Meet Jorge Jorquera, Melbourne's new socialist councillor

26 November 2020

How are you feeling? Is it sinking in?

It’s barely sunk in. I’ve already had numerous messages, mostly positive, some more on the hilarious side. This morning I got a message from the environment minister in Venezuela. Also, as you can imagine, Labor people, Greens people. A lot of wrangling is going to go on, as it does in state and federal politics. I got a couple of congratulations calls. But also calls about the business of council. We've got a couple of the first meetings of council coming up this week.

Have you had calls about bins and parking? Or are they yet to come?

Yet to come, actually. In terms of the local issues, I had my first experience of that yesterday. It was a really beautiful experience, actually. It was just after we found out about having been elected. Straight after that I went to pick up a bike at one of the local bike repair workshops. The guy there recognised the campaign and introduced himself as an anarcho-communist, and we had a fantastic chat about how he and other cyclists want to organise an action for bike safety at one of the roads where there’s been a lot of accidents. It’s a dangerous strip. His idea was to organize a Critical Mass-style rally with bicycles.

People might not be familiar with the Victorian Socialists. Can you explain it?

It's a pretty new organisation. We’ve had incredible success, given we've only been around since, I think, February of 2018. In essence, it’s an organization that came together to try to bring together a range of existing socialist organisations, as well as individual socialists, trade unionists, people who could see elections as one vehicle for putting a united socialist voice on some key issues of the day.

And elections do that. They give you a platform to voice issues, to campaign on issues. Already in the last 2 years I think we've had pretty incredible success. Especially these council elections. It’s so nice hearing the results that we got across all our wards and councils we stood in, getting 10 per cent of the vote in some places, a really high numerical vote. That is important in terms of building up a base of support. We got comparatively really high votes, compared to Greens candidates in certain places, to the Labor candidates, and all sorts of other independents including conservative ones.

It’s been a very unusual election campaign period, during one of the longest and most rigorous lockdowns anywhere in the world. How did that affect things?

I genuinely think that with no COVID restrictions, at least here in Maribyrnong, I think probably we could have won not one councillor, but three, four, or five. We were the most disadvantaged by this, because on the ground we would have been able to doorknock or talk to people in a way that literally no other campaign can, or would be interested in doing, or capable of.

Most of the campaigns in council elections–certainly by independents, but even by Greens and Labor and Liberal forces–are usually pretty much done through big spending: ads, sometimes even billboards, and of course the letterboxing. Usually the parties, in particular the ALP, would doorknock for state elections, but they’re not likely to in many of the council elections. And I think we would have had a massive advantage if we could have doorknocked. Even in other wards in Maribyrnong: one of our other candidates, Liz Walsh, came second in her ward. She was very close to getting another council position. COVID made it much much harder for us, given what we are really great at, which is campaigning on the street.

What were the big issues using that resonated?

In the whole campaign, across all the council wards, we talked about global issues: cuts to Jobseeker, housing–not issues that are seen as the domain of councils. And often you get his retort: “council can’t decide on that!” That's a common report from other campaigners. Which, of course, in a way is true–and that's a retort you can get even if you're running in the federal parliament, because the reality is, no institutions of the state really decide much. They decide certain things, but the reality is that the real decisions are made in corporate boardrooms. So it's true that neither local councils nor state government truly decide the big, big decisions.

But that really speaks to our truth, that we talked about throughout the election: if you're gonna win anything, it's not about what gets voted up or down in the council chamber, or even in the federal parliament, but about the sort of campaigns you build on the street, and the pressure you put on. We were lucky. In Maribynong people had fresh in their minds a very, very clear example of that at the council level: the Save Footscray Park campaign, which was totally based on action ,including mass action–occupying the council chambers. So there was a really fresh example which I think was great for our campaign in particular.

And if we compare some of that to what the other candidates ran on, the big thing that was extremely noticeable was that the Victorian socialists material here just didn't talk about the interests of business, small business, medium sized business, big business, any of that kind of stuff. Basically every other party and independent candidates material has that as one of the top two bullet points that they put on their leaflets.

Totally. In responding to that, we found that even the smallest local issues can be linked to the global problems and questions. One example of that struck me as I picked up my son, who works at Hungry Jacks. He was going on about how their managers were gloating about how high profits were during COVID. Then I started to do some research and it's amazing–we put out some memes and stuff as part of our campaign around this. In that particular case, Hungry Jacks–on the one hand you've got all these underpaid young workers, at risk during the pandemic, while these billionaire owners of Hungry Jacks was not only raking higher profits than they had in the previous six months, but were also refusing to pay rent on their leases. There were always ways to bring some very local issues–in this case about casual wages of young people in those industries–to bear in council. I think we'll be able to do that as councillors. We'll be able to raise the exact same sort of issues, with that sort of emphasis.

