The Socialist Unity Network
Ken Davis is a member of the Australian SA National Executive on behalf of Socialist Democracy, a caucus of Fourth International supporters.

Australian socialists seek Spanish solution to Howard government

Ken Davis

There is a growing momentum to defeat the conservative Howard government in Australian national elections due later this year. Current opinion polls show the likely result is a Labor government, with the Greens holding the balance of power in the Senate. Labor is led by the working class and sometimes charismatic Mark Latham, a creation of the NSW Right faction of the party. The Greens are in most regions significantly to the left of Greens in Europe.

Socialists are active in the continuing movement against Australian involvement in the occupation of Iraq, in defence of refugees, against Australia's theft of East Timor's maritime oil and gas resources, and in building a campaign alongside Labor and Green voters to defeat Howard.

The Socialist Alliance (SA) -- which brought together in 2001 the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP, a party that renounced Trotskyism in the early 1980s), the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) and six other socialist groups along with hundreds of independents to create a broad and pluralist socialist organisation -- held its third national conference in Melbourne on 8-9 May. At this conference, left groups in the Sudanese, Somali and Chilean communities announced plans to affiliate. The Alliance now has just over a thousand financial members, who were represented at the conference by 132 delegates.

Outside the Alliance are the 200-member Socialist Alternative and another group from the British SWP tradition, Solidarity -- which has recently left the ISO and SA, the re-established Communist Party of Australia, the CWI's Socialist Party, and six smaller socialist groups. Most of the communist and socialist groups of the migrant/exile communities in Australia also remain outside the Alliance.

The Alliance conference adopted a political resolution introduced by David Glanz of the ISO on behalf of the whole SA executive: "Latham's rise to the leadership of the Australian Labor Party has broken the logjam in parliamentary politics. There is now a widespread sense that the Liberals can be beaten. The Socialist Alliance shares with both Labor and Green supporters the desire to drive Howard out. But we also recognise that Latham is a populist and rightwing leader, who combines audacity over questions like withdrawing troops from Iraq or parliamentary superannuation with conservatism over national security, the US alliance, indigenous affairs, paid maternity leave, etc. The task for the Alliance is to work alongside all those who want an end to Howard while putting forward our own positive,
socialist alternative on the questions of the day. The rise of the Green vote is a welcome indicator of the shift to the left of a substantial minority in Australian society. We will seek to work with the Greens, organise joint platforms with them and Labor, and will normally preference them before Labor. At the same time, we have to attempt to win Green supporters to the Alliance, the only party in the election that rejects not just the symptoms of capitalism but the system itself, and that prioritises the needs, demands and campaigns of the working class."

An undercurrent of opinion in the Australian left and inside the Alliance, that Labor and Liberal are equally reactionary capitalist neo-liberal parties, and that Labor is a greater threat to the left thereby requiring the most trenchant opposition, was not presented in the conference.

The conference adopted an orientation supporting the "militant union current", comprised of the leaders of the construction and maritime unions in Western Australia, and the construction, electrical and textiles unions in Victoria, as well as the former state secretary of the manufacturing workers' union, Craig Johnston, from the Workers First team, and a member of SA, who faced trial on 10 May on five charges of assault and criminal damage
resulting from a union "raid" on offices of two firms employing scabs. 4000 workers, mainly from city building sites, demonstrated in his support the morning after the SA conference. Johnston avoided a long gaol term by pleading guilty.

These militant construction, electrical, textiles and maritime union branch leaders gave greetings to the conference, (though most are members of the Labor Party), as did the Victorian Greens.

The SA majority regards the defence of this Militant Union Current as the key battleground of the Australian working class, fighting off concerted attacks by the national union leaders, the left and right of the labour movement, the conservative Labor state governments and the Howard government, all allied with the employers.

A minority argued that in addition to defending these militant union leaders in WA and Victoria, SA should orient to militant union and union-building activities in all states and in all the unions in which SA supporters participate, regardless of the union's factional alignment in the Labor Party or in the Australian Council of Trade Unions, and regardless of industrial sector -- white or blue collar. For example in the public sector, teachers, university staff, nurses and postal workers are all engaged in industrial action this year. Socialist activists in non-radical unions are heading up organising drives with primarily young and female casual/part-time workers in the call centres and in the finance, retail and hospitality sectors.

The conference majority (93 to 33 with 7 abstentions) ratified continuing a trial period designed to transform the DSP's "Green Left Weekly into the weekly newspaper of the Alliance", and elected a 12-person editorial liaison board to work alongside the GLW editors to develop columns reflecting majority opinions in the Alliance. The DSP has announced it is facing a serious financial crisis, and wants DSP members and other SA supporters to increase GLW distribution and donations. Motions recognising the
publications of the other affiliates as building the Alliance, and of the bimonthly magazine "Seeing Red" as the only "regular official publication of the SA" and explicitly relieving SA members from obligations to sell and fundraise for GLW, were rejected.

At the SA conference a year ago, the majority voted to hasten the transformation of the Alliance into a "Multi-Tendency Socialist Party", and now talk of a "united revolutionary party" is overtaking what was originally described a broad and pluralist alliance of the whole left. The larger of the affiliates still function as Leninist parties with tight political and organisational discipline, and no "tendency platforms" within the Alliance have been announced for members to identify or debate with.

The activist culture of the larger affiliates is both a strength and a weakness. The activism of the Alliance is seen in regular stalls and branch building activities in all regional centres in Australia, and in cohesive efforts in the anti-war movement. But there is a tendency to define activism and political work narrowly, excluding attention to the diverse range of political, community and workplace activities that Alliance supporters are engaged in. There is an evident impatience with -- and dismissive attitudes towards - building a new culture of political clarification, renewal, discussion, debate and education. This leads to a growing weakness in the democratic life of the Alliance. In most branches only a third of financial members came to meetings to elect delegates, and the Democratic Socialist Perspective which has 300 members in the Alliance had almost half the delegates to the national conference, and 60% of delegates from the largest state, NSW.

The conference down-graded the National Executive by increasing it's size, limiting it's role to meeting by phone every two months, and restricting its scope for decision-making and discussion. The DSP used its majority in delegations from the larger states to exclude the more genuinely independent candidates for positions on the NE reserved for "non-aligned"
representatives. Five national convenors were elected by slate (83 to 38): one from DSP, one from the International Socialists who are the second largest affiliate, and three from a previously unannounced platform of 20 "non-aligned" delegates who co-operate very closely with the DSP leadership and are publicly committed to counteracting "divisive elements", defeating an existing national convenor seen as too independent. This central leadership election means the over 50% of financial members who are genuinely unaligned with any affiliate are unrepresented in the national decision-making body. This may contribute to decreasing engagement within the Alliance by members not linked with the DSP.


June 2004

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