Bob Gould, 2008

The Labor government’s apology to indigenous Australia
Moving and interesting events in indigenous politics

Source: Ozleft, February 13, 2008
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

The changed state of affairs in indigenous politics in Australia has been reflected in the opening of the federal parliament.

The first event was a moving, colourful elaborate and unprecedented welcome to country at the opening of parliament on Tuesday. That’s a very big change in Australia.

The second event was the moving, carefully worded and rather spectacular apology to the stolen generations delivered by the new Labor prime minister, Kevin Rudd, this morning.

The enthusiasm of indigenous people, including those from the National Indigenous Convergence, who packed the galleries of parliament, was extraordinary. The often rather low-key and occasionally colourless Rudd delivered a moving and impeccably sensitive speech, as far as it went.

He avoided any commitment to compensation, and his detailed commitments to concrete improvements for indigenous people were limited, but the very act of delivering the apology in forthright terms reflects an extraordinary change in Australian politics.

The new leader of the Tory opposition, Brendan Nelson, by contrast with Rudd, showed the inability of the conservatives to change direction. He seconded Rudd’s resolution but his speech consisted largely of reiterating the full Tory program of support for all aspects of previous Coalition policy, particularly the failed military-style intervention in Northern Territory indigenous communities, including the proposals to push indigenous people off welfare and to close down the CDEP employment scheme.

These Tory policies were implicit in Nelson’s preaching about the need for indigenous self-reliance. He also defended as well-intentioned many of those who had removed indigenous children from their families in the past.

He waxed lyrical about past Australian wars (despite the fact that indigenous veterans of those wars usually faced discrimination in many aspects of their lives on their return). Nelson has the unenviable job of placating his parliamentary right wing and Liberal-supporting culture warriors such as Keith Windschuttle, whose attack lately has been to claim that his research shows no government records of illegal forced removals. (This underlines the trickery that’s fundamental to Windschuttle’s methodology in his writing about indigenous dispossession, both in the distant past and more recent history. Literally dozens of removed indigenous children, now adults, have told their stories on television in the past week or so, totally crushing Windschuttle’s reliance on so-called documents.)

As Nelson’s speech moved to its crescendo, hundreds of indigenous people in the parliamentary gallery and watching on large screens outside turned their backs on him.

Kevin Rudd and indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin are involved in a certain amount of Bonapartism dictated by the Labor Party’s constituency, which includes the whole 600,000 people of indigenous Australia and the whole left half of Australian society.

Rudd and Macklin are under strong pressure from indigenous forces in and around the Labor Party, and the broad left of the indigenous community (which is probably a substantial majority of that community) to reverse the most reactionary features of the Howard government’s NT intervention. This pressure is exerted by means such as the very successful indigenous convergence outside the parliament and the vigorous activities of indigenous members and supporters of the Labor Party, including the indigenous MPs and ministers in the NT parliament.

It was interesting to see on television the response of respected left indigenous leaders such as Mick Dodson and Anita Heiss, herself a stolen child. They were very moved by Rudd’s apology and said it didn’t go far enough but it was an excellent start.

That’s the obvious line of march chosen by the broad left in indigenous Australia.

From that point of view, the usually very perceptive John Pilger has made a rather serious political error in his statement that the apology and associated ceremonies are a waste of time.

That’s clearly not the way the substantial broad left in indigenous Australia, and in Australia as a whole, views these developments, and it offers no practical line of march to advance the struggle.

I’m strongly inclined to fall in behind the line of march suggested by indigenous leaders such as Mick Dodson and Anita Heiss.


A monochrome, metaphysical caricature of Marxism

February 14, 2008

In discussion of my assessment of the Rudd government’s apology to indigenous Australians, a bloke who calls himself only John is obviously on my case. He seems to belong to the generic category of the congenital ultraleftist of the Maoist-Presbyterian council communists of New Zealand, or some such, like the rather unpleasant Philip Ferguson, the cop-baiter of Irish nationalist leaders.

I noticed that in response to my piece about Ferguson’s cop-baiting John makes the assertion that Jack Barnes is a police agent, a most unpleasant accusation to make, without advancing any evidence. Barnes is no friend of mine, politically, but John’s accusations and the form they take are quite unacceptable from a socialist point of view.

