Bob Gould, 2005

Fighting Howard’s attacks
An open letter to members of the DSP and the Socialist Alliance

Source: Ozleft, July 2, 2005
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Green Left Weekly discussion list

In the past couple of days the heat has been turned up in Australian politics. The nationwide mobilisations against Prime Minister John Howard’s industrial attacks have been massive, varied and effective.

The whole of the labour movement, the trade unions, the Labor Party, the Greens and many social movements have mobilised in striking solidarity against the Howard government’s attacks.

Many Labor and Greens political representatives have participated in the marches and rallies, including a number of state premiers.

We’ve seen the rather spectacular image of Labor leader Claire Martin, whose Northern Territory ALP has just wiped out the Tories in the territory elections, marching in the protest with her whole parliamentary caucus and the two federal Labor representatives from the Territory. About a third of those Labor politicians, including a third of the NT cabinet ministers, are indigenous Australians, and the majority of those indigenous Labor politicians are women.

It’s just a week since the increasingly dead-end sectarians of the DSP leadership labelled the sweeping victory of Labor in the NT as a “victory for racism”, and the issue of Green Left Weekly that the DSP was selling at this week’s demonstrations (presumably also in Darwin) contains the strange article with that headline. It’s a very peculiar “victory for racism” that installs a cabinet with a third of its members indigenous Australians.

The DSP leadership has been trying to whip up an entirely artificial sniping operation against the NSW rallies and marches against Howard’s anti-union laws. They try to make some artificial contrast with Victoria, which they say was better.

Well, it might have been better to have one big central rally. That issue is debatable. In the event, however, the format of a rally of 25,000 and 250 or so smaller events all over the state was spectacularly successful. Reports are pouring in from modest little venues everywhere that had 500 to 1000 workers, and bigger places had between 2000 and 6000. The total for the state was well over 150,000.

The central rally was followed by a march from the Town Hall through the city, down the “Hungry Mile” of the waterfront, scene of many industrial struggles, including the successful Maritime Union defensive struggle eight years ago, to Circular Quay, where a large banner was hung from the Habour Bridge, clearly visible to the Howard residence at Kiribilli House across the Habour. The symbolism of the route was obvious to most, although not to Peter Boyle, who said on the Green Left Weekly discussion list that it was a funeral march.

As colourful mass agitation, the whole event in NSW was a spectacular success.

The cautiously worded but firm and definite official resolution was endorsed unanimously at the Town Hall rally and at all but about three of the 250-odd other venues.

Pursuing their schema that the NSW unions and their leaders are no good, and the Victorian unions and their leaders are paragons of all the virtues, the DSP leadership is reduced to absurd sniping about the character of the day’s protests.

Many people who attended the protests in central Sydney and at other venues report widespread enthusiasm for the success of the events. It’s literally only the cranks of the DSP leadership who think otherwise.

Why the sectarian crankiness on the part of the DSP leadership?

The first and most obvious reason for this sectarian crankiness is that today’s events have demonstrated the bankruptcy of their virulently anti-Labor stance, and their more veiled but equally virulent anti-Green orientation. Their ridiculous sniping at the event was completely swept away by the sheer magnitude of the mass mobilisation.

Sectarianism, however, is one thing, a deliberately right-wing political orientation, which seems to be unfolding rapidly in the DSP leadership, is something else again.

The DSP leadership has produced a new issue of the magazine Seeing Red, which is formally produced by the Socialist Alliance, but most of the production is carried out by the DSP. Seeing Red is visually quite well produced but the political orientation of the latest issue is dangerously right-wing.

All the clues as to the shifts taking place in the DSP leadership are in this issue of Seeing Red. Firstly, there’s a forum called The Seeing Red Roundtable: Derailing the Corporate Drive to Wreck our Unions. The three roundtable participants are Joan Doyle, the courageous militant secretary of the Victorian postal union, who is by far the most left-wing of the three participants. The other two are DSP leaders Sam Wainwright and Tim Gooden, and the questions are asked by Seeing Red, the DSP once again.

The dangers in the responses of Gooden and Wainwright are quite striking. Firstly, the responses are a sustained attack on the Labor Party, with no concessions to a united-front approach. It’s worth quoting Sam Wainwright’s response to the critical question about the transfer of all industrial powers to the federal government. Wainwright’s answer says it all about the DSP’s orientation.

The question from the DSP to the DSP is: “Aren’t you exaggerating Howard’s real power? Won’t the combination of the ALP’s eight states and territories, plus the NSW legal challenge led by former NSW attorney general Jeff Shaw, to Howard’s impending use of the corporations power of the Constitution, hobble Canberra?”

Wainwright reponds: “Labor state government and High Court judges don’t make their decisions in a vacuum. The extent to which they act to defend workers rights will defend on the pressure they feel to do so. Howard will get his legislative agenda up. The real question will be can he enforce it. The more the population is mobilised against his ‘workplace revolution’ the less he will feel confident in applying it, and the less the courts and bosses will feel they can enforce what does get passed. The decision of the Kennett government not to try to enforce any of its anti-union laws against the picketers supporting the MUA in 1998 is a lesson to us all.”

Tim Gooden chimes in: “I doubt that a legal challenge will delay Howard’s plan — he has stacked the High Court with his own kind. Also the Australian constitution has the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy, which allows the government of the day to make almost any law to suit its own needs. It’s fine to try out delaying legal tactics, but without a full political and industrial campaign to force the government to back off, we would only be strengthening the deep illusions in the neutrality of the laws and the courts.”

