An out-of-the-ordinary NSW Senate campaign

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The NSW Senate election campaign with Uncle Ken Canning was one like no other that I've been involved in: we didn't do half the things we ordinarily do in elections and we did a lot of other things we had never done before.

When Uncle Ken approached us about running, Sydney Central branch had already pre-selected Peter Boyle to run in the seat of Sydney. It was Peter's candidacy which prompted to Uncle Ken to talk to us about running in elections and our plans for other lower house seats and the NSW Senate.

Given Uncle Ken’s political authority, Sydney branch and the NSW state committee resolved that we would be guided by his decision about how he would like to run, if he decided he would. We felt strongly that if Uncle Ken preferred to run as an “independent” we would support that because we did not want to unwittingly damage any of the important networks and relationships that had been built up in the various First Nations’ rights campaigns which involved all the left groups and many leading young independent activists.

Ken had several meetings with allies and confidants, including the Socialist Alliance’s Indigenous rights spokesperson Uncle Sam Watson who advised him to run with us on an explicitly Socialist Alliance ticket. This is what Ken decided to do.

His decision spurred Sharlene Leroy-Dyer to throw her hat in the ring, and we were extremely proud, and honoured, to have two First Nations activists on our Senate ticket, along with long-time union union activists Susan Price and Howard Byrnes.

While our Senate ticket was large, we felt it well represented the priorities and class politics of the Socialist Alliance.

While this discussion had slowed the campaign down, when Uncle Ken decided to run the campaign took off at a cracking pace.

The powerful combination of Ken and Peter Boyle, along with the interest in our ticket by Socialist Alliance symathisers meant that during the course of the campaign Ken was able to address:

  • a 700-strong Nevroz celebration in Blacktown — the Kurdish community's New Year  celebration;
  • a 1000-strong Sudanese community festival in Seven Hills;
  • a 100-strong Blacktown Council forum on multiculturalism and diversity;

Socialist Alliance organised election meetings in Armidale, Wollongong, Bankstown, Parramatta and Sydney; and a large members and supporters’ meeting just before polling day.

Uncle Ken braved the water and took to a canoe at 350.org's blockade of Newcastle Harbour as part of the fossil fuel divestment action.

We organised also two campaign stumps on our campaign theme — in Newtown and Glebe — drawing in new members and First Nations and Thai sympathisers.

Supporters of the ticket organised to distribute our Senate doorknocker throughout regional NSW, including in Lightning Ridge, Dubbo, Orange, Bowraville, Nambucca Heads, Kempsie and parts of the South Coast.

It was Ken's suggestion that we run with the campaign slogan “Build the people's movement”.

It was a neat way of summing up our revolutionary perspective — to use all available platforms (including the opening provided by elections) to emphasise our class politics and the need to build the extra-parliamentary movements.

The Senate ticket's focus on combatting racism and corporate greed — essentially the politics of Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party — was spot on.

We could have done with better organisation, more hands on deck and, of course, much more campaign funds (our budget was $11,700). However, on polling day, with more than 100 supporters covering 20 booths, we looked serious.

While votes are not the main, or most, significant measure of the campaign's success they are nonetheless important in context, and they show that we broke new ground.

We recorded a positive swing (0.07%) and the highest Senate vote for Socialist Alliance in NSW (barring the 2010 elections when we scored top of the ballot — the “donkey” position) since we first contested elections in 2001.

At the time of writing, our vote was over 5,000 compared to 2,728 votes in 2013; 23,392 votes in the donkey position in 2010, 3,351 in 2007; 4,241 in 2004  and 1,364 in 2001.

The higher Senate vote in 2004 would have been influenced by the huge anti-Iraq war mass movement, in which Socialist Alliance was active.

The NSW Senate campaign and result is evidence that we did break new ground — networking with people active or moving into action and showcasing Socialist Alliance’s non-sectarian politics. Ken has a lot of anecdotal information about the self-organised support he received, and that those communities are staying in touch.

It is interesting to note that the other higher Senate vote for Socialist Alliance was when Uncle Sam Watson ran in Queensland in 2010 (gaining 3,806 votes).

This election, some 25% of of the electorate did not vote for a major party. However, this protest vote has been expressed in a diffuse and contradictory way: a chunk went to the right (Pauline Hanson's One Nation (+3.75) & Derryn Hinch (+1.92)), a chunk went to the centre (Nick Xenophon (+1.33)), and a chunk went to Greens (-0.64) ).

We were a beneficiary of a small bit of this protest vote, despite being up against 41 other parties/groups in the NSW Senate, being 22nd on the ballot, and all the other difficulties and limitations of the undemocratic electoral system.

What next?

I had begun writing this when Ben Courtice’s latest contribution arrived in my inbox. Ben’s criticism of our election campaign work is short on suggestions for what to do differently and gloomily doubts the value of running at all. I hope this description of our of Senate campaign proves that we are open to, and do take up, “new approaches” when they arise.  

I reckon the NSW Senate campaign was a good, practical demonstration of a non-sectarian approach and preparedness to try new approaches. Of course, the opening was made possible by the dynamic Uncle Ken. But a less politically confident outfit would have baulked at his offer, or challenge .

While we were collaborating with Uncle Ken on a range of campaigns beforehand, the close collaboration during the election campaign has helped create the political momentum for several key campaigns — in particular for justice for First Nations peoples.

We are all too mindful of the left’s relative isolation and the lack of sustained powerful progressive mass movements, but to assess our election campaign largely by the number of votes is non-materialist and apolitical.

We could all probably do with a dose of Uncle Ken’s infectious optimism and level headedness when it comes to making political assessments.

Ken said: “This campaign has taught me a great deal and has shown me that via hard work with First Nations peoples and other oppressed communities, we can build a strong movement that will have an impact on how our movements are run.

“We need all similar parties to be united in our struggle if we are ever to be a political voice to be reckoned with.

“I have experienced so much grassroots support from both First Nations communities and the broader community, I am very humbled. Thank you to all those, from all over the country, who gave me their whole-hearted support.

“I will be more than pleased to be part of building a positive people's movement well into the future.”

The pressure on the left to collaborate is mounting. Ken had Solidarity in mind when he wrote this piece for Green Left Weekly. He was angry that Solidarity — with whom he has a close relationship — did not support his candidacy at all, and instead supported the Greens.

He (like us) could not make sense of Solidarity’s contrary line that socialists should abstain from and criticise bourgeois electoralism and, at the same time, only support the Greens, a party that does sew illusions in parliamentary democracy.

As he pointed out at Solidarity’s post-election public meeting (to which Socialist Alliance had not been invited) unity is important if we’re serious about building powerful movements for change. He said that if there had there been a socialist standing from a group he didn’t fully support, he would have supported the campaign as a question of principle and referred to his experiences in prison.

As the limits of the two-party system become more evident to more people, the openings for the organised left (and the right) increase. Build stronger movements for change and running in elections (when resources allow) are complementary, not counterposed.