Australian political situation report

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While the global economic meltdown is yet to hit Australia hard, the turbulent international political situation still reverberates in this relatively sheltered, wealthy country.

The year began with the Wikileaks cables revealing war crimes and treachery, and rallies for Australian citizen Julian Assange — who faced arrest without charge, and has now been detained for over a year, with serious fears of extradition to the US. Despite the Gillard Government condemning Wikileaks, public action has been overwhelmingly on Assange and Wikileaks’ side, with thousands attending rallies and forums such as the 2500-strong Sydney Town Hall event with John Pilger, Andrew Wilkie, and Julian Burnside, which SA played a strong role in organising. On the opposite end of the media, the Murdoch empire has been publically shamed over revelations of telephone hacking, police bribery and political deal making — exposing the depths to which the mainstream media stoops.

Australians rallied in solidarity with the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and across the Arab world — and to oppose the West's ongoing support for the region's dictators, such as Hosni Mubarak. The inspiration that people power can topple decades-long dictatorships continues to echo even this far across the globe! But they also come with a warning, as we see the West attempting to intervene.

As the draft Perspectives Resolutionpoints argues: (Point 1, c)

While we commit to building solidarity with all revolts against tyranny and exploitation ... we also recognise that the governments of the richest and most powerful capitalist states are seeking to intervene in the “Arab Spring” revolts to further their own imperialist aims. The Socialist Alliance opposes such interventions.

The resolution also points out the insanity of war, noting that: (Rationale, 4)

the richest capitalist states now wage permanent imperialist wars in order to carry on business amidst the unprecedented global inequality.

This describes the horrific ongoing war on Afghanistan which has reached 10 years, with Australia's continued involvement. Last year we helped organise Afghan anti-war and feminist activist Malalai Joya’s tour, initiated by Stop the War Coalition, which inspired hundreds with her troops out message. Months later, anti-war activists headed to Canberra to confront US President Obama as he outlined plans to build a US military base in Darwin. With moves for increasing US-Australia military links in 2012, we need to help organise the anti-war movement in 2012. While the movement is currently small, we need to remember that a huge, passive sentiment against the war persists, sentiment that could quickly become active as circumstances change.

Palestine will also continue as a solidarity campaign focus. Another brave Gaza Flotilla took place in 2011, and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign is gaining profile in the face of relentless attacks. In a similar vein, there is currently an attack on SBS for showing the drama The Promise that is sympathetic to the Palestinian plight.

Yet perhaps the story of 2011 occurred near the year's conclusion, with the birth of the global Occupy movement. Occupy not only smashed the illusion that revolt couldn't happen in the US, but also exploded the idea that today's youth have simply submitted to the dominant consumerist, individualist culture.

But isn’t Australia immune?

The draft Perspectives Resolution (Rationale, 2) states:

While Australia has not so far experienced the high levels of unemployment and deprivation that have hit the United States, Europe and many other countries, significant sections of its population are struggling to keep up with rising living costs and facing high levels of job insecurity.

This is why the Occupy movement resonated widely, even in Australia. Ultimately it wasn't able to draw in large numbers actively, allowing the state to turn Occupy into running battles to survive. But Occupy is still, in whatever limited form, ongoing in various cities — and of course globally is still a phenomena.

The draft Perspectives Resolution (Part 1, b) commits us to:

building the Occupy movement and all other mass democratic expressions of the new wave of struggle and [to] work consistently to broaden the base of these movements and deepen its democracy and unity in action.

What Occupy needs in Australia, and what has seen it at its best is to find a focus — e.g. the Baiada strike in Victoria, or the support for the Clean Start campaign in Sydney, was when Occupy was at its best.

Australia, as a whole, is not immune from the economic crisis. The mining boom has papered over a 2, or more, speed economy — where mining makes super profits, yet many other economic areas are in decline. Inequality is high and growing in Australia (the poorest 20% own just 1% of the wealth), and the draft Towards a Socialist Australiapoints out:

Two million people live in poverty ... at least 100,000 are homeless on any given night ... Pensions and unemployment benefits are far below poverty levels ... Millions fall into the categories of ‘underemployed' and ‘working poor’.

With the highly globalised world economy, it is hard to see Europe and the US going into recession without the rest of the world being hit hard also.

In Australia’s case, China plays a crucial role. As Europe and the US face recession, demand for China’s exports fall, hitting China’s need for Australian resources. However, the situation is not clear cut. Around half China’s trade is with the so-called developing world, and with China still having a relatively more centralised economy, it may be able to lessen impacts from the crisis.

Overall, however, Australia won’t be able to remain immune from the economic crisis for long. And we can see what the capitalist’s approach to the crisis in their system is — try to make the workers’ pay. We can expect and are already seeing attacks on wages, conditions, on ability to struggle, further privatisations, and cuts to services.