The first feature of these revealing questions and responses is the profound defeatism expressed by DSP leader Sam Wainwright, which is expressed in another way by that erudite constitutional lawyer, DSP leader Tim Gooden.

Both Gooden and Wainwright echo the conventional wisdom of the bourgeois media, and on this issue some sections of the ACTU leadership.

This is all in the face of the obvious divisions that are already appearing in the ruling class, particularly over the transfer of industrial powers from state to federal governments.

The DSP leadership here is at pains to assert that there’s little hope of defeating Howard’s agenda in the short term. Behind all the left talk and sniping at the NSW mass movement and its existing leadership lies a very right-wing orientation. This is confirmed by another very revealing article in Seeing Red, a reprint of a talk by Jim Staples, the former federal arbitration commission and labour movement activist, whose political views have shifted somewhat to the right in recent years.

Staples is an old campaigner who has done some very good things in his life, including being expelled from the Communist Party 50-odd years ago for distributing Khruschev’s secret speech on the crimes of Stalin. He became, when appointed by a Labor government to the federal Arbitration Commission, an idiosyncratic, sometimes leftist and sometimes rightist, commissioner.

Seeing Red has a nice picture of Staples standing in front of his law books, obviously to emphasise his legal credentials. Staples is of some use to the DSP leadership at the moment because he makes a sweeping attack on the ALP, Labor politicians and most union leaderships, and being a knowledgeable old hand he has a few quotes from Marx to back up his views. The nitty gritty of the article in Seeing Red, however, is his statement about the transfer of industrial powers from the state jurisdiction to the federal.

Staples says: “At the present time the constitution is used only in respect of the conciliation and arbitration powers, restricted as it is to the prevention and settlement of disputes stretching beyond the borders of any one state. At the same time the states show they can’t really legislate for workplace laws and social changes because that would put them into competition with laws in other states. As a result we have given up any attempt to control the interests of the working people because it will create problems of interstate competition. As corporations abound everywhere in social life, the expansion of the corporations power in law-making for work opens up a law-making power for the commonwealth in areas thought to be outside its reach. They know not what they do. In my view the working class should join the employers in this claim. You might not win the first election, but when you eventually do win this new power it can be brought to bear on working conditions throughout the country. It would be a marked step forward for social legislation to finally have the commonwealth equipped to legislate for the length of the working week, the pay that is to be accorded for that work, and so forth.”

Jim Staples is here expressing the traditional Labor centralist view, which is thoroughly reactionary in the current situation. Of course, if the Tories do succeeded in transferring the powers, the short, medium and even long-term results will be totally different to Jim Staples’ idealist Labor centralist schema.

The consequences will be far more damaging to the interests of the working class and the trade unions than he or the DSP leadership allow for.

Sheltering behind Jim Staples and his law books, the mealy mouthed DSP leadership introduces arguments for the traditional Labor centralist schema. The way this article is featured in Seeing Red says it all when you combine it with the pessimism of Gooden and Wainwright and the bullshit legalism of constitutional lawyer Gooden.

The problem with Gooden’s half-arsed constitutional law is that it completely fails to reflect the traditional conflicts in schools of bourgeois legal thought, which reflect different class forces, different interests, etc, refracted through legal traditions and the opinions of judges. If the High Court worked in the simple-minded way that Gooden describes, how could it have rejected the Communist Party dissolution bill in 1951?

The High Court is a bit more than a simple short-term conspiracy of the ruling class to do whatever the government of the day decides. It embodies all the contradictions and history of the bourgeoisie in Australia, and when there are serious contradictions, as there are at the moment, it’s deliberate reactionary confusionism by Gooden and the DSP leaders to predict a negative outcome so confidently, to cover over what seems to be underlying DSP leadership support for the transfer of industrial powers to the federal arena.

This resignation about Howard’s short-term success has, lying in the background, the sort of views expressed by Staples. In the absence of any comment in Seeing Red on Staples’ views, it must be assumed that Staples’ views are close to those of the DSP leadership.

Careful readers of Seeing Red will have noticed that when Humphrey McQueen disagreed with the DSP leadership about the relatively minor issue of whether the Socialist Alliance should run in elections, that issue (No 3) was held back to give the DSP leadership sufficient time to disagree with McQueen in that issue, and they have gone on to lambast McQueen in the current issue. The DSP leadership is usually not backward in coming forward, so why doesn’t it say what it thinks about Staples’ view?

Socialist militants are entitled to present this direct question to the DSP leadership: do you, in fact, support the central axis of Howard’s assault on the unions, which is to centralise industrial powers at the commonwealth level? This is the central axis of Howard’s strategy for the same reason that it was the central axis of Stanley Bruce in 1926: a right-wing federal government can’t achieve its aim of smashing trade unionism if 60 per cent of the unions do their business in state industrial commissions, which are in practice more union-friendly and worker-friendly.

These are enormous political questions. Anyone in the workers’ movement who favours transferring and centralising industrial powers in the commonwealth in these circumstances is playing a very reactionary role. It’s not too melodramatic to say that such a position is well on the way to being on the wrong side of the barricades.

A bit of left sniping at the form of the NSW protests is little more than an irritating piece of theatrical far left absurdism, but supporting the central practical and strategic piece of Howard’s industrial agenda is something quite different and far more dangerous.

