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SAlt : Howard has to go, but we need a socialist alternative to Labor

by Mick Armstrong
Socialist Alternative

After eleven horrible years we may finally be about to see the back of John Howard. Socialists will be celebrating as wildly as anyone, if on election night Howard breaks down and cries as he concedes defeat.

Socialist Alternative
has been part of every campaign against Howard’s attacks on our rights – whether it be the WorkChoices legislation that savages wages and conditions, the brutal imperial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the terror laws that undermine democratic rights or the Liberals’ racist onslaught on refugees, Aboriginal people and Muslims.

The problem for everyone who wants to see the back of Howard, however, is that Labor is offering no genuine alternative. Indeed Labor is running on its most right-wing platform ever – and that’s saying a lot.

Hawke and Keating, in their long period in office from 1983 to 1996, were right-wing enough – they took us into the first Gulf War, presided over a post-war record level of unemployment in “the recession we had to have”, privatised virtually everything that moved and sent in the police and the armed forces to crush unions like the Builders Labourers’ Federation and the Pilots’ Union that stood up for our rights.

But Rudd and Gillard make Hawke and Keating seem almost like radicals. Just look at their record in their short time as ALP leaders.

It started virtually the day after Rudd was elected, when he flew to New York to be patted on the head by Rupert Murdoch. But this was only the beginning of Rudd’s fawning on big business, which culminated in Labor’s new industrial relations policy – WorkChoices-lite – the most viciously anti-worker policy in ALP history.

Rudd and Gillard have guaranteed federal government funding to build elite facilities at the richest and most exclusive private schools, while schools in working class communities are promised peanuts. They’ve ditched Labor’s policies of protecting Tasmanian forests and limiting uranium mining, opposed gay marriage and refused to repeal Howard’s anti-student union VSU laws.

They backed the government’s appalling Muslim-bashing campaign against Doctor Haneef. They stood shoulder to shoulder with Howard in his drive to steal the land of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and create a new Stolen Generation.

They have gone out of their way to highlight their support for the “war on terror” and the invasion of Afghanistan to prove that (unlike Mark Latham) they are unfailingly loyal to US imperial power. In an address to the Australian American Leadership Dialogue Dinner in Melbourne in August Rudd declared:

“The world needs America. I say that despite Iraq, America is an overwhelming force for good in the world. It is time we sang that from the world’s rooftops.”

“So I say to my American friends here tonight, whoever wins the next Presidential election and however Iraq is resolved, let there be no retreat of America from the world. Let there be no retreat of America from the Asia-Pacific region. Let there be no retreat of America from our region.”

Some embarrassed Labor supporters have argued that Rudd is only pretending to be right-wing to get elected, or that he will be brought into line by the unions and the Labor left after the elections. This is dangerous wishful thinking.

All the evidence points in the opposite direction: that Rudd’s natural political inclination is to be even more right-wing. He proudly boasts he is an “economic conservative” and it is clear he would have preferred to have an even more pro-big business industrial relations policy.

Rudd was only held back from embracing Howard’s entire IR agenda by pressure from the unions – and the fact that WorkChoices is so unpopular with workers that he would lose votes if he did not at least pretend to oppose it. However in government Rudd will have greater space to manoeuvre, and with the authority of the prime ministership and the weight of the government machine and the bosses behind him, he will be much better placed to fend off the unions.

Rudd has no empathy for working class Labor supporters and is married to Therese Rein, one of the wealthiest women in the country. In his career as a high-flying diplomat and public service boss he never stood up for workers’ rights. As a manager in the Queensland public service he was known as “Doctor Death” for slashing jobs on the railways and in the health service.

But it’s not just Rudd. The whole parliamentary Labor Party and the ALP machine are totally committed to running capitalism on behalf of the bosses. Labor, just as much as the Liberals, wants to make Australian capitalism more profitable and more competitive on the world market, and that can only be achieved at the expense of workers.

The ALP left, of which Gillard is a member, has not raised a squeak of opposition to Rudd’s relentless push to the right. Indeed sections of the left have done a lot of the hatchet work to force through Rudd’s policies.

