Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Socialist Alliance National Conference
"If there’s an organisation that can lead the trade union movement to where it should be going, it’s this one", Chris Cain, Western Australian state secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia told the opening plenary of the fifth Socialist Alliance national conference held at Geelong Trades Hall on October 29.
Some 53 delegates from across Australia met in regional Victoria to discuss how to help defeat the Howard government and build fighting social movements - in particular in the trade unions.
Reflecting on the current push to join or back the ALP as the only way of defeating Howard, Cain said, "I’ve been approached on many occasions to join the ALP". He added: "I know how to be a trade unionist, and if that means becoming part of something humanitarian, then I won’t be budging from the Socialist Alliance."
Commenting on the discussion among many union leaders about the movement’s relationship with the Labor Party, Cain said, "I’m not going to say that if the ALP doesn’t get in at the next election, we’re all finished. The reason is that the way to get rid of Howard is not what the majority of trade union leaders are saying." He went on to argue for an independent trade union movement to continue to take the fight for workers’ rights up to the government of the day - Liberal or Labor.
Cain’s comments encapsulated the fighting spirit and optimism of the 130-strong conference.
Delegates unanimously adopted the draft resolution presented by the outgoing national executive which states that "the Socialist Alliance will campaign for the defeat of the Howard government in the next federal election and for its replacement by a Labor government". The statement continues: "However we have little confidence that a Beazley government will stand by its promise to rip up Work Choices and Australian Workplace Agreements and introduce an industrial relations system that enshrines our rights at work unless there is sustained political pressure from below, expressed in independent union and broader community mass mobilisation and protest."
The discussion on fighting Work Choices continued on from the previous day’s union seminar on the same issue.
Other priority campaigns adopted were: the anti-war movement (with an immediate focus on next year’s anniversary of Iraq invasion protests and the APEC meeting in September which US President Bush will be attending); defence of the rights of Indigenous people; and the ongoing struggle for equal rights for gay, lesbian and transgender people.
The resolution also committed the Alliance to help build the movement against global warming, the expansion of uranium mining and nuclear energy. A specific resolution from the conference’s environment workshop requires the Alliance to help build the broadest possible coalition against the nuclear fuel industry.
Other workshops produced resolutions on election campaigning, Indigenous deaths in custody, ending the ban on same-sex marriage as well as on building the Alliance in the regions, through the internet and through the Alliance’s partnership with Green Left Weekly.
One deeply felt issue was the Howard government’s attacks on civil liberties. Rob Stary, lawyer for the Barwon 13 - young Melbourne men from Muslim backgrounds who have been charged with offences under the ``anti-terror’‘ laws - launched a discussion on the theme in the first conference plenary.
Stary poured scorn on the government’s case against the Muslim men, and its campaign to secure a retrial for Jack Thomas. The reason that the Commonwealth was pursuing the men was not because they were engaged in any terrorist activity, Stary argued, but because it had to show something for the $6 billion it had already been spent on "anti-terrorist" activity since the 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre.
Another highlight was the address by Queensland Murri leader and Alliance member Sam Watson who said that the "partnership" in Brisbane between Socialist Alliance and the Murri community - particularly around the police murder of our brother on Palm Island - had moved up a few notches this this year.
"One of the main reasons that SA ran me in the seat of Brisbane Central was to highlight the failure of the Beattie government", Watson continued. "The only place that Beattie found any real opposition, or any real scrutiny, was in Brisbane Central, and that was because of Socialist Alliance."
Watson called for a national day of action on November 18 to protest the murder of Mulrunji, one day before the second anniversary of his death in police custody on Palm Island. "The Socialist Alliance are the only people with the courage to take this up", Watson said.
Amelia Taylor, SA member and founder of the United Casual Workers Alliance (UCWA) on the Gold Coast which is unionising workers who have previously never heard of unions, reminded us about the reality of life under Work Choices. She recounted how after the June 28 Brisbane rally against Work Choices, the rally goers flocked to the Queen Street Mall in Brisbane’s CBD in search of a coffee but the café and sandwich shop workers were not ready for the influx forcing them into a "sweat to satisfy demand". "So many people don’t regard the person making the coffee, or serving, as a worker," Taylor said. "We need to push into those areas that haven’t got a history of being organised. The day you can’t get a coffee after a union rally is the day that rally has been a success."
Taylor described how the UCWA organises unorganised workers, and informs them of their rights, including the right to be paid! In one case, deck hands on fishing ships were being regularly paid only in fish, and in another workers on tourist boats were being paid with free passes for their families to enjoy whale watching!