As others in this discussion have pointed out, John appears to believe that people don’t even read what I write, because he makes comments that clearly distort and falsify the articles he’s commenting on. John seems to be a rather unpleasant bloke and a bit of a political lightweight.

The one-dimensional, un-Marxist politics of this bunch of ignorant ultralefts is well represented by John’s comments, many of which are unintelligible without background. My views on the original Timor intervention are well known, and as it happens I share my point of view with both factions of the Australian DSP, despite differences with them on other matters. Anyone who cares to consult the Marxmail archives (March 4-10, 2003) can read the discussion at length, if they’re so inclined.

I’ve been a revolutionary socialist involved in a great deal of activity, all of it very public, for more than 50 years and if I was 16 all over again, I’d do it again, albeit a little differently sometimes with the benefit of hindsight.

The monochrome and quite useless politics of the John-Ferguson school of ultraleftism about labour parties, and specifically the one in Australia, is hopelessly undialectical.

Despite the fact that Ferguson tries from time to time to contest it, the sociological evidence is that the Labor Party in Australia has the support of most of the blue-collar working class, a large slice of the organised white-collar working class (which is split electorally with the Greens, which Ferguson and John also regard as a bourgeois party) and particularly the masses of more recently arrived migrants of non-English-speaking background, and almost the whole of indigenous Australia, which votes Labor between 80 per cent and 100 per cent.

As well, a majority of blue-collar unions and a large number of white-collar unions are affiliated to the Labor Party and exercise considerable power in its structures.

This produces a situation which, in my view (a view held over many years by many revolutionary socialists of various persuasions) the Labor Party is at its base a proletarian mass organisation, with, however, generally speaking a conservative leadership that is influenced ideologically and in practice by the politics of the ruling class. This produces constant contradictions and tensions that often erupt in struggles between the labour base and conservative leaderships.

A good example of this is the current battle in NSW between the Labor rank and file and the unions on one side, and the parliamentary leadership on the other, over electricity privatisation, on which the ranks of the labour movement defeated a Labor government once, 10 years ago, and they very well may do so again.

These sociological and political facts, in their dialectical contradictions, are the basis on which I’ve held a Labor Party ticket for more than 50 years. In that time I’ve participated in many struggles on the left and helped to lead a few of them, for instance the struggle against the imperialist war in Vietnam.

I’ve written at length on many of these questions, generalising from the history and experience of the labour movement, internationally and in Australia, and based on my own experience.

Discussion of these matters is always ongoing, and the monochrome, metaphysical carcicature of Marxism of John and Ferguson, which doesn’t incorporate any serious Marxist sociology, is a pretty dopey starting point for a discussion.

I’m not concerned by John’s attack on me as a Trotskyist of some sort. I identify with the struggle of the Left Opposition against the Stalinism that destroyed the Russian Revolution, I respect Trotsky and the other revolutionary martyrs of that time, but if the truth be told I have the most personal and political identity with the outlook and practice of Lenin, the dialectician and practical revolutionary politician.

Lenin made a number of serious political errors in his lifetime, but I find him a very attractive human being, unpopular though that may be these days, and his capital contribution to socialists outside Russia is that he taught us how to think dialectically if we make the mental effort that’s required.

I’d recommended to the ignorant and rather simple-minded Johns and Philips of the political world, a bit of crash course in Lenin’s dialectical method, which might start with a study of Left Wing Communism, and a bit of an effort to come to terms with the recent book, Lenin Reloaded, a number of essays dealing with Lenin’s productive and useful encounter with Hegel’s dialectics.

If John studied Lenin a bit more and tested his resulting theories in his own labour movement, he might learn a bit.

Responses to the apology

February 14, 2008

The range of responses to yesterday’s Australia-wide outburst of emotion over the new government’s apology to indigenous Australia

The most striking thing about the apology ceremonies was the extraordinary outburst of emotion throughout the day by tens of thousands of indigenous people watching the events at public venues from Hobart to Darwin, Broome, Cairns, Sydney, Perth and all places in between, and an equally emotional response from possibly hundreds of thousands of non-indigenous Australians.

