People keep asking me: “How’s the campaign going?” My short answer is I’m really not sure. A longer answer might be something like this.
The campaign is going like a smile creeping over the construction workers’ face at Gladstone Park: “At work we’ve all been brainw– I mean, we’ve had meetings about how we should vote, because we have to get the Liberals out to get rid of the ABCC”.
I agree wholeheartedly. Winning some legal space for the militant but besieged construction unions is one of the few pro-union reforms that Labor has promised in this election. As a long time construction worker, I realise how precious it is to have a strong union and even political meetings at work – a rarity in any Australian workplace nowadays. I also remind my construction worker friend that Labor made this promise, and failed to keep it, the last time it was elected.
He thinks for a second. “OK.” He starts to smile. “I’m going to do it.” Now he’s grinning. “I was thinking about it, but you’ve tipped me over. I’m going to vote for you.” He looks like a naughty kid finding the freedom of small scale but meaningful rebellion. It’s beautiful to see.
The campaign is going like the indignant rant of an older woman talking about her daughter’s working conditions. Two kids to look after. Minimum wage. Unpaid overtime. Totally casual. Humiliated at work. Though the woman took all our leaflets, I have no idea if she’ll vote socialist. Once she started talking she was just too plain angry to pay much attention to what I was saying.
The campaign is going like the shout of a pissed off, maybe-slightly-crazy guy at early voting. “You’re all corrupt! You all sold everything off!” When I chirp up to say that Victorian Socialists actually opposed privatisations, and campaign to reverse them, his tone is even more scathing: “Bah! Socialists! You’ve got no strength!”
Trying to muster the political strength that working class people need and respect is no easy task, in an electoral contest or any other political activity. It’s one thing for Victorian Socialists to win almost 19,000 votes and to come fourth, after Labor Liberal and the Greens, in a field of 19 parties in last year’s Victorian upper house election in Northern Metro. To repeat anything like that achievement in three vast federal lower house electorates feels like climbing a mountain.
Elections are – for most people, most of the time – where politics happens. It means something that we can meet workers on a picket line or students on a campus who, because of our campaign, see socialism as a small but serious political force in their world rather than a remote abstraction. So putting a straightforward, principled, socialist program to several hundred thousand people is an important experiment for the slender forces of socialism in this country.
It’s also a whole lot of work.
So how’s the campaign going?
The campaign is going like a long walk on Broadmeadows streets on a drizzly afternoon. Plenty of people aren’t home and plenty of those who are don’t feel chatty. People listen to my pitch politely, but I seem to lack spark. Doors close quickly to keep the warmth in.
I force myself to knock on the last few doors. It’s worth it.
“You mean – nurses are paid less than politicians??” A confident young woman in a hijab is leaning against the door frame, nodding along to my pitch. I’ve explained how, instead of taking the $207,100 annual base salary for a federal politician, any Victorian Socialist member of parliament will live on the average wage of a skilled worker. We’ve based that on what a nurse earns, 10 years into their career – around $87,000.
A look of incredulity and disgust spreads across the young woman’s face: “Nurses are paid less than politicians??” I owe her thanks for the reminder it is both incredible, and disgusting, that a career politician is paid more than twice as much as someone directly responsible for a human life. That politicians and their staffers from the Labor left defend such a situation is another disgraceful, and normal, fact of life under capitalism.
The historic position of the revolutionary left has always been that a representative gets paid no more than the workers they represent. It’s standing us in good stead in this election.
Two doors further along there’s a warehouse worker just made redundant from the nearby Hume distribution centre that Woolworths is shutting down. “Just, um, jobs” is his reply when I ask if any issues get him going. Every job he looks at is $25 or $26 an hour, casual, flat rate. Every job is through a labour hire agency.
I mention a worker I’d met on the Chemist Warehouse picket line who in 1989 had been driving a forklift in a metals factory for $23.60 per hour – a very good wage for the time. The same worker now earns $26 per hour as a casual. 30 years, most of it in supposed economic boom, and plenty of workers have seen our wages stagnate and conditions disappear down the toilet. I get a nod for the idea that the real changes we need will only come from a big movement of ordinary people, outside of parliament. “Like what the unions used to be” is an easy shorthand way of putting the point.
