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The party that is needed...

by Dave Riley

Some thoughts I had shared about the results of the Brisbane City Council election held here on March 9th have prompted me to think a bit more about the sort of party package that may suit the present political context.

As I read through material on the Dutch Socialist Party the main game is indeed "getting the package right" rather than simply clubbing one together to place before the punters -- aka "working people" of Australia.

One of the main handicaps with a regroupment agenda is that it can so easily fall hostage to the ready hesitancy of waiting for an 'independent left' to catch up with its dynamic. This in part is what is bearing down on the Socialist Alliance -- it's waiting for passengers before leaving for the next station. It needs a load of movement generated coal to fire up its engine before departing the platform.

In many ways the SA has embraced this paradigm which has been orchestrated for it by others. Seemingly the only momentum the SA is allowed is determined by this constraint -- a template imposed on it by what we so readily referred to as the ( already existing) left: regroup what's already there or die.

While the Alliance has consolidated and has initiated a range of important working partnership within the trade unions, among ethnic groups and with radical sections of the indigenous community -- its future progress depends on generating more of the same by dint of hard work and winning campaign credentials.

THE BCC election

This is why the Brisbane City Council election was so interesting to me. I think the Alliance managed this time around to move into green political ecology in its own right by applying a sort of programatic logic that flowed directly from living potentials rather than from a position formatted so readily by ideology. Some times being keenly programmatic can also mean that you generate your advocacy by the numbers and it can easily become so readily sloganistic.

I pointed out that the ALP lost council through its own corporate toadyism and incompetence. The Greens also suffered at the poll -- recording a result below that in 2004 and historically their poll return was not that much above the results registered in the 1991 Green Alliance Brisbane City Council election campaign*. The 1991 campaign in effect kick started the Greens in Queensland.

The Greens no doubt suffered because there wasn't much extra electoral campaigning to generate political traction that could buoy up an electoral result. There wasn't a bridge issue and precious little activity against tunnels, over traffic. water supplies or soforth.

But if I had been going 17 years and had no elected office (anywhere in QLD) to show for it and my core strategy was winning elections -- I'd be a bit despondent.
THINKS:Of course, the Socialist Alliance isn't constrained by such thoughts! Not us. The SA's poll returns are consistently very low so you'd have to conclude that any pretense to electoral traction would be dreaming...

But is that actually the the case....?

That the Greens haven't advanced strongly at the local level in Brisbane relative to sister parties in other capital city centres --although it should be pointed out they did pick up over 8 % of the mayoral vote and almost 26% in one ward while the SA is recording returns of less than 2% -- suggests that patenting a colour and claiming the environmental domain can only get you so far in political life-- even when the mainstream talk these last few years has been so much of global warming and its consequences and fix ups.

Thinking outside the box

This is where I think it is worthwhile to start to think outside the box and begin to ask not so much what you bring to the table but what should be on the menu.

I began to ask myself that question and while I can give you all the gab about the crying need for socialism that's hardly going to be the discourse on everyone's lips. The continuity of the culture of socialism is very shallow in Australia and while it needs to be sustained and enriched we also have to apply that advocacy transitionally to the noggins of Joe and Mary Average and make it relevant to their own everyday personal struggles.

So how are we gonna do that?

That's not a new question of course but you have to ask it over and over again, each time adjusting any answers to suit contemporary options.

So the question isn't so much an ideological requisite but what sort of party you hope to engineer.

The advantage is that the generic form of socialism that the Alliance adheres to is very flexible when you come down to tin tacks.So while a party can be many things to many different people -- locally there's a potential ambit that, I think, warrants addressing.

What horse for the course?

