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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?

7 comments:

  1. Why did Labor do badly?

    Yes, I agree the power of the miners and the media played a part. But the ALP made life easy for them. The appalling climb-down over climate change left many ALP supporters I know speechless. The government should have gone through a consultation process with the miners before announcing a new tax package - even if they intended not to listen to the miners core complaints.

    In the context of a electorate that is largely disengaged from the detail of politics and policy formation, and who are therefore prone to having their views of complex issues heavily influenced by the media and powerful business interests, political optics matter. Rudd and Swan blew it.

    The future for the ALP?

    I should declare my interest as a Green Party member.

    Those in and around the ALP must ask themselves if the party is any longer a vehicle for progressive politics.

    Many social democratic/labourist parties around the world have become little more than electoral machines over the past 20/30 years. Their 'taut electoralism' means they have dismantled member influence over policy and become preoccupied with focus groups and the median voter.

    The only measure of political success is securing and retaining power. This means an internal party culture of 'defensive unity' has become hegemonic: in opposition we must rally around the leadership to regain power; in government we must rally around the leadership to retain power.

    The leadership (and their clique of unelected policy advisers and pollsters) always wins.

    This political-organizational environment makes building and sustaining a substantive left-of-center politics highly unlikely.

    In the present political-ideological climate left-wing politics is a minority pursuit (albeit with significant potential). But in the context of parties like the ALP this minority status makes it extremely vulnerable to being swamped, marginalized and silenced by the over-riding and constant imperative to maximize votes and regain/retain power.

    In short, under present conditions electoralism and the growth of progressive politics (historically always in tension with each other) have now become profoundly antithetical to each other.

    For those socialists/progressives inside the ALP there are, it seems to me, to be two options: leave and build anew, or remain in a party whose policies are beyond your control and whose leaders increasingly regard you as 'useful idiots'.

    Sorry to be so blunt - but the time for self-deception and wishful thinking has long gone.

    Mike mikegreensx@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  2. Mike;

    You'd be right to say there's more to the struggle than electoral politics. A vital struggle is in the cultural sphere; in setting the terms for debate within which the mainstream parties (now including the Greens) move, and also in winning victories outside the parliamentary context.

    As I said in my contribution here - the Greens have a vital position in that - given their electoral base - they have more freedom to speak out on many issues than the ALP has. Also as I stated - the ALP's electoral base is marked by internal contradiction.

    In the electoral sense at least - the ALP has to 'carry the field of the RELATIVE centre'.(pushing to the Left limits of this 'field') For progressives, here, the cultural struggle focuses on shifting this relative centre in support of social justice, sustainability, social justice and liberty.

    The electoral contest can lead to some ugly politics sometimes. But I still think who holds government really counts for something. From my perspective as an ALP activist - there is the task of keeping progresive ideas and culture within the party alive. Even if the Greens managed 20% of the popular vote, they would still need partners in the ALP to work with.

    While recognising the limits of pure electoralism; I think we need recognise the strategic value of government. And that whatever good the Greens may be able to do - they will need partners for change in the ALP.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Tristan

    I did not intend to imply that who holds government is unimportant.

    I don't take the view, held by some on the left, that who wins elections does not really matter because the ALP/Coalition are the same.

    The two parties are not the same - and are not viewed as such by much of the electorate.

    My concern is that in the context of the ALP where policy formation is undemocratic, the behaviour of elected representatives is largely independent of broader party structures, and much party funding comes from big companies, the impact that left activists can make on both the party and the broader political culture is minimal.

    On the left the momentum at present is with the Greens.

    If a few thousand ALP activists left the party and joined the Greens the ALP would continue (substantial donations from Westpac and ANZ, among others, will ensure that) and it would help to ensure the growth of a significant left-alternative that can check the ALP's march to the right.

    Committed and experienced activists are a valuable political resource for any left party. My concern is that this resource is being squandered in the ALP when it would be much more productively employed in the Greens.

    Mike mikegreensx@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  4. This is an interesting and very necessary debate. One can see good points made by both sides. The point Mike makes about internal party forms, I feel, is spot on. The point the author makes about shifts and so on is also right, for example in Germany the Greens supported NATO imperialism and neoliberalism for much the same reasons that the ALP has done in Australia. If I were a German I would support The Left Party, not the SPD or the Greens. I think so would most socialists in Australia if such a choice existed here. No such party exists in Australia, the PDS means this is pretty German centric, so the question is; what to do? I myself am seeking to form a socialist forum dedicated to rethinking and reconceptualising the socialist ideal. I think it is possible to imagine a renewed "emancipatory socialism" that puts emancipation, "human emancipation" let us say, at the core; this would be a more liberatory, and non Bolshevik, socialism that would be at odds with the old state socialist models (even the old socialist objective of the ALP was a type of state socialism). Such a reconceptualisation would include new thinking about what role a working class party, and a more grass-roots bottom-up from of unionism, can **help** play in bringing about such a rethought socialism into being (non-reformist reforms perhaps). This would require regular discussion, a journal or magazine, a mini think tank etc. It would involve active work within political parties, for example at ALP fringe conferences and so on. It can be, and must be, done. If interested send us a line.

    Marko B

    marko.beljac AT gmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  5. Found this at GLW online; and interesting take on the independents. See:

    http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/45186

    ReplyDelete
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