Once in government with their snouts in the trough the Labor left is likely to be even more craven. It is not as though the Labor left stood up to the right-wing policies of the Hawke and Keating governments or to the Labor state premiers.

All this means that whoever wins the upcoming elections, we are going to have to fight to defend our rights. So it is good to see that some Victorian unions have called a rally in defence of workers’ rights for Wednesday 26 September. Actions like this can keep up the attack on Howard and put pressure on Labor to ditch its WorkChoices-lite policy.

It was a serious mistake for the ACTU to retreat from mass mobilisations against WorkChoices and to downplay the slogan “your rights at work – worth fighting for” in favour of a purely electoralist approach with the slogan “your rights at work – worth voting for”. All this did was weaken the campaign against Howard and ease the pressure on Rudd to totally scrap WorkChoices.

At the height of the mass union mobilisations, with hundreds of thousands of workers on strike and marching against WorkChoices, the feeling was so strong that there was every possibility of defeating the laws outright. If the unions had accelerated the campaign by calling more mass rallies and concerted strike action in key industries in defiance of the laws, Howard’s laws could have been turned into a dead letter. We would not have been hostage to Rudd’s pathetic WorkChoices-lite.

If and when Labor is elected, we are going to have to keep up the pressure if we are to have any hope of getting rid of WorkChoices and achieving any decent reforms. And that does not mean union leaders negotiating backroom deals with Rudd and Gillard, but determined strikes and mobilisations on the streets.

Why Socialist Alternative is calling for a vote for the Greens

At the last federal election Socialist Alternative called for a vote for either Labor or the Greens in the House of Representatives and a first preference vote for the Greens in the Senate. In this election, however, we are strongly backing a first preference vote for the Greens in both the House of Representatives and the Senate and a second preference vote for Labor.

A significant Greens vote will show there is a sizeable body of people who don’t go along with Rudd and Gillard’s right-wing agenda. It will give confidence to all those who hate Howard and are fed up with Labor’s pale imitation of his policies.

It can help in a small way to lay the basis for ongoing resistance, for building movements of workers, students and the oppressed to demand more of a Labor government. Ongoing resistance outside parliament is vital. Our power resides in the streets, in our unions, our workplaces and on the campuses – not in the hallowed halls of parliament.

If Rudd wins without a significant vote to his left, he will claim that this proves that it was his right-wing policies that got Labor elected and use this as a justification to move even further to the right. Voting Labor ahead of the Greens will be seen as an endorsement of Rudd’s anti-worker policies.

That’s why it is important to argue to all those who want to see the back of Howard that they should vote Green – not because a few extra Greens in parliament will make much difference.

Socialist Alternative stands for building a mass revolutionary party that will mobilise workers to stand up to the bosses’ attacks and eventually lead a revolution to sweep away capitalist rule and establish a socialist society. We don’t believe that fundamental change can be achieved through parliament.

Yet when it comes to elections we have traditionally called for a vote for the ALP. Why?

It is not because we believe that an ALP government will defend working class interests. Time and time again Labor in office has rewarded its working class supporters by kicking them in the teeth. And this is not just a recent phenomenon.

It was Billy Hughes’s ALP government in 1916 that attempted to conscript workers to die in the trenches of Europe. Conscription was only beaten by an impressive campaign of mass agitation, strikes, militant protests, widespread civil disobedience and riots.

In 1929, at the height of the Great Depression, the Scullin Labor government was elected on the promise of restoring the jobs of coal miners locked out by mining companies in an attempt to slash wages. But in office Scullin did not lift a finger to aid the miners, who remained locked out and starving for 15 months. Scullin then went on to impose the Premiers’ Plan that slashed vital public spending by 20 per cent and backed a 10 per cent wage cut across the board.

More recently Hawke and Keating presided over the greatest transfer of wealth from workers to bosses in Australian history. Full-time award wages fell 13 per cent in real terms between 1983 and 1990. As a result profits soared from 38 per cent of national income in the mid-1980s to 44 per cent ten years later.

