The Australian Labor Party is about to be wiped out in the March NSW elections and an important question for people with a social conscience is – does it matter?
Isn’t there cause to celebrate the popular rejection of a party which pretends social democratic values yet, in government, has collaborated in virtually the entire oligarchic agenda - multiple wars, privatisations, massive corporate subsidies, unsustainable industries and open racism?
Not all will see it that way. Conventional wisdom amongst the Australian left has been that Labor deserves to be punished but “a Liberal-National Coalition government … will be worse”. On this basis, many left groups (though not the Greens) will preference Labor.
There are some difficult assumptions behind this idea, which I would like to question.
First, ‘the conservatives will be worse’. Really? We know they represent the big corporations; it is written all over their policies and corporate dinners – just like Labor, but a bit more open. Of course they will try to slash social programs, to privilege investors and to extend privatisations – just like Labor. And we will have to oppose them. But acting on behalf of a tiny group of investors does not look good in public, so they will bullshit and duck and weave, just like Labor.
Second, there is the idea that Labor’s institutional links to many trade unions means that those who want to empower working people must focus on this relationship. This is a little like saying that anyone with a moral sense must carry out moral debates within the Catholic Church.
That idea is linked to the third assumption – there is no possible restructuring of political forces within Australia. In other words, the left can only look forward to a return to a Labor administration or some sort of Labor-led coalition with the Greens and/or other left parties.
None of these assumptions seem sound. Structural change does take place within electoral politics. Ireland has just seen the collapse of its pseudo-social-democrat Party, Fianna Fáil (along with the Irish Greens) because of that party’s failed neoliberal project. In Australia we saw the complete collapse of a ‘watchdog’ party, the Australian Democrats. Several Latin American countries now have progressive governments led by parties which emerged from the ashes of old, discredited two party systems. Sound familiar?
For at least a generation Labor has adopted a strategy of seeking office which entails close collaboration with the Australian financial-mining-media oligarchy. In recent years this has been called the ‘low profile’ approach – promise little, do not offend the ‘markets’ and sneak into power. Labor leaders have no will to engage in any sort of struggle with the big powers – hence the ongoing collaboration in war and privatisation.
Yet because Labor still presents as a branch based party with some social policies, and because people have been trained to think there is no alternative, illusions about Labor persist.
The fall of ‘Kevin 07’ shows that illusions about Labor are rife within as well as without the party. It was a perfectly reasonable proposition to raise taxes on mining companies in the midst of a minerals boom; reasonable, but suffering from the bureaucratic illusion that government rules in Australia.
Within a short space of time, the mining companies and their mates in the media monopolies were able to portray a tax rise as a threatening move. If there had been a campaign to educate people on the move, to mobilise public support, it could have been a very popular policy. But Kevin thought he was in charge.
An oligarchy rules in Australia – a tiny cabal of mining, banking, media and investment companies – and the politically conscious need to recognise this. They allow some second order debate in their media monopolies, but they also have lines that cannot be crossed, without a fight.
Who is prepared for such a fight? Not the Labor party leaders, who are focused on securing the benefits of office. They are aware of the consequences of losing such fights, even over quite modest reforms, as with the Whitlam government in 1975.
After the 1975 coup against Whitlam, a new era of Labor coordination with the oligarchy began. The NSW Wran government in 1976 and the Hawke federal government in 1983 tied their agendas tightly to corporate ambitions.
Take Labor’s 1983 election promise to introduce a national Aboriginal land rights regime. This came about after many years of indigenous rights campaigning. Even after being elected, the Hawke government spelt out plans for the most comprehensive program ever to recognise indigenous dispossession. Yet the mining companies along with WA Labor mobilised and, within a few months, the Hawke regime reneged on its promises. It all came to nothing.
This history of this betrayal has been buried. Nearly a decade later the High Court’s Mabo decision forced on Labor what seemed a very limited and discriminatory recognition of land rights. In fact it was worse than this. The great evil of the Native Title Act was that it pretended to legitimise ‘extinguishment’ of land rights for the great majority of Aboriginal people.
Since that great betrayal, Labor has played on tokenism. Keating recognised the genocide, in the Redfern Park Speech of 1992. Then his adviser Don Watson helped promote the myth that Keating had actually done something for Aboriginal rights. This might have seemed credible in the face of Howard’s refusal to apologise to the stolen children. Yet Kevin Rudd’s subsequent apology added little of substance.
We must remember that it was Labor that gave the banks control of their interest rates and fees in the mid 1980s, removing social requirements (home lending, small business) that had been attached to volumes of lending and to interest rates. This helped build the ‘financialisation’ of our economy, where financial companies (‘markets’) rule, speculators rob people in real economies and property inflation makes home ownership a remote dream for younger generations.
It was Labor too - in league with the oligarchy in the 1980s and 1990s - that abolished award wages, abolished the link between wages and price increases (‘indexation’), and began the process of replacing public pensions with private superannuation. Just a few years after introducing the Sex Discrimination Act, this was the greatest blow to women’s rights in decades. Women suffer much more than men from the joint abolition of award wages and public pensions. Labor too led the charge on privatisations (as also on the ‘competition policy’ that legitimises further privatisations) in the early 1990s.
Yet after a decade of Howard government, illusions in Labor re-emerged. Young people had not see Labor in action and people simply didn’t read their history. Howard didn’t become PM out of personal charisma. He was the little grey man who gave the oligarchy all they wanted. Labor would sugar coat the pill, but were not prepared for a fight. They are simply not prepared to confront policies of war and privatisation, nor the new bubble market scams.
Labor MPs (including a raft of ex-union leaders) now sit in parliaments across the country, speaking and voting for things many privately disagree with and which their constituents hate - wars, racism and privatisations - yet they are too weak and too scared of losing their jobs to speak out. A number of British Labour MPs resigned over the Iraq war; not one Australian Labor MP did so.
Those in Labor Party branches, in their turn, fondly imagine that theirs is a democratic institution and that their policy proposals mean something. Union leaders either see no option or are looking for their own superannuation, as Labor MPs.
The late George Petersen, a NSW Labor MP for 20 years, said that the Labor Party was the greatest obstacle to progress in the country. He was right, precisely because the hypocrisy of Labor inspires ongoing illusions.
Perhaps a more complete electoral demolition of Labor might be just what is needed to shatter these illusions? A split in a devastated party could liberate progressive elements from the party to join new electoral coalitions, and leave the careerists with the rump of a party that is long past its ‘use by date’.
from Online Opinion