It is inaccurate and misleading to characterise the Labor government policies and the politics of Kevin Rudd as “Howard Lite”. There are areas where significant changes have been made: signing up to Kyoto; shifting away from a Climate Change denial position; Apology to the Stolen Generations; significant changes to Mandatory Detention; an end to the “Pacific Solution”; an easing of the work-for-the-dole and mutual obligation rules in the welfare system and; a relaxing of the dreaded “breaching system” which contributed to so much misery under Howard and, it could be argued, contributed to the rise in homelessness.
Also in the welfare area, despite the populist nonsense from the Murdoch press and the opposition, there has been an effort to alleviate the poverty of all those on welfare through the extension of utilities allowances beyond aged pensioners and seniors. Of course this doesn’t suit the neo-liberal agenda so intent on separating the welfare system into the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. The Rudd approach is markedly different on this score.
There has also been acknowledgement of the housing affordability crisis (albeit little done so far to fix it), but still a far cry from the indifference of Howard to the plight of renters and the homeless.
While as socialists we argue that these changes by no means go far enough, to dismiss the change of government as no more significant than replacing Howard with “Howard Lite” is to deny that there has been an improvement. It also denies that the change of government we all fought so hard for, particularly the unionised workers of this country, actually achieved anything and the reality is, through massive collective action, we all achieved a great deal.
I have always believed such a negative approach to Labor is unproductive politics for Socialist Alliance. The reason that I say this is that these changes have real and profound effects in people’s lives, so to flippantly dismiss them, is to actually deny the importance of this reality. There was a reason that the demise of the Howard government was celebrated in November of last year. It is important that we do not contribute to the growing collective sense of amnesia about the abhorrent policies and politics of that government. Another reason the negative approach to Labor is unproductive is that it is still the party that the bulk of Australian workers identify with and cast their first vote for. And, for the time being, trade unions are affiliated with Labor.
If you are a refugee who was stuck on Nauru, if you’re a member of the stolen generations who have waited a lifetime for acknowledgement, if you are unemployed and you missed an interview, if you are sick and struggling to pay your power bills, if you’re a hotel worker and you can, at least see an end in sight to the hated AWA, none of this is insignificant and resembles the Howard approach in no way.
After 11 and a half years of the Howard government, all those who suffered under it, are entitled to their sigh of relief. The workers who fought to defeat it are also entitled to their celebrations and it hasn’t even been one year since the joyous night when John Winston Howard was so thoroughly defeated.
I think a wholly negative approach to Labor now will only embolden a strengthening Right who are feeding on a growing sense of collective political amnesia in this country among the swing voting middle classes which is being fostered by a viciously hostile privately owned media. It will do absolutely nothing to advance the cause of socialism.
Our differences from Labor are important and we should stridently campaign on those points of difference, but if we do not acknowledge positive change when it occurs, we are simply indulging in sectarian carping. I would like to see an end to the use of the sectarian “Howard Lite” language. Labor are a capitalist government and our main point of difference lies in our core philosophical framework. But the working class supports Labor, and in the left of Labor, we have some valuable comrades.
Our approach to Labor in campaigning should focus attention on its support of a failing market system, we should explain this, but also spend a much higher percentage of our time explaining the alternative. Where their social and economic policies do improve the lives of sections of the working class, we should openly support them, because failing to do this fails to actually acknowledge and support those members of the working class. A more positive approach is also more likely to attract the disaffected members from the left of Labor. I know from experience, as a member of Labor in my youth and Socialist Alliance now, that the DSP approach of stridently bagging Labor in propaganda materials has never and will never work in the interests of building the Alliance and advancing our common cause of Socialism.
There is no debate about the urgency to address Climate Change and it’s one of the key issues for Socialist Alliance. Members of the Gold Coast group, including myself, have been circulating some strident material internally that criticises the developing approach to this issue. I think it is important to clarify our position and explain why the greening up of Socialist Alliance has left us feeling disengaged and disaffected.
We are a tiny group of people but we were recruited into Socialist Alliance as members of the working class looking for change--so our membership results from success of the stated aims of (the DSP) and SA to “build a “broad left party” as a step to the mass movement of the working class”. Some of us were already socialist when we joined and had been members of other socialist groups, but others had no previous political affiliations. In terms of the composition of our group, we are welfare recipients, hotel workers, factory workers, mechanics, refugees, students and academics.
There is no doubt that the way we address climate change will determine the future of socialism in this country, and it could be argued that it already has fundamentally shifted the Socialist Alliance--in the wrong direction--to the right.