Labor in office has always seen its role as running the capitalist system for the bosses. And if that means slashing workers’ wages and conditions to maintain profit levels, then as far as the ALP leaders are concerned, so be it.

That’s why it is wrong to see Labor as a lesser evil to the Liberals. Both parties are thoroughly committed to free market capitalist policies and to the US-Australia imperialist alliance.

At times ALP governments have granted concessions to workers – but so have Liberal governments. Indeed workers’ living standards rose much more under Menzies in the 1950s and 1960s than they did under Hawke and Keating in the 1980s.

What matters in terms of winning genuine reforms is not whether Labor or the Liberals are in office, but the state of the economy – when business is booming the bosses may be prepared to concede a few crumbs – and most importantly the scale of mass mobilisation by workers. Workers have won what they have fought for with strikes, picket lines, mass protests and occupations. It is radical mass action that has delivered results, not Labor governments.

Indeed the historic role of ALP leaders has been one of trying to co-opt, head off or defuse mass struggles. They have always sought compromise settlements acceptable to the bosses that would rob workers of the full fruits of their struggles.

But if Labor in office won’t deliver for workers, then why vote for them ahead of the Liberals?

The Liberals are the open party of capital – owned and controlled lock, stock and barrel by the big end of town. For workers to vote Liberal means an open endorsement of capitalist interests. It reflects a lack of consciousness of their own interests as a class.

The ALP on the other hand was established by the trade unions and still receives much of its funding and backing from the unions. This means that the ALP is in some sense a workers’ party, albeit a pro-capitalist, right-wing one. It is what Marxists refer to as a “bourgeois workers’ party”.

Despite its long record of betraying workers’ interests, many workers still look to the ALP as being in some sense their party as opposed to the bosses’ party, the Liberals. This working class identification with Labor is much weaker today than it was a generation or two ago when many more workers were actually ALP members and Labor was at least rhetorically committed to a socialist objective.

Nevertheless many workers still hope that things will somehow be better under a Labor government, while others will vote for Rudd with gritted teeth because they are determined to see the back of Howard. Socialists need to stand with these workers in their hostility to the Liberals.

Given that there is as yet in Australia no mass socialist party to vote for, left-wing workers and students should use their three minutes of democracy in the voting booths to vote Greens first and Labor second. That way we can solidarise with workers’ desire to get rid of Howard and elect an ALP government, but also send a signal to Rudd and Co. that we’re are not going to take their attacks lying down if they win office.

But the main game is not voting. That is not how fundamental change is achieved.

If Kevin Rudd is Prime Minister in a few months time, the same old bosses – the Packers, the Murdochs, the Pratts, the Smorgons – will still be running their business empires and trying to screw over workers. The banks will still be raking in mega-profits. Company CEOs will still be handing themselves multimillion dollar salary packages. The rich will still be driving their luxury cars.

The US will still be waging its murderous imperial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The terror laws will still be in place. Refugees will still be locked up in concentration camps. Gays will still not be able to marry. Aboriginal people will still be living in utter degradation.

To begin to change even one of these things we need to stand up and fight back, on the streets and in our workplaces. We need to start building a socialist party that is committed to real change – to challenging the priorities of a system based on profit and to mobilising the mass of workers and students to fight for a totally different world, based on mass democracy and production for the benefit of all, not just a wealthy elite.

That’s the sort of party Socialist Alternative is committed to building. If you agree with us, then get involved. Join us!

6 Com:

Dave Riley | September 13, 2007

To Armstrong's credit -- this commentary is much more focused and consistent than Tom Barnes one on the same topic that was run here on LeftClick.

You could ask why -- given his argumentation -- it has taken SAlt until this upcoming election to call for a first preference vote for the Greens. As Armstrong points out the ALP's record has been abhorrent but SAlt had pimped for the ALP -- only watering down that a touch for the 2004 poll.

Armstrong also does as the ISO's Barnes has -- ignored the Socialist Alliance.


A mere sentence to the effect that it is
...[and then fill in the standard far left diatribe against the SA]...
should surfice.