My redundant warehouse worker friend had applied for a job at Bradbury’s Industrial Services just a few weeks before the company’s Campbellfield facility exploded in fire last month. We talk about the inhuman working conditions there, of the workers’ heroic efforts to unionise and to clean up health and safety at the site. I explain that they were mainly Tamil refugees, who had survived a brutal civil war and come here looking for a better life.
Disgust, but no incredulity, on this young man’s face. “So just because they come from another country, the company thinks they can exploit them”, he says with. “That’s just disgusting.” Yes, of course we can put up a campaign sign on his front fence.
The campaign is going like a full scale racist circus on a busy industrial street in Craigieburn.
It’s Monday afternoon at early voting.
Residents, retirees, and workers on a break dropping in to vote are greeted by a who’s who of Australia’s racist right. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party, Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, and the fascist cranks of the Citizen’s Electoral Council all jostle for attention. The shooters and fishers guy seems chummy with the CEC crew, one of whom is waving at passing traffic with a yellow vest on a stick.
The fascist Senator Fraser Anning’s local candidate has also been around. He’s more energetic than most on the booth, and his pitch – based on stopping immigration, leaving the United Nations, and redirecting $4.2 billion in foreign aid to “our schools, our hospitals, our people” – is winning some votes. It’d be surprising if it didn’t. The alienation and despair that racists and fascists feed on are in plentiful supply around here.
Three weeks earlier, a discussion on a Roxburgh Park doorstep had been a good one. The rich getting richer, Labor never fixing things, all the things Kennett privatised still being run for profit, the need for an alternative. The woman is browsing through our leaflet as we chat. “Look, all of this sounds really good. But there’s one thing which I believe in, which I see you’re not for. Which is strong borders.”
I go in gently. She agrees there’s a lot of scapegoating and a lot of media beatups. But her son is special needs and has been bullied at school. “Reverse racism” is the phrase she uses. I feel my way around the issue. I ask what the school is doing. I mention that school groups of different nationalities having a crack at each other is nothing especially new in the northern suburbs. She cuts in: “Don’t worry mate, I know all about it – I grew up in Jacana”.
All of this puts the question in some perspective, but it’s insufficient. So what sort of argument to make? Far too often, forces around Labor or the Greens or the Melbourne Age (or the Herald Sun ) discuss racism as a purely moral phenomenon – which implies that a racist view is some individual failing.
This perspective can make no real headway. It just paints ordinary people, who might repeat talking points regurgitated in the mainstream media, into a corner. The core of any successful argument around racism has to be a class argument. Opposition to racism isn’t a matter of morals, or politeness, but of standing up to the rich and the powerful.
So that’s where I start. The rich and powerful don’t want to fix our problems. “What, you want a secure job and a decent health system? Don’t blame me, I’m just the richest person in the country – blame ... that person over there.” And there’s the simple fact that refugees did not cut penalty rates or who deregulated the waste industry so we’re choking on toxic smoke.
After ten minutes, I can’t claim that one conversation has transformed someone’s world view. But I’ve made an impact. She finishes with a heartfelt, “Thank you – and maybe, well, maybe one point doesn’t outweigh all the good”.
Sometimes a class argument about racism will hit, sometimes it won’t. But it’s the only argument that can make headway in working class suburbs – and its almost entirely lacking in Australian political life. The two forces with the authority and weight to make such an argument – Labor and the unions – have, over decades, abjectly failed to do so. And it’s not like the Labor campaigners do the job on the Craigieburn early voting booth on a Monday, amid a racist circus.
The Greens are also ill equipped for this job. In any case, in this election they’re focused on improving their electoral fortunes in Toorak, or somewhere wealthier. If it wasn’t for Victorian Socialists campaigners on the Craigieburn early voting booth, the only political outlet for the justified bitterness of ordinary people in this part of the world would be the forces of the organised far right.
“WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT?!” The campaign is going like a cloud of thick black smoke, drifting north over Roxburgh Park as we organise a late doorknocking team on Anzac day.
The toxic chemical fires plaguing Melbourne’s industrial suburbs are a major talking point. If anyone needs an example of where the mania for deregulation, self-regulation and generally unfettered capitalism has got us, it’s the repeated toxic blasts from these fires, large and small.
