Defending comradely solidarity in Socialist Alliance

Defending comradely solidarity in Socialist Alliance

[Explanatory note: This contribution was prepared by a working group tasked by the National Executive with reviewing our Constitution and Code of Conduct to clarify and strengthen the organisation’s ability to prevent and deal with abusive and violent behaviour in the organisation.

The working group also contributed to the section of Susan Price’s contribution, “Thinking about Party Leadership and Functioning in Socialist Alliance” on “Sexism, Racism, Homophobia, Ableism, Ageism in the Party”.

The document is a revision of the original Socialist Alliance Code of Conduct (adopted in July 2003, and published in Alliance Voices Vol.3, No.10, September 2003) with new appended guidelines to assist leadership bodies dealing with reports of sexual assault by members. The contribution also proposes some small amendments to the Socialist Alliance Constitution.

Discussion on the draft is welcome and will assist the working group to prepare a revised document and a contextualising report for consideration at the SA National Conference in June.]

* * *

Socialist Alliance seeks to become a united voice in Australia for those looking for a world free from oppression and exploitation.

Our aim is to develop the broadest possible political organisation of socialists. We encourage those looking for an electoral and party alternative to Labor, a socialist alternative to the Greens, and activists and supporters in the union and anti-capitalist movements to join us. We also welcome to our ranks all of those who seek an end to oppression of women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, LGBTIQ, people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, people with disabilities and mental and physical illness, sex workers and all oppressed groups. Socialist Alliance is an inclusive organisation that celebrates diversity within its membership.

To develop our organisation we are committed to engendering a climate of respect for the variety of experience, analysis and opinion that exists among those already in our ranks, and those whom we stand alongside in the anti-capitalist struggle.

The only way to win the struggle against capitalist rule is through cooperative unity in action, overcoming the divisions of race, gender, etc. that are created and fostered by the capitalist class to weaken the majority.

We strive to conduct ourselves in a comradely manner in our interactions with fellow members of Socialist Alliance and those with whom we struggle for progressive social change.

Sexism, racism, discrimination, harassment, bullying and violent abuse are endemic under capitalism. These behaviours not only damage individuals and communities but also pose a serious threat to democracy in our organisation and the political solidarity and mutual confidence so essential to building a united team of activists and an effective political leadership.

Members join Socialist Alliance with very different political experiences and different levels of consciousness, and the distortions and divisions of class society affect us all. Socialist Alliance deals with these differences politically by seeking to develop in all members a consciousness of all forms of oppression, an understanding of their origins in the social structure of class society, and a commitment to act against all manifestations of such oppression and to struggle to eradicate the basis of such oppressions.

Conduct in Socialist Alliance meetings

Socialist Alliance is dedicated to developing the political skills of all its members and strengthening the political effectiveness of the party. In order to do so, it is important that all Socialist Alliance meetings are run in a thoroughly democratic way aimed at maximising participation and effectiveness.

SA meetings are important forums through which many viewpoints can be considered and decisions made democratically. The chairperson is the member through whom discussion is facilitated and meeting effectiveness ensured. Within the framework of an agreed chair, agenda and meeting procedure, we uphold the right of all attendees to express their opinions. Where the expressed opinions contravene principles of comradely conduct, the meeting is encouraged to take steps to make that clear and redress the situation. Meeting participants are encouraged not to talk over one another during formal proceedings or discussion. The duties of the chairperson should be rotated so that all members can gain the experience and skill necessary to lead others.

No Discrimination

Broadly, discrimination is treating a person or people less favourably than others, because they are a member of an oppressed group.

Discrimination is not always conscious — many people who discriminate are unaware that they are doing so. Discrimination both produces and reinforces marginalisation and oppression. All members should actively build a culture of comradely respect and mutuality in Socialist Alliance and consciously combat discrimination.

No Bullying

Debate within the Alliance is encouraged and passion and enthusiasm are celebrated elements of socialist practice. However, all members are encouraged to reflect on their behaviour, and refrain from verbal or physical acts that others might find threatening or intimidating. Bullying behaviour can range from raising one’s voice and finger pointing to more extreme forms of physical and psychological intimidation. It can also include physical behaviour designed to undermine the confidence of a person when they are speaking.

No Harassment

Harassment can vary in severity from annoying to abusive, depending on its nature and on the degree of social, economic, organisational or other power held by the harasser in relation to the person or people they harass. Harassment includes the use of sexist or racist language, and unwanted sexual advances. Racial vilification is a very aggressive form of harassment.

Harassment is unacceptable in Socialist Alliance and will not be tolerated. All Socialist Alliance members have a responsibility to treat their fellow members in a way consistent with this policy at all times.

Sexual harassment can vary in severity from annoying to abusive, depending on its nature and on the degree of social, economic, organisational or other power held by the harasser in relation to the person they harass. Branch executives may be able to halt isolated or unwitting incidents of sexual harassment by discussion and education. A key consideration here is whether the member or members who have been harassed consider the harassment merely “annoying” or “minor”.

Persistent and/or serious sexual harassment by a member should trigger prompt consideration of their membership status in accordance with the constitution, whether or not the harassment would constitute an offence under criminal law.

No violence or abuse

Violent abuse will not be tolerated within Socialist Alliance under any circumstances. It lies at the most extreme end of the spectrum of behaviour that undermines solidarity and democracy within the working class organisation we are striving to build and in our class as a whole.

Socialist Alliance is a political organisation and is not constituted to conduct forensic investigations or court proceedings or to dispense justice to survivors or perpetrators of violence and abuse. We do, however, have democratic processes in place to determine our membership. Perpetrators of antisocial violent abuse - either within the organisation or outside - are not welcome in Socialist Alliance. Our constitution empowers our leadership bodies to expel members whose behaviour threatens the solidarity and democracy on which our existence depends.

