John Passant

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Me quoted in Fairfax papers on tax haven use
Me quoted by Georgia Wilkins in The Age (and other Fairfax publications) today. John Passant, from the school of political science and international relations, at the Australian National University, said the trend noted by Computershare was further evidence multinationals did not take global regulators seriously. ”US companies are doing this on the hard-nosed basis that any [regulatory] changes that will be made won’t have an impact on their ability to avoid tax,” he said. ”They think it is going to take a long time for the G20 to take action, or that they are just all talk.” (1)

Sprouting sh*t for almost nothing
You can prove my 2 ex-comrades wrong by donating to my blog En Passant at BSB: 062914 Account: 1067 5257, the Commonwealth Bank in Tuggeranong, ACT. More... (12)

My interview Razor Sharp 18 February
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp on Tuesday 18 February. (0)

My interview Razor Sharp 11 February 2014
Me interviewed by Sharon Firebrace on Razor Sharp this morning. The Royal Commission, car industry and age of entitlement get a lot of the coverage. (0)

Razor Sharp 4 February 2014
Me on 4 February 2014 on Razor Sharp with Sharon Firebrace. (0)

Time for a House Un-Australian Activities Committee?
Tony Abbott thinks the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is Un-Australian. I am looking forward to his government setting up the House Un-Australian Activities Committee. (1)

Make Gina Rinehart work for her dole

Real debate?

System change, not climate change



The Whitlam Government

I wrote this almost 2 years ago on the 40th anniversary of the election of the Whitlam Labor government. It seems still relevant today as we look back on Gough Whitlam’s life.

Forty years ago the Labor Party won government for the first time in 23 years in Australia. Gough Whitlam, one of the most right wing members of the Party, came to power as Prime Minister on the back of massive social movements and a strike wave in the late 60s and early 70s, both of which shifted society to the left.

To give you some example of the militancy, strike levels in the late 60s and into the 70s reached up to 1200 working days lost per thousand worker. Today the figure is less than ten.

In 1969 rolling general strikes across the country, organised by left unions, forced the bosses to release jailed union leader Clarrie O’Shea after 5 days inside and turned the penal powers into a dead letter.

It was this workers’ and societal militancy which forced the right-wing Whitlam to introduce some socially progressive reforms.

Even then, Whitlam’s narrow electoral victory was essentially on a program of modernising Australian capitalism and providing some cost effective social benefits for workers around education and health for example that were also major benefits for capital.

Whitlam’s victory also reflected the obvious fact of the forthcoming defeat of US imperialism in Vietnam and the massive social campaigns against that war. Contrary to popular belief, it was the Liberal Government in 1971 which effectively ended Australia’s military participation in the war.

The Whitlam Government introduced free university education and a universal health care scheme of sorts. It sewered working class suburbs in places like Western Sydney. It recognised China. It re-opened the equal pay case when it came to power. It ended conscription and pardoned the draft resisters. It officially ended Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war.

There was a real left in the Whitlam government. Deputy Prime Minister (for a time) Jim Cairns was one of the leaders of the anti-Vietnam movement. This left had a commitment to social spending and redistribution from the wealthy to the less well off.

The failure of the ALP left to fundamentally alter society in favour of workers is a salient lesson to all would be Jim Cairns of today. The ALP is a capitalist workers’ party and that reality, and the reality of capitalist democracy, limit its actions in government.

The Conservatives obstructed some measures such as universal health care. Whitlam went early to the polls in 1974, retained power and passed legislation to set up Medibank at a joint sitting of Parliament.

Workers went on strike throughout 1974 to win real wage increases.

However, managing capitalism means making sure that capital is profitable. The global economic crisis – the fall in profit rates around the globe as a consequence of the way capitalism is organised – was beginning around the time Whitlam came to power. The surplus out of which social spending could come was drying up.

The Australian economy worsened, unemployment went up and inflation skyrocketed. The bosses wanted a government in power that attacked workers. Whitlam tried, bringing in Bill Hayden to deliver a horror budget, a budget the usurping Fraser government kept.

Whitlam’s attacks on workers were not enough for the bourgeoisie and their Liberal Party engineered a parliamentary coup that forced Whitlam out and saw Malcolm Fraser easily win the 1975 election.

Whitlam’s government bought some social democratic reforms to Australia – about 25 years after the process had begun in European and other countries after the second world war. However that Government lived by the sword of capitalism; it died by its sword as economic crisis engulfed Australia.

It was a lesson later Labor governments have taken to heart – managing capitalism means first and foremost making sure the bosses get their profits at the expense of workers.

The Hawke Labor government was the first neoliberal government in Australia and co-opted the trade union bureaucracy into a process of shifting wealth to capital from labour to address declining profit rates.

The alternative to a neoliberal ALP is not a return to a Whitlamite ‘nirvana’. First, it wasn’t a nirvana. Workers were still exploited, making all the wealth the bosses expropriated.

Second there can be no return to the halcyon days of the late 60s and early 70s because the system has aged, profit rates now are much lower than then and the long recession can only be overcome by massive economic crisis or revolution.

