irrelevant – which is why they are clinging so determinedly to the sinking ship of the Labor government.

And while there is clearly a huge level of disillusionment with mainstream politics and political parties, this does not in and of itself does not create a positive environment for progressive change.

Two ingredients are missing.

One is any substantial resistance from our side – protests, strikes and rebellions by workers, the poor and the oppressed. We have seen in Europe in the past year that when people have been prepared to take to the streets and go on strike against austerity measures, they can at least impact the debate and start to articulate an alternative to the neoliberal consensus, even if they can’t immediately stop the assault from employers and the government.

None of the social organisations in Australia capable of mobilising discontent – most importantly the unions – have shown any inclination to do so. And as of yet – aside from the refugee uprisings in detention centres – we have not seen any substantial spontaneous rebellions from below that could turn the situation around.

The second thing that is missing is a left wing political alternative of sufficient scale to have an impact. The Greens have shown over the past 12 months that they are not that alternative. While they are prepared to make the odd statement on issues like refugees and same-sex marriage, they are not on any fundamental level committed to supporting the interests of workers. Since they have gained consultancy rights with the government they have done nothing aimed at defending workers’ living standards. Their support for the carbon tax is just one example of a deeper indifference to the concerns and difficulties of working people, which only gives ammunition to the right.

Even on the issues they do have a better stance on, the Greens show no interest in leading a determined fight back.

How could they? The Greens are a part of the Gillard government. They are propping it up just as much as the Independents are. They are invested in its success. And to justify their participation in the government to their own supporters, they are under pressure to emphasis the supposedly positive concessions they have extracted, and downplay the negatives. Recent statements by Adam Bandt and others, endorsing the idea of a conscience vote on same-sex marriage that would almost certainly see the bill defeated, are only the latest instance of this approach.

What is needed is a new political force in Australia committed not only to a genuinely radical leftist program of standing up for workers’ and the oppressed, and in sharp opposition to the neoliberal consensus. We also need a political movement that champions rebellion, fights for a class struggle strategy in the unions and encourages a militant resistance to the status quo in every sphere of society.

We have for many years been told by the guardians of order that the politics of mass rebellion are a thing of the past. But look around the globe today – whether it is the strikes and protests in Europe, China and beyond, or the great revolutions sweeping the Arab world – and it is clear that the old order is being challenged by a new spirit of resistance.

The sad, petty sewer of official Australian politics over the last 12 months is a wretched contrast. But the upheavals shaking the world system should give, to us and to our rulers here in Australia, hope and fear in equal measure.

This article, by Corey Oakley, first appeared in Socialist Alternative.



Comment from Terrance
Time August 25, 2011 at 10:13 pm

All well and good, but I don’t think the violent anarchic strikes and protests in Greece has actually achieved anything. How is Greece better – or England – after workers, youths etc rioted and caused industrial mayhem?

That only divides a nation and a people. The left won’t gain power or support by hurting working people through mass strikes or violent protest (they always turn violent, even the well intentioned protests).

Gain the votes through policy and argument – that is why Bob Brown remains popular and liked, in general, by the left.

Comment from Tony
Time August 25, 2011 at 10:48 pm

Terrance: Speaking of policy and argument, would you kindly outline (bullet points will suffice) the broad policy platform you subscribe to that will shift the people over to voting in a left or, more specifically Green, Government.

In spite of Bob Brown’s efforts and a good result at the last election, the Greens do not appear to have a platform that appeals to most workers.

How would you frame the case to get them there?

Comment from Terrance
Time August 26, 2011 at 9:26 am

Good question Tony and not sure I have the answer, except to say this:

Bob Brown demonstrates passion. He is genuie in his commitment and advocacy, something lacking in labor. And the Libs are only committed to self interest and power.

I believe the Greens principles do capture some voters – maybe 10-15%, in part because Brown does not appear radical or ‘fringe’.

Comment from Tony
Time August 26, 2011 at 12:40 pm

Terrance: I agree with you. That does not bridge the gap between Australian workers and the Greens. For the Greens to offer anything other than neo-liberalism means they have to embrace a clearly differentiated perspective. I have recollection of this in their early years.

That said, such a perspective has been quietly abandoned (possibly based on their thin skin with regard to being branded “extreme”) in favour of neo-liberalism and its market approach to policy.

The consequence of this? Crony capitalism ! A club of billionaires and financiers appearing to determine our political leaders’ every move, or at least with their tacit approval, no matter which party they represent.