The overwhelming response from indigenous people, including the 1000 or so militants assembled on the lawns in Canberra, was excitement and pride, together with a very favourable and emotional response to Rudd’s speech. That response was often coupled with the proposition, correctly advanced, that much more is needed to right the wrongs done to indigenous Australians.

The manifest reality is that in this area Rudd and the members of the new government are the heroes and heroines of the hour, particularly to indigenous people. Anyone on the left who fails to notice this is politically blind.

The Tory politicians are in an extraordinarily bad way in the face of the impact of the apology and Rudd’s speech. Those tired old warhorses of reaction, Gerard Henderson and Wilson Tuckey, were vituperative and made heavy weather of television interviews. The conservatives are taking a hiding on this question. The Murdoch media are twisting and turning, and trying a bit of demagogy of their own, essentially denying that any crimes took place, and running as a second-string argument the implied threat that if crimes did take place the compensation must be massive.

There are attempts to wheel out the right’s pet conservative indigenous figures to take off some of the heat, but some of the conservative indigenous leaders are backing away from parts of their previous positions.

Meanwhile, on the left, there are some oddly discordant notes. The utterly predictable World Socialist Web Site says the whole apology is a fraud because it’s perpetrated by the Labor Party, which is no different to the conservatives. This appears to be an outfit that doesn’t watch television and wouldn’t know a representative of indigenous Australia if it fell over one.

John Pilger, who cultivates a role as a kind of oracle on high, assisted by his rather commanding physical presence and his mellifluous voice, is a bit out of touch with mass politics in Australia, partly because he’s not here much and partly because he’s no dialectician and tends to treat the labour movement as if it were an undifferentiated reactionary mass. Real familiarity with the labour movement and the contradictory ebbs and flows of mass politics clearly shows that the labour movement is no such thing.

Brother Pilger rather likes sound bites, but the one he provided on this occasion, that the apology was mainly for white Australia, not indigenous Australia, is a gross misunderstanding.

All the coverage of today’s events demonstrates the opposite: that the demand for an apology, advanced by indigenous militants for many years, was very much in the first instance for indigenous Australia and that the sympathetic response of progressive non-indigenous Australians, while enormous and powerful, was very much a response to the demand from indigenous Australia. The political victory of the apology was very much the victory of an indigenous campaign prosecuted over many years.

On this question, brother Pilger’s otherwise usually useful journalistic and political activity is no guide at all to the struggle and the ebbs and flows of events.

There has been almost no coverage of the day’s events on the Green Left Weekly discussion site except for a post by Rebel Hobbit, a bold young Boyleite originally from Newcastle, who is actually quite a pleasant bloke. He challenges me in a more or less civilised way, which is a nice change, loyally advancing the Boyleite view of Laborism.

At the risk of sounding a big pompous, I’d suggest to this bloke that he needs to give himself a crash course in dialectical and dynamic mass politics, which is the area in which the Boyleite approach is so persistently inadequate.

For a start, he says the Rudd government is committed to continuing the Howard government’s intervention in Northern Territory indigenous communities. It’s certainly true that the government talks about continuing the intervention, but it’s also true that, in the contradictory way that working class politics sometimes proceeds, the new government has suspended the abolition of the CDEP employment scheme pending a reorganisation. The young Boyleite is clearly so carried away by the DSP leadership’s schema about Labor always betraying that he doesn’t realise what’s really happening.

The new government has also restored the permit system to give indigenous communities the right to control indigenous land. Many other aspects of the Howard government’s intervention are also in the melting pot.

It’s clear that the majority of indigenous communities and leaders are struggling for further progressive changes despite the fact that some of them pay lip service to the intervention.

Important in this process are the indigenous leaders and members of the NT Labor government. There’s clearly a battle between left and right going on in the indigenous community about directions in indigenous affairs.

As urban Australians, the young bloke from Newcastle and myself are neither of us experts on the details of the problems in remote indigenous communities.