The first alternative is a return to the militancy of the late 60s and early 70s. Then the task is to build a fighting alternative, a revolutionary socialist organisation committed to a society based on democracy and satisfying human need.

Gough Whitlam


Gough Whitlam has died at age 98 writes Tom Bramble in Red Flag.

I await the torrent of tributes from politicians who will praise his government’s social reform program in Australia but who themselves have spent their entire careers trying to bury it – free education, expansion of welfare programs, land rights, women’s rights, improvements to public service conditions and so forth.

Whitlam’s was the last Labor government that actually introduced reforms that improved working class life as opposed to the “reform” agenda of subsequent governments that have stripped away the meagre protections afforded Australian workers.

But the Whitlam government was a product of its time: it emerged out of a wave of working class and student militancy in the last years of the long post-war economic boom. This drove Whitlam into terrain that no subsequent Labor government has gone.

Its main priority was to give Australian capitalism a new lease of life, modernising it by cutting tariffs, recognising China and expanding public health and education to improve productivity (i.e. the rate of exploitation).

It needed to do these in an environment where workers, students, immigrants and Aboriginal people were banging on the door demanding change.

Whitlam, although having the image today as a crusading reformer, was right wing. On taking over the leadership from Calwell in 1967 he pushed the party’s policy on Vietnam hard to the right; he purged the left wing Victorian branch and made an open pitch to the middle class.

He supported state aid to private schools, opposed union action on political issues and strongly backed the US alliance. Whitlam joined the Liberal government in denouncing the 1969 motion passed by Victorian unionists calling on Australian soldiers in Vietnam to mutiny. If the left in the party today hails Whitlam as its hero, its predecessors hated his guts.

The ruling class, which had been prepared to give him a go in his early years, turned on the prime minister in 1975 not because he was a mortal threat. The working class militancy which had driven his reform program did not abate during his term in office. In 1974 the strike rate peaked.

At the same time the world economic crisis arrived on Australian shores. The ruling class now demanded a savage attack on the working class to squash strikes and roll back wages and welfare reforms. The government tried to oblige. The reformist treasurer Jim Cairns was sacked and replaced by the right wing former Ipswich cop Bill Hayden. The new treasurer’s first budget put the whole reform program into reverse.

And when the crunch came, the limits to Whitlam’s reform project were demonstrated starkly. Whitlam came from the establishment – he was a QC whose father had been Crown Solicitor – and he never broke from it. When the ruling class turned on him in 1975, he capitulated.

While urging his supporters to “maintain your rage” against the Kerr Coup, his actions (helped in large part by the ACTU and left union leaders) demobilised the hundreds of thousands of working class Australians who saw the coup, rightly, as an attack on the things they had won. They were loyal to Whitlam as a symbol of the gains that they had made since the late 1960s. Whitlam, however, betrayed them by channelling their anger into an electoral contest which, once the mass campaign had been choked off, had only one possible outcome – a landslide to Malcolm Fraser.

Labor leaders, crying today for Whitlam and waxing lyrical about the wonderful era of reform, have moved so far to the right that Fraser, the wealthy grazier from western Victoria and tool of big business, is now to their left. That is the best indicator of Labor’s entire trajectory since 1975 and confirmation that the party is an absolute barrier to a revival of the radicalism with which Whitlam is today so fondly (and wrongly) identified.

Like all posts on this site comments – hit the comments link under the heading – close after 7 days.

Proud to be an economic girlie man

The other day Australia’s Finance Minister, Mathias ‘the terminator’ Cormann, called Opposition leader Bill Shorten an economic girlie man.

Cormann of course is a tough economic he man. So tough in fact he is picking on the poor, pensioners, the unemployed, the sick, the disabled, students and low paid workers. He is not a he man; he is a bully, a bully for the rich and powerful, picking on the powerless.

Cormann is not just a bully for the 1%. He is also a sexist. He views the world through gender stereotype eyes and lives in a world where being a girl signifies weakness and softness.

I am all for weakness and softness when it comes to looking after the disadvantaged, the poor, the low paid. I am for being tough on the rich and powerful – the exact opposite of the Bible according to Matthias Cormann and the Liberals, and Bill Shorten and the Labor Party.

Unlike the book of Matthew (and the neoliberals) I don’t believe the poor will always be with us. They are a creation of capitalism. We have enough in Australia (and indeed globally) to feed, house and educate everyone. Only by overthrowing the system that produces want among plenty can we eradicate poverty. That doesn’t make me girlie, manly, boyish or feminine. It makes me a socialist.

The rise and fall of free education

Cartoon: Carlos Latuff

Free education was won through consistent protest in the 1970s and can be won back now through consistent protest writes John Rainford in Green Left Weekly.

By the mid-1880s, all of the Australian colonies had passed education Acts based on the principal of “free, compulsory and secular” education. This mirrored similar legislation in Britain where the Factory Act of 1833 had made it unlawful for children under nine years of age to be employed in textile factories.

In 1878, the Factory and Workshops Act extended this to all factories and limited the working hours of children under 14 years of age.

The welfare of children in Britain was further provided for by the Education Acts of 1870 and 1880 that made school attendance compulsory until the age of 10. Across the whole of Europe, between 1840 and the 1880s, while the population increased by a third, the number of children attending school increased by 145%.

