Bob Gould, 2003

The slogan of all the left should be: Kick the Liberals out
Socialists and the 2004 federal election

Source: Ozleft, November 19, 2003
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Socialists in Australia should decide their tactics, in the run-up to the elections to be held sometime next year, with an eye to the immediate circumstances, and to the evolving demographics, considered in the context of Australian electoral and demographic history.

The Australian electoral system and its history

The most striking feature of the Australian electoral set-up is that it is one of the most democratic bourgeois electoral systems in the world. It evolved radical bourgeois democratic aspects earlier than most countries and many of these aspects still don’t exist in other ostensible bourgeois democracies such as the United States.

Australia developed manhood suffrage earlier than most countries and votes for women earlier than most countries. Preferential voting in one round of elections was adopted in the first half of the 20th century, and it is such an unusual feature of any electoral system that preferential voting was for many years known as the “Australian ballot”.

The current Australian electoral system

The third tier of government, municipal councils, have a varied electoral system from state to state. In some states the municipal electoral system is mainly first past the post, which is essentially undemocratic. In NSW, the largest state, municipal councils are divided into wards, for which councillors are elected by proportional representation, usually three to a ward.

In a few a municipal councils there are four councillors per ward, with proportional representation, which is an extremely democratic arrangement, because it dictates a quota of one-fifth of the number of voters. This often helps Greens and Laborites to be elected. Socialists should strenuously defend this four-representatives per ward model.

At the second level of government, the six states and the two territories, there are single-member electorates in lower houses, with one vote-one-value in most states, although in WA there is still an undemocratic weighting in favour of rural electorates in the lower house. An attempt by the Labor government to introduce one-vote-one-value has just been blocked by the WA Supreme Court because the vote in the parliament in favour of one-vote-one-value did not get an absolute majority of parliamentarians entitled to vote, although it got a simple majority.

The two exceptions are the state of Tasmania, where the lower house is elected by a Hare-Clark proportional representation system, and the ACT, which has a one-house system elected by proportional representation. The two territories and the state of Queensland have only one-house parliaments, the five other states have lower houses, with individual electorates, and upper houses, which began life as reactionary nominee relics of the British colonial system, but have been democratised over time, largely by Labor governments. They are now all elected by proportional representation, even the Victorian upper house, which was the last conservative hold-out, and the change to proportional representation there is in process.

The Labor Party is in electoral control of all houses of all state and territory parliaments for the first time in Australian history, although in several states it relies on the support of independents, Democrats and Greens to govern.

At the federal level, the Commonwealth Parliament consists of two houses, the lower house elected on a one-vote-one-value basis, state-by-state, and the Senate elected on proportional representation, with half the senators retiring at each election, so that they serve eight-year terms.

The Senate has one extremely undemocratic aspect, which is that the smallest state, Tasmania, with a population of about 500,000 has the same representation as the largest state, NSW, with about 6.5 million.

In practice, however, this doesn’t have a dramatic effect on Australian politics because the political configurations are similar in each state, ie Labor gets about 40 per cent, the conservative parties get a similar vote, the Greens get about 10 per cent, and independents get about 10 per cent. So, despite the imbalance in the representation of the states, the net pattern of voting in the Senate still reflects the general political trend in the country at large.

In addition to this, the proportional representation aspect of voting for the Senate leaves the way open for some minority representation, including radical minorities, and the main feature of the Senate in recent times has been the rise of the Greens, on the left, to the magic 10 per cent, which usually ensures at least one Senator in each state in each round of elections, and the rise on the right of the xenophobic One Nation party.

The net effect of proportional representation in the Senate is that the reactionary Howard Liberal government, elected in the lower house, chronically lacks a majority in the Senate for much of its reactionary legislation and this has led it to flag the idea of “reforming” the Senate to give reactionary governments greater power.

It goes without saying that socialists should strenuously oppose such “reforms”. Australia’s evolved Senate set-up is useful, in immediate circumstances, from a socialist point of view. (Introducing proportional representation in the Senate, which was the personal baby of Arthur Calwell, later a federal Labor parliamentary leader, was the last act of the Chifley Labor government before its electoral defeat in 1949.

It has to be stressed that the institution of preferential voting (the “Australian ballot”) is central to the electoral system at all levels. Minority parties and independents call for a vote for themselves and then express numerical preferences, although in some houses, in some states, this is optional. Unsuccessful candidates are eliminated from the lowest vote upwards, and their preferences are distributed according to the voters’ indication.

This is an excellent system for radicals who want to challenge the less radical in elections but don’t want to support the most conservative candidates. It eliminates the agonising choice faced by voters in the US, Britain and France, for instance, who in choosing to vote for radical candidates often take votes from moderate candidates, with the result that the worst reactionaries are elected.

In practice, the combination of preferential voting and single seats in lower houses, which tends to accentuate the broad class division between Liberal and Labor, and the combined preferential proportional representation system in upper houses, which allows scope for radical minorities, is a quite useful electoral system from the point of view of socialists, which should be used strategically, from a Marxist point of view.