For my part, I study these matters as closely as I can, from a broadly socialist point of view, but in complex and contradictory matters such as the problems of drugs, alcohol and child abuse, I tend to go to people on the left of the indigenous mass movement for information, rather than rushing in with some cracked, formalistic thesis, driven as it is in the case of the Boyleites by the desire to expose Laborism in all things.

In my view, that is the effective way to employ the dialectical aspect of Marxism. The fact that the well-intentioned young Boyleite can belt out the schema that the new Labor government is still carrying out Howard’s policy, without noticing the new government’s U-turn on the permit system and CDEP underlines how useless Boyleite schemas are in any rapidly changing situation in the labour movement or, in this case, the indigenous movement.

I’m not ashamed to say that I found Rudd’s speech incredibly moving, as did pretty well the whole of progressive Australia, particularly indigenous people. This is independent of the fact that on a number of other questions, such as privatisation, some aspects of industrial relations, and other matters, I’m sharply opposed to Rudd.

There’s no doubt that there’s an element of political calculation involved in Rudd’s speech, and Rudd is emerging as a consumate political operator, but I haven’t the slightest doubt that he was utterly sincere in the speech he made today.

As a battle-scarred old militant in the labour movement I will, along with thousands of others, in my own modest way at rank and file level be doing battle with Rudd on a number of vital questions. I’m not unmindful of the fact that today’s events strengthened Rudd’s hand a bit, as a kind of Bonapartist leader. Militants will have to combat that circumstance in whatever ways are available to us.

But today’s events underline dramatically the general point that battles with Rudd, which are inevitable, will have to be conducted in a careful and civilised way. Any socialists who don’t understand that are a danger to themselves and the whole left of the labour movement.

Even in the rather privileged atmosphere of Parliament Housein Canberra, the magnitude of the emotion generated by today’s events was shown in the fact that several of Rudd’s senior aides were caught up in the moment and along with other Labor and Green parliamentary staffers joined in the slow clap during opposition leader Brendan Nelson’s unpleasant and reactionary speech.

Rudd later unloaded these staffers and made them apologise to Nelson, but I’d wager that’s about as far as the matter will go in the current political climate, and they’ll remain valued members of Rudd’s staff. That small incident underlines the general point that it’s quite unsound to treat even the sometimes opportunistic staffers who surround Labor and Green politicians as an undifferentiated reactionary mass, as do political dopes like the DSP majority leadership and the World Socialist Web Site.

Through gritted teeth the DSP leadership changes its line a bit

February 15, 2008

Even when changing its line a bit on the momentous impact of the new Labor government’s apology to indigenous Australia, the DSP leadership can’t resist its old sect habit of trying to present itself as central to the events, pouring a certain amount of abuse on others on the left, particularly myself and Hall Greenland, and continuing to understate the important change in the Australian political landscape represented by the apology and the popular sentiment associated with it.

Greenland and I are accused of being some kind of cheer squad for Rudd. Well, Norm Dixon had better add Greens leader Bob Brown to the cheer squad. In the Senate last night, Brown said the apology had “changed this place forever” (meaning the parliament) and the apology was an enormous step in nation building.

Dixon fails to report this for the obvious reason that it doesn’t reinforce his eccentric sectarianism towards the mass labour movement and towards the substantial majority of indigenous people who clearly share Brown’s view, my view and Hall’s view.

I repeat my statement of yesterday that I found Rudd’s speech extremely moving and I accept his obvious personal sincerity in the speech, as far as it went.

If stating the obvious in politics is joining someone’s cheer squad, I’m prepared to be stuck with that.

Dixon’s alternative of continuing to pour his ignorant abuse on the bulk of the labour movement and progressive Australia is counter-productive politically.

Having said that, DSP leader Peter Boyle’s and Dixon’s statements through gritted teeth and larded with their congenital sectarianism, do represent a certain change, and I applaud them for having the political brains to make that change.

At the start of the week, John Tognolini, Rebel Hobbit and the ubiquitous Dave Riley, who seems to have an infinite capacity for getting mass politics wrong, were backing up John Pilger’s ill-considered and rather ignorant view that the apology was only for whites, or that it was essentially a waste of time.