Publicly funded elementary education in Australia and elsewhere was linked to the extension of suffrage. This was the “civilising” function that Thomas Paine had argued in the late 18th century had to be exercised by government in the transmission from despotism to civilised society.

An emerging Labour Party was onto it from the start. The first platform of the Labour Electoral League in NSW, which saw 35 Labour men elected to parliament in 1891, called for “free, compulsory and technical education, higher as well as elementary”.

Education for the common good would enable the universal citizenship that was the promise of universal political suffrage.

In Victoria in 1948 almost 75% of students in the final year of secondary school were enrolled in private schools. But in the decades after this, the rapid expansion of Australia’s education systems saw universal secondary education, upper-secondary and tertiary education become increasingly important factors in the life of a growing number of citizens.

The high-water mark was reached in 1975-76. In 1948-49, the proportion of education spending provided by private sources was 20.3%; in 1975-76 this had fallen to just 5.6% – 0.35% of GDP.

It was, of course, the Whitlam Labor government that introduced free tertiary education in 1974. It was a policy Whitlam spelled out at the ALP campaign launch at Blacktown in 1972: “Education is the key to equality of opportunity … we believe that a student’s merit rather than a parent’s wealth should decide who should benefit.”

Even though student fees in 1973 were less than 5% of higher education income and were paid by only 20% of full-time students, the abolition of fees initiated a public policy shift by establishing a universal rights-based approach to educational programs.

For the ALP and its rank and file members it became a point of differentiation with the Liberal Party that they were proud to proclaim. Its public popularity was shown in opinion polls where 75% of respondents were opposed to tertiary education fees when the Fraser Liberal government attempted to reintroduce them for second and higher degrees in 1976 and 1981. On both occasions, this public support bolstered student protests that defeated the proposals.

But what the Liberal Party couldn’t do the ALP could, with the turn to neoliberalism of the Bob Hawke government. In 1986, the Labor government announced that a Higher Education Administration Charge (HEAC) of $250 per student would be introduced the following year.

The rationale for tertiary education fees was provided by a committee set up by the education minister John Dawkins and chaired by the former NSW Premier Neville Wran.

It established as fact the fiction that fee abolition was unable to broaden participation. The inconvenient truth that between 1974 and 1987 the proportion of women students had risen from 38.5% to 50.1% was explained away in class terms, that “participation by women in low socioeconomic groups has not improved”.

The report went on to establish a myth that has been perpetuated since by both major parties: “The fundamental inequity in our present system of financing higher education is that small and privileged sections of the community who benefit directly from access to higher education make no direct contribution to the costs.”

Free tertiary education was abolished by 56 votes to 41 at the ALP conference in Hobart in June 1988. Among the opposition was the then Victorian Premier John Cain, who argued that the cost of free tertiary education could be easily funded from budget surpluses at a time when the company tax rate had just been reduced from 49% to 39%.

The Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) was introduced in 1989 as a deferred fee of $1800 per full-time student, repayable through the taxation system. Once introduced with bi-partisan support, the only trajectory for the fee was upwards.

As to the spurious rationale of private rather than public benefit from higher education, as far back as 1964 the report of the Committee on the Future of Tertiary Education in Australia (known as the Martin report after the chairperson Sir Leslie Martin) commissioned by the Menzies government, had reported that the benefits of higher education to individual students were but “a fraction” of the benefits accruing to society as a whole.

In 2001 an OECD report found that an additional year of education raised output per capita by between 4% and 7%.

A more recent OECD study reports that it is the Australian public that profits most from higher education while students bear the majority of the costs. Students now contribute 55% of their tertiary education costs compared with an average of 30% in OECD countries. Male students repay $6 for every public dollar of higher education funding and females $4.40.

The economics of higher tertiary education fees don’t make any sense. But to the major parties the politics of privilege do. Which is why we will see a return to what Whitlam abolished in 1974 — parent’s wealth and not student merit will determine access to universities.

The looming job cuts at the University of Wollongong part II

Mr Passant believes the university will  rein in pay rises, opt not to renew contracts and employ fewer casuals to meet the target.

[And that is before redundancies.]

To read the whole story click Jobs at risk as UOW eyes spending cuts.

Me in today’s Illawarra Mercury on the rally against University cuts and fee de-regulation at Wollongong University

Me in today’s Illawarra Mercury. [Dumb headline in the online version. The print version just says students rally over uni costs.]

Organiser John Passant, a casual tutor in the school of Humanities and Social Inquiry, told the rally university degrees should be free.

“If it’s the community and business that are getting those benefits of higher education, maybe it’s business that should be paying for higher education and not students,” he said.

Poverty in Australia: the ‘wake-up call’

One in seven Australians lives in poverty, and the situation is getting worse writes Dean Maloney in Red Flag. That’s the startling conclusion of a comprehensive report released on 12 October by the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS).

Poverty in Australia 2014 found that more than 2.5 million people, including 600,000 children, struggle below the poverty line. Despite almost uninterrupted economic growth, poverty in Australia has increased in the last decade.