While the discussion was rich, with a variety of organising experiences and networking openings being relayed, attendees were conscious that the Socialist Alliance was still in its early stages of building a political alternative to Labor. The conference resolution summed it up: "Socialist Alliance reaffirms its core objective of promoting left unity and regroupment. However we recognise that the Socialist Alliance will have to go through a more extended period of united campaigning and political convergence with the broader forces generated by a new upturn of resistance before it can develop the social base and harness the leadership resources needed to take a significant step towards creating a new mass socialist party."
Greetings came from a range of groups in Australia and internationally, including the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) from El Salvador, Turkey’s Party of Labour, Australians for Palestine, the Islamic Girls and Women’s Group, the Federation of Australian Muslim Students and Youth, the WA branch of the MUA and Cristobal Zelaya from the Australian Solidarity with Latin America.
Chilean journalist and Mapuche Indigenous activist Rosa del Carmen Curihuentro, Maria de Lourdes Vicente da Silva, a leader of the landless workers movement from Brazil (MST) and Mexican land and peasant rights activist Heriberto Salas also gave greetings. They, along with a solidarity message from Nelson Davíla, the Venezuelan chargé d’affaires in Australia, were greeted with much applause.
The conference elected five members of a new Socialist Alliance national executive of 17. The remaining 12 are to be elected by state and territory Socialist Alliance committees. In motivating the new structure, outgoing Socialist Alliance national coordinator Lisa Macdonald described it as ``much more grass roots, and in tune with what the Socialist Alliance is doing’‘.
The conference ended with a performance from Aboriginal rap artist and Socialist Alliance upper house candidate for the NSW elections, Jakalene X-treme.
For Dick Nichols, newly elected Socialist Alliance national coordinator, "Socialist Alliance remains at the heart of any serious discussion about building a working-class alternative to the Labor Party". Nichols added that Alliance activists are central to a range of campaigns, notably the campaign against Work Choices, and that the Alliance’s focus on activism is critical.
But he added a caution: "We need to guard against the problem of over-expectation. The fact that the Greens are receiving the lion’s share of the vote to the left of Labor doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for left organisations and individuals to come together. We want to, and do, work with the Greens where ever possible, but we also know that the initial steps the Alliance has taken towards left unity are important steps. The door is always open, including to those left groups which have become disenchanted. If you didn’t have Socialist Alliance, it would have to be re-invented. The main challenge facing the Alliance right now is to expand our reach, and to turn more of our members and supporters into leaders of the organisation."
Australian politics today and the Socialist Alliance
A draft resolution submitted by the Socialist Alliance National Executive to the 2006 national conference
1. Since our last conference in May 2005, Socialist Alliance members and supporters in the trade union movement have worked hard to ensure that the overwhelming public opposition to John Howard’s anti-worker and union-busting laws has been mobilised in the massive nationwide protests over the last year—the largest worker protests ever organised in Australia.
2. While this campaign has not stopped the Howard government from bringing in these laws, which reverse gains won over 100 years of working-class struggle, the scale of the mass mobilisations and the unpopularity of the laws demonstrated in numerous polls has undermined many bosses’ confidence to rapidly use them against workers and unions. These mobilisations have also pressured Labor opposition leader Kim Beazley into promising to “rip up” Work Choices. The work of Socialist Alliance activists, especially in the unions, has been essential to achieving this result.
3. However, serious attacks on working people’s conditions of work and right to organise are under way. CFMEU and AMWU members in Western Australia are facing fines of up to $28,600 for taking industrial action, while some bosses have begun forcing individual contracts onto workers and even refusing to pay for work done. At the same time, the punitive new “Welfare to Work” regime is forcing thousands more people into greater poverty and exploitation, and being used to undermine union-won working conditions.
4. It is still early days in the struggle against Howard’s anti-worker laws—crucial battles lie before us. Together with other militants, Socialist Alliance activists must continue to ensure that the campaign against Work Choices is not just an ALP election campaign, but one that strengthens unions’ ability to defend workers’ rights—now and under a possible future ALP federal government.
5. The Socialist Alliance will campaign for the defeat of the Howard government in the next federal election and for its replacement by a Labor government. However, we have little confidence that a Beazley government will stand by its promise to rip up Work Choices and Australian Workplace Agreements and introduce an industrial relations system that enshrines our rights at work unless there is sustained political pressure from below, expressed in independent union and broader community mass mobilisation and protest.
6. Strengthening resistance to the Coalition’s anti-worker laws should remain the priority campaign for the Socialist Alliance, not the least because serious defeats imposed on the organised working class will weaken the ability of all working people and all social justice movements to defend their rights.
7. In this context the 2005 Fightback Conference, an initiative of unionists in and around the Socialist Alliance, helped strengthen organised resistance to Work Choices and other anti-union laws by bringing together a broad range of militant trade unionists. The loose and informal network of militant resistance in the trade unions launched at this conference increased the potential to organise unionists for this fight on a broader scale. The Socialist Alliance should continue to facilitate the development of this broader network.
