Malcolm Fraser and the years of rage
It was my 22nd birthday. I was standing outside Parliament House raging against Malcolm Fraser and John Kerr after the Governor General had sacked the democratically elected Labor government of Gough Whitlam and appointed Fraser, the squire of Nareen, as Prime Minister.
My shock was immense and my anger deep. Those bastards Kerr and Fraser had destroyed Australian democracy.
It was only later on that I asked myself how could we have let this happen? Our side, the big battalions of labour, had surrendered meekly to this ruling class coup.
Tom O’Lincoln has just republished his wonderful book Years of Rage: Social Conflict in the Fraser Era. This is a Monet of a book in which the daub of detail creates a canvas of class conflict, stretching from Kerr’s coup through the 7 years of the Fraser Governments to the election of the Hawke Labor Government in 1983.
It is essentially a book about labour and capital walking around the ring, sparring vigorously at times, but with neither side able to land the knockout punch. It took the election of the Hawke Labor Government in 1983 to decisively break the deadlock in favour of capital.
And that is one of the main points of O’Lincoln’s book. The bourgeoisie did not understand the depth of the crisis and the brutality it needed to unleash on workers to address their economic crisis, while the working class did not understand the need to overthrow capitalism.
The deadlock of ideas deadlocked the class struggle.
The wariness of the Fraser Government to launch an all out war on workers was realistic because, despite major setbacks, the working class was still strong and organised in unions and had the potential, and sometimes did, fight back.
As O’Lincoln puts it: ‘Neither Fraser nor the employers were prepared for the industrial bloodbath required for them to obtain their objectives. They had wounded their opponents rather than destroying them, and when circumstances had changed, their opponents had struck back fairly effectively.’
So it is that O’Lincoln covers the highs and lows of that ruling class assault and workers resistance – the Fraser government undermining Medibank; the sometimes militant rhetoric and often limited action of the trade union leadership; the major strikes like the La Trobe Valley in 1977 ending in defeat of sorts; the fight backs from about 1979; and the ebbs and flows of the social movements around the environment, uranium mining, the women’s liberation movement and its descent into a kind of sectional politics, the ongoing resistance of Aboriginal people to attacks on them and so on.
This is a book of class and class struggle. Looking at the past helps us understand the present and prepare for the future.
It is no accident that the trajectory of politics generally and the ALP specifically in Australia from the end of the post war boom in the late 60s as a consequence of the decline of profit rates was to the right.
This has consequences even today, not only in terms of class consciousness and preparedness to fight but in confusion as to who is left wing. Such is the shift to the right in Australian politics that Malcolm Fraser, the warrior of the bosses in the 70s and 80s, the man who destroyed an elected Labor Government to serve his class, is now seen by many not only as on the Left but as a hero of the Left.
The class struggle stalemated with half victories and losses throughout the Fraser period and the bourgeoisie looked for a different approach to cutting wages and condition and restoring profit rates.
They found it in Bob Hawke and the Accord, a document of class collaboration which saw unions police their members and begin the decades long process of shifting more and more wealth to capital from labour.
This stalemate that was the Fraser period is captured well in O’Lincoln’s discussion of the battles in Queensland against Bjelke Peterson. Some of the major fights were around civil liberties, uranium and workers’ rights.
For example, in strikes around the Bjelke Petersen Government’s Essential Services legislation, the Premier over-played his hand by moving to de-register 11 unions. Rank and file unionists were incensed and the union leadership moved to defend its own position by extending the strikes.
The Premier backed down. Then the union leadership called a general strike. This was an overreaction. The mood was not there for such a step. It handed the momentum back to Bjelke Petersen. As O’Lincoln notes, it laid the groundwork for SEQEB in 1985 when Joh sacked over a thousand striking electricity workers and won.
But the ruling class victories also have to be contrasted with some victories by workers and losses by the bosses. None were decisive for either side.
Indeed the tide began to turn against Fraser and his push, push, push approach in 1978/79. There were successful strikes in the mines, against the fringe benefits tax being applied to remote workers, by Telecom workers to control new technology and its impacts, and later for wage increases, and then in 1979 a more general and successful wages push to win back the pay that had been lost under the initial onslaughts from the bosses under Fraser.
And that is the story of this book. It paints a complex picture of the ups and downs of the class struggle, the wary prodding and pushing without a final decisive confrontation from either side making one the clear victor.
There is something else in this wonderful book too. In looking at the past we can learn lessons for the present and the future.
As O’Lincoln says in his introduction:
This study argues the importance of organizational, leadership and politics. Neither camp, capital or labour, had mobilised effectively for the struggle. Neither had a coherent leadership willing, or able, to take the offensive in sustained fashion partly because neither side understood the dimensions of the economic crisis.
Today, the last point is clearer, and the other issues are beginning to confront us once again. In the coming struggles workers will need new kinds of organization. Without them we will at least repeat the disappointments fo the seventies, and at worst suffer shattering defeats, should our opponents learn the lessons of that era while we do not.
With an Abbott government looming and with its path to massive attacks on workers laid clear by Labor in power, this is a message we cannot afford to ignore. As O’Lincoln goes on to say:
We need organisations and leaders of a revolutionary stamp, fighting to overturn the social order and putting an end to class society. If this view is generally implicit rather than explicit in the following pages, it’s because the forces that fought for it in the Fraser era were generally too marginal to shape events. That is precisely what must change.
Both Tom O’Lincoln and John Passant are members of Socialist Alternative.