ACOSS CEO Cassandra Goldie said that the findings are a “wake-up call” and “shine a spotlight on the current policy direction of [the] federal government.

“In particular … over a third of children in sole parent families [are] living in poverty. This is due to the lower levels of employment among sole parent households, especially those with very young children, and the low level of social security payments for these families.”

Social security

The most widely needed social security payments fall well below the poverty line, which is calculated at $400 per week for a single person. More than half of those on the Newstart allowance live in poverty, as do almost half of those who rely on the disability support pension or parenting payment.

Red Flag contacted the Welfare Rights Network about the report. Network president Maree O’Halloran labelled its findings “disturbing but unsurprising”.

“Since 2011, the number of people out of work for more than 24 months has surged by a massive 234 percent”, she said. “Many of these 355,000 job seekers have been living lives of unseen desperation on manifestly inadequate social security support.”

The extreme hardship many endure is illustrated by research published in the Economic and Labour Relations Review, which found that a quarter of Newstart recipients in Sydney’s inner west who have been jobless for more than a year have begged on the street for help.

“It is critical that the harsh social security bills before the parliament, which will remove benefits from single parents, cut important programs like to Pensioner Education Supplement, freeze family payments and limit future pension rises, are stopped in their tracks”, O’Halloran said.

Working Poor

It isn’t just welfare recipients who are struggling. Almost 800,000 people live below the poverty line despite being in paid work.

Hayden, a young retail industry worker and part time student, told Red Flag about the difficulties he has trying to get by: “After paying rent and bills each week, I’m left with about $65 and that mostly buys food and train tickets.” The report’s findings didn’t surprise him.

“Each week I always seem to overhear or get involved in a conversation about the cost of living in Sydney, the exorbitant prices of commuting and the lack of full time and even graduate employment available”, he said. “I work as a casual and therefore get a slightly higher rate of pay per hour. I don’t know how some of my part time workmates survive each week while also juggling uni.”

To add insult to injury, hospitality bosses have been attacking penalty rates, which many workers in the industry rely on. “There have already been calls from retail executives and from Liberal politicians to cut penalty rates on public holidays and weekends”, Hayden said. “At that point I will have to reconsider uni and search for full time employment, probably in my current retail job, just to make ends meet. It’s hard enough juggling study and work, and at times I feel like I’ll never get ahead.”

That feeling isn’t confined to students and young workers. The data show that those aged 25 to 64 are only a fraction less likely to be poor than younger people.

Confirming the findings of the report, research carried out by Ernst and Young also reveals that one in five households has been unable to pay an electricity bill in the past year. In NSW the energy and water ombudsman has reported “a worrying increase in complaints as a consequence of affordability problems, particularly completed disconnection”.

Poem: An uncertain future


What am I going to do about money?

I see my mum who worked all her life

but she has no money.

So yeah,

it’s pretty bad

when you work all your life and your only income

is the pension.

If I did have children …

I don’t have any savings or a stable job;

it would be really stressful I think.

And not being able to do anything.

And if you get sick you’re a bit stuffed too.

So …



Source: Poverty in Australia 2014 report

The British left must unite to be an alternative

It’s fashionable to argue that contemporary “anti-politics” involves a rejection of the very form of the party. But thousands of Scots have flooded into the pro independence parties since the referendum produced events like this in Glasgows George Square

It’s fashionable to argue that contemporary “anti-politics” involves a rejection of the very form of the party. But thousands of Scots have flooded into the pro independence parties since the referendum produced events like this in Glasgow’s George Square (Pic: Andrew McGowan)

The media cliche machine has been in overdrive since the by-elections on Thursday of last week writes Alex Callinicos in Socialist Worker UK. Tedious though this is, undoubtedly something big has happened.

One could put it like this. Over the past few decades the popular base of the two main parties has been gradually eroding—members and voters alike.

But there are moments when a step-change takes place.

One was at the May 2010 general election. Defeated Labour and the supposedly victorious Tories got 65 percent of the vote between them, and Britain had its first peacetime coalition government since 1939.

We have seen another step-change in the past few weeks. The social base of the big Westminster parties has continued to rot away. The Tories have pursued unpopular austerity policies. These have damaged them and caused a collapse in support for the Liberal Democrats.

Meanwhile, Labour has got the worst of both worlds. Ed Miliband inched the party a few millimetres to the left, antagonising the Blairites and their media chums.

But he has also embraced what Unite union general secretary Len McCluskey called “austerity-lite”.

This means he has totally failed to express the anger of millions of working class people who have felt their lives get worse thanks to successive bouts of neoliberalism.

So that anger has found other channels. What is particularly interesting is the divergence between these channels north and south of the border.

In Scotland this has been provided by the Yes campaign, which took a predominantly progressive form. The Scottish National Party (SNP) seized the initiative when first minister Alex Salmond reframed independence as the way to save the welfare state from the Tories.

Though a final intervention by Labour managed to save the Union, it was at a high price. The vote split on class lines.

Every Labour parliamentary seat in Glasgow voted Yes. Further north middle class constituencies that traditionally support the SNP—including Salmond’s own—voted No.