Socialist Alliance has developed Guidelines (below) to assist branch leaderships to deal with reports of sexual violence committed by a member.

What can I do?

Any member, who feels harassed, discriminated against, bullied, intimidated or violently abused by another Socialist Alliance member, whether in one-on-one interactions or in larger groups during meetings or other activities of the Socialist Alliance, is encouraged to raise the matter with a Branch Convenor, State Convenor or National Convenor.

All members with knowledge of antisocial violence perpetrated by another Socialist Alliance member have a responsibility to report it to their branch leadership.

Guidelines for dealing with reports of sexual violence

The following guidelines have been developed to assist branch and national leaderships to deal with sexual harassment and assault, especially of women by men, which is endemic in Australian society. They can also be applied to deal with same-sex sexual harassment and assault, or other forms of sexual violence.

They do not set out a judicial or quasi-judicial process but rather guidance for leadership bodies to carry out their democratic role, under the constitution, in relation to the suspension or termination of membership. The process is not intended to replace or replicate criminal laws.

Socialist Alliance recognises that there are serious flaws in the way the Australian legal system deals with both survivors and perpetrators of sexual violence. We are struggling to replace sexist bourgeois law with socialist laws and processes that truly address and reduce all forms of violence.  But we also support the feminist demand that sexual assault - inside or outside a sexual relationship - should be treated as a serious crime under the existing legal system. We do not agree with those who argue that survivors of sexual assault should not access the criminal justice system. We support the feminist organisations that have fought and continue to fight for justice and safety for survivors in the here and now.

The process used by a branch or national executive dealing with a report or observation of sexual harassment or assault by a member should be appropriate to the circumstances of each case, but the following is intended to provide guidance.

Guidelines for dealing with reports of sexual assault in Socialist Alliance

  1. 1. Sexual assault is unacceptable within Socialist Alliance. 
  1. 2. A person who reports sexual assault against them by another member should be supported to access professional counselling and advice regarding their options including reporting the matter to police for investigation. Branch executives should familiarize themselves with the organisations and resources available in their local area for this purpose, such as sexual assault counselling services and women’s health centres. 
  1. 3. When dealing with a report or observation of sexual assault the executive should act as promptly, and confidentially, as fair process allows. 
  1. 4. A decision regarding the membership of a member accused of sexually assaulting another person should not be delayed pending the result of criminal proceedings. 
  1. 5. The role of the branch or national executive, i.e. as decision-maker on membership and not as a quasi-judicial body judging guilt or innocence, should be made clear to all members involved in a report of sexual assault. 
  1. 6. If a person who has reported a sexual assault against them by a member wishes to withdraw their report, their wishes should be respected.
  1. 7. All reports of sexual assault to a branch executive should be notified to the National Executive.
  1. 8. Both the member reported to have been assaulted and an accused member should be assigned contact people on the executive to keep them regularly informed of the progress of the matter and for them to contact when they want to. There should be maximum transparency and accountability of process balanced with respect for confidentiality.
  1. 9. Members of an executive dealing with a report of sexual assault who are friends of the accused member, or have worked closely with them, should not participate in the decision-making process. If this is not possible on a branch executive the matter should be referred to the National Executive.
  1. 10. A person reporting that a member has sexually assaulted them may elect to have their report dealt with by the National Executive rather than by a branch executive.
  1. 11. A branch or national executive dealing with a report of sexual assault may decide to form an investigation subcommittee to investigate a matter but the decision, under the constitution, regarding membership of the accused can only be made by the executive as whole.  
  1. 12. Any member with knowledge of the matter should be allowed to speak to the executive, on request, but no information about the facts of the case should be provided to members making contributions in this way. The executive’s role should only be to listen to their contribution.
Relevant clauses of the Socialist Alliance Constitution
5.5 A financial member who through their actions brings the Alliance into disrepute or who engages in behaviour that is considered to be detrimental to the best interests of the Alliance, may be asked by the branch executive or the National Executive to show cause within 30 days why the member’s membership should not be suspended or cancelled. The relevant branch or the National Executive shall after that time make a decision to maintain, suspend or cancel that person’s membership.
5.6 A member who has responded to such a request, and has subsequently had his/her membership suspended or cancelled, is entitled to lodge an appeal with the National Executive against the decision to suspend or cancel the membership of that person.
5.7 The National Executive is empowered to consider an appeal against the suspension or cancellation of a member’s membership, and may take reports in writing or other form in making its decision. The National Executive will consider an appeal promptly, and at most within 60 days of the lodgement of the appeal with the National Convener, and convey its decision to the appellant promptly on making its decision. A decision of the National Executive under this Section is final.
5.8 The National Conference will be the body to review a National Executive initiative to suspend or cancel the membership of a member. The decision of National Conference shall be final.
Proposed changes to the Socialist Alliance Constitution:
In Section 5.5: Insert after "behaviour" the words "that disrupts the inclusive and non-sectarian democracy of the Socialist Alliance or".
The amended Section 5.5 would then read:
5.5 A financial member who through their actions brings the Alliance into disrepute or who engages in behaviour that disrupts the inclusive and non-sectarian democracy of the Socialist Alliance or that is considered to be detrimental to the best interests of the Alliance, may be asked by the branch executive or the National Executive to show cause within 30 days why the member’s membership should not be suspended or cancelled. The relevant branch or the National Executive shall after that time make a decision to maintain, suspend or cancel that person’s membership.
In Section 5.6: Insert after the words “or cancelled” the words “by their branch executive”.
The amended Section 5.6 would then read:
5.6 A member who has responded to such a request, and has subsequently had his/her membership suspended or cancelled by their branch executive, is entitled to lodge an appeal with the National Executive against the decision to suspend or cancel the membership of that person.