Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Election Reflections – Three perspectives - pls read and Contribute to the debate

above: Australia's next Prime Minister?

With the Australian election result ‘on a knife-edge’ there is a need to reflect on what has happened and analyse what went wrong. In Left Focus today we host three perspectives - one from a Left ALP activist (myself), another from AMWU organiser, Don Sutherland, and the last from Tim Anderson – who offers a non-ALP but Left perspective.

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First perspective: Tristan Ewins

To begin; the mining industry assault on Labor has laid bare the real workings of power in this country, and the fragility of our democracy in a meaningful sense. No grassroots or popular organisation could match the mining industry ‘fear war-chest’ that ran into the hundreds of millions.

And great sections of the media 'came on board' for this assault on Labor too. Often this bias is subtle: involving selective quotations, framing of debate or emotive language. At other times it is blatant. Even the ABC focused relentlessly for the first two weeks of the campaign on the 'leaks drama' . This focus was at the expense of policy and substance - where the ALP could have made up ground given the opportunity.

Everything Labor did, most of the media put a ‘negative spin’ upon it. For instance: former PM Kevin Rudd was ‘brought on board’ to sell the message that whatever voters thought of the ‘coup’, too much was at stake to elect a Liberal government. The ‘Rudd legacy’ was itself at stake. The idea was to put speculation about disunity and instability to rest: to show a ‘united front’. Instead we had commentary on Rudd’s body language, and more disruptive and damaging media speculation.

The work of media in a democracy should be balanced scrutiny and allowance for diverse viewpoints, including scrutiny of policy: not the pursuit of the most ‘entertaining’ narrative. Was this just something to do with Australian media culture – or something more sinister?

Many were disillusioned with Labor on climate change and refugees: but the vast majority of these would have defected to the Greens and not the Liberals.

In pursuit of a majority, Labor has been on the back-foot for decades, as shown on the issue of asylum seekers. (although for some much of the neo-liberal ideology has actually been internalised, and thus support for its tenets is not even seen anymore as a compromise)

Labor has to compromise to hold together a broad constituency marked by internal contradiction. The rise of the Greens means there is now room for alternative (Left) perspectives to be voiced openly and publicly – and thus influence the ‘terms of debate’. This could also translate into policy leverage in the context of critical and reasonably conditional support for Labor. But the broader support base now enjoyed by the Greens, and the imperative of maintaining the balance of power in the Senate, might mean the Greens also have to contain some of their most radical impulses. The Greens should also try and open lines of communication with the progressive Christian community in an effort to broaden their support base further.

Over the long term change is a matter of mobilising the social and economic forces to counter the dominance of concentrated private wealth; in the public sphere, civil society, and in an industrial sense. Being a voluntarist I don't see this as impossible. But this is no easy task given the realignment of class forces in this country over recent decades.  What I think is that we need to get unions, progressive NGOs and progressive political parties working together, pooling their resources and co-ordinating their efforts. These are the 'power resources' possibly available to us. Imagine a co-ordinated and determined effort here; including marginal seats campaigning; and efforts at establishing alternative media - especially where it's needed most.

Of course the importance of marginal seats in this country undermines the political leverage of most voters. The Greens are right in supporting proportional representation. But even despite our electoral system; ordinary people can achieve influence and power by organising and intervening: in their communities, their workplaces and in the public sphere. A participatory culture is part of the answer to monopoly media and ‘one way information flows’. Although many older Australians are not engaged with ‘new media’: so undermining the power of the monopolists could occur ultimately in the form of generational change.

The Libs also pretty much got away with their line on debt and waste without much media scrutiny. They blew these out of proportion grossly - especially debt - and we need continue the work in putting the record straight here.

It is extremely important: that despite what's happened we cannot afford to let the Right *determine the historical narrative*. We need to continue to *contest* this narrative vigorously, arguing the need there was for progressive stimulus, progressive tax reform, infrastructure investment: and how the ALP achieved positive outcomes here.

We need continue to emphasise that – based on their own statements - the Liberals would have seen us into recession had they been in government. Despite the outcome the ALP made up significant ground on the theme of 'economic management' during the campaign. There was a movement away from neo-liberal consensus - and the credibility of neo-liberal ideology - and we need to hammer this home as well.

In the long run contesting this narrative is amongst the most important challenges; because if we don't then Left and Centre-Left forces in this country will be on the back foot - and probably out of government - for a very long time.

We also need focus on so-called 'working class Tories'; 'Howard's battlers': It's unavoidable that some working people will be socially conservative; but we need a clearer appeal to economic and class interests to undermine this base of support for the Liberals.

In the election aftermath there are also other issues Labor must address.

The prospects of a minority Labor government are not yet ‘dead’.

Ex-National Bob Katter might hold the key to who forms government in Australia. We know he's a protectionist and so may try and use his position to get protection for Australian agriculture. But can he hold onto this in the long term? (any hung parliament will not last) This gives him incentive for a long-term deal with Labor.

What if Labor offered a long-term deal that ‘locks agricultural protection in’ for over a decade, delivers infrastructure to the bush, and supports Katter as Agriculture Minister so long as he remains in parliament? This in return for ongoing support, including observation of cabinet discipline. Other independents may also be swayed in return for regional and rural infrastructure - locked in for a long-term deal. Of course big commitments to rural infrastructure would impact upon the budget, and would necessitate progressive tax reform to finance. Cutting other programs to make room is not the answer.

The Greens should be offered something in return for their support also: and implementation of their proposed $4.3 billion dental health scheme could be a very good start. That and the $2 billion commitment they want for Education. Some compromise policy on climate change will also be necessary. Understandably - delivering on the environment is crucial for Greens credibility.

Finally there is the issue of post-election reprisals within the Labor Party.