8. The Socialist Alliance’s second campaign priority should remain building the anti-war movement, as well as opposing the attacks on civil liberties in the form of new “anti-terrorism” laws and the criminalisation and scapegoating of Middle Eastern-Australian, Arabic-speaking and Muslim communities.
9. The Socialist Alliance gave wholehearted support to the protests initiated by the Middle Eastern-Australian and Muslim communities against Liberal and Labor support for Israel’s brutal wars on Lebanon and Palestine. Alliance activists continue to help lead and organise the rallies and marches against the occupation of Iraq and the destruction of our democratic freedoms that the “war on terror” is used to justify.
10. The imperialist wars of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan are intensifying and the Howard government has increased its commitment of troops to aid its US allies. While the Labor opposition opposes Australian military involvement in Iraq it supports a greater Australian military intervention in Afghanistan as well as the US-Australia alliance (ANZUS). Labor state governments and the federal opposition have come 100% behind the so-called war on terror, and the associated racist scapegoating and assault on civil liberties. With George Bush coming to Australia for the APEC conference in September 2007, Socialist Alliance should help build the biggest and broadest possible demonstrations against Bush and Australia’s ties with Washington’s foreign policy and war machine.
11. While IR and anti-war remain the two top campaign priorities for the Socialist Alliance, our members continue to play leading roles in other important movements. For example: Socialist Alliance members in gay and lesbian rights organisations threw their energies into organising last month’s national day on action against the federal ban on same-sex marriage. This remains an important and ongoing campaign in which Alliance members should continue to play a leading role.
# Socialist Alliance is beginning to play a role in building resistance to Federal and State government attacks on the rights and gains of Indigenous Australia. With both Liberal and Labor parties either persecuting or abandoning Indigenous people, it is critical that the Alliance strengthen its contribution to this struggle.
# Socialist Alliance is opposed to uranium mining, as we are opposed to the government's plan to sell it to countries that have not signed the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, such as India. In the lead-up to next year's ALP national conference, at which the three-mines policy will be debated, Socialist Alliance activists have committed to work with other environmental and anti-nuclear activists, including some still in the ALP, to demand that all uranium mining cease. We are also committed to working with Indigenous peoples, and others, against the imposition of a nuclear waste dump anywhere in Australia and against plans to enrich uranium here.
# The high per capita output of greenhouse gases, a by-product of Australian corporate and government investment in fossil fuels rather than renewable energy technologies is another important campaign for Socialist Alliance. Widespread concern about the impact of greenhouse gases on climate change continues to generate local campaigns. These provide an important opportunity for the Alliance to highlight the limits of market-based “solutions” and to campaign for the rapid conversion of Australia’s energy industry into one based on renewable sources.
12. Socialist Alliance will continue to take the people-before-profits message into the electoral arena. The campaign of Sam Watson (the only Indigenous candidate) against premier Peter Beattie in the September 9 Queensland elections was an inspiring example of how a socialist election campaign can “give voice to the voiceless” and help profile all social justice issues at election time. While most people disgusted with the conservatism of both Labor and Liberal are currently voting for the Greens in elections, and the Socialist Alliance vote will therefore generally continue to be small in the short term, for the Alliance the gains from such campaigns are not measured only in votes. Just as important is the chance they provide to increase the profile of socialist solutions, to be a tribune for all struggles for justice and democratic rights and to build the Alliance.
13. More generally, the Socialist Alliance’s year-round campaigning activity puts left politics onto the political stage at every level. Whether it is putting motions to workplace meetings, organising students, distributing Green Left Weekly, hosting public forums, joining picket lines, organising fund raisers, contributing to Seeing Red magazine—all help to build resistance by boosting people’s confidence to take action to defend their rights. It raises the voice of dissent and gives millions of people hope with the knowledge that they are not alone in their hatred of war, racism and union bashing, and that organised resistance is possible, and happening.
14. Socialist Alliance re-affirms its core objective of promoting left unity and regroupment. However, we recognise that the Socialist Alliance will have to go through a more extended period of united campaigning and political convergence with the broader forces generated by a new upturn of resistance before it can develop the social base and harness the leadership resources needed to take a significant step towards creating a new mass socialist party.
15. Nonetheless, for first time in many years many in the working class look towards Socialist Alliance as a valuable step forward along that path. By championing the need for a broadly based anti-capitalist or new mass workers’ party and by always helping to organise the most united left intervention possible in the social movements, the Socialist Alliance can continue to win the respect of broader layers of militant workers and social justice activists, and win them to its ranks. In this way Socialist Alliance will continue to take practical steps along the road to building the political force that Australia’s workers, poor and oppressed need.