The members of the DSP and the Socialist Alliance should demand of their leaders a straightforward discussion of these issues. Possibly this reading of Staples’ essentially pro-Howard article in Seeing Red is wrong, and Gooden and Wainwright are not really as pessimistic as they appear to be. If that’s so, the DSP leadership should have no difficulty making a forthright statement about its attitude to the transfer of powers.

PS. Historically, the ruling class has had considerably difficulty dealing with the separation of industrial powers between the federal and state governments. Some of these difficulties are covered in my paper presented to the recent Labour History conference in Sydney.

The essential legal and constitutional issues lie in the following areas:

Tim Gooden’s half-baked mechanical conspiracy theory about the High Court is just a crude attempt to argue that Howard must succeed. In reality, the outcome hasn’t been decided, which is why the combination of militant industrial mobilisation, education, and exploitation of all the legal and political contradictions is the appropriate strategy for the workers’ movement.

These are all good reasons why the DSP leadership should come clean on these questions, rather than hiding behind Staples’ views.

The membership of the DSP and the Socialist Alliance should demand an honest and open discussion of these questions and that their leaders should explain the views that they hold in a clear and forthright way, rather than talking out of both sides of their mouth at once and adopting utterly reactionary positions on these pressing questions of the day.

Sectarian hostility to the Labor Party and Aboriginal leaders in the Northern Territory

July 3, 2005

I find it interesting that no one from the DSP leadership makes any kind of response on the major issues I raise in my last post about the reasonable inference that the DSP leadership favours the transfer of industrial powers from state to federal jurisdiction. If that were not the case it would be a simple matter for the DSP leadership to reply, and simply say it opposes the transfer, but no reply is forthcoming.

As this is a burning issue facing the working class and the labour movement, I intend to keep pressing for a forthright reply.

Nevertheless, there have been infuriated responses from Norm Dixon, Kim Bullimore and Kathy Newnam, the latter from the Northern Territory, on my passing comment on the DSP’s sectarian hostility to the labour movement in the Northern Territory, and to the leadership of the Aboriginal community there. This is extraordinarily revealing about the DSP leadership’s systematic sectarianism, which has become a total and self-reinforcing system.

I have some respect for the small number of DSP and Socialist Alliance members in the Northern Territory, the eight or 10 of them, because most of them are people who move there to try to extend the political influence of the DSP.

The DSP’s attempt to strike roots in selected far-flung places, and the sacrifices individual members make to do that, is worthy of a certain respect. Nevertheless, that respect doesn’t make them exempt from a serious critique of their strategy and methods.

The left and the labour movement in the Northern Territory has a long history. The NT itself is a very unusual community. About 25-30 per cent of the population is indigenous, but the non-indigenous population is also very diverse, including a large component of recent migrants and a large component of people of colour.

The White Australia Policy was never successfully enforced in the NT, as is made clear in the work of Henry Reynolds and Julia Martinez (which I quote at length in my piece on the labour movement and racism. It wasn’t accidental that the first Australian capital city to elect a mayor of Chinese ethnic background was Darwin. That was many years ago, when the White Australia Policy was still dominant in most of Australia.

For all of the labour movement’s existence in the NT, the overwhelming majority of the indigenous community has voted Labor right up to the latest election, when the proportion of indigenous people voting Labor appears to have increased slightly.

Kim Bullimore waxes eloquent about the general proposition that people of colour, lesbians and others are often co-opted under capitalism, and she baldly infers that’s the case with the representative leaders of Aboriginal communities who were elected to the NT parliament.

Kathy Newnam expands on this in a rather indirect way and asserts that the indigenous leaders elected to parliament are co-opted by the capitalist ALP.

This is a completely futile approach politically. The whole politics of indigenous Australia in the NT is expressed through the ALP, and there’s not the slightest evidence of any change in that situation at the mass level. All the evidence points to that relationship increasing, with indigenous communities in the NT now finding substantial direct representation in government, through the ALP.

The DSP leadership manages to find one Aboriginal leader who’s talking about a new party, and they manage to hang a whole theory on that, but the results of the election, which are staring them in the face, indicate that the overwhelming majority of indigenous communities vote for, and are tied in with, the ALP.

On the non-indigenous side of things, the enormous swing to Labor is dismissed as the behaviour of a bunch of rednecks. This is a pretty strange bunch of rednecks, who vote for a Labor Party a third of whose winning candidates are Aboriginal, and a large number of whose government ministers are clearly going to be indigenous.

In fact, the idiot chatter about rednecks is a brutal slander of the rather proletarian population of the NT. Even the northern suburbs of Darwin are among the most ethnically diverse places in Australia. As well, the NT, and Darwin particularly, including the northern suburbs, is one of the most proletarian places in Australia if you include service workers and public servants. The concentration of public servants in the NT is among the highest in Australia.

I would expect that the thousands who marched against Howard’s industrial laws were a representative cross-section of Darwin’s population.

Norm Dixon slanders Bob Gould, saying that by arguing for a united front in the NT I’m in some way supporting Claire Martin’s draconian and populist legislation against chronic alcoholics. That’s just a slander. If I lived in the NT and was in the ALP I would campaign energetically against such populism, but to single that out as the only issue in politics is stupid and myopic.