Interestingly, Scotland since the referendum has bucked the trend.

It’s fashionable to argue that contemporary “anti-politics” involves a rejection of the very form of the party. But parties that were pro-independence such as the SNP, Greens, and Scottish Socialist Party have seen a huge influx of members.

Alas, in England the main beneficiary of the rebellion against the party system have been the racist populists of Ukip. Anyone who thinks that this mainly hits the Tories should reflect on the fact that Clacton—where Douglas Carswell was triumphantly re-elected last week on the Ukip ticket—was a Labour seat until 2005.

We shouldn’t overstate the scale of what’s happening. The latest Opinium/Observer poll has Labour on 35 percent, the Tories on 28 percent, Ukip on 17 percent, and the Lib Dems on 9 percent.

Nigel Farage isn’t going to be walking into 10 Downing Street next May. Nevertheless, Britain is moving to a four or even five-party system (including the SNP).

What’s missing is the radical left. The party system is fragmenting above all because of the experience of neoliberalism. Yet a strong voice challenging neoliberalism is absent from the electoral field.

There’s no objective reason for this. The British electoral system works against small parties, but it can be beaten, as George Galloway and Respect proved before Ukip.

The social democratic ideas that the SNP under Salmond has successfully appealed to are as strong in popular consciousness south of the border as they are in Scotland.

The problem is the extreme fragmentation of the radical left, compounded by the mutual hostility that exists among these fragments. This is, if anything, worse in Scotland than it is in England and Wales. Wallowing in the rights and wrongs of these divisions is futile and self-destructive.

The combination of the Scottish referendum and Ukip’s rise demands that we change.

We have to shake off the petty narcissism of our different projects and work together to create united left wing alternatives to neoliberalism both sides of the border.

History will judge us very harshly if we fail.

The Kurds of Kobanê : betrayal on all sides

The Kurds of Kobanê are the latest victims of a war that arose as a direct consequence of imperialism and oppression. Alan Maass and Tom Gagné explain the background in Socialist Worker US

Explosions in Kobani claimed by IS forces

BLACK SMOKE hangs over the Kurdish city of Kobanê in northern Syria, visible from the nearby Turkish border, as people organized into the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) make their stand against forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The resistance in Kobanê is holding out for now, and reportedly inflicting casualties on ISIS fighters, but it has been steadily overwhelmed by ISIS’s superior weapons, often U.S.- or Russian-made, seized from both the Syrian and Iraqi Army during past ISIS military conquests.

Several hundred thousand people have fled Kobanê and surrounding villages, crossing the border into southeastern Turkey to take refuge there–others seek to travel to northern Iraq, where Kurdish leaders rule over a regional government set up after the U.S. invasion.

But tens of thousands of people remain in the city, fearful of what is to come if and when ISIS conquers the resistance.

ISIS stands on the verge of another major victory despite the world’s main military superpower, the U.S., declaring war against it, with the support of dozens of countries. Air strikes against ISIS began in Iraq two months ago and have expanded into Syria–yet Kobanê is predicted to fall, and ISIS is reportedly continuing its advances in Iraq.

It’s clear that the U.S. campaign of air strikes has been a failure, even on its own limited military terms, much less the claims of President Barack Obama that another Middle East war would stop ISIS’s “network of death.” In their honest moments, U.S. officials admit that saving the Kurds of Kobanê is not a strategic priority.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE U.S. government isn’t the only one to betray the pleas of the Kurds. Just to the north, within sight of Kobanê, Turkish tanks stand idle on the border as the battle with ISIS rages.

As refugees from the city fled across the border this month, soldiers prevented would-be fighters from traveling the other way to join the defense of Kobanê against ISIS. Inside Turkey, mass demonstrations in solidarity with the Kurds of Rojava–as Western Kurdistan inside Syria is known–have been met with the usual response from security forces: beatings, tear gas, water cannons and live ammunition.

The Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leader of the Islamist Justice and Development Party, says it opposes ISIS. But Turkey has long oppressed its own Kurdish population, at a terrible cost in lives during decades of civil war.

The ugly truth is that Turkey–a member of NATO and one of the U.S. government’s staunchest allies in the region–believes it has more to fear from an emboldened Kurdish population if Kobanê’s defenders repel the ISIS assault than if the city falls. But the government’s cynical inaction is backfiring–it faces growing instability and the threat of rebellion.

The Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad has also contributed to Kobanê’s suffering. As part of its divide-and-rule strategy to confront the Arab Spring revolution and the ensuing civil war, the Assad dictatorship encouraged the growth of reactionary Islamist groups like ISIS among the opposition.

There has been an unstated cease-fire between ISIS and the regime, while Assad’s military concentrated its firepower in a war of terror against the uprising, including the armed groups that arose to defend it. ISIS, meanwhile, was able to spread its control in eastern Syria and along the northern border region with Turkey, waging war mainly on opponents of the regime. If ISIS can conquer Kobanê and link up several areas under its rule, it will have the Syrian government to thank in part.

As for the Kurds in northern Syria, they achieved de facto autonomy in 2012 after the Assad regime withdrew its forces from the region. This is one part of a Kurdish population spread across Syria, Turkey, Iraq and Iran, with no state of its own.

