Looking beyond the elections

Peter Boyle Socialist Alliance August 2010

Perth launch of Socialist Alliance federal election 2010 campaign.
(Photo by Andy Parnell

Whichever of the major parties wins the August 21 elections, we know that the real job of fighting for progressive change will remain ahead of us.

It is not just because the ALP and the Liberal-National coalition parties have made this election campaign an ugly race to the right – which to the disgust of many they have – but also because real change has never come simply through a vote in the ballot box.

Even the elections that registered real victories, such as the defeat of the hated but seemingly entrenched Howard government in November 2007, have come on the backs of the sustained political action by millions of ordinary people focused primarily around the campaign against WorkChoices.

That powerful popular mobilisation should not be forgotten. Opposition leader Tony Abbott's strenuous efforts to assure workers that WorkChoices is “dead, buried and cremated” is a sharp reminder of the potential power of the working class in Australia today. But it also should not be forgotten because it will be necessary to mobilise that power again after the elections is over – no matter which major party wins government – and on issues beyond industrial laws as well.

Real change isn't just a political preference in our time. It is an urgent necessity. The clock is ticking on climate change and the gross inequalities and insane diversion of social resources imposed by three decades of bi-partisan implementation of the corporate-profits-first neo-liberal agenda, exposed so starkly by the still-unresolved Global Financial Crisis, are clearly unsustainable and unconscionable.

Real change can only come about through popular mobilisation through social movement that are independent of the political parties that serve as the trusted servants of the powerful elite.

As an organisation committed to real change, the Socialist Alliance does not stop or even slow down its campaigning after an election. Our members are back out in the streets campaigning when while the major parties' focus shifts to dividing the spoils of parliamentary office.

The sort of candidates we fielded in this election reflect this emphasis: Indigenous movement leaders Sam Watson and Sharon Firebrace; youth activists Jess Moore, Ewan Saunders, Zane Alcorn, Mel Barnes, Gemma Weedall and Ben Peterson; climate change and anti-war campaigners Pip Hinman, Duncan Roden, Ben Courtice, Trent Hawkins, Renfrey Clarke, Ruth Ratcliffe, Margarita Windisch and Alex Bainbridge; longtime trade union activists David Lowe, Ron Guy, Sue Bull, Sanna Andrews and Julie Gray; and in an election stained by the racist scapegoating of migrants, refugee and Sudanese community leader Soubhi Iskander and leading refugee rights and LGBTIQ rights campaigner Rachel Evans.

This is a team of political activists and community leaders not professional politicians. They are the sort of people who build the movements that make real change and not the people who seek to ride the back of movements to a comfy seat in Parliament.

However, the election outcome on August 21 will impact significantly on the progress of the non-parliamentary movements.

Most obviously, there will be an impact on the morale of these movements. Certainly, if the Coalition wins, a shock wave of demoralisation will sweep the trade union and other social movements. The conservative voices in the trade union movement that have urged rank-and-file unionists to go soft on the Rudd and Gillard Labor governments over issues such as the persecution of construction worker Ark Tribe under the anti-worker Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) laws, may become more insistent though there is now even less room for the ALP to shift to right.

But on the positive side, an increased momentum for a progressive break from the major parties, will also have its impact on the social movements. The Greens look set to win more positions in the Senate, and it is critical that those positions are used to strengthen and encourage the progressive social movements and foster their independence.

Right through the campaign against WorkChoices under the former Howard government, the still strong domination of the trade union movement by the ALP exerted a conservative drag on the forcefulness and independence of that struggle. But to the extent that this election consolidates the political break by a minority of militant trade unions from slavish support for the ALP, any replay of a mass political struggle after these elections will be stronger for it.

This dynamic connection between movement and party political struggle informs the Socialist Alliance's determination to play as active a role as possible in both these spheres of political action.

Furthermore our approach to party politics is a broad and anti-sectarian one. We stand for a unification of the broadest possible forces willing to fight for progressive change. We stand for putting what we agree on ahead of what we may disagree on in this process. And finally we conceive the sort of political formation that is objectively needed in our time as a strong, democratic, parliamentary and movement-based alliance between the left and the Greens. Such a formation remains an aspiration at this time. But it is objectively needed if real change in the interest of justice and ecological sustainability is going to be won.

Peter Boyle is the National Convener of the Socialist Alliance.