The question for Socialist Alliance is: how can we best organise resistance to such attacks?

Trade unions: still stifled by the ALP

The Labor government has proved to be thoroughly anti-worker. It has maintained anti-union laws, with Fair Work Australia including severe restrictions on the right to take industrial action. The Australian Building and Construction Commission still exists, and while legislation has been tabled to abolish the ABCC, its functions are to be incorporated into the FWA act, and coercive powers — such that saw Ark Tribe staring down six month’s jail — are to be maintained.

In a recent example of the pro-boss nature of Fair Work Australia, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce was able to utilise the act to terminate legal, protected industrial action that the union had voted for. While Joyce was able to stage his lockout without warning, unions must give one month’s notice before taking industrial action — giving bosses plenty of time to prepare lockouts or organise scabs. Fair Work Australia was also used by the Victorian Baillieu government to order nurses to lift industrial action being used to defend nurse patient ratios. Yet despite FWA being Work Choices "lite", bosses are still calling for even its minor reforms to be weakened.

The ALP remains in crisis as a party — from historical highs of 150,000 members, it dropped to 50,000 members in the 1990s, and is now down to 31000 members. Of that shrunken figure, in the recent vote for president — which last time saw 55% vote, only 11000 or 37% voted (31000 ballots went out).

There is simultaneous strain on the ALP’s relationship with the unions, and some desperate attempts for “renewal”, such as the Faulkner review, along with attempts to bring unions back into the fold. Former AWU head Bill Shorten was made Industrial relations minister, and immediately intervened to resolve the POAG waterfront dispute, trying to win some credit with the union movement.

Unions have won some limited concessions over the last year. After a decades long struggle for equal pay, in late 2011 the government announced it would endorse the Australian Services Union’s case for equal pay.

The picket line victory of the Baiada poultry workers in Victoria was inspiring. Workers took action after facing deplorable factory conditions, below minimum wages, bullying, and finally a horrific workplace decapitation death, after management refused to shut down a chicken packing machine while the worker clean it. After 13 days on the picket line, supported by a range of community groups, workers won an 8% wage rise, increased injury pay, casual labour to be paid no less than permanent employees, and increased union organising rights.

However, militant action has been limited. Despite the anti-union policies of the ALP, it still has huge institutional weight and it remains difficult to build a militant current politically independent of Labor.

One important event in 2012 to help rebuild the militant wing of the labour movement is the planned national gathering of unionists and activists supporting the Right to Strike, in Sydney on May 14.

The Perspectives Resolution (Part 4, b) states that SA:

welcomes and endorses the national 'Right To Strike Campaign' and we welcome and build the national gathering which will be on the eve of the ACTU Congress (May 15-17 in Sydney).

At the same time as committing to building this event and the RTS campaign as a whole, SA needs to be actively engaged in all of these picket line struggles as with Baiada, linking arms with the workers, building community support and networks, developing solidarity, reporting in GLW. We need to expand SA members' involvement in their unions, and step up our organisation in this area to put us in the best position to defend working class interests.

In concluding the section on union struggle, it is worth reflecting on the importance of workers' struggles in Egypt and Tunisia's revolutions. Far more important than the greatly heralded Facebook and Twitter effects, was the 'old fashioned' working class, which enabled the revolutions to flourish. In Egypt, starting in the clothing and textile sector, and moving on to building workers, transport and food workers, over 1900 strikes took place in the 4 years leading up to the revolution, involving 1.7 million workers and huge demonstrations. These strikes occurred in the face of the official (state controlled) union's opposition. Similarly in Tunisia, a pivotal battle was the 6 month strike at a phosphate plant that inspired young unemployed workers to action.

Racism, refugees and Aboriginal rights

Part 5 of the draft Perspectives Resolution states that:

If the exploited majority does not collectively resist [the capitalist’s] attack, the capitalists can deflect the blame for the pain on to oppressed minorities who it scapegoats, exploiting racist and other reactionary prejudices.

So the 1% tries to make the 99% wear the pain, and deflect the growing anger on to scapegoats — in Australia, refugees and Aboriginal people bear the brunt of such attacks.

The few thousand asylum seekers arriving annually by boat, fleeing war zones Australia has helped create, account for just a couple of per cent of Australia's annual immigration intake. Yet such “boat people” are a daily political and media punching bag. As the ALP and the Coalition engage in a race to the bottom on anti-refugee rhetoric and policy, the refugee rights movement has re-emerged.