The demographics of Australian voting

Australians become entitled to vote on turning 18. This is the one area in which the Australian electoral office, which is a pretty useful and effective institution overall, hasn’t quite got it together yet. It takes a while for people turning 18 to be picked up by the electoral office, and in practice people turning 18 are the only cohort of Australian voters whose registration to vote tends to be slightly lower than average.

In every other aspect, the federal and state electoral offices are very effective democratic mechanisms. They do systematic sweeps everywhere, spaced over time, to ensure that everyone eligible is on the roll, and this is very effective, although obviously people who for one reason or another wish to evade the system still do so.

Australia is an immigrant country, and these days close to 50 per cent of the population have some non-English-speaking background. Recent NESB migrants are a high proportion of the population. Recent immigration to Australia has been extremely rapid and a very high proportion of migrants take up Australian citizenship as soon as it’s available, after two years permanent residency. (The only exception seems to be British migrants, who have a somewhat lower take-up of Australian citizenship.)

The net result of all this is that about 90 per cent of Australian residents older than 18 are on the electoral roll, which is, for instance, dramatically more democratic than the situation in the US.

To cap all the other other features, Australia is one of the few countries where voting is compulsory. When this was introduced in the late 1920s, the proportion voting rose dramatically from about 65 per cent to about 95 per cent.

The fine for not voting is nominal and rarely enforced, but the psychological impact of the legal requirement produces a 90-95 per cent return in all elections.

Polls in Australia are almost always held on a Saturday from 8am to 6pm.

In other countries, such as the US and Britain, the energies of parties contesting elections are largely thrown into the process of getting out the vote. In Australia, this is replaced by a process of campaigning for people’s votes, with the general assumption that most people will vote. This throws the electoral focus partly into intense campaigning at the booth on election day.

I have discussed other aspects of the evolution and demographics of Australian politics in three articles: The Republic Referendum, a View from the Left, The Real Story About the “New Class”: Three Cheers for the Australian Bureau of Census and Statistics and The People’s Choice: Electoral Politics in 20th Century NSW.

Trotskyists, Communists and Australian elections

Australian Trotskyists mainly adopted an open party tactic from their emergence in 1932 up to 1940. In 1941 they entered the Labor Party and conducted much of their activity in that framework until the early 1970s. For the old Australian Trotskyists, from the 1940s to the 1970s the electoral framework was pretty simple, working hard from within the ALP for the election of Labor candidates, preferably left-wingers.

The Communist Party had a more complex relationship with Laborism. It went through a few spasms of Third Periodism, when it denounced Labor politicians, Labor supporters and all their works, but it recovered rapidly from these sectarian episodes. For most of its existence it ran in elections under its own banner in some seats, but it generally practised a united front electoral strategy, epitomised by the slogan the CP often used, “kick the Liberals out”, accompanied by a call to vote for CPA candidates and give second preferences to Labor.

During World War II, some Communist candidates got large votes, and one Communist, Fred Paterson, was elected as a state member of parliament for a North Queensland seat. A number of Communists were elected to municipal councils. Jim Healy, the charismatic wharfies leader, got more than 100,000 votes for the Senate in NSW one year, and 20 years later, so did the similarly charismatic leader of the Builders’ Laborers Federation, Jack Mundey.

The CP went through various episodes of more agressively trying to “show the face of the party” in elections, in which it ran quite a lot of candidates, but this was usually in the framework of “kick the Liberal out”.

This was particularly the position adopted by the CPA in elections at moments of crisis in the country and the Labor movement: the split elections in the 1950s, the 1966 and 1969 elections dominated by the Vietnam crisis, the 1972 and 1975 elections, the latter dominated by the removal of the Whitlam government. This “kick the Liberals out” slogan has the capital value that it intersects with the mood of the overwhelming majority of the class-conscious working class, and sections of the radical middle class, who tend to close ranks around Labor as the alternative party of government to the reactionary Liberals at moments of social crisis.

At such moments of crisis, class-conscious workers and radical middle-class people generally don’t respond at all well to simple-minded exposure of Laborism. They’re generally more preoccupied with getting rid of the Liberals.

The Trotskyist organisation, the Socialist Labour League, adopted a similar “kick the Liberals out” strategy when it was of some significance in the 1970s and the early 1980s, as also did the DSP up to the time of its eccentric turning away from the united front with Labor in 1984-85.

The coming federal elections are clearly going to be crisis elections of the highest order. The reactionary Liberals are clearly going to attempt to unleash every primitive, reactionary, racist passion that they can arouse for electoral purposes. In this they will have the vociferous support of the reactionary wing of the media, particularly the Murdoch media, and we are getting a foretaste of this reactionary blizzard from the Murdoch press in the past few days on the Kurdish asylum seekers and the conflict in the ALP over tax cuts. The venom express by Peter Boyle and Co towards Carmen Lawrence on the Green Left Weekly discussion list, is only matched elsewhere by the venom of the Murdoch press towards Lawrence, and the danger she possibly represents from the point of view of the bourgeoisie.