Clearly, something happened in the next couple of days, and in my view, having carefully watched the video produced by the Socialist Alliance, the something was the impact on the modest number of indigenous activists around the DSP of the enormous outpouring of emotion they could see about them at the convergence in Canberra and in general in indigenous society.

Being indigenous people, even on Tuesday before the apology, they couldn’t help noticing the atmosphere, as a result swinging over to acknowledging the importance of the apology at the same time as quite properly stressing that it didn’t go far enough and laying out, again quite properly, a set of demands.

Sam Watson, in particular, a seasoned campaigner in indigenous affairs, avoided any sectarianism towards fellow indigenous activists, while stressing, again quite properly, the need to carry the campaign forward.

Not being as totally oblivious to the real world as they sometimes appear to be, the DSP majority changed tack a bit, and more power to their elbow for doing so. One can discount, for practical purposes, the nasty rhetoric they associate with their change of tack. What is important, politically, is the slight change.

In one area, however, the DSP majority leadership’s chronic sectarianism is still dominant. They still, in their statements, continue to assert that the Labor leadership was forced by the mass movement to do what it did. There’s an element of truth in that because the apology is the culmination, to this point, of generations of indigenous struggle.

Nevertheless, the new Labor government could have resisted presenting the apology in the forthright and sensitive way that Rudd did. After all, it’s clear from talkback radio and other sources that reactionary forces are still capable of stirring up a large amount of redneck chauvinism against indigenous people, and this is well expressed in the antics of the Tory right in the parliament. The fact that Rudd and the new government decided to risk the wrath of the rednecks is a subjective decision that any socialist should applaud, rather than attack.

It’s quite obvious that mass struggle should proceed for unresolved indigenous demands, but it’s pretty clear that the apology facilitates that process because of the, at present, still rather rhetorical commitment to a massive increase in funds for solving the many problems of indigenous communities.

The key question is the way whole process raises the consciousness of indigenous Australia and progressive white Australia, and the expectations of indigenous Australia and progressive white Australia, thereby creating conditions for the further development of struggle.

Is anything lost in this situation by socialists giving a certain amount of credit where credit is due to the new Labor government? Just about all indigenous Australians, and Bob Brown, can do that, rather than attacking Rudd and the government at this moment in the DSP’s old style, which is likely to be utterly incomprehensible, not to mention irritating, to progressive Australians.

Boyle and Dixon would do themselves a bit of a service if they came in a little further out of the rain. Their half-in, half-out posture is getting them pretty wet.

Red Wombat warns the czar

February 15, 2008

There’s a rather well-known incident in Australian history in the 19th century that occurred during a diplomatic conflict, when a Tasmanian provincial newspaper that had a ciruclation of about 1000 printed an article with the headline: “We warn the czar”.

One aspect of the rouged wombat’s comment in this discussion has something of that flavour. He says, of Rudd and the apology: “Rudd (and the ALP machine) is indeed a formidable enough opponent without handing out free runs.” This approach by the Boyle bunch is very like the approach of the aforementioned Tasmanian newspaper.

Wombo accuses me of lacking analysis, but my comments on the apology are almost all analysis, with a little bit of polemic against congenital ultralefts such as the rouged one and his mates in the DSP majority.

One of the points of my analysis is that socialists should say forthrightly what day it is about major political events. Unfortunately, one of the key strategic issues is that some of the far left’s response to the apology is, politically speaking, absurd. By its outlandish tone it weakens the far left rather than strengthening it. It’s not Rudd who suffers from churlish, noisy, ultraleft denunciations on this question, but that section of the far left that’s producing this static.

It is blindingly obvious that the overwhelming majority of the left part of Australian society is impressed and moved by Rudd’s speech.

Abusing Rudd with idiot remarks like Saint Kevin is about as useful to the socialist point of view as the Tasmanian bush editor warning the czar.

If they have any effect at all, denunciations of Rudd on this question at this time only serve to underscore the view held by a very big chunk of the left of Australian society that the far left is a bunch of crackpots, and inhumane, insensitive crackpots at that.

The rouged marsupial, surfacing briefly from his underground lair, provides us with a pretty clear expression of the confusion in the DSP, which I’ve stung him by pointing to.