The crisis around refugees could hardly be worse — suicides and self-harm are regular occurrences in what mental health expert Pat McGorry described as “factories for mental illness”, run by private profiteers Serco; new detention centres are being built and old ones expanded as detention numbers increase; mass deportations to danger are threatened including Hazaras to Afghanistan and Tamils to Sri Lanka; and the 'solutions' are to dump refugees in Malaysia or Nauru.

But as the horror grows, so does the grassroots opposition. Refugee advocates that hoped the election of a Labor Government would bring refugee rights, have realised the struggle continues, and restarted their networks. Last month’s national refugee consultation, which SA played a key role in initiating, brought together 70 activists from 8 cities across the country to plan 2012 campaigns. SA members need to be organising to implement the key decisions from the consultation, including:

  • supporting the Easter refugee rights convergence in Darwin (plus local actions during Easter);
  • helping organise large rallies to mark “20 years of mandatory detention” around World Refugee Day (the weekend of June 23-24);
  • to organise a national gathering of refugee rights campaign groups in the second half of 2012;
  • to hold nationally coordinated action around the ASIO security rejections some time in 2012; and
  • to get involved in the new national working groups for the Easter convergence, fighting deportations, ASIO/security, unions and the National gathering.

The situation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is just as horrendous. Labor has expanded the racist NT Intervention, despite figures showing the punitive, disempowering policies have seen Indigenous incarceration go up, school attendance drop, and suicide increase. Government policies have also seen bilingual education banned, and the withdrawal of support for homelands, centralising services in a small number of “hub towns”, further undermining self-determination and land rights. Now the paternalistic welfare measures will see welfare linked to school attendance, and are being extended to other parts of the country, particularly areas with large migrant and Aboriginal populations.

Meanwhile Black Deaths in Custody also continue, while the Government plans toxic waste dumps and uranium mining on Aboriginal land.

Yet Aboriginal people and supporters continue to struggle. In a few days’ time, one of the most significant gatherings of Aboriginal People in years will take place at the 40th anniversary of the tent embassy in Canberra — SA members who can make it should attend. Indeed the tent embassy was described internationally as the first Occupy event — now tent protests are occurring globally! The Our Generation film, which outlines the injustice of the intervention, has screened hundreds of times to tens of thousands of people, and is something that SA branches can promote; Aboriginal activists from Muckaty to the Kimberleys have toured Australia and we need to support such tours; and of course we need to be involved in rallies against the Intervention and Deaths in Custody.

Equal marriage rights

One of the largest consistently mobilising campaigns of recent times has been for equal marriage rights, culminating in the December 3 march of 10,000 people to the ALP's National Conference. Years of campaigning, much of which was initiated and pushed by Socialist Alliance comrades, has seen equal marriage opponents flip into becoming supporters, the emergence of a broad and youthful equal marriage movement, and a consistently large majority of the population in support of equality. The development of the movement can be traced in our excellent new Rainbow Liberation pamphlet.

The ALP Conference passed a concession motion, on the one hand adopting marriage equality in the ALP platform, but immediately rendering that position ineffective by allowing a conscience vote, which currently means legislation for equal marriage would fail in parliament.

Yet the change in ALP platform is a victory for the movement — and this year we need to show that the campaign won't stop, and intends to drive home this partial victory with the passing of equal marriage into law. The more conservative sections of the movement are turning towards lobbying of the Coalition to have a conscience vote, but we need to keep a focus on mobilising the majority support for equality. The first step will be when equal marriage campaigners rally in Canberra on February 7, the first day of Federal Parliament, to demand equality.

Coal seam gas and the climate movement

The last year has seen an explosion in the growth of the anti-Coal Seam Gas (CSG) campaign. The Lock the Gate Alliance now groups 133 community organisations fighting CSG, in Queensland, NSW, Victoria and Western Australia.

The breadth of the campaign is impressive, involving country and city, farmers and socialists, celebrities and greenies. In NSW, the entire campaign came behind demands the Socialist Alliance put forward, with more than 20,000 people signing a petition for a Royal Commission into all effects of CSG activity, a moratorium on all CSG activity, and an immediate ban on fracking. These demands, which effectively would halt CSG completely, have been broad enough to enable the biggest mobilisations possible. Tens of thousands have rallied, with Illawarra holding the 2 largest environment rallies ever in that area. Small towns have had protests involving almost the entire community.

As the movement grows and broadens, governments are on the back foot on CSG. In Queensland the Bligh Government banned CSG activity within 2km of housing; in NSW the O'Farrell Government submitted to pressure by putting a temporary moratorium, since extended, on fracking, while the Labor Opposition, having approved many CSG mines, has back flipped in opposition to supporting a CSG moratorium.

However, the hard work of the campaign is ahead. Queensland already has over 1800 CSG wells, more than 4,000 approved, and could have 40,000 wells by 2030. In 2012 the movement will need to grow so strong that allowing CSG will be poison for any government. Socialist Alliance has a vital role to play in building the movement in the cities as well as the country, and organising forces to join farmers on the blockades.

The campaign also has an important role to play in inspiring the broader climate movement, as the global climate change emergency reaches critical “tipping points”. The narrow debate around the Gillard Government's carbon pricing plan disoriented the climate movement. However, many of the tens of thousands who are coming out against CSG see the need for a rapid transition to real climate solutions, especially mass investment in renewable energy.

On April 28 and 29 the next Climate Summit will be held in Western Sydney — a good opportunity to bring the CSG campaign and the broader climate movement strategies together.

Another environment challenge for 2012 will be taking on the ALP's recent decision to authorise uranium sales to India, further putting profit before the planet.

The Greens and left unity

The Perspectives Resolution (Part 3, b) notes that:

The increasing gap between the expectations of working people and the real action delivered by Labor governments continues to open political space to Labour’s left. The Socialist Alliance recognises that the largest part of the electoral space to the left of Labor is being filled by the Greens.

The electoral rise of the Greens continues unabated, as anger grows at the bipartisan conservatism of Labor and the Coalition. The Greens are polling 13% nationally, and now have more elected federal, state and council representatives than ever, a situation the Socialist Alliance welcomes as encouraging for the left as a whole.

But with the rise of the Greens come greater pressures for them. In the face of growing corporate attacks, will the Greens stay true to their progressive principles, or adapt to the more “acceptable” role demanded from the establishment?

The Resolution continues:

The Socialist Alliance seeks the greatest possible political collaboration with the Greens, but also understands that it has an important responsibility to present a socialist perspective at elections and to present clear alternative policies.

In Tasmania, the Greens are in formal coalition with Labor, have taken ministerial positions, and have helped administer a government and budget that has cut public sector workers' rights, savaged the state’s health services, and attacked the housing department. In NSW, Israel supporters and the media led a vicious campaign against the Greens' Fiona Byrne, for her support as Marrickville mayor for the peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign targeting Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Byrne and other Green BDS supporters also came under attack from more conservative Green leaders, including Federal Leader Bob Brown, with the NSW Greens ultimately retreating to a compromise position on BDS.

The challenges for the Greens, and the tensions between left and right Greens, are likely to develop further this year. The Perspectives (Part 3, c) also makes clear that while we seek the strongest “red/green” unity, including the greatest possible collaboration with the Greens, we also recognise the need to keep alive an independent socialist voice and a mass movement, not a narrow parliamentary, approach to politics.

The draft resolution also outlines our ongoing pro-unity approach, seeking to organise a broad socialist party, and trying to work in progressive alliances

A left unity and community democracy project for Socialist Alliance in Illawarra in 2011 was our involvement in Community Voice (CV). This experience, initiated with broad support in various community sectors and bolstered by local activism, particularly the stop CSG campaign, got off to a great start. The open, democratic pre-selection meeting with over 100 CV members was a real high point.

But despite most Greens members supporting CV, the local Greens branch couldn't find consensus on participating in CV, so pulled out of the process running under its own banner. The “red rev”, Gordon Bradbury, also decided he was more electorally viable running alone so pulled out of the process too (he was subsequently elected mayor).

In the context of these departures CV did really well. The campaign’s initial momentum meant other candidates adopted parts of CV’s platform which has influenced the new council — an example is “red rev” Mayor's strong opposition to CSG.


The Australian political landscape for 2012 remains heavily dependent on global developments — the ongoing economic and environmental meltdowns, further uprisings in the Middle East, Wikileaks, the Occupy movement, threats to Iran — and our solidarity work with these. In Australia, key campaigns involve moral outrage at clear injustices — refugee treatment, ongoing Aboriginal oppression, and marriage inequality. In terms of community-based campaigns, the movement to stop CSG is a standout for 2012, a broad movement capable of growing into a powerful force for change.

It is impossible to predict the exact breakouts that will occur, just as no one predicted the Occupy movement. But the last year is a clear indication that as capitalism flounders economically, environmentally and socially, existing revolts and campaigns will continue and deepen, and new campaigns emerge at both the global and national levels.

While we will have a separate discussion to focus on SA building work, it is worth underlining the unparalleled role of Green Left Weekly, as the Resolution notes (Part 5, g):

a broad paper for the socialist and progressive movements. help strengthen these movements, we need to write for the paper, help distribute it, help fundraise for it.

Finally it is worth making clear that not only do we commit to actively building a wide range of these movements, and involving the largest numbers of people in campaigns for progressive change; but we also need to be raising the need for system change. Winning more people to a broader socialist viewpoint will boost our impact on campaigns, and bring closer a world that puts people and the planet before profits.