Our position is not that climate change is unimportant, indeed we acknowledge that it is one of the most important issues because it determines whether we have a future at all! Our criticisms pertain to: A. The approach of Socialist Alliance campaigning on climate change. B. The predominance of this issue over all others in the current agenda (which in a sense is related to A.) and C. A focus on Green recruitment which positions the Alliance to the “left of the Greens” but decidedly to the right of “left” Labor and the militant union movement. A focus which is moving Socialist Alliance from any potential of direct and effective engagement with the working class.
On this first point, Socialist Alliance is moving away from a “people-focused” approach to the issue. While I do acknowledge the great work done in linking the issue of climate change with social change, too often the focus is on the scientific data and economics, rather than on how socialism posits a solution to climate change that puts the needs of people before the interests of corporate profits.
Socialists must come to terms with a stark reality. If there is profit in it, capitalism will find a way to save the planet. Many in the Greens have a pragmatic approach to the question of capitalism and climate change. They can afford this as their first allegiance is to the politics of the environment and not to the interests of the working class. Sure, they have developed a centre-left social agenda under the leadership of Bob Brown and as they have parliamentary representation, this is most welcome. But, it is too easy, after 12 years of Howard, to begin to view any centrist position as leftist. This is a natural consequence of the political pendulum swinging so very far to the right.
In the election year, much energy and time was put into developing Socialist Alliance’s Climate Change Charter. The result was a document that was far too long and complicated to be an effective campaigning propaganda tool. Nonetheless, it was developed in the most democratic manner with the input and participation of all members of Socialist Alliance. When finalised it was a pretty comprehensive policy statement for a minor party like Socialist Alliance.
What we needed to do was follow up this work with a shorter, sharper campaigning tool which emphasised a Socialist approach to climate change by pinpointing the failure of market capitalism to find solutions that put the interests of people first. Instead, the Socialist Alliance has returned to the time and energy consuming work of detailed climate change policy debate.
We are attempting in the process to enter the “main game” of political discourse on this issue and recruit members to the left of the Greens. The drawback is this main game takes place firmly within a capitalist market framework. By entering that framework we cease to be effective in positing a fundamental shift in thinking on climate change towards the interests of the world’s poor and working classes. Instead, we are bartering on “targets” and “parts per million”.
It is simply wrong to argue, as some have tried, that only socialism can provide an answer to Climate Change. This fails because it is based on a false premise and practical evidence abounds to suggest otherwise. The only position we can effectively argue is that socialism provides an alternative that does advance the interests of working people and the poor while mitigating its effects. By eschewing this core socialist position, we have moved away from the human dimensions of the climate change debate. We have placed Socialist Alliance within the framework of an “environmental politics” that always fails to understand that we will only save the planet when we convince people it is in their own fundamental interests to do so--that they will still have a job, that they will be able to feed their families, provide them with an education and have access to proper healthcare and housing.
A recent documentary on the ABC illustrated this point. For years the “environment” movements have been campaigning to save the Brazilian rainforests, but despite all the media attention and celebrity status of the issue--who can forget Sting’s tour in the 1980s with a member of a native tribe?--deforestation has continued apace. The reason for this is quite simple, the needs of Brazilians to feed their families outweighed any incentive they had to save the forests. Enter capitalism stage right with a “carbon trading” scheme. Suddenly, these same Brazilian farmers are paid to keep the trees so a polluting company can offset its carbon emissions. For socialists to win the argument on climate change we need to listen to, understand and address the needs of the farmer (the people) first. Otherwise, we quite literally “fail to see the forest for the trees”.
This brings me to the second point about the predominance of the climate change issue in Socialist Alliance campaigning. Socialists need to get back to their core philosophical position and understand the difference between environment politics and socialism. At a recent meeting, I was informed by a member of Resistance that climate change is a “radicalising issue” and that it was also a “welfare issue”. The question is, are we approaching this as a socialist issue?
The week before this meeting, my partner and I met a single working mother who was on welfare when pregnant. At eight months, she was required to look for nine jobs to keep her benefits and was repeatedly threatened by Centrelink. She had health issues in her pregnancy which had prevented her from working and this treatment endangered her life and the life of the fetus. She was now working for minimum wage and receiving barely more than she had on the dole after her childcare expenses. Of course, she was justifiably upset and angry. She was very typical of people we met during the election campaign last year and who were absolutely front and centre of Tim Kirchler’s campaigning agenda.