The Kurds’ longstanding and legitimate aspirations for national self-determination have been pulled in various directions, sometimes because of manipulation by outside powers. For example, the Kurdish elite in northern Iraq has been the most steadfast ally of the U.S. government during its quarter century of war on Iraq–despite Washington’s support for Turkey’s repression of the Kurdish struggle, and now its ineffectual actions against the onslaught against Kobanê.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

AND SO Kobanê has stood alone amid this tangled history and its many-sided conflicts. The old proverb that the “Kurds have no friends but the mountains” rings more true by the day.

The city would have fallen months ago if not for the determined defense led by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominant political force among Kurds in Syria and sister organization to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) founded decades ago in Turkey.

According to Joseph Daher, a member of the Revolutionary Left Current in Syria, who writes at the Syria Freedom Forever blog, Kobanê is also being defended by several battalions of Arab fighters. The Free Syrian Army, the network of armed groups waging a two-sided civil war against both the Assad regime and ISIS, also decided in early October to send fighters to Kobanê, according to Daher.

Mainstream and social media have broadcast stories of the immense courage of the resistance fighters, as they endure the onslaught of the better-armed ISIS forces. For those defending Kobanê, surrender means the dictatorial rule of ISIS, with its violence against religious and ethnic minorities and ruthless repression of all dissent. Many are choosing to fight to the death.

A significant number of the city’s last defenders are women, according to reports. Earlier this month, a commander of the female units mobilized by the YPG militia, Deilar Kani Khams, known by her military name Arin Mirkan, killed 10 ISIS fighters in a suicide attack, according to Al Jazeera. After running out of bullets, she stayed behind when Kurdish fighters retreated further into the city center, mingling with ISIS soldiers and then exploded a grenade.

The victims of Kobanê are the latest casualties of a nightmare caused by tyranny, oppression and imperialist war. The U.S. government claims its attacks on ISIS will help the people caught in the middle of this deadly conflict, but the Kurds of Kobanê have learned otherwise. Barack Obama’s new war will only make the suffering and violence worse.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

WHEN BARACK Obama declared war on ISIS, he promised in his speech to the United Nations that the U.S. would “work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death”–including support for “Iraqis and Syrians fighting to reclaim their communities.”

But in the face of ISIS’s first major offensive against people “fighting for their communities,” U.S. officials claim there is nothing they can really do with just air strikes–and what’s more, saving Kobanê isn’t part of the plan anyway.

As Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters, “Kobanê does not define the strategy for the coalition in respect to [ISIS]. Kobanê is one community, and it is a tragedy what is happening there, and we do not diminish that. But we have said from day one that it is going to take a period of time to bring the coalition thoroughly to the table…And to begin, the focus…is in Iraq. That is the current strategy.”

Translation: U.S. officials were happy to talk tough when they first expanded air strikes into Syria, but their top concern is protecting American interests in Iraq. There, Washington can still dictate to the central government–and even more importantly, the U.S. empire wants to defend its oil interests, especially in the north, where the threat of the ISIS-led insurgency conquering the Kurdish capital of Erbil in August prompted the U.S. to begin dropping bombs in the first place.

However, according to Independent journalist Patrick Cockburn, the U.S. isn’t even succeeding at its top priority. ISIS units in Iraq recently captured Hit in the vast western province of Anbar, along with parts of the provincial capital of Ramadi. Also, the insurgents are advancing into areas west of the capital of Baghdad–close enough to possibly begin artillery barrages of the country’s main international airport.

“The successful advance of the militants,” Cockburn summarized, “shows that the Iraqi Army is little more capable of resisting ISIS than when it lost Mosul and Tikrit in June” at the start of the ISIS offensive in Iraq.

About the only place the U.S. can arguably claim success is where its air strikes have been most concentrated–to repel the ISIS offensive toward Erbil, which threatened not only U.S. personnel who collaborate with the Kurdistan Regional Government, but the main concentration of oil reserves in Iraq’s northern region.

The cold calculations about U.S. priorities in this war appear all the more cynical when you consider that ISIS emerged directly as a product of the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

Neither ISIS nor its predecessor organization, al-Queda in Iraq, existed before the U.S. invasion in 2003. The divide-and-conquer policies of the colonial occupation, consciously put in place to counter the threat of a united armed resistance against U.S. forces, fueled the sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was one actor in the horrific civil war and ethnic cleansing that followed.

As the sectarian conflict spilled over Iraq’s borders, U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar sponsored reactionary Sunni groupings to counter the influence of the so-called “Shia Crescent,” stretching from Iran, through the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, to the Assad regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

ISIS is a product of the toxic mess of violence and hate spawned by U.S. imperialism–and Obama’s new war will only make things worse. As Syrian revolutionary Joseph Daher wrote:

[The U.S.-led] military intervention is not designed to help the local populations in their struggle for freedom and dignity, but to serve the objectives of Western imperialists, with the agreement of Russian imperialism and all the regional sub-imperialists–whether participating directly, in the case of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, or indirectly, in the case of Turkey, or not opposing intervention, in the case of Iran.