Were there elements of other campaigns that surprised you?

Out here, Labor didn’t present a united voice, because there was a lot of dislike for a particular Labor counselor. He was seen to be probably the most arrogant in his support for the privatisation of Footscray park. On the plus side, he was the person we ousted. So that was a good little victory. The number of messages we got on that was quite remarkable. The single biggest bank of messages we got from people. A lot of people that weren’t actually that supportive of our campaign at the beginning, to say the least, really did come around, and have been very celebratory since we not only beat that Labor candidate but also managed to squeeze out another right wing independent candidate, who became the archetypal libertarian right wing pro-small business type candidate.

Tell us about what your plans are for office now.

Our priorities now are figuring out how to use this office as a platform, not only for fighting around all sorts of local issues, and in organising around those local issues, but also more generally around state politics. That’s going to take a lot of work for us collectively as Victorian Socialists. In terms of the day-to-day guide, I think the the practical guide is all around organising people, bringing their demands, those of the communities that are mobilised.

You wanted to say something about the bilingual school program that was one of the features of the campaign and that you'll continue to campaign around.

That's a big one. We’re having campaign meetings almost weekly. There’s a lot of people from the Vietnamese community, and also educationalists involved in it.

So there’s a Vietnamese bilingual program in a primary school, and the proposal is to get rid of it, and we are trying to save it. That's the simple explanation.

Yeah. This is a program, a Vietnamese bilingual program going at Footscray primary school, that has been in place since around 2006 or something. A long time

It’s been a really important thing for the Vietnamese community. That’s a community that is really proud about maintaining their mother tongue, in a way that I wish a lot of other communities had been able to. I remember when I started school–you come across these kids, who, when they started school only really knew rudimentary English. But the great thing is that they spent their first five years at home, only maybe a little bit of childcare, mostly living with extended family with parents and grandparents, talk to them in Vietnamese, maybe Cantonese as well, so these were multilingual kids.

The program in part was about supporting those kids, in terms of developing their English language skills. But at the same time it became a really beautiful program for other people who went through it. It wasn’t just a way for them to learn some of the Vietnamese language. It was a way for them to be brought into the culture. That was the richest, most beautiful part about it One of the friends of our sons went on Vietnamese study tours with the group of kids. She met all sorts of kids there in Vietnam, and still has a lot of friends in the community here, which they would never have been able to mix with normally.

Sadly, the school and the department is coming to the decision to close that program. Officially it's currently closed, if you look at the website of the school the program's gone and instead they replaced it with an Italian bilingual program. I won’t talk about this in detail because there is too much going on, but suffice to say that the campaign is ongoing, we’re attempting to try to win back the program, or at least get the program shifted to one of the other local west schools where there is a big Vietnamese population

You’ve been a revolutionary socialist for a long time. How does that fit with being a local councillor?

Great question. That’s a question that goes back at least 100 years. But I think it's particularly important now because in the last 30 or 40 years of neoliberalism, the whole idea of alternative and different strategic approaches to fundamental revolutionary change–that whole conversation has sort of disappeared. If you go back to the sixties and seventies, there were all sorts of trends and views of how you change the world fundamentally, from the electoralism of social democracy all the way through to the ultraleft militarism of various armed groups on the left, and not just in Third World countries.

But all of that conversation - the whole debate disappeared over the last 30 years, and so much of the left, including very radical people, can only envisage a way forward through parliamentary means. And this is a global problem, a global challenge. The left has to revive some of the old discussions, to think much more laterally about how change happens, because one thing is certain: it's not going to happen through the parliamentary legal institutions of a system that's more corrupt now, much more corrupt than it was forty years ago. You could imagine forty or fifty years ago thinking: maybe if I joined the socialist side of the Labor Party, maybe I could make some change. Who can imagine that these days? I mean who can imagine that you can be a left wing person in the Democrats in the US and really make change? Never mind here in the Labor Party. So I think it's a really really important conversation. I don’t pretend to have any particular answers of my own in terms of council. At least I think I've got the questions forefront, and we've got to keep thinking about that and how we use these sorts of platforms to build what we do know works. Because we do know that mass action, the mobilisation of working people does work. How far that will get us–that's the challenge.

Follow Jorge Jorquera, Councillor for Maribyrnong and Victorian Socialists West on Facebook. Subscribe to Red Flag Radio podcast.

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