But Armstrong doesn't want to go down that route. Preferring instead to plead:" If you agree with us, then get involved. Join us!"(ie:SAlt)

So the political options Armstong proffers are:
(a) Vote for the Greens (and for no other progressive force because, according to Armstrong, none exist)
(b) But join SAlt.

I don't know about you but I must be missing something because it doesn't follow-- even if "We need to start building a socialist party that is committed to real change."

But where or how or when does Comrade Barnes think we should start building such a party--since nothing remotely like it is supposed to exist in the real world at the present time?

The best we can hope for at this poll , is to vote Green...So how is that action supposed to foster this "real change" socialist party into being?

I'm not saying that there's no potential relationship. I'm saying that Armstrong doesn't explore it or share his views with us. You'd think he'd deal with that question as in effect he is calling for unconditional support for the Greens ahead of Labor and anyone reading this would think:" SAlt's for the Greens. I'll join the Greens then! Fuck these lefties and their socialist melarky."

It's as though this left (of which Armstrong is a part) has given up on its bold perspectives and settled for the politics of Panglossianism --such that come each election all the far left can hope for is to operate as a cheer squad for the Greens.

....as the old CPA operated for decades as a registered pimps for the ALP.

Al McCall | September 13, 2007

"such that come each election all the far left can hope for is to operate as a cheer squad for the Greens."

Exactly. So why bother with a socialist project at all?

Why put in the hard yards on this far left when the Greens will suffice.

Anonymous | September 14, 2007

Maybe you are being too hard on Armstrong. It is obvious that in calling for a vote for The Greens, Socialist Alternative is trying to win a hearing among Greens members and supporters.

There's nothing wrong with that.That is a viable approach.

They may have to misrepresent reality to do it but it is a tactical intervention in its own right.

Dave Riley | September 14, 2007

In regard to Anonymous' point -- I have no problem whatsoever with SAlt trying to win a hearing in the milieu of the Greens. It's about time that the whole far left considered that we need to more actively engage with the Greens and draw them more into campaign activities that we may be involved in.

SAlt's shift signals that the crude workerism that has been so dominant on the far left has waned as reality transcends the tradition of schematic psalm singing about Labor being "a workers party" which we are sentenced to support as a matter of political principle.

My objection is that that this coming election that is the limit of the shift. It's like swapping horses on a merry go round.

How do we get off the carousal and more actively and aggressively advance the socialist agenda and mass politics?

That's the nub, you see. There has to be much more involved than simply changing the order of the preferences boxes.

This is an issue that SAlt -- and the ISO -- have chosen to pass on. And they do so dishonestly I think by ignoring the existence of the Socialist Alliance and what it as a project stands for.

Sure we can have a debate about the present strengths and weaknesses of the Alliance (and be as factional as passion will allow)-- but pretending that it doesn't exist within the spectrum of electoral politics is foolish neglect.

The whole debate about the SA, left unity, electoral alliances and regroupment politics is not finished at all while the Alliance continues to exist and, in this instance, stand in elections.

The SA will continue to haunt as a sort of nemesis because --despite the refusal of SAlt to sign on with the project, or the ISO's exit late last year -- it still exists.

That's the problem for both outfits. And it's a bigger problem because, thanks to Kevin Rudd et al, the ALP is more exposed for the 'workers party' it actually is than it was a year ago, ten years ago, fifty years ago...ever!

And all the ISO and SAlt can do in response to that undeniable phenomenon is urge a first preference vote for the Greens!

So if we want to write headlines like:" Howard has to go, but we need a socialist alternative to Labor" -- where is this "socialist alternative to labor" going to come from if not through initiatives like the Socialist Alliance?

Brad B | September 15, 2007

It also needs to be pointed out that as far as I know, the Socialist Alliance has retained its party electoral registration and come this poll its name will be listed on all party lists and ballot sheets, etc -- in effect as 'the socialist party' -- regardless of whatever else is said or ignored by Armstrong.

Dave Riley | September 15, 2007

Brad's correct. The SA has retained its electoral status despite the massive disenfranchisement of the electoral law changes -- and the campaign can be accessed in real time here -- on the SA election campaign forum

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