“It wouldn’t happen in Toorak, or in Brighton”. People are outraged – but often, only if we are outraged. Long years of political demobilisation mean the repeated toxic blasts are often met with a bitter, resigned shrug – it takes a political catalyst to turn that into political heat, let alone activity. We get credit for getting to the consultation meetings, asking the hard questions of the regulator, talking to the media and initiating a small demonstration outside Hume City Council – a tiny example of how a more agitational style of politics might work.
The cloud of smoke on Anzac day is “only” a 15 metre square pile of illegally dumped rubbish that’s somehow caught ablaze outside a transfer station off Barry Road. We got off light this time. The terrible fire at Bradbury’s a few weeks back burned through 300,000 litres of toxic chemicals. On the EPA’s estimate, companies connected to Bradbury’s are responsible for illegal dumps – warehouses stacked with chemicals – which might total 11 million litres. More than 20 million litres of chemicals are in other dumps.
Between other campaign jobs I do a drive by on two of these chemical dumps on a small industrial estate in Craigieburn. Two sets of security guards sit under gazebos, each with a machine in an instrument case. There’s a red light on the top. The light isn’t flashing, which I guess is good news. An LCD display tells us “ALL OK!” The security guards don’t look reassured. In fluoro yellow, it’s hard to avoid the comparison with canaries in a coal mine. These places are directly across the road from where the Yuroke early voting centre was last year. The early voting centre has moved, but the issue still looms over the campaign.
The campaign is going like a long conversation, half overheard, involving a comrade and a determined, Muslim, Labor-voting couple. Yes, we need things shaken up. Yes, Labor has gone along with all the security scares, the locking up of refugees, the wars that have laid the basis for the vicious anti-Muslim sentiment that pervades Australian political life. Yes, thank you for reminding us that under the preference system, you can vote 1 Victorian Socialists and, in the likely event we don’t get elected, that vote will go to Labor and still contribute to tipping the Liberals out of office. But yes, we will still vote Labor.
They are some of the best people, politically speaking, and some of the hardest to shift. People who know to the depths of their political being that the Liberals hate workers and the poor, that it’s the duty of every decent human to kick them out and that this means voting Labor.
All these people deserve so much better than the pathetic, compromising, keep-the-privatisations-going, don’t-openly-challenge-the-racists, overpaid representation they get from Labor. And they know it. It’s low expectations, the gnawing doubt that we can do better – rather than contentment with Labor – which makes the job of organised socialists a difficult one.
The campaign is going like a hell of a lot of hard slog between gems of conversations.
One of the last voters one day at Craigieburn early voting takes our how to vote then comes back: “Hey, I think I voted for you in the state election ... nothing really came of it though, did it?” I explain that we came fourth but still didn’t get the fifth spot. That we just missed out on preferences. That we’re trying to consolidate that result in the current campaign. That this will lay the basis for future campaigns. It’s a decent answer. She’ll vote for us again.
Mid morning a few days back, a Turkish man who works for a transport company stops past. He moved here in 1988, in the time of the military dictatorship. “I vote for you today”, he says. “The Liberals say strong economy, strong economy ... strong economy for who? For the workers? Nothing! Strong just for the capitalists!” With Turkey, and the world, in a worse state even than the 1980s, Rizan knows the answer the whole world over has to be a socialist one.
What all this amounts to in electoral terms I really wouldn’t know.
Maybe we consolidate what we achieved in November, in the most dynamic socialist electoral campaign this country has seen in many years. Maybe we’ll consolidate our forces, make some new friends, and build some more strength for socialist ideas and socialist organisation. All worthwhile achievements, though we won’t win a seat.
Or we might fall flat. Maybe the project is too big for our small forces with such a short lead time. Maybe I’ll be part of an orderly queue at Bunnings on Sunday, shopping for a giant spatula to chisel a thick covering of egg off my face.
Either way, I’m rapt to be a part of this large-scale political experiment. And I’m damned if I’m going to spend the rest of this year, and beyond, wondering “what if?” – what might we have done if we’d pushed a little harder to make the most out of this opportunity?
So we’re going flat out. That, my friend, is how this campaign is going.
Jerome Small is Victorian Socialists candidate for the federal seat of Calwell.