Bob Gould, 2007

Electoral success and sectarian babble

Source: Green Left Weekly discussion list, March 5, 2007
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

For a month or two I’ve observed a self-denying ordinance on contributing to the Green Left list, which these days is mainly a sounding board for very unusual contributors such as Nemo, Mato Ska and the rather nasty Stalinist Roger Raven, who libelled me as an agent provocateur.

However, Dave Riley’s latest bit of alternative-universe weirdness prompts me to break my vow. For quite a while Riley has been engaged in a wierd and lengthy polemic on the Socialist Unity blog in Britain attacking some socialist who argue the tactical case for rejoining the British Labour Party.

In the course of this discussion Riley has made a number of assertions about Australian politics that clearly aren’t true. The overseas audience has little way of testing Riley’s assertions, being observers from afar. Riley has his good days and his bad days, and today must be one of his very bad days, because he has clearly forgotten which list he’s on, and he has written an eccentric piece for an Australian audience that relies on them knowing nothing about Australian politics.

That might work for Riley’s British audience, but not for Australians. Riley’s method is unpleasant in the extreme, but it’s revealing. He attacks the Greens, implying that in some way they illegitimately grabbed support that by rights should go to the Socialist Alliance. He does this by presenting a biased and inaccurate account of past disputes in the Nuclear Disarmament Party and the Greens.

He writes as if political support can be transferred by some process of manipulation, which tells you a lot about his own state of mind but nothing about mass politics. The Greens have won their support by systematic agitation over a very long period, but Riley makes no allowance for that. It’s merely, in his book, a matter of some past manipulation.

In passing he makes the claim that there were only about 750 Greens members at the start of the Iraq war, when in fact there were about 5000. He has to lie like that to draw attention away from the obvious failure of his own project, the Socialist Alliance.

Even more dangerous politically is Riley’s attack on the existing Australian electoral system, which includes an implicit attack on compulsory voting. In the real world, the Australian electoral system, while not perfect, has a large number of useful features from a socialist point of view.

For a start, there’s compulsory voting, including a legal obligation to enrol to vote. In practice, 93 per cent of eligible voters are enrolled and 95 per cent of those vote in elections. Compulsory voting ensures that the most exploited, who are excluded in the US and Britain, actually make up a large part of the Australian electorate. That’s an underlying reason for the constant problems facing the reactionary parties resulting from a changing ethnic and cultural mix of the population.

Secondly, Australia has optional preferential voting, which Riley also attacks. This gives the electorate a chance to vote for a more leftist group and then give a preference to Labor, for instance. That’s hated by both the Australian conservatives and Dave Riley.

Further, Riley implies that proportional representation doesn’t exist in most municipal councils, while in fact it is very widespread throughout the country, and leads to the election of many Greens councillors alongside Labor councillors. Proportional representation in local government elections was introduced in Victoria by the Bracks Labor government.

Riley’s most barefaced piece of verbal fudging concerns elections to Australian parliaments. Proportional representation exists for the upper houses of five state and territory parliaments and the federal senate. In all of these upper houses there are elected Greens representatives. To make matters almost insufferable from Riley’s point of view, the proportional representation system was introduced by Labor governments in the five state upper houses, transforming them from non-elected House of Lords set-ups into far more democratic institutions.

Most recently and most spectacularly this democratic reform was carried through in Victoria. The elephant in the room of Riley’s political babble is that Australia has a larger mass political workers party, a bourgeois workers party, the Labor Party, and a smaller but important mass electoral formation on the left, the Greens.

The real electoral politics of the workers movement in Australia revolve around the struggle for a united front between those two groups to defeat the Tories. Riley’s problem is that his own rapidly declining formation is minuscule by comparison with the other two and has an underlying hostility even to the need for a united front between the two formations. In my view it’s this political problem that drives Riley’s incoherent meanderings.