In these conditions, a dopey, hysterical exposure strategy of the sort that is currently being directed at the Laborites, particularly by the DSP leadership, is the opposite of what is required. The electoral strategy adopted by socialists in the run-up to these elections should be the old leftist slogan, particularly crafted by the CPA in its saner moments, “kick the Liberals out”.

For Marxists and other serious socialists, elections, although they are important parts of political life, aren’t the real centre of politics. For socialists the centre of political life is mass agitation in working class communities, trade unions, etc.

Nevertheless, elections are important, because the political consciousness of the masses is heightened and sharpened during elections. Slogans directed at the masses during elections should be consistent with the overall activity of socialists in society at large.

Socialists operating in the Labor Party have, in my view, the following responsibilities in elections. They should campaign very hard inside the ALP for the following preference arrangements: second preferences to the Greens, third preference to socialist groups, fourth preference to any progressive independents and fifth preference to the Democrats. Socialists in the ALP should also fight to put all the reactionary parties last. It goes almost without saying that socialists in the ALP should work hard for Labor on the booths on election day. A reasonable day’s work on the booths for the ALP makes up for a variety of other perceived sins committed by socialists in the course of their necessary political agitation in the community at large and in the ALP.

A small but important current issue for socialists in the ALP is that they should vigorously oppose the vindictive move to reduce the number of councillors from four to three in each ward in the Marrickville municipality. This move is directed, clearly, at the Greens. It’s an essentially undemocratic proposition, and it’s pretty dangerous for the ALP nationally at this time, when all the skills of the ALP parliamentary operators should be directed at making the necessary preference deals with the Greens.

Socialists operating in the Greens should fight hard, obviously, for second preferences to Labor, third preference to socialist groups, fourth preference to progressive independents and fifth preference to the Democrats, again putting the reactionary parties last.

Socialists operating in the small socialist groups running in the elections, such as the Socialist Alliance, the Socialist Party and the Progressive Labour Party, should campaign for second or third preference to the Greens or Labor, fourth preference to progressive independents and fifth preference to the Democrats, with the reactionary parties last.

There are obviously all kinds of difficulties in the path of such a united front electoral strategy by socialists in the coming elections.

For a start, there’s an unpleasant tradition in the ALP of Machiavellian behaviour concerning preferences, and not preferencing radicals such as the Greens.

Despite this past Labor behaviour, however, the Greens have broken through both in the Senate electoral process (towards the magic 10 per cent), and even in the lower house, in Cunningham. Unless Labor preferences the Greens in the Senate, there is a real danger of handing control of the Senate to the Liberals, which apart from matters of general principle, is a powerful reason for the ALP electoral managers to make the appropriate Senate preference deal with the Greens, and even in realpolitik terms this flows over into making a sensible deal with the Greens in lower house seats.

The same principle applies to preference arrangements with the small socialist groups, although they are of vastly less practical importance because of the tiny votes they will get.

The problem for socialists operating in the Greens is a certain Green sectarianism arising from the bad behaviour of Labor on many important political questions and a perception in Green circles that the Greens are on the way up and they may stand to gain by not preferencing Labor.

Nevertheless, the overriding consideration that should be stressed by socialists in the Green camp is the absolute necessity of removing the Liberal government in these elections as a step towards achieving the progressive reforms that the Greens favour.

When you get to the small socialist groups, two of them — the DSP leadership and the leadership of the much smaller Socialist Party in Victoria, have been engaged in a politically eccentric Third Period, exposure of Laborism strategy and rhetoric for some years.

Persistence in this strategy and rhetoric in these elections will isolate those socialists even further from the overwhelming majority of the organised working class, migrant communities and progressive forces in the new social layers, who vote Labor and Green in a defensive way in crisis elections.

That the small socialist groups such as the DSP, and the Socialist Party should adopt a united front strategy towards Labor in these elections is much more an issue for their own political training and the political health of their memberships than it is an issue that has much to do with the outcome of the election (Peter Boyle’s self-styled “gnats” be warned).

Those socialists who spend election day — the moment of greatest political interest — in simple-minded exposure of the Laborites, and to a lesser extent the Greens, will deepen their isolation and their appearance of bloody-minded eccentricity. If these socialist groups could find it in their minds and hearts to make a turn to a united front strategy in these elections, they would increase their audience in the working class and the radicalised middle class.

What is required most of all by socialists campaigning in the coming elections, regardless of their tactical orientation to the ALP, the Greens or to independent socialist electoral activity, is a sense of proportion.

The central slogan for serious socialists in these coming crisis elections must be “kick the Liberals out”, with the necessary tactical adaptations that flow from this slogan.

In presenting the electoral tasks in this way, I look back to other crisis elections in which socialists subordinated their other differences to this kind of slogan, and working on that basis in those elections was an exhilarating experience because it intersected in a real way with the political consciousness with the leftist side of Australian society.