So let's look at the local urban context under an environmental umbrella and consider what sort of party 'suits'. In effect what horse for the course?
  • A sustainable transport party. In effect that covers a very wide margin of political options in regard to transport issues but the primary marker is public transport rather than something that is built upon private vehicular transit. But it has to be an advocacy for a total package that considers the problems of the transition -- of how to get millions of commuters out of their cars and into public and carbon reducing means.The SA advocacy for free public transport is a key element in that transition.
  • An anti-privatization party. Just as we aren't simply calling for contracts to be divvied out to the local bourgeois to move freight and humanity for profit -- the same approach applies right across the board.The SA is actively engaged in the campaign opposing electricity privatisation in NSW as part of this core position.But that's the core argument: that we advance without recourse to the profit motive.
  • A party that says: enough! I'll explore this in later posts but I think the cutting edge advanced by the Dutch Socialist Party of boldly arguing that we've had enough of restructuring and the ideology of neo-liberalist economics is a crucial articulation that can take many forms. In the hands of the Dutch -- many creative forms...
  • A permaculture party. Again I'll explore this label in greater detail in later posts but essentially we need an advocacy that articulates the sort of urban and rural ecology and stewardship we need to strive for. I know that a few permaculture trainors have discussed a party option in the past but the fact remains that permaculture is not so much a political as an environment design doctrine. (Check out the "permaculture " label on this site for back ground on this hefty topic.) "Permaculture" encapsulates a lot of the core restructuring principles we need to move quickly towards and has enough content that makes usage of the word preferable to more generic buzz words like "sustainable" or "organic".
  • A community empowerment party. Talk is cheap and when advocating "power to the people" you have to get concrete and promote a very clear agenda so that people know what you mean(assuming that you do too). The Dutch SP went way out on a limb I thought on this point and argued a radical, doctrine neutral course:
Instead of telling the electorate to vote SP for a better society – worthy ideals for a distant future – the party chose a more rational and better thought out position: that of radical and effective opposition.“Vote against, vote SP” became the provocative slogan. The message being: if you don't agree with current politics, vote for us. Then we can voice your dissent in Parliament. You don't need a majority for that, even one person would do. The new strategy is symbolized by a tomato. Full of healthy vitamins, but also a feared weapon against bad political theatre.
  • A justice party. I'm not sure how to label this -- so "justice" will have to suffice for now --but we need to generate a core and very generic advocacy around such key issues as indigenous rights, racism,access and migration. The SA explored this in its initial federal election advocacy when it called for a "new vision" for Australia.The pitfall was that we did not generate the traction we sought to foster during that particular campaign partly because many comrades didn't quite relate to it as an electoral 'tool'. Issues of justice and rights merge with a plethora of possibilities that engage with housing, opportunities for education and employment, health care, etc.So while mine is a generic term theres' enough flex in it to suit any local application
As for other issues that are standardly taken up -- international solidarity, peace, workers struggles, etc -- I think they're self evident and already there in the mix. But I'm trying to address the core question of the party that's needed (as distinct from the one in hand)-- which isn't so much floating on "worthy ideals" but is rigorously concrete and everyday accessible. In that regard I guess the party that is needed is a party that struggles across a very broad spectrum of campaigns and, in effect, takes on the responsibility of initiating and building and sustaining those campaigns while carefully articulating what it sets out to do and the way it does it.

You then also work on the packaging....

*1991 Green Alliance Brisbane City Council election campaign was a broad coalition comprising the Rainbow Alliance (later the Qld Greens), the Democratic Socialist Perspective (from which the Green Alliance coordinator was drawn), the Democrats, the SPA (later the Communist Party of Australia) and independents which stood a swag of ward candidates and for mayor at the 1991 Brisbane council election.

3 Com:

John Tracey | March 29, 2008


You said......."But if I had been going 17 years and had no elected office (anywhere in QLD) to show for it and my core strategy was winning elections -- I'd be a bit despondent."

The Greens have had 2 elected representatives in Qld. The first was Angela Jones who was on the Redcliffe council. She was openly a Green but was elected as part of a community alliance ticket including the ALP and independents. - early 90s

The second was Eryikah Kyle who was preselected and ran as a Green and was elected as Mayor of Palm Island 4 years ago until she retired about a year ago.

Drew Hutton's vote in the Gabba, the highest ever for a Green in Brisbane, would have been more than enough to get elected in the decentralised, proportional representation councils of the southern inner city councils. Similarly if there was an upper house it would already have Greens in it as in other states.

The power of the Greens does not lie in just their potential to get elected but, at present as a major pressure on the ALP. Many ALP representatives are at present dependent on Green preferences and some such as Helen Abrahams and Anna Bligh whose state electorate is almost the same as the Gabba are under direct threat from the Greens. The liberals did very well in the council election with the Can-do factor, if they had have done poorly Drew could well have been elected. In the upcoming state election the Liberals will not do so well in South Brisbane, they will smell of the Nationals and will most likely be shooting themselves in the foot with the merger debacle and get a low vote, making a Green a good chance to win and oust the premier. 27% could do it.

This situation generates significant power to influence government policy, even without winning a seat.

So I can understand why some Greens may not feel despondent.

I can understand why they may be dissapointed at not getting a Qld. senate seat, but it is just a matter of time. They missed out this time for 2 reasons, both their own fault. The first being a single issue campaign on climate change, limiting the Greens relevance to the range of issues that voters are concerned about and the second was because their whole campaign including timing was directed by the southern senators and failed to dovetail to the Queensland political agenda, in particular indigenous and specific regional issues.

Now the ALP are in government there will be a significant swing of left wing protest voters against it, who may have voted for Rudd on climate change, work choices or Aboriginal issues but in the next election this same protest will be against the ALP.

The Qld. Greens will get a senator in the next election.

The above model of a horse for the course seems to be a clone of the Greens without their actual electoral power and without their deep connections in (some) communities.

If such a party is appropriate to the historcal conditions, why not support the one that exists?

The Qld. Greens, more than the southern branches, needs to expand its social agenda and develop coherent radical alternatives of social policy, not just environmental policy, as well as extra parliamentary campaigning. Socialists would do better to enter the Greens to promote these debates rather than trying to transform perpetually failing socialist modes into something that looks like the Greens.

The Greens aren't wonderful. Despite having a Green Mayor on Palm Island and the Chris Hurley stuff being in full swing, the Greens said nothing about Aboriginal issues in the last state election. The Greens need to be reformed to be able to embrace such issues rather than maintain radical social justice issues to marginalised ultra-minority groupings.