All these actors want to put an end to the revolutionary processes in the region and restore stability, with authoritarian regimes that serve their interests and not those of the popular masses of the region.

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THE TREACHEROUS behavior of the Turkish government toward the unfolding massacre in Kobanê is even more blatant than Washington’s hypocrisy.

Turkish military equipment that could counter the ISIS arsenal stands unused, within sight of Kobanê–while the government’s security forces focus their repression against those who show solidarity with the Kurds, including those hoping to cross the border to join in the defense of Kobanê.

Stunning video footage shows smoke from ISIS artillery attacks billowing into the sky over Kobanê in the background–while in the foreground, Turkish police beat Kurdish protesters. The government admits that at least 30 people have been killed so far in clashes between police and demonstrators across the country.

The grim fact is that Turkey’s government sees the battle of Kobanê as–in the words of the Al Monitor news website–an “opportunity” to extract concessions from Kurdish political forces.

In early October, Salih Muslim, co-chair of the PYD, attended a secret meeting with intelligence officials of the Turkish government where he pleaded for arms–especially anti-tank weapons–to be allowed across the border to fighters in Kobanê. He was confronted with a series of conditions–including that the PYD dissolve local governments running the Kurdish enclaves in northern Syria and distance itself from its sister organization, the PKK.

Basically, the Turkish government demanded that the autonomous zone ruled by Kurds since 2012 be turned into one dominated by Turkish forces–or Kobanê would fall.

If it seems hard to believe that the Turkish government would respond to Kobanê’s catastrophe by blackmailing the victims, it shouldn’t be. For decades, Turkey has stopped at nothing to maintain the oppression of the Kurds, who represent as much as a quarter of the country’s population.

This dates back to the end of the First World War, when Turkey was formed in the colonial carve-up of the conquered Ottoman Empire. The Kurds were denied a nation state and instead became a persecuted minority in several countries–nowhere more so than Turkey, home to the largest number of Kurds.

The PKK has its roots in the radicalization of the 1970s, when it was founded as a Maoist organization fighting for an independent Kurdish state. The armed conflict with the Turkish state cost over 40,000 lives, mostly Kurds. According to Human Rights Watch, some 3,000 Kurdish villages were wiped from the map by the end of the 20th century as a consequence of government policies.

After several phases of fighting and relative peace, the PKK declared a cease-fire in 2013 following extended negotiations between jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan and the Turkish government, led since the early 2000s by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party.

The AKP has tried to maintain an image of tolerance toward the Kurdish minority, at least compared to the military rule that preceded it. But that didn’t stop Erdoğan from stating at the start of October that the PKK and the ISIS insurgency were equally dangerous. “It is wrong to view them differently–we need to deal with them jointly,” he told reporters.

The Turkish government does view the rise of ISIS–with its claim to have formed a caliphate erasing the national borders established after the First World War–as a destabilizing factor in the region. But it continues to see Kurdish unrest as a grave danger.

Now, Kobanê has become a symbol of Kurdish resistance, with strong echoes in both Syria and Turkey–even prompting calls for support from Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq and a leading figure in the U.S. government’s plans for the region. Given this, Al Monitor concludes, “Turkey would probably be happy to see Kobanê fall.”

But the Turkish government is playing with fire. The huge demonstrations in solidarity with Kobanê show that anger with Turkey’s inaction could become the greater threat.

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ONE REASON for the Turkish government’s hostility toward Kobanê is that it is a centerpiece of the autonomous region established by the Kurds in northern Syria. Kobanê is the main city in the middle of three cantons that make up Rojava.

The mass uprising against the Assad dictatorship that began 2011 spread throughout the country, including the Kurdish-dominated region in the north. The regime’s primary response was murderous violence against all dissent. But Assad also tried to maintain support from various ethnic and minority groups by portraying the Arab Spring rebellion as dominated by Sunni fundamentalists. At the same time, he cynically encouraged the most reactionary Sunni groupings by releasing Islamist political prisoners in an attempt to shift the balance inside the opposition.

In withdrawing its forces from the Rojava region in 2012, leaving the PYD to establish and dominate the structures of autonomous self-rule, the Syrian regime no doubt hoped the Kurds would keep their distance from the rest of the anti-Assad opposition–and also serve as a buffer during the civil war against any moves by Turkey, one of Syria’s main regional enemies.

Still, as Joseph Daher writes, “The autonomous self-administration of Rojava would never have been allowed without the popular and massive movement from below of the Syrian people–Arabs, Kurds and Assyrian together–against the criminal and authoritarian Assad regime.”

In November 2013, representatives from different ethnic groups established a formal government–a confederation of “Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Turkmen, Armenian and Chechen,” according to the preamble of its charter. As Daher writes:

The experience of self-administration in these regions is very interesting, particularly regarding the rights of women, and religious and ethnic minorities. Some contradictions nevertheless exist, especially regarding the authoritarianism of the PYD forces that have not hesitated to repress activists or to bar them from ruling institutions.

We should not forget that the PYD, like its mother organization, the PKK, lacks democratic processes in its internal functioning and in relation to other organizations considered to be rivals, or merely, as we have seen, critical of it. We must remember, for example, the protest movements in late June 2013 in some cities of Rojava, such as Amouda and Derabissyat, against repression and arrests carried out by PYD forces against Kurdish revolutionary activists…

That shouldn’t stop us from providing full support to the Kurdish national liberation movement in its struggle for self-determination in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran against authoritarian regimes that oppress them and/or prevent them from achieving their self-determination. It is also why we should demand the removal of the PKK from all lists of terrorist organizations in Europe and elsewhere.

We can criticize the leaderships of the PKK or PYD for some of their policies, but…a fundamental principle of revolutionaries is that we first need to support all forms of liberation struggles unconditionally, before we criticize the way they are led.

It is no surprise that ISIS has had Rojava in its sights since the fundamentalists announced their so-called caliphate. The assault on Kobanê is an attempt to liquidate the system of self-rule established there, just as ISIS has waged war on other forces–Sunnis included–that differ with its reactionary dogmas.

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THERE IS much more to understand about the tangled web of conflict and violence in the Middle East today. But we need to start, as the Syrian revolutionary Joseph Daher does, with a commitment to the popular struggle for democracy, self-determination and social justice.

As Daher concludes in a recent article at Syria Freedom Forever:

The fall of the city of Kobanê and its occupation by ISIS would represent a double defeat: for the self-determination of the Kurdish people and for the Syrian revolution…

It is a dialectical relationship, and both are linked. A defeat of the Syrian revolutionary process and of its objectives would mark, most probably, the end of the Rojava autonomous region’s experience and the hopes of the Kurdish people to decide their own future in the face of the opposition of multiple actors: Western and Russian imperialism, Arab and Turkish nationalist chauvinism and Islamic reactionary forces.

On the other side, the Syrian revolutionary process would not be complete without the possibility of the Kurdish people to decide freely of their own future: separation or participation in a democratic, social and secular Syria, with its national rights guaranteed.

We must oppose every counterrevolutionary attempt to undermine either Kurdish self-determination or the Syrian uprising. One face of that counterrevolution is the reactionaries of ISIS, with their barbaric war on Kobanê. Another is the authoritarian and undemocratic regimes of the region–even when they oppose each other, as Erdogan’s Turkey and Assad’s Syria do.

Last but not least is U.S. imperialism, which bears responsibility for the horrors unfolding in the Middle East today. Whether through direct intervention or support of reactionary forces, the U.S. is intent on maintaining its dominance in order to control the world’s most valuable resource: oil.

As anti-imperialists in the U.S., we want to expose the hypocrisy and deceptions of the latest U.S. war drive–and build the forces demanding an end to its wars, so the masses of people in the Middle East can decide their collective future for themselves.

Amanda Vanstone: more expensive whines


Wake up Australia. Life is tough at the top – but top sorts aren’t being paid their due, writes Ben Hillier, tongue firmly in cheek, in Red Flag. The rich need a champion, not ever more detractors stoking class envy and making the nation uncomfortable.

That’s why Fairfax Media pays Amanda Vanstone, the former Liberal government cabinet minister, to initiate conversations about the big issues facing the country. “How often have you been told that the gap between rich and poor is growing, and directly or indirectly invited to believe that something is therefore radically wrong?” she asks in a comment piece recently. “Have you, like me, heard the stereotyping of the sons and daughters of wealthier people as ‘the cream’ – as in, rich and thick?”

Too right we have. And it’s the dairy industry and rural jobs in the end that suffer from such damaging metaphors. No question. It’s about time poor people had a good hard look at themselves and realised what contributing is all about. How will they learn? The best way is to do a stint as ambassador to Italy. “I’ve noticed Italians seem to understand how important it is to have a good life”, Vanstone related to News Corp journalist Joe Aston in Rome at the end of her appointment in 2010. “This is in contrast to what I see in Australia, which is much more materialistic.”

Straight talk 101 from the truth train, but is the country ready to listen? Unlikely. It’s too caught up with chatter about job insecurity, falling real wages, unpayable medical bills, child poverty and other distractions from la dolce vita. Get real Australia – if you want to live on a higher plane, get a nice deep breath of cost-free kumbaya into you. And grab a few bottles of turps to soak it up over brunch. “Vanstone rarely misses an opportunity to wheel out the homemade liqueurs”, noted Aston. “[L]imoncello … orangecello, mandarincello, and a feisty grappa.” Don’t forget the whine, Signor.

Vanstone knows that corrosive anti-socialite banter can become entrenched in the national psyche and lead to community dysfunction. In the Fairfax piece she rightly points out: “[T]he so-called rich get a pretty rough deal … What about stories of businesses evading their tax or treating workers badly?” Spot on – they’re just stories. You know what a synonym for story is? Tale. And a synonym for tale? Myth. Stop myth-making Australia. It only deprives future generations of a living.

Instead, get on your knees and bow to the generous and the humble: “The people you want to hate are the ones who help the people you want to help … [T]he private families and companies that are so generous … generally avoid grandiose publicity.” Blessed are the meek Australia. We know the rest of it only too well.