It seems highly likely that a number of the indigenous leaders who are in the ALP are likely to oppose that legislation, too. Having watched one of them, Marian Scrimgeour, energetically steering a pro-indigenous political platform through the last ALP federal conference in a most forthright way, I’m quite confident the representative figures in the NT indigenous community who’ve been elected to parliament and cabinet in the ALP, will conduct the necessary campaign for the rights of indigenous Australians because of their mass connections with indigenous communities all over the NT.

I don’t mean to be too unkind to the tiny group of mainly European-descended cadres of the DSP in the NT, but unless they’re miracle workers I doubt that they have any serious mass connections with the indigenous community.

The most revealing point in Kathy Newnam’s post is her primitive abuse of the NT treasurer, who she says made a wonderful speech about solidarity of workers against Howard’s laws, but who must be abused, condemned and rejected because he’s a stinking Laborite, or words to that effect. This dead-end sectarianism is as close as you can get to the opposite of what’s required in the mobilisation against Howard.

One might have expected that serious socialists would have a critique of Claire Martin’s populism on the alcohol question, but unite with Martin, the treasurer, the rest of the parliamentary Labor Party and the cabinet in opposition to Howard’s proposals.

But no, all you get from the DSP cadres is extravagant abuse of Labor and nasty anti-working-class slander of the rather proletarian European-descended and mixed-race population of the NT as mainly a bunch of rednecks.

It’s striking that in the NT, as with everywhere else in Australia for that matter, the ALP-trade union continuum is treated by the DSP leadership as a reactionary monolith. In reality, things are quite different. There are broad contradictions in the Labor Party and the unions in the NT between left and right, and in objective terms the overwhelming majority of the indigenous community are on the left because of their oppressed situation.

The DSP leadership is dramatically exaggerating the co-option of the indigenous community and its leaders, which has really not advanced very far at all, at this point.

The sheer magnitude of the anti-Howard protest in the NT and the fact that all the Labor politicians there (the whole 19 of them) felt obliged to participate, underlines the class dynamics of the labour movement in the NT and the contrast between that phenomenon and Claire Martin’s conservative electoral populism on the question of alcoholics and alcoholism is evidence that the ALP in the NT is anything but a homogeneous reactionary mass.

In particular, concerning indigenous Australians, wouldn’t it be far saner to orient to the leadership of the indigenous community, who are clearly integrated in the Labor Party, and to try to move them to the left, rather than arbitrarily and mindlessly condemning them all as a bunch of sellouts, as Kim Bullimore clearly implies?

Strategically, concerning all sections of the oppressed in the NT, the DSP has gone barking mad, despite the dedication and good intentions of the young comrades from the south who’ve gone up there to trail-blaze for the DSP.

The futility of exposure rhetoric

July 3, 2005

I’m grateful for the calm tone of Kathy Newnam’s response to my critique, despite the political differences between us. I’m impressed by a DSP activist who obviously has a sense of humour, as well. We’ll have to stop barking at each other.

You still don’t address the question of what seems obvious to me, that the ALP, the trade unions and the indigenous communities in the NT are not one reactionary mass, and that there is clearly a left and right within those organisations.

All I ever see from the DSP in the NT is exposure rhetoric. I’d be interested to know if you ever make non-sectarian approaches to the left of those organisations, or whether you simply demand that they ditch their Labor allegiances and accept the political leadership of the DSP.

I am aware that from time to time DSP cadres in the NT do take a bit of notice of points made by others. A couple of years ago, when I raised the difficult question of the contradictory aspects of the demand for legalisation of heroin in the NT, given the interests of the indigenous communities, the DSP seemed to drop off from making that demand such a prominent part of its agitation.

I raise these strategic questions not to be abusive towards DSP activists but to try to get a serious discussion going on important matters.

I’ll be interested to see you see your further exposures of other ALP crimes, and I’d also be interested to know if ALP activists in the NT do anything of which you approve.

Maybe we can continue this discussion when you’ve published your further material.


DSP condescension to Labor voters in the Northern Territory

July 3, 2005

I was obviously a bit premature in thanking Cathy Newnam for the civilised and even slightly good-humoured tone of her previous post.

Obviously the DSP dog whistle has been blown and it has been made clear that you never respond to Gould in a civilised way if you can avoid it. Crude abuse is better, from the point of view of the DSP leadership, and Cathy Newnam responds by making up for her previous moderation with a pile of abuse.

The abuse doesn’t worry me, although I prefer to proceed in a more civilised way when possible. I do, however, take strong exception to Cathy lying about what I said in my post.

I didn’t “laud” the DSP for not saying nice things about the ALP. Neither did I say anything like: “well at least you could also say someting nice”. Cathy is making this up as she goes along.

I did say, and I repeat and amplify it here: it’s the high point of political lunacy at the mass level to treat the ALP and the trade unions in the Northern Territory as a homogeneous, reactionary force, when they are quite clearly divided into different groups, layers, rights and lefts, trade union forces and indigenous communities.

Talking about the ALP as a homogeneous entity is nuts everywhere in Australia, and it’s particularly grotesque for a tiny cadre group of half a dozen or so non-indigenous missionaries from southern parts to treat the rank and file, the leadership, and the functionaries and activists of the indigenous community (and I include MPs and ministers of the NT government) as a homogeneous reactionary force.

That approach is crazy strategically, and grotesque and condescending, particularly towards the indigenous community and the overwhelming majority of indigenous people in the NT who vote Labor.