There is enourmous potential power in the Greens and it is slowly increasing. Conversley, D.S.P. have been engaged in electoralism for longer than the Greens and have consistently failed to develop any electoral base including through the S.A. it does not take a crystal ball to predict that the S.A., even if reinvented as an ecology party, will maintain its steady low vote and corresponding community support into the future.

John Tracey | March 29, 2008


I know, I know. You already tried that and they proscribed you.

But I'm not talking about the collective interventionist mode that D.S.P. tried in the N.D.P. and the Greens.

The choice between a broad Green party and an isolated marginalised socialist party is essentially an individual matter requiring some personal loyalty to one or other of the modes.

The pre-reinvented I.S.O. etc. tried to maintain a marginalised socialist organisation at the same time as support the broad movement of the Greens and became irrelevant to both Green and socialist agendas.

The recent ecologisation of the S.A. agenda has similarly been irrelevant to green politics as to class struggle. it is just etherial ideas with no connection to power and struggle on the ground in any historical dialectic.

History moves, you cannot put new wine in old wineskins. History has given birth to the Greens, now a healthy infant. The A.L.P. socialism is long dead and the Leninist party mode is in palliative care, it cannot be re-invigourated because the unions are now totally contained as agents of capital, administrators of the capitalist mode of production just as state agencies are.

Let history occur. Abandon illusions of hypothetical potential at some future change of historical conditions and join the real historical forces right here and right now.

Dave Riley | March 29, 2008

I am aware of the two electoral occurrences you refer to -- Redcliffe and Palm Island -- but my interest was in on the question of steady state gain and in fact Redcliffe was some time ago --and as I recall without the advantage then of a local Greens branch.

Palm Island was a fusion initiative in response to the ALP's history on the island (as an ALP branch had been formed there in the 70s).

You then write:

"There is enormous potential power in the Greens and it is slowly increasing. Conversley, D.S.P. have been engaged in electoralism for longer than the Greens and have consistently failed to develop any electoral base including through the S.A. it does not take a crystal ball to predict that the S.A., even if reinvented as an ecology party, will maintain its steady low vote and corresponding community support into the future."

But this is not the DSP engaging in electoralism so much as a different creature which is not simply an electoral vehicle. The DSP ran for a few occasions as the Democratic Socialist Electoral League -- DESEL -- after party registration came in but the SA is a different project than simply being a means to register a party as a parliamentary entity.

Theres' been years of debate on this point within the SA.

As for the other matter you raise:"it does not take a crystal ball to predict that the S.A., even if reinvented as an ecology party, will maintain its steady low vote and corresponding community support into the future."

I think you miss my argument or maybe I didn't explore it in detail as I was in fact only taking notes. My point was indeed to find ways to embed that sort of politics in communities. I'm not being merely propagandistic.

Theres' a challenge posed I think by the present political context both for the Greens as much as the SA and that is that traction will be dependent on actually delivering the campaign energy and partnerships rather than projecting the policies per se.

Overseas thats' the message I think when you consider the experience of various green and socialist projects in continental Europe (esp Germany and the Netherlands).

However, the SA already is an "ecology party" with a very clearly defined environment perspective that is as sophisticated and in fact more relevant in regard to the environment's requirements than that offered by the Greens at the last federal election.

That's a fact. To suggest otherwise is brute ignorance on your part.And the SA actively campaigns on many environment issues up and down the country. So it's not a question of re-invention. My advocacy was to find ways to lock in some key campaigns focuses and link them to the party's everyday attributes.

Its' true I am exploring ways of reinventing our advocacy as I was keen to move out of the ready recourse to adopting an ideological position.

But the lazy way that good folk like yourself defer to the Greens while denigrating other projects is a sort of Panglossian bargain that obscures and deflects the demands of political reality. Thats' why people like me -- who are committed to the politics -- refuse to take the Greens route.

And despite that -- despite my own choices -- I am nonetheless disappointed in the Greens as a political vehicle. I expected more politically as well as electorally.

You point out that Drew Hutton picked up 26% in the poll when I have worked for several of Drew's council and state campaigns in the past(maybe even more than yourself). Drew also has stood for council office very often since 1986 --when I think he first stood for mayor. So while all power to the 26 % -- it has to be pointed out that that 26% rests on over 20 years of consistent effort and profiling at the local council level within an electoral that covers the inner city left ghetto on the Brisbane south bank.

As I recall -- the Greens have done better in the past in Mt Cootha at state elections drawing on the city's green belt suburbs and their early relevance to the campaign against Route 20.

I'm all for it.

But you know as well as I that that sort of geography masks a political divide in the Greens which is why you want radicals like DSPers in there to stake out a fighting left wing. But then theres' nothing stopping you and others creating their own bona fide left wing in the Greens as the Adelaide eco-socialists have done.

The Qld Greens could do with an organised activist left wing.

Go for it. You have my unconditional support...

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