Source: Leaflet distributed to the 1999 NSW conference of the Australian Labor Party, October 1, 1999
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter
This year Paul Keating and a number of other veterans of ALP politics will be granted their life memberships, with suitable emotion and ceremony. As I joined the ALP in 1954, I’ve sometimes considered applying for life membership. I’ve also, over the past 15 years, a few times considered tearing up my ALP ticket in a rage at some right-wing action or other of recent Labor governments.
We all know many people who have left the ALP in recent years in despair and my impression is that ALP membership has been steadily dropping because of the frustration felt by many at being unable to reverse the steady shift of the ALP to the right.
In my case, good sense has prevailed, embodied in the old Labor saying: “Never resign, never apologise.” And so I’m still sitting here, dishing out leaflets with policy propositions to Conference and I’ve decided not to apply for life membership for a few years yet.
Suddenly, the situation in the ALP has changed a little bit. Laurie Brereton has taken the lead in the necessary reversal of policy on East Timor and the trade unions are starting to stand up to the state Labor government on many questions.
The possibility is beginning to emerge, once again, for the reassertion in the ALP of more traditional, civilised leftist policies, but this requires a serious effort by all of us. For my part, I’ve even started writing a book, partly a memoir of labour movement politics, and partly history and analysis. Pity my poor publisher!
My anger with ALP governments and politicians over various mistakes has nowhere been more sharply focussed than on the question of East Timor. Labor politicians and governments from Whitlam (who on many matters I greatly respect) to Keating grossly neglected the most basic interests and right of of sell determination of the people of East Timor in favour of pursuing the chimera of “good relations” with the military junta that has ruled Indonesia for the past 30 years.
This policy of conciliation of the Indonesian military, which should not be confused with the necessary diplomatic relations with Indonesia as a country and state, was a mistake of the highest order, and the leadership of the labour movement and along with our political enemies, the Tories, committed that error equally.
It is rather sad to have to watch John Howard being able to successfully throw back at us now the fact that Labor governments groveled to the lndonesian military junta just as much as his mob did.
Nevertheless, the world moves on. The Indonesian military junta was partly overthrown last year by an explosive movement of the Indonesian people. The lame-duck president of lndonesia, in a rush of blood to the head, conceded to the East Timorese people the right to a referendum on independence. Howard, in a similar state of excitement, took up this offer on behalf of the Australian government and encouraged Indonesia to proceed with the referendum.
This fairly accidental set of circumstances produced a window of opportunity for East Timorese independence that was unpredictable and the East Timorese people grabbed the opportunity, took their courage, and in many cases their lives, in their hands, defying the threat of overwhelming force, and voted for independence.
As a result of this set of circumstances, Australia either had to acquiesce in the destruction of East Timor by the Indonesian military or intervene in some way, and to the credit particularly of the labour movement, Australia did intervene in a fairly determined way, shrugging off to some extent the mistaken policy of preserving the relationship with the Indonesian military at all costs.
These circumstances have produced a foreign policy crisis that affects both the labour movement, and even more the Tory government.
The necessary intervention in support of East Timor brings Australia into fairly into rather sharp conflict with the Indonesian military junta, which is still very powerful, despite its recent setbacks.
Special credit should be given to federal Labor parliamentarian Laurie Brereton, who over the past few months has energetically advocated ditching the old policy of capitulation to the Indonesian military, and a new policy of active support for East Timorese independence and democratic change in Indonesia, with the consequent necessary removal of the dictatorial powers of the Indonesian military.
Credit should also be given to federal Labor leader Kim Beazley for the fact that, despite his past support for the previous policy, he has had the good sense to realise a new policy was needed.
The strong support of the ALP in the federal parliament in recent months for the cause of East Timorese independence has gone some distance towards compensating for past mistakes.
There are two big dangers implicit in the current situation. One is the obvious risk of slipping back into the old policy and caving in to the needs of the Indonesian military. So far this danger has been largely avoided during the crisis, but it still exists.
Constant pressure for such a cave-in is coming from the traditional pro-Indonesian-military lobby in Australia and from dictators such as Mahathir in Malaysia, who make the ridiculous accusation that the Australian military force is being too agressive.
In fact, the action of the Australian military forces, their allies from other countries, and their Commander, General Peter Cosgrove, has been impeccable considering the circumstances and so far the project of providing civil peace for East Timor has been quite successful.
The second danger lies in swinging over to a xenophobic hostility to Indonesia and an outbreak of anti-Indonesian racism in Australia.
This is also associated with the tendency of the tabloid press and the Liberals to attempt to capitalise on the situation to produce an outbreak of reactionary militarism, reintroduction of conscription, etc.
Any reactionary anti-Indonesian xenophobia and associated rampant militarism should be totally rejected by the labour movement.
Indonesia as a state, and the Indonesian people, are not our enemies, only the Indonesian military junta and we should do everything in our power to encourage good relations with Indonesia and the development of democratic and trade union forces in Indonesia.
The ALP conference should have and extensive and serious discussion of the new situation that faces the labour movement and Australia in East Timor, Irian Jaya and Indonesia, and conference should formally adopt the sort of policy on East Timor that Brereton has been campaigning for in the past few months.
The other facing this conference is the widespread discontent in the trade union movement at the Carr government’s economic rationalist agenda and its constant paring back of basic working conditions, levels of employment and trade union rights and interests in the public sector in particular.
This week has brought widespread industrial action by railway workers, nurses, Water Board employees, bus drivers and others against these cutbacks, and eight or nine unions, many of them generally associated with the majority right-wing faction, have expressed the deepest discontent with the economic policies of the Carr government.
Michael Costa, the secretary of the Labor Council, has advanced the idea of a social audit, a very useful idea that should be adopted.
Nevertheless, the grievances of the unions are over a range of actions by the Carr government, particularly in various parts of the public sector.
The traditional forum at ALP conferences for serious expression of industrial grievances, the Monday morning discussion of the industrial report, should be used by the unions in the entirely traditional way, with stubborn assertiveness, to demand of the Carr government that it drop the specific industrial proposals in various areas to which the unions object, and this should be backed by an equally stubborn assertion of the traditional right of state conference to make forceful recommendations to the state government, to which Labor governments must bow.
There is little doubt that the trade union anger with the government will be factionally bipartisan and just about unanimous.
The danger, however, is that it may be diverted entirely into more long-term general propositions, such as the social audit.
What is required is the endorsement of both the social audit and most forceful ALP declaration to the government that the major actions to which the unions object should be withdrawn by the government.