Clearly, the overwhelming majority who voted Labor did not regard Claire Martin’s conservative populism on the question of alcoholics as the decisive factor.

I’m not overly concerned about the ALP in the NT as an entity. It can look after itself, as it clearly has in the recent election. (The DSP sect repeatedly predicts the death of the ALP, and is doing so right now, and it has never been right so far.)

What does particularly concern me is treating the ranks of such a complex and heterogeneous mass workers’ organisation as the ALP in the NT, as a bunch of total reactionaries. That’s condescending, politically myopic and totally counterproductive.

Socialists who behave like that are condemning themselves to almost total isolation from the left two-thirds of society in the NT for the foreseeable future.

Right now, the masses of trade unionists in the NT are girding their loins for the impending collision with the Howard government over industrial relations, and I’ll bet they were elated to have Claire Martin and every Labor politician in the NT marching with them in that protest, and to hear ministers in the NT government making fiery speeches of solidarity with the trade unions against Howard.

In addition to that, I’ll also bet that in indigenous communities all over the NT people are celebrating the fact that indigenous Australians now have substantial access to government through a third of the ministers in an NT Labor government.

I’ll further bet that in indigenous communities all over the NT groups of people are formulating demands and wish lists about what they want from a Labor government and their representatives.

In the face of these circumstances, rather than putting forward a sensible critique of Claire Martin’s populism and saying something like: “despite this let’s unite around the struggle against Howard” and, for indigenous people, “let’s unite around getting your demands out of the Labor government”, all you cranky, politically tone-deaf, isolated DSPers can say to the two-thirds of the NT masses who voted Labor or Green is that crushing the Tories was a victory for racism.

This lunatic sectarian posture is particularly damaging in the face of the immediate task in hand, which is to defeat Howard’s assault on the unions. The DSP leadership’s stance is beginning to appear to have a sinister side, as it slowly unfolds that they have deep misgivings about any substantial focus on the linchpin of Howard’s assault, which is smashing up the state industrial systems and centralising the power in Canberra. All the exaggerated left talk encouraged by the DSP leadership is beginning to appear to be cover for a very right-wing policy.

I’d also put it to Cathy Newnam that the extravagant and crude language she uses to attack me is evidence of bankruptcy in debate.

I’ll finish by repeating my strategic question: if you insist on reducing politics to a ludicrous moral posture of caricaturing the whole labour movement in the NT, including its indigenous component, as racist, how do you intend to approach the overwhelming majority of people in the NT who identify with Labor?

What’s your tactic for getting a hearing from them? It seems to me you imply they’re either closet racists themselves or poor, deluded people who don’t listen to the educated wiseacres of the DSP sect, and in their benightedness continue to vote for the “racist” ALP. As those you have this attitute towards are the overwhelming majority of indigenous people in the NT, it seems to me highly unlikely that this strategic approach will get you any significant mass audience, although it’s not excluded that you may get a hearing from a smallish minority of very angry people.

It’s characteristic of ultraleft sects such as the DSP that they usually settle for a couple of recruits from those they perceive to be the most angry and most oppressed, rather than try to elaborate a strategy directed at the left-leaning majority of the society.

The DSP’s left-talking opportunism

July 4, 2005

The DSP leadership is trying to create a bit of space for itself by trying to whip up some animosity towards the existing mass movement against Howard’s industrial laws, and its existing leadership, in seven of the eight states and territories in Australia and they’re adopting an uncritical stance towards the leadership in Victoria, where they believe (it appears to me in a delusional way) that they have some influence on that leadership.

The form this left-talking opportunism takes is some stupid flea-killing about the fact that the meetings in NSW didn’t allow amendments to the official resolution. What planet do these DSP demagogues live on?

Quite clearly the leaderships of the trade union movement in all states, including Victoria, are, to some degree, Bonapartist bureacracies. They lead the struggle in the way they always have, looking a bit cautiously over their shoulder at the ranks (again including Victoria) hoping not to unleash forces that might sweep them away.

The un-Marxist and opportunist DSP leadership makes the mistake of accusing all the existing labour movement leaderships outside Victoria of betrayal. This is monstrous Third Period Stalinist bullshit.

As Trotsky pointed out about the bureaucratic leaders of the trade unions and Social Democracy in Germany in the 1930s, in objective terms the fact that fascism would wipe out the trade unions, from which the Bonapartist leaders made their living (and with which, to be fair to them, as Trotsky was, they identified emotionally) was a powerful objective factor providing a basis for a united front with them against fascism. Trotsky used the striking example of the notorious Social Democratic police chief in Berlin.

Allowing for obvious historical differences, much the same applies to the trade union leaderships in Australia today, right and left. They’re driven by objective necessity to oppose and fight Howard and his so-called industrial relations reforms.

The top leaders, the middle ranks and the lower ranks of the trade union bureaucracy have all devoted their lives to the trade union movement. To the top and middle layers, the unions are also their living, so it’s clear they have powerful material and emotional investment in defending the trade unions against Howard. That’s obvious to anyone participating in and studying this emerging mass movement.

These leaders do, however, have some bad habits, they engage in bureaucratic behaviour from time to time (not excluding the Victorian leadership) and all that goes with the territory.

To try to make some artificial distinction that Brian Boyd in some way ran his show better than John Robertson, is vile demagogy, given the scale of the issues involved.

It’s also a bit sinister because it’s becoming increasingly clear that the DSP leadership doesn’t want to fight against the transfer of industrial powers from the states to the commonwealth, which is the strategic core of Howard’s agenda.