Some will believe that Labor should have held off going to the polls until later in the year, or even until 2011. And we will never know now what would have happened had the parliamentary caucus given Rudd a window of opportunity to turn public opinion around. Had he resigned under circumstances of a voluntary agreement, the process would not have left such a ‘bitter after-taste’ as it did for many.

So some are pointing to the leadership change; others are questioning the quality of the campaign. And then there is the issue of state Labor governments in New South Wales and Queensland – where infrastructure privatisation split the ALP within, and left many wondering if state Labor in NSW and QLD stand for anything other than dividing the spoils of office. Certainly the intervention of the mining giants was crucial, comprising the real ‘turning point’. But the behaviour of the media – with sometimes-subtle, sometimes-blatant bias - was out of our control.

What’s crucial for the ALP now is that the process of reprisal and counter-reprisal not get out of control. For the immediate future – while there is still some prospect of a minority Labor government – there is a need for internal discipline to maintain credibility.

But there will also be a need for analysis and reflection after the issue of who forms government is decided. What’s crucial in this context is the development of a structured and ordered process: honest reflection, but also such inclusiveness as to maintain cohesion: planning and mobilising for the next election.

Second Perspective: Don Sutherland

First attempt at coherent thoughts re Australian federal election

10 months ago it was hard to imagine that the Rudd Labor government would not comfortably win a second term.

Why do we today have - at best - a hung parliament but with Liberals holding 2 more seats than Labor, and 4 undecided? An Abbott neo-con Liberal-National Party government will be a massive setback for working Australians and their families and for much of the broader population. On the other hand, this is a huge win for the mining companies, energy companies, employer organisations and tobacco companies.

This grim story is counterbalanced by the very significant and powerful swing to the Greens so that they will have the balance of power in the Senate, and will have one lower house seat for the first time, alongside of (it seems at the moment) a new green independent from Tasmania. Overwhelmingly, their policies are progressive on the environment (although there are some blindnesses there), industrial law, telecommunications, refugees and asylum seekers, green manufacturing development, and telecommunications.

I think a number of interactive factors contribute to this.

Since Copenhagen the dominant right wing faction of the Labor Party, in it's machine, in it's parliamentary wing and in the union movement have completely botched both strategy and tactics, and the major, decisive moments that come along in any campaign. The Rudd Labor victory of 2007 delivered a big swing in seats to Labor, but this was balanced by having very small majorities in a lot of new seats that made up their majority. Thus, Rudd Labor had certain vulnerabilities and almost every major decision, particularly since Copenhagen but not exclusively, exposed these vulnerabilities.

Second, both the commercial and public big media gave Abbott and the Liberals a very easy time. (For example, driving around yesterday, polling day, I listened to Australia's national public broadcaster running 2-3 stories that were very favourable for Abbott to one that was not negative, but very flat for Gillard. Many other examples.)

Third, the Liberal campaign was very coherent and consistent. It played lowest common denominator values and policies very well. The billionaires will be delighted.

Finally, the broader left that includes the left both in and outside of the ALP failed to effectively communicate with the mass of workers on the mining industry tax, asylum seekers and climate change.

I am mulling over this question: "How much does our increased effort in time and content in on line communication interfere with our capacity to win support through face to face dialogue?"

I ask this question as an active supporter of and participant in on line communication. Strong political economy awareness makes it very easy to work out that the original and re-negotiated mining industry tax is a very good thing for workers and the suburbs and townships that they live in.

It should never be forgotten that a genuine grass roots mass movement called the Rights At Work Campaign was the decisive factor in the defeat of the Howard neo-cons in 2007. For real prospects of progressive change in Australia, an improved movement of this character must now be re-built no matter what the outcome of the negotiations this week about the likely hung parliament.

Third Perspective: Tim Anderson

Creating the democracy we don't yet have

Unexpectedly, it seems to me, a great opportunity for social change has emerged. This might seem strange, with another neo-fascist on the verge of becoming Australian Prime Minister. However remember that real change comes from widespread social participation, over longer periods.

First of all, the problem has to be clear - both of our major parties serve a tiny corporate elite, which likes to play them off against each other, to discipline them. This oligarchy (tightly interlocked finance, mining, media and investment groups) likes 'change' amongst the administrators, but never allows them 'power'.

Despite its origins in trade unions, the ALP is institutionally committed to gaining administrative office, and that means Labor must cut deals with this oligarchy. If the Greens, in their enthusiasm to be'credible' with the big powers, start cutting such deals, they will be similarly compromised, as were the Democrats before them. This is a time for bold new ideas, not shabby deals crippled by electoral ambitions.

The August election was a strong statement against this shallow electoral politics. Disillusionment with the two right-wing parties has created an outcome where a few populist MPs and the Greens will have a chance to demand some institutional change.

That is not enough, but it is important. What about proportional representation in elections? What about wider constitutional change and accountabilities, for example including (i) prohibiting war without parliamentary consent (ii) meaningful Aboriginal rights instead of constant tokenism, and (iii) a wider set of citizens and workers' rights?

We must hear genuine voices for popular struggles. But how is it possible to have a 'new politics' through the old language? Such voices are not possible through the corporate media, which bombards us with trivia, consumerism and 'market solutions'.

We need new media, and we need democratic controls (e.g. mandatory community participation in media boards, public and private) on the existing media. We want to hear the new MPs talking about real issues.

We need platforms to raise and strengthen the popular demands – for public health and education, an end to our appalling wars, real environmental solutions, support for genuine social institutions and control of the corporate tyrannies.

There is, I think, an opportunity for this sort of new politics, in the aftermath of the August election. And there is room for a range of new voices, including the Greens, including the maverick MPs, but also including all those of us who have been disillusioned with conventional politics. If we don't participate, who will?

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