We launched Socialist Alliance’s welfare charter here and have argued consistently that welfare policy should also be front and centre of Socialist Alliance’s agenda across the country, along with the interrelated issues of health and housing. But since November of last year, these have been treated as second order priorities to climate change. The problem with this is that it leaves the grass roots behind.
The Howard legacy has left a disempowered “underclass” who still suffer under a draconian welfare system and a growing working poor. These people comprise part of our membership and, at present, a potential constituency for our ideas. We can only imagine what the response of this single mother would be, if in answer to her troubles we brandished a copy of Green Left Weekly, a Climate Change Charter and invited her to a film about Cuban gardening! An effective approach on Climate Change is one that makes it relevant to her life experiences by addressing it, along with a range of other issues as part of a comprehensive socialist philosophy and agenda that puts people not just first, but at its very core.
The Socialist Allince is moving away from such a position and shifting rightwards to seek a potential membership and constituency among disaffected and “radical” greens. To a certain extent, the draft statement provides a good description of current domestic political conditions, but it lacks a clear class focus, and as a result, misplaces Socialist Alliance within that domestic politics.
The mainstream political parties within Australia, including the Greens, largely battle over the middle ground. The underclass and working poor tend to be “rusted-on” Labor and the capitalist (owning) class “rusted-on” Liberal. Australia has a large and, in world terms, very comfortable middle class, albeit one with outrageous levels of household debt that could well prove to be a ticking bomb in the context of the current capitalist crisis.
The size and position of Australia’s middle class in relation to the underclass and working poor mitigates against significant social change in this period. We also have relatively low levels of trade union membership, particularly active membership- another consequence of the neo-liberal legacy. I don’t think we need a degree in politics or lessons in Marxism to understand that while those that decide election outcomes are “alright Jack”, the prospects for socialist change in Australia are poor.
There is, however, a growing concern among the middle class about climate change that is reflected in the media and in the focus of the major parties. It has also been jumped on by “green” companies exploiting the opportunity to make a buck. But many people with an active interest in environmental politics have just as active a disinterest in other socialist agenda issues such as the conditions of the working poor, of the welfare underclass, of the rights of workers and of Indigenous Australians. Indeed, scratch the surface of many bourgeois environmentalists and they are not just indifferent to this agenda, they are downright hostile on class terms. The “aspirational” middle-class may well share a passion for solar panels and windmills — and they are certainly in a better position to afford them — but they are not our constituency and there are poor prospects for finding comrades among them, at least until a significant change in material conditions changes the political landscape.
By compartmentalising the Climate Change issue from the broader philosophical framework of socialism for the purposes of recruitment, the Socialist Alliance is pursuing its climate change agenda in a pluralist rather than a socialist manner. The developing approach is to look for a point of commonality and to recruit first and ask (and answer) questions later. But there are no short cuts to building a socialist movement and party. By adopting this approach, the Socialist Alliance risks future irrelevancy to the working class.
As Scart points out: “Once these “radicals” have dropped off, a huge chance to use this issue to illustrate to the average worker the basic differences and interests of capitalism and socialism will be lost for good. We are not coming at this issue from a workers perspective but rather from a ‘do-gooders who can afford it’ point of view, which will simply alienate and further discredit the average workers view of Socialism in this country.”
Members endorsements of this response to draft opening statement
1. Shane Carter endorsed the document without comment.
Other endorsements were as follows:
Sara, I agree completely with everything that you have said in your reply to the draft opening statement. You have, as usual, managed to summarise the feelings of (I believe) the members from the Gold Coast. - Amelia Taylor
I read Sara’s response document and I’d be very happy to endorse the content. I think you’ve put together a very clear and well-thought analysis on the worrying direction that things are heading in Socialist Alliance. - Tim Kirchler
Sara, it was really good to hear (read) your ideas which I entirely agree with, although wouldn’t be able to write out with quite as much clarity or lack of four-letter words, myself. I thought it was very well thought out. - Kip Kincaid
Pablo Alvarez provided the following text:
Capitalism will save the world when there is profit to be made (note the IMF and the World Bank are working on how to save the rain forest of Brazil, Indonesia etc by using carbon trade). BP, Shell, General Electric, Siemens etc are investing billons of dollars in alternative power generating systems. There is profit to be made when the cost of producing energy can be reduced while still charging consumers top dollar. So the planet is saved. So the Third World nations are paid to maintain the rain forests, the Third World nations will produce the new power generating plants, components, spares: so who is going to save the workers while the people that supposed to look after them have gone green!!!!!!!