I’m not trying to wedge anyone, just to knock some common sense into the heads of habitual ultralefts like the Boyleites and the spluttering Red Wombat.

Wombo’s post succeeds in doing what sects often do, in fact usually do, that is: even when they change their line a bit, they claim there’s no change at all, and the new line is what they said all along. This kind of posture is psychologically necessary for the leadership of the sect to reinforce their pretensions to universal understanding and universal political leadership.

Red Wombat succeeds in having the two positions in the one comment: the position initially adopted by John Tognolini and the Rebel Hobbit and the modification, which probably originated with the indigenous Socialist Alliance comrades, and taken up by Boyle in his public notes on the apology.

There’s no shame in socialist politics in changing your line when a false perspective collides with reality, but to do that and claim you were right all along, the way the Wombat does, only underlines, even to the casual reader, the behaviour of a sect.

The people who’ve been following and participating in this discussion can see clearly what was said by the marsupial’s mates a few days ago and what some of them say now, and I stand by my description of how that probably came about, which irritates the Wombat considerably.

A bit of advice to the Wombat and his mates: this kind of political discussion is not essentially about point scoring, at least not from my point of view, it’s a discussion aimed at clarification to advance the struggle of the left.

The Wombat should stop treating the readers of this discussion as a bunch of mugs who will snap to attention in response to his rhetoric. The readers have before them the contributions made by various people over several days, on which they can form a view.

I don’t intend to take this polemic too much further. My points have been made sufficiently and I’m mindful of the fact, based on my experience with the Boyleites in other forums, that one of their tactics is to try to reduce all discussions to vitriolic point scoring to try to turn the audience off the whole discussion.

A welcome change of tone

February 16, 2008

Red Wombat adopts a more civilised tone in his latest contribution to this discussion and I thank him for that. That kind of tone is one I try to adopt when I’m on my best behaviour, and we should all try to adopt it in future, without precluding sharp and sometimes humorous exchanges.

I respect the point that Wombo implicitly makes that some of his contribution is informed by his presence at the convergence in Canberra. As he reformulates the Socialist Alliance position, it seems the difference between us has narrowed considerably and is now a question of emphasis.

I still reject the proposition that the later position of the DSP doesn’t represent a change.

There clearly is a change between one the one hand Boyle’s statement and Wombo’s formulation of the position of the Socialist Alliance today, and on the other the earlier contributions of John Tognolini and others.

I hope we can continue this discussion in the spirit Wombo has indicated in the phrase he quotes, which I also use from time to time, about pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.

Double-entry politics

February 16, 2008

Two issues are raised in Wombo’s latest post. One is the style of debate and the other a more political question concerning the internal regime in left organisations.

On styles of debate, I don’t apologise to Wombo for a bit of satire about choice of pseudonym. He or she walked into that. Some may think it’s a bit cruel but at least it got their attention.

I sometimes use a bit of satire rather than crude denunciation in discussions that have an acrimonious side. Over a long time in politics, because of the pertinence of my political interventions at different times I’ve copped more abuse than almost anyone on any of these discussion sites.

It’s water off a duck’s back to me, but like Shakespeare’s Shylock, “if you cut me do I not bleed”, so to speak. I tend to store up my responses a bit for an appropriate moment and I try to make my response aggressive but a bit funny, and in my experience that often works. On the discussion list associated with the DSP I’ve managed, from time to time, to reduce certain people who’ve piled acres of abuse on my head to spluttering silence. I take a certain pride in that.

The political aspect is more important than personal feelings, of myself or individuals I sometimes take the mickey out of. For example, on the Green Left discussion site a while back a semi-Stalinist windbag accused me in quite a calculating way of being an agent provocateur, the worst possible slander in the workers movement.

When I objected, the GLW list moderator and the DSP leadership bunch refused to take serious note of my objection to this and tried to pass it off as some kind of kind of personal dispute. The GLW list moderator never insisted that the slander be withdrawn, and the discussion was closed with the implicit threat that I’d be thrown off the list if I continued to pursue the matter.

At the political level, Norm Dixon, the chief cyber-commissar for the DSP majority leadership, relentlessly records everything that he thinks he can present as a betrayal by the Labor Party and evidence of the incurable corruption of the Labor Party, with constant jibes about anyone who’s in the Labor Party being a Rudd stooge, etc, etc. Nothing that might support a contrary impression about Labor or Labor Party members is ever mentioned by Dixon.

Any political argument with the DSP majority over strategy and tactics is relentlessly presented by the Boyle bunch as unreasonable abuse, but they reserve the right themselves to pour invective on anyone they disagree with. See for example, the discussion in which Boyle kept referring to me as whitey a couple of years ago, or the abuse poured forth by Dave Riley and John Tognolini. (Tognolini has calmed down a bit lately, which is a good thing.)

I don’t want to labour the point, because I tend to respond in kind a bit, although vanity leads me to think I’m occasionally a bit funnier than the people abusing me.

I’m not naive enough to require an apology from people for past abuse of me, and I’m certainly not going to apologise for anything that I’ve dished out in response. I’m just interested in trying to put that kind of thing behind us, if possible, to make political discussion a bit easier. I do demand of the strange man from Western Australia that he withdraw his slander that I’m an agent provocateur, but in the real world I doubt that he’s capable of making such a withdrawal. It’s my experience that people who call other people coppers are often open to that accusation themselves, and it’s a destructive way to conduct a discussion.

On a more substantial political point, Wombo objects to me conflating Riley, Dixon, Tognolini and Boyle (in the discussion of the apology), for example, and insists that the Socialist Alliance statement is the policy, and conflating the statements of others is misrepresenting the DSP or Socialist Alliance.

Unless you’re a naive newcomer to the politics of the far left you must know that’s disingenuous. A couple of weeks ago, Peter Boyle took the unprecedented step of repudiating, on Marxmail, articles by Max Lane and Sam King on developments in Indonesia, and saying they weren’t the policy of the DSP, despite the fact that Max Lane is generally regarded as the expert on Indonesia on the Australian left. Boyle obviously did this because Lane and King are members of the DSP minority.

Wombo implies that the early remarks on the apology by Tognolini and Rebel Hobbit, if they did differ from the statement later in the week, weren’t the policy of the Socialist Alliance, and implicitly the DSP.

Well, obviously, if the differences, which are clear in those early remarks, were regarded as significant, and if Boyle wasn’t motivated by factional considerations, he would have repudiated those remarks. Wombo presumes too much naivete on the part of the readers of the various remarks.

Wombo accuses me of treating the DSP leaders as if they were leaders of the Borg (well, he said it, not me). Putting it like that is overstating things a little, but I’ll leave it to readers to make a judgment as to whether the cap fits and the DSP majority leadership should wear it.

Everyone familiar with Marxist politics who reads this will know what Wombo is saying is completely disingenuous and if they read Boyle’s statement they can see the line has changed. As I’ve said before, it’s not a good idea to treat people as a bunch of mugs.

This isn’t abuse, just educated, rational observation of how a rather tightly run Zinovievist group tends to function. This form of so-called democratic centralism can be used for the most opportunist purposes, allowing a kind of practice that Nick Origlass used to describe in relation to the Stalinists as double-entry: formal political positions can on occasion be contradictory, but if the official policy and the practice of the cadres differed in the case of the Stalinists, it was justified to the ranks as necessary tactics.

When challenged on this the Stalinists would always respond by pointing to their published positions and abusing their critics as anti-communist.

Another variant of this kind of thing, not at all dissimilar to the double-entry practise that is part of the Zinovievist notion of democratic centralism, has been one of the besetting problems of the left of the Labor Party over many years, and it’s coming to the fore fairly dramatically in the current struggle against the electricity privatisation.

I don’t want to take this description based on my experience too far, because in the current conflict it appears that the rebellious rank and file and most of the trade union leaderships opposing the sale, and some left and right Labor politicians, are quite sincere in their opposition and determined to defeat the sale.

Nevertheless, some left politicians are peddling stories that of course they accept the Socialist Left’s formal opposition to the sale, but unfortunately they’re obliged by cabinet solidarity or the more recently introduced notion of caucus solidarity, to defend the sale within the Labor Party. (Actually, the Labