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October 2012



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

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Elections, struggle and building the left

These are notes for a talk I am giving at a  Socialist Alternative meeting at 6 pm on Thursday 25 October in Room G8 of the Moran Building at the ANU on why there is so little choice in Australian politics and what the left alternative is.

Some of you may remember we had an election on Saturday in Canberra. It wasn’t earth shattering. It didn’t involve much passion. It didn’t resonate.

Why? Because the choice between Liberal and Labor was, apart from a few differences, essentially a choice between the two major parties of neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism just means letting the market rule; using the state to ensure that happens, and using the state to keep workers under control.

Both major parties have adopted this approach to running the economy, with differences of nuance and interpretation, but not of substance. This ideology and practice of neoliberalism became the dominant political, economic and ideological trend after the economic crises of the early to mid-70s and declining profit rates underpinning that.

Far from being out of the ordinary for Labor, the ALP has always adopted the dominant ideology – Keynesianism after WWII, and neoliberalism as it was embraced in the UK and the US under Thatcher and Reagan respectively.  Hawke and Keating, with their own brand of neoliberalism, followed shortly after in Australia, in 1983.

What this means is that there is little choice for voters wanting to change the world, wanting to make it a better place for the large majority of the population, not just for the rich and well off with the wealth somehow magically trickling down to us.

The Hawke and Keating brand of neoliberalism involved capturing the trade unions and working class in a self-limiting agreement called the Accord. This cut real wages over time and began the shift of wealth and income to capital at the expense of labour.  And most importantly, strikes and other industrial action collapsed.  That has continued under Howard and Rudd and Gillard.  It is I think one of the key factors in understanding the political and economic situation today.

The strike figures in Australia for 2011 and previous years are at historic lows,[1] not withstanding minor blips last year. As Michael Janda put it:

When one smooths out the volatility, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) figures show industrial disputes have declined steadily and significantly since limited protected industrial action was introduced in 1993.

The typical rate of work days lost per thousand employees at the start of the 1990s was between 40 and 60, for most of the 2000s it has been under 10. For the last half-decade, generally less than five.[2]

However comparing strike days lost now to the 1960s and 1970s shows an even bigger decline. As Jade Eckhaus writes ‘… in the 1970s annual strike days per 1000 workers varied between 600-1200…’[3] Today, as Janda notes,  it is ‘generally less than five[!]’[4] I should add one qualification. The number of working days lost to industrial action this year jumped to an eight-year high, largely on the back on strike action by teachers and nurses.

Even with the slight increase this year because of nurses and teachers, the figure is still less than ten. It is this loss of class combativeness, this lack of class struggle that explains the neoliberalisation of Australia and much of the right wing nature of politics and debate today.

It laid the groundwork for the election of Howard in 1996 and his attack on public servants; his anti-worker laws, and eventually the rotten Workchoices. Th union movement rather than striking against his laws called some impressive demos but failed to mobilise the anger to action in the workplace, instead diverting the anger into television ads and other dead ends.

Keep that lack of struggle, apart from occasional outbursts of the nurses, teachers, Baiada, Grocon, QCH, the ASIO building here in Canberra, keep that lack of struggle in mind.

Class struggle, and also street struggles, e.g. demos over refugees and equal marriage, can become an alternative focus to the parliamentary approach of Labor and the Greens.

Vote for us and things will be OK used to be Labor’s mantra. Now, after real examples for long periods of time of Labor in power and the attacks on wages, public services, privatisation and the like, the mantra has become – vote for us because the other lot are worse. However because of Labor’s action in power voters have drifted away, or more recently abandoned Labor. Labor’s current base level of support is 34%, and this is evidently something to cheer about because it is better than 26% or 30%, levels it has been at not so long ago. 

The Greens for a time seemed to offer some focus point for activists and left voters. But they too are a party of neoliberalism, as the carbon tax for example shows. And so their vote is stabilising around ten to 12 per cent. In the ACT election on Saturday it fell from 15% to 10%, perhaps because left voters rejected its conservatism and do little approach. But they didn’t go back to Labor.

It is against this background that we can begin to answer the question – why is there so little choice in Australian politics. Neoliberalism of all the parties is the surface answer; lack of class struggle the underlying answer.

What is the left alternative? For many years now we in Socialist Alternative have been arguing we need to build a revolutionary party, one committed to workers overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with a system in which production is organised democratically to satisfy human need.

This involved and involves a coalescing around some basic ideas – the emancipation of the working class is the act of the working class; state capitalism – the idea that the Stalinist regimes were and are a form of capitalism in which the state expropriated the surplus value workers created; that capitalism cannot be reformed to socialism; that mass working class revolution is the key to that. On top of that we have had a fairly sensible grasp of the situation we as a few hundred members find ourselves in. There are no get rich schemes for the left.

That means we continue our orientation to struggles when they break out. Why? Because that is where the challenges to the rule of capital even in small ways are occurring. Why the crackdown on Occupy in Sydney and Melbourne a year ago? Why the massive police presence at the Grocon dispute? Why the police attacks on Muslim demonstrators in Sydney, on Aboriginal tent Embassy demonstrators earlier this year?

Because to varying degrees and in different ways these actions challenge the unfettered rule of capital. And we support them. We are too small in most cases to instigate action, but we can support actions. We were heavily involved in the community picket at Baiada, the community picket at Grocon, the building workers’ dispute across the country at Lend Lease sites across the country. For example we went to ASIO building picket here in Canberra. We are an important part of the equal love movement – one of our members won an award for her work in Equal Love in Victoria – the refugee movement and, when it erupted in 2003, the anti-war movement. We work too in the pro-Palestinian movement. One of our members has won the ASU young delegates award for her work in organising workers at the tenants’ union in Victoria over better pay and conditions and leading strikes there.

We do this as part of our support for workers and others in struggle for a better life, to test our ideas and to meet people who might be interested in our politics. However we have also been building our group through our work on the campuses.

Socialist Alternative is a propaganda group. This means it attracts people on the basis of ideas. Campuses contain often young people some of whom are open to different ideas. A smaller group are open to revolutionary socialist ideas. But we are a propaganda group which intervenes in struggle where we can. So we don’t just talk about things, we try to put our ideas into practice.

This focus is very far removed from that of the Labor Party or the Greens, whose focus is not on struggle but every four years getting us to vote for them, a passive, all too infrequent exercise of democracy. We elect our rulers to dominate us for the next 3 or 4 years.  Because there is little choice between Labor and the Liberals, (and I would add, the Greens) there is little enthusiasm, energy or fever gripping society about the various elections – because little will change.  

In 2008 in the US there was massive excitement about voting for Obama, who has delivered the Bush agenda for the last four years, an agenda of making sure the rich stay rich and the rest of US society survive just, of shifting wealth to the wealthy. An agenda of war, of drones, of austerity. This lack of real change is systemic, not caused by particular individuals but by an accumulation process that demands more and more wealth for the rich to continue and to address declining profit rates and by parties representing the interests of the rich, the one per cent if you like.

History is built on the back of change, and change happens not because we elect good kind people to office but on the back of struggles – economic struggles for better pay, conditions, the defence of jobs, and political ones around for example refugees, equal love and against war. The 8 hour day was won through struggle and as one senior trade union leader remarked recently, maybe we need to fight for it again.

Sitting here as little group all this talk about workers and struggle, in an environment of class passivity, can seem a little unreal. Surely we should be involved in elections?

We have few resources, and we have to concentrate our forces in the appropriate areas, where people are in struggle, and where we can attract more people, the campuses and social movements.

Even if we were bigger elections would not be our main focus. It would be struggle – workers on strike, demos for gay marriage and the like. We would if were bigger instigate them and drag in significant sections of society because it is only through struggle that we can change the world.

However as profit rates dry up, as the economy worsens around the globe, the capacity of capital to pay for better wages, conditions and jobs, to service social spending, becomes less and less and capital goes more and more on the attack to keep and extend its profits.

Struggles have broken out in Europe, especially Greece, against austerity. They have had 19 general strikes. In Portugal and Spain workers have also been stirring from their slumbers, and striking. And of course the Arab Spring has been a magnificent example of what the masses can do – mass demonstrations to rid themselves of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, a mass uprising in Syria and so on.

The struggles in Tunisia and Egypt in fact show the real power in society too of workers. In Tunisia the UGTT called a four hour stoppage to join the day of protests. The dictator lost his last support and fled.  In Egypt mass strikes in 2008 at Malhala – a site of massive textile and other factories, possibly the biggest in the world – won economic demands and showed that Mubarak’s regime was not impregnable. The success of the revolution in Tunisia sparked the Egyptian masses and a few weeks later Mubarak was gone. In September 2011 strikes broke out across the country – a tenfold increase in what had been happening.

And the echo of that in the Occupy movement in North America and the globe was also felt briefly in Australia.

What do we see today? An ongoing process of revolution or turmoil in Egypt as more and more workers and peasants demand a better life; workers in different countries in Europe demonstrating and on strike to different degrees against austerity; the brief spark of the Occupy movement a year ago across the globe.

And in Australia, what do we see – endless replays of the PM tripping over in her high heels in India. But more than that we see Labor, again, attacking the poor, single mums, and the like and looking for more ways to use the scalpel, not the meat axe, on public services. We see a rabid Opposition ready to do a Campbell Newman federally and attack public service jobs and social welfare and social services; a Green movement that has abandoned its activist base and activity and mobilising people on the streets (but because they don’t have a class analysis or working class orientation, not and never mobilising workers) for the respectability of Parliament. 

And a revolutionary left in Australia that is small, but in Socialist Alternative’s case, growing slowly or not at least falling apart.

We are the biggest revolutionary group in Australia. And when the members of the smaller Revolutionary Socialist Party join us, we will be even bigger, and an open group with different ideas but committed to revolution and the working class overthrowing capitalism.

We will continue to work steadily on campuses, do work in our unions, relating to and supporting struggles where we can and leading them occasionally. We will continue too to develop our ideas, to strengthen our theory and our practice as best we can, to develop a current of revolutionaries in Australia. If you agree with that, you should find out more about us, or consider joining. We have a world to win.

If you are on the left of politics, if you want to fight against the system and see workers democratically running society to satisfy human need, not to make a profit, if you believe that goal requires a bigger group of socialists, then you should consider joining Socialist Alternative and joining us in the fight for a better world. We have a world to win.

[1] In looking at the situation up to 2006, Chris White makes the same observation. Chris White, ‘Inside the Tent,’ Evatt Foundation <>.

[2] Michael Janda, ‘Qantas dispute no reason for rushed IR reform’ The Drum 1 November 2011 <>. See also Tom Bramble and Rick Kuhn, Labor’s conflict.

[3] Jade Eckhaus, Why strikes are good’ Socialist Alternative 28 November 2011 <>. For a graph showing the dramatic decline see Tom Bramble, Trade Unionism in Australia: A History from Flood to Ebb Tide , 7.

[4] Michael Janda, above n 2.



Comment from Mary
Time October 25, 2012 at 9:10 am

well said, I agree but the biggest hurdle to climb is community apathy. This has been designed to control us by poor education. Debate or critical analysis is not taught. Seems only private schools teach debate
Public meetings in town halls have been discouraged by stupid insurance laws set to stop the community gathering to protest.

Where are all the anti uranium protests or anti nuclear war protests or save our forests protests where 10,000 used to turn up! People are too busy being consumers of rubbish or Attending sports tp bother about what is really happening around them. Politics have becomne too toxic so everyone turns off. The reply is always ” What can I do they will opnly do as the wish, we have no say in any decision making so why bother” . This angers me the power ofr the people must be ignited somehow.

Comment from Mary
Time October 25, 2012 at 9:20 am

Time poverty and fear of the unknown are the greatest setbacks to change in Australia today. Then there ias of course ignorance!

Comment from Kay
Time October 25, 2012 at 1:53 pm


Why do you seem so angry and are so negative and defeatist? Why do you seem to have such a ‘chip on the shoulder’? Critical analysis skills don’t need to be taught – just use your brain!

What you call “apathy”, I call ‘contentment’!

When people actually care about an issue, they will protest. People protested against the Carbon Tax. People don’t protest against nuclear war because the threat of it has eased significantly. That’s not a sign of apathy – just common sense. Plus, many people these days use emails or social media to voice their concerns. Probably more effective.

Comment from Kay
Time October 25, 2012 at 2:13 pm


Do you honestly believe that there is any likelihood of a ‘workers’ revolution’ in this country? I can’t see why there should be. And as for this idyll you paint of “workers democratically running society to satisfy human need, not to make a profit”, just where in the world has this scenario ever existed?

By and large, despite occasional economic booms and busts, most people here are doing reasonably well in our capitalist society. They are certainly not doing so badly that they are anywhere near staging a revolution!

I must say I am appalled that your group has a policy of joining in ANY protest that is going! Very cynical and opportunistic. And your decrying the reduction in the number of strikes – frequent strikes do little but damage the economy – and that impacts on everyone.

Comment from John
Time October 26, 2012 at 10:54 am

Where in the world? Nowhere. 2.2 million are in poverty. i don’t call that well off. And there is a possibility Greece will come to Australia. We support workers in struggle. nothing wrong with that. We are key participants in Equal Love and Refugee Action, and Students for Palestine. We helped build and keep them going. Nothing opportunistic about that.

Comment from Gary
Time October 26, 2012 at 6:18 pm

A very good article and lots to think about.

But I still am not sure that I agree with your view that you cannot vote for revolutionary change.

Revolutions have occured in South Africa through elections, and they may yet vote out Zuma. In Poland, Czech Republic and Eastern Europe we have seen monumental shifts brought about by voting for leaders who can change their nations. Thatcher changed the UK as much as Keating built Australia into a modern and better nation.

You bag Obama, but the US under his leadership all but pulled out of Iraq (and he voted against war) and is withdrawing from Afghanistan. You cannot compare Obama with Bush. America is very different now than it was 10 years ago.

I would posit that the best way to end capitalist domination here is through elections.

Again, Bob Brown changed environmental policies in Tasmania and I’d say nationally by standing up and courting votes.

I don’t think you can stay on the sidelines calling for workers to start the process and then when there is momentum, try to take control of the movement. To me – and it’s just an opinion John – leadership and elections can and do revolutionise the world.

Just wait till Abbott gets in and see the difference.

But a great article, as I said.

Comment from Mick
Time October 26, 2012 at 6:25 pm

This has to be one of the worst times in our political history.

It’s embarrassing from either perspective, and there appears to be no solution.



Comment from Lorikeet
Time October 26, 2012 at 7:22 pm

Clearly Kay has never checked out the food bank queues or switched on the television set in the evening to see women with children living on the streets.

If she read the e-newsletter we both receive every week, she would know that lots of people in the over-50s age group cannot find work, and are living on the streets and receiving this pitiful handout called Newstart.

I trust that if Kay headed out to the next Homeless Connect Day with a bag of jumpers she had personally knitted, she would soon realise that what she considers to be “merely very well off” is a very far cry from the experience of the vast bulk of the community, let alone its poorest citizens.

For months here in Brisbane, we had a group protesting against corporate greed, and being constantly moved on by the police. This was often reported on national television during peak viewing times.

My dad belonged to one of the most powerful, militant unions in the country. Withdrawing your labour soon teaches employers a lesson they richly deserve.

Pingback from En Passant » Saturday’s socialist speak out
Time October 27, 2012 at 11:42 am

[…] Socialist Alternative and the Revolutionary Socialist Party continues apace. I gave a talk on elections, struggle and re-building the left to a Socialist Alternative Canberra meeting with RSP members also attending.  If this merger comes […]

Comment from John
Time October 27, 2012 at 10:05 pm

Gary, the election in South Africa only came about through struggle, in particular the working class strikes organised by COSATU and the campaigns of the ANC and the international solidarity movement. Similarly the dictatorships in Eastern Europe fell because of economic inefficiency and the mass of the people on the streets overthrowing the Stalinists. Indeed in Poland the rise of Solidarity was the key to getting rid of the dictatorship. Elections flowed from that mass action. Obama is worse than Bush in terms of drones.

Comment from Gary
Time October 28, 2012 at 12:21 pm

Yes indeed. And these movements had leaders who directed and formed actions, polices, information and political parties.

Solidarity had a visible leader, as did the ANC and every other mass rise that successfully overthew a system or government.

Look at Egypt. A popular uprising against a dictator but with no leadership. And the result is chaos and murder, bloodshed and no proper administration. Ditto for Libya and probably Syria too.

I believe it is through strong leadership that sustainable revolutuions work. Any group can take arms and wipe out a government these days, but to change the system, like in SA or Eastern Europe, you need political leadership to fill the vacuum.

The Socialist movemement decries the ACT election result but won’t contest at the ballot box. This doesn’t make sense to me. You want the people to strike, to shake off capitalism, to turn away from neo-liberalism and yet they have no leader, no figurehead to direct this massive upheaval.

I don’t understand why you won’t take the democratic pathway, yet atttack those who do?

And I really don’t see how Obama is worse than Bush. The latter sent America into two wars and as a result tens of thousands have died. Obama ended one war and is ending another. Drones v the destruction of Iraq? And you say drones are worse? I don’t thik so.

Comment from John
Time October 28, 2012 at 5:17 pm

The point is to build that leadership on the ground, around ideas since we are too small to b anything other than a propaganda group that occasionally intervenes in struggles where it can. Mandela didn’t come to leadership of the movement against the regime by running in general elections; Walesa neither.

If you can’t see that Obama is a continuation of Bush then so be it. US troops remain in Iraq; they remain and in fact increased under Obama in Afghanistan. Now that that war is lost he has a plan for strategic withdrawal. Drone bombs are an example of the fact he leads a brutal regime prepared to kill anyone in its interests. Both Obama and Romney threaten Iran; both remain committed to US imperialism and the 350,000 troops in 130 bases around the world, including upgrading Darwin; both support Israel to the hilt; etc. Both cannot address poverty and unemployment in their own country.

The dichotomy you draw between leadership and lack of it is false. Tunisia’s dictator fell when the unions went on strike. The regime is sort of stable except it cannot provide economic benefits to its people, and the revolution continue sin another form. Egypt is similar ans the second stage f the revolution unfolds and people demand better economic lives and the leadership – the Muslim Brotherhood and it snew allies, the Army, can’t deliver. There is a leadership in Syria – the Free Syrian Army on the ground.

Comment from Ewen
Time October 28, 2012 at 7:37 pm

I agree with you John about the Bush/Obama argument but as revolutionaries I believe we must attack capitalism with whatever it takes be it a revolution in the streets or via parliament. In a fight, especially against a more powerful opponent you must utilise whatever you can at your disposal to win!
I believe that unity of the left is better than division and being in discussion for unity is progressive and to niggle at each other is destructive for our cause.
About elections, this weekend we have the counsel elections here in Victoria. Steve Jolly of the Socialist Party is clearly in front in the city of Yarra, Langridge ward, while Sue Bolton from Socialist Alliance is currently running 3rd and rising out of 24 candidates in the Moreland council, North East ward. Sue Bull of Socialist Alliance is running for Mayor in the city of Greater Geelong and we are yet to see the results there.
These are encouraging results for our movement and cannot be ignored and should be built on progressively for the better of the left.

Comment from Lorikeet
Time October 29, 2012 at 9:10 am

Gary and Ewen,

How do you propose to get a leader into the media to spread the word???

Comment from Ewen
Time October 29, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Now that is a hard one Lorikeet. I suppose the more momentum we can gather, the more we can recruit experienced and suitable people. With growth would come exposure that the media cannot ignore.

Comment from Lorikeet
Time October 29, 2012 at 7:54 pm

I find that people mostly hate politicians and trying to get anyone to join a party is difficult, partly because they also have very little spare time.

I think the best way to launch a political party into the media arena might be to recruit a leader from among those already sitting in the parliament.

As we know, Bob Katter is a maverick who has been around for decades. He managed to launch his own party and has some excellent Pro-Australia policies, but the major difficulty faced is probably the propensity of the masses to swing like pendulums between Labor and Coalition.

Because Bob Katter is a Queenslander, I think it will be more difficult for The Australian Party to win federal seats in other states.

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