The DSP leadership covers up its capitulation to Howard on this question with nasty leftist demagogy about how the state Labor governments are also neoliberal crooks, so the transfer doesn’t matter. They’re clearly ignorant of the history of this question and of how the existing industrial relation systems actually work.

The ludicrous DSP attempts to whip up a scandal about Unions NSW’s energetic bureaucrats avoiding amendments at the mass meetings is rubbish, politically speaking. What do the DSP leaders expect? Boyd in Victoria didn’t run his show any differently, but he’s exempt from criticism because he’s perceived as an ally.

Over many years, I’ve been involved with different groups of rebellious trade unionists fighting on a multitude of questions, sometimes winning and sometimes losing. On enormous matters of principle, such as the prices and incomes accord, or explicit betrayals of industrial struggles, it’s sometimes necessary to challenge bureaucracies from the floor.

Sometimes, when the anger of the workers is great over a particular question, such challenges succeed, and close associates of mine have been involved in a few such incidents.

But, of course, you have to choose very carefully when to challenge the way things are run. You only succeed when workers’ sentiments are running hot against the platform. Sometimes it’s also necessary to challenge, to make a sharp political point, knowing you’ll go down at a particular meeting, and associates of mine have sometimes had to do that as well.

But what you never do, if you’ve got half a brain industrially, is challenge on secondary, trivial questions to make petty factional propaganda, which is what the DSP bunch is doing in NSW on this occasion.

The overwhelming majority of the workers who attended those rallies and meetings were, at that stage, enthusiastic about the leadership they were being given, and detailed, essentially organisational arguments dreamed by the DSP to score a point off Robertson and Unions NSW were incomprehensible to them.

In this context, all the DSP noise about this question is dopey factional opportunism. Happily for the workers of NSW, they hardly noticed. The DSP’s largely verbal jumping up and down had no impact anywhere that I’ve heard about from the dozens of trade union activists I’ve spoken to in the past few days.

The overwhelming feeling of everyone on the left that I’ve spoken to, except the DSP leadership, is one of enthusiasm and satisfaction at participating in such an obviously successful commencement of the campaign against Howard’s attacks, and particularly against his attempt to smash up the state award systems.

I admit my sample is a bit biased in that my dozens of trade union acquaintances are people concentrated in NSW, and many of them are people such as teachers, nurses, hospital workers and others, who despite their constant, ongoing conflicts with state Labor governments, clearly understand that the abolition of their state awards is the most direct threat to their livelihoods in their lifetime.

Marce Cameron’s left chatter about neoliberal state Labor governments cuts no ice at all with the union activists I know in the NSW public sector, who’ve been in industrial conflict with state Labor governments for most of their adult lives.

Here I have to make a confession. Initially I favoured the idea of one big central rally, as against the central rally combined with the statewide meetings at 250 or so venues. It’s clear that Robertson and Unions NSW favoured the decentralised formula because they weren’t entirely confident, being realistic union bureaucrats, of how much of a mobilisation they might get on this occasion given the retreat of trade unionism in recent years.

They opted for the regional approach as an exercise in mobilisation and consciousness-raising, and why is it necessary to attack their intentions in this? They were clearly looking for a formula to kick off the campaign with an initial educational emphasis. They came up with the Sky Channel formula in that spirit.

In retrospect, they turned out to be as right as one can be in matters of industrial mobilisation, which isn’t a precise science. In the event, successful mobilisations at 250-odd venues turned out to be an extraordinarily useful formula to get the campaign rolling.

One has only to look at the roll-call across the state from the smaller to the bigger meetings to see a mass movement against Howard getting rolling in embryo. One feature of the local meetings is that everybody I’ve spoken to noted that nurses, teachers, municipal workers, and others on state awards, were a significant part of the mobilisations everywhere. That underlines the reactionary character of the DSP leadership’s right-wing pro-Howard equals sign between state and federal industrial systems.

Unlike the DSP leadership, I and the dozens of activists I’ve spoken to in the past few days celebrate unreservedly last Friday’s mobilisation as the beginnings of a serious mass movement. Of course, it’s obviously necessary to watch all the bureaucracies carefully and to nudge them in the right direction.

The way to do this is through a serious united front approach that recognises the existing relationship of forces in the mass movement and eschews like the plague both the DSP leadership’s flea-killing sectarianism towards the existing trade unions and their leaderships, and the DSP leadership’s rightist capitulation to Howard over the transfer of state industrial powers to the federal government, dismissing this as a matter of no importance.

Kim Bullimore and identity politics

July 5, 2005

Kim Bullimore accuses me of identity politics when I state the blindingly obvious: that a tiny cadre group of non-indigenous background is not likely to get much of a hearing after making accusations of racism against Aboriginal leaders elected to parliament as members of the Labor Party.

The DSP has said the victory of Labor in the NT elections was a victory for racism, libelling the vast majority of voters, including Labor Party members and trade unionists, who voted Labor. To make its point even clearer, the DSP says the Labor vote was largely a “redneck” vote.

Bullimore then goes on in a learned way to say there is a strong possibility that the indigenous women elected as Labor politicians and ministers will be absorbed by the ALP, which in her cosmology is a neoliberal capitalist formation.

For a start, why is it so clear that these Aboriginal leaders will turn against their consituency in the Aboriginal community? Certainly, some Labor politicians over time turn against those who elected them, but that’s not an an iron rule.

To use the lingo favoured by the DSP, isn’t there a strong possiblity that the dynamic of Aboriginal struggles will carry the Aboriginal Labor parliamentary representatives into campaigning for the interests of Aboriginal communities? Why is it necessary to say they will inevitably be absorbed when that hasn’t happened, and something quite different might happen because of pressure from the ranks of the Aboriginal communities?

Socialists might even help such a process if they adopted some kind of united front approach.

Looking at it in this way is not identity politics, but a realistic recognition of the momentum of the Aboriginal movement, which has a long-standing association with Labor in the NT and has now thrown up a substantial number of indigenous Labor parliamentary representives and Cabinet ministers.

It’s not identity politics to, for reasons of emphasis, draw attention to the bizarre quality of a bunch of non-indigenous missionaries saying the Labor electoral victory was a victory for racism in a paper they were flogging to the largest labour movement rally in the NT for many years.

This was at a time when indigenous people in NT were elated at the victory of Labor over the long-standing enemy of NT Aboriginal communities, the Country Liberal Party.

To baldly point out that contradiction is not identity politics, it’s just stating the obvious.

In discussing political and trade union questions, Lenin and Trotsky were brutally frank when ethnic and cultural factors played some role. For instance, Trotsky, who was Jewish, wasn’t backward in drawing attention to the unhealthy political character of the Shachtman faction in the US SWP, and ascribing that to the overwhelming weight of Jewish college kids in that group at that time. Trotsky pointed out that such a composition was unrepresentative of the social mix in the US working class. It’s not identity politics to state the obvious.

Kim Bullimore ends on the grand note that the DSP of course will unite with Laborites who do the right thing (which, essentially for Kim Bullimore, means accepting the DSP’s leadership on all questions).

The problem, of course, is not what the DSP will do, but the likely reaction of the overwhelming majority of people on the left of society in the NT after being labelled, by implication, a bunch of rednecks and racists. They’re hardly likely to respond very positively to any initiatives on your part after that.

The DSP underestimates the importance of transferring industrial powers from the states

July 5, 2005

In examining the articles in Seeing Red, the posts of Marce Cameron and the coverage in Green Left Weekly, I formed the opinion that the DSP leadership regards the transfer of industrial powers from the states to the federal government as a matter of little importance, thereby giving objective assistance to the key strategic part of Howard’s agenda.

In my comments I raised the possibility that I may have got it wrong and if so the DSP might be expected to respond with a rounded exposition of its views on the Howard transfer plans.

All I get in response is the kind of double talk with which I’m quite familiar in arguments with the Stalinists over many years.

The last statement before Nick Fredman’s statement that he, personally, didn’t support the transfer of powers, was Marce Cameron saying that the transfer was a matter of little importance because neoliberal state Labor governments could use the state systems for their own purposes, or words to that effect.

Now the DSP line seems to have to changed a bit, but the only hint of that is a one-line personal assertion from Nick Fredman that he doesn’t support the transfer. He didn’t say the DSP opposed the transfer, just that he did.

In Norm’s angry response to Ed Lewis, he doesn’t say that the DSP opposes the transfer, he just points to Nick Fredman’s personal statement.

If I’ve got it wrong, it would be comparatively easy for the DSP leadership, and/or people in the leadership, to make a rounded general statement about the DSP’s attitude to the transfer of industrial powers.

The DSP will have to do this eventually, because the transfer of powers from the states to the federal government is emerging as the critical chink in the armour of Howard and the ruling class, and it looks like emerging as the critical issue that may lead to some Tory political figures voting against the transfer in the Senate, which may stymie Howard’s whole agenda.

If I’ve got it wrong, and the DSP leadership opposes the transfer of powers, or if it has changed its previous line, and now opposes the transfer, it should explain its views.

I’ve been writing about this question for two or three months, and I’ve set out my views at length, particularly in Stanley Bruce and John Howard compared. If the DSP leadership is stuck for adequate historical information on the transfer, they’re more than welcome to take up some of my arguments. I don’t have copyright on them.

After a considerable period of downplaying the importance of the transfer of powers, in such a way as to give objective support to Howard’s agenda, it’s not adequate to accuse me of being delusion and lying about the DSP’s position without spelling out the DSP’s position on the disputed question. Failure of the DSP to spell out its position clearly can only lead to further misunderstanding, if any misunderstanding has occurred, which is still not clear.

Accusing me of being delusional about the DSP and not replying to my detailed assembly of what appears to be evidence about the DSP’s position, isn’t an adequate response on this important question. If Norm and the DSP leadership believe I’m wrong, they could easily prove that with a carefully developed argument against the transfer of powers.

Failing that, Norm Dixon appears to be engaged in diversionary abuse and smoke and mirrors.

The ACTU and the struggle against Howard’s anti-union laws

July 5, 2005

Thanks to Doug Lorimer for drawing attention to those two ACTU press releases and for indicating by posting them that he wants the discussion to continue on the transfer of the industrial powers from the states to the federal government.

I take no responsibility for the ACTU leadership. Friends of mine have spent a lot of time in conflict with assorted ACTU leadership, and Doug will remember that it was a good friend of mine who was the only elected union official to vote against the prices and incomes accord at the national unions meeting at which it was adopted. She got a very bad time from the ACTU leadership for a few years afterwards for her impudence.

I’m no automatic fan of ACTU leaderships, but I recognise the reality that the working-class regards them as the leadership of the trade unions, so it’s sensible for militants to make demands of them.

On the specific question of the transfer of industrial relations from the states to the federal government there’s not much doubt that the key figures in the ACTU leadership take a similar position to the DSP leadership, treating the transfer of powers as relatively unimportant. I presume that’s what Doug was drawing attention to.

The conflict between the ACTU leadership and the trade unions in five of the six states on this question has been quite clear in the labour movement for some time. Initially, Bob Carr treated the issue as unimportant, but he was pulled into line by Unions NSW and since then his attitude on this question has been impeccable.

This dispute at the leadership level in the labour movement is broadly a repeat of the what happened when Stanley Bruce tried to seize federal control of industrial relations in 1926. A number of union federal leaderships, located mainly in Melbourne, initially supported Bruce’s attempt to transfer the industrial powers, as did then federal Labor leader Matt Charlton.

In the current debate in the labour movement, the ACTU leadership has held the most right-wing position, and it’s the trade union leaderships and rank and file in the five states that have the more worker-friendly state systems who’ve spearheaded the opposition and bypassed the ACTU leadership, exeritng direct pressure on the state governments to do the right thing and vigorously oppose the tranfer by all the means available.

The material that Doug Lorimer points to shows that those in the DSP leadership who treat the transfer as being of little importance are in the same camp as the ACTU leadership, and against the unions in the five states that have defended state industrial systems so strenuously.

This position of both the ACTU leadership, and those in the DSP leadership who have a similar approach, is made even worse by the following facts: in NSW several years ago the then attorney general, Jeff Shaw, managed to steer through the NSW parliament real reforms to the state system that brought the NSW state system into line with almost all the demands of the trade unions.

In WA, a Labor government reversed the conservative Court government’s anti-union arrangements and replaced them with some better laws, which didn’t go as far as the trade unions wanted, or as far as the reforms in NSW, but which nevertheless beat the hell out of the arrangements imposed by the Court government.

It’s clear that the potential of the unions to exert direct pressure in the state systems is one of the prime motivating factors in Howard wanting to seize control of all industrial relations.

In this situation it is myopic sectarianism and Victoria-centredness for some elements of the ACTU leadership, and some elements of the DSP leadership, to treat this matter as being of little importance.

It is becoming clearer as the battle against Howard rolls on that the transfer is central to his plan. The threat to superior state awards implicit in the transfer is becoming one of the driving forces in the mass sentiment developing against Howard.

I infer from Doug Lorimer drawing attention to the position of the ACTU leadership on this question that, unless he has become a sudden convert to the wisdom of the ACTU leadership, which I doubt, he may be one of those in the leadership of the DSP who doesn’t regard the transfer as of little importance, and there may even be some kind of political debate taking place in the DSP leadership on this matter.

The erratic and uneven responses by DSP members on this question also seem to indicate that the matter is under some sort of discussion. Responses by DSP members on the transfer of powers have been so cryptic (on a matter of such complexity and importance), as to suggest that DSP members are constrained in some way in their answers.

Ed Lewis and I are beginning to feel just a little bit like Yugoslavia and Albania must have felt in the early stages of the Sino-Soviet dispute, when they were the unfortunate surrogates for rather substantial political warfare between the leaders of the USSR and China.

If there is some kind of discussion of this question in the DSP leadership (and if there were it would be far healthier than de facto support for Howard that results from treating the transfer as unimportant), wouldn’t it be a far better approach to take the members of the DSP and the Socialist Alliance and the socialist public outside the Alliance into your confidence and have a public discussion in which all the serious historical and current questions could be raised?

The cryptic remarks so far advanced by DSP members on this question are of little use to anyone.

On the question of the united front, on which Norm Dixon has addressed serious questions to me, I will answer those questions comprehensively, and in the serious way that Norm advances them, in a day or so. They require a bit of serious reflection and it’s not my practice to put forward half-finished propositions.

I will, however, make one initial observation. The question of the transfer of the state industrial systems to the commonwealth is, properly understood, a burning immediate issue to all Australian workers, even those in Victoria and the two territories that don’t have state systems. The reason it’s even relevant in Victoria and the two territories is that if Howard is defeated on the transfer, which now seems a real possibility, his whole attack will be driven back. It will be politically and administratively impossible to impose massively worse conditions and arrangements on workers on federal awards than the conditions that prevail under awards in five of the states.

This issue is a striking area in which an active united front could be offered by socialists to the trade unions, Labor Party members, workers, and even state Labor governments. The DSP and the Socialist Alliance could say: “We’ll stand with you in every action, industrial, educational, political and legal, that you take to defeat Howard’s assaults and his malevolent efforts to transfer control of industrial relations from the states to a gutted federal jurisdiction.”

What simpler and more direct opening perspective for a united front could there be than that kind of approach?

I noticed on the Sally Loane program on ABC Radio this morning that Bob Carr said the issue of industrial relations could bring down Howard the way it brought down Stanley Bruce. Maybe Carr reads Ozleft, who knows?

I repeat my offer to the DSP leadership that if the internal discussion that’s clearly taking place on these questions results in you coming down on the correct side, you might want to use some of the historical material that I’ve laboriously assembled on this question. You might even consider printing in Green Left Weekly the paper I gave to the Labour History conference on the historical context of the issues, as a way to open up a serious discussion.