Labor's leaders don't deserve true believers

22 June 2020
Kath Larkin

Count the problems that working class people face in Australia. More than 100,000 homeless. More than 3.2 million living below the poverty line. Eighty-four percent of JobSeeker recipients skipping meals to save money, with nearly half skipping at least five meals a week, according to the Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS). The average income of the top 1 percent, at $11,862 a week, more than 26 times that of the bottom 5 percent, at $436 a week, again according to ACOSS. This was all before the pandemic and recession hit.

For the better part of a century, these sorts of issues – the results of the exploitation of workers by bosses, and the bosses’ use of government and the state to increase their fortunes – animated hundreds of thousands to join, build and campaign for the Australian Labor Party. Mostly, they were people who didn’t want to rise above their class; they wanted to rise with their class. They knew that we are all stronger together.

Labor leader Arthur Calwell, himself no hero of the working class, prophetically argued in the 1960s that Labor would “either be a socialist party or we will finish up as a muddle-minded, middle-class, petit-bourgeois, status-seeking party”. And so it has come to pass. Welcome to modern Labor, in which party leaders know nothing of solidarity, but plenty about status-seeking.

So perhaps the least shocking thing about the recent revelations of corruption and mafia boss wannabe antics within the party is that no one was shocked. After the Age and 60 Minutes revealed the branch stacking practices of Victorian member of the Legislative Council Adem Somyurek, I wondered how it would be perceived by my workmates. I work in the railways, a blue-collar industry with more than 90 percent union density. Most of my workmates are Labor voters, some even Labor members. The allegations were met with mostly “Meh, politicians – they’re all the same”. From a couple of the older ones who remember the days of real militancy, there was a bit more anger: “Those fuckers, they don’t care about anything except the rich bastards”. But no one was shocked, no one asked how it could have come to this.

Branch stacking may not be new, but there is something different about what we’re seeing today. Branches once were stacked by people who had genuinely held beliefs about what society should and could look like. You had ideological leaders who mobilised people who cared about something. Think of Bob Santamaria and his Catholic Social Studies Movement and its popularity with the “industrial groups” set up to combat the influence of socialists and communists in the union movement. When the groupers stacked, they bought workers – sure, right wing workers – but they knew they were showing up for a fight about much more than simply one person’s preselection.

Not any more. The stacking today occurs in the context of the breakdown of the old factional system. The left, the right, the centre – they are all meaningless labels in the party now because the entire leadership and potential leadership are interested only in running the capitalist system, not transforming it. In a 2005 speech, former party president Barry Jones noted that no significant public policy debates had occurred at any national conference since 1991. Former New South Wales MP Rodney Cavalier, in his 2010 book Power crisis: the self-destruction of a state Labor party, argues: “No force describable as a ‘left’ has engaged in active contest within the ALP over ideas, policies or a framework to respond to unfolding issues, since the mid-1980s”.

Today it’s all empire building and horse trading by people with a solid commitment to one thing: their own careers. So, far from being an ideological leader, Somyurek appears to have had no policy goals, aside from the introduction of single member council wards to crush the ALP’s inner-city rivals the Greens and strangle at birth any new parties like the Victorian Socialists. A fellow MP describes him as being “without any policy bone in his body”.

All the party bigwigs say they are outraged at Somyurek’s antics. He was quickly sacked by Victorian premier Daniel Andrews. But the thing that seems to have been Somyurek’s undoing is simply that he was a better branch stacker than his rivals. It’s an open secret that pretty much everyone in a position of power in the party owes their spot to some “numbers man” organising fake members. And migrant communities are prime targets; when you hear Labor leaders talk about how much they love multiculturalism, there’s your reason right there. It seems that Somyurek was just getting too powerful. The man’s a creep, but, despite all the protestations to the contrary – all the fake outrage from party leaders – there’s no indication that he is qualitatively worse than the rest of them.

For years, the people running the show have proven themselves ready to sacrifice every sense of decency to get ahead. For former federal leader Kim Beazley, it was refugees. Tens of thousands have suffered cruel punishments and torture because of the ALP’s bipartisan asylum seeker bashing. For federal senator Penny Wong, it was LGBTI people as she held the line against marriage equality when in government. For former prime minister Julia Gillard, it was single mothers on parenting payments, who she kicked onto the dole under the cover of a parliamentary speech against misogyny. Bill Shorten climbed the ranks of the party by being an Australian Workers Union official who sold out the members he was supposed to represent. It was perfect training for someone wanting to lead the ALP, which probably explains why he became opposition leader so quickly.

Anthony Albanese has been no different, essentially trying to slide into government with the Liberals. Under Albanese, Labor helped to wave through the Coalition’s massive $95 billion tax cuts, which will disproportionately benefit the richest 4 percent of taxpayers and lead to cuts to vital government spending on hospitals, education and public transport. No doubt the hearts of the so-called socialist left swelled when a party leader from their faction had Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott proclaiming: “Good to hear pro-growth agendas are now supported on both political sides”.

In Victoria, the Daniel Andrews Labor government’s tough on crime, law and order agenda – designed purely to please the cops and outflank the conservatives to the right – has had a devastating impact on Aboriginal people and African migrants. The imprisonment rate for Aboriginal people in Victoria almost doubled between 2008 and 2018. Aboriginal children have also been locked up in adult prisons. There has been no justice yet for the family of Tanya Day, a Yorta Yorta woman who died in police custody in Castlemaine in late 2017. She was arrested for the then crime of public drunkenness after falling asleep on a train.

Time and again, the whole workers’ movement has been sacrificed to keep big business onside so that Labor MPs can get power. The union movement ran a “Change the rules” campaign in the lead-up to the last federal election – most of the rules that need changing are hangovers from when Labor was last in government. It’s no surprise this $25 million campaign failed to inspire and mobilise workers even to the ballot box. This is the party that got rid of industry-wide bargaining and the right to strike outside the bargaining period in 1993, that brought in further restrictions on the right to take industrial action in 2009, that allowed the anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission to continue under a different name and a slightly reduced budget, that opposed the reintroduction of penalty rates until it found it to be electorally useful.

While the party leaders shit on the working class behind closed doors, in front of the cameras they make pious pronouncements about the “true believers” – working class people who the next Liberal government will drive further into poverty and misery. It’s all a lie. The true believers are just fodder, another talking point. We all know this, because we all know true believers: they’re in our families, in our workplaces. They, like the rest of us, are betrayed by every Labor government.

All the talk by the leadership about the branches being the “heart and soul” of the party is rubbish as well. Somyurek himself can’t see why anyone would join the party. “By some stroke of amazingness, that some people joined [the ALP] of their own accord” wasn’t credible, he said, dismissing the idea that some of the people his operation signed up might have wanted to be members of the party. To be fair, he’s not alone. Barry Jones, again, thought similarly: “What incentives could one offer a prospective ALP branch member ...? Influence policy? Help choose MPs? Interesting branch meetings? Making a difference? (One would need a black sense of humour to even suggest it)”.

Andrews and Albanese’s solution to the breach of democracy in the party is to formally suspend democracy in the Victorian branch, the national executive committee being empowered to make decisions and disallow votes of party members. It sounds like killing the branches in order to save them. But it’s not even that. It’s clear that the branches were already moribund.

“Face the facts: Labor is stuffed. Its branches are rorted and its membership base is a joke”, wrote then federal leader Mark Latham more than a decade ago. He said that rank-and-file forums were moribund and made a rough estimate of 7,500 “real members” (those who spend at least two hours per week attending to party matters) around the country. When Cavalier wrote his book, he estimated fewer than 1,000 members were in any way active in New South Wales. Only half of those, he wrote, were “devoted in the way that was characteristic from the 1890s until about the 1980s”. And of those, 200-300 were on the payroll of the party, leaving only a couple of hundred committed rank-and-file activists in Australia’s largest state.

There are good people in the ALP, but they are fewer in number than at any point in the party’s history. And most of them are well past 60 years old. The party leaders don’t deserve their loyalty. We need a new party for working people, one that doesn’t tolerate careerists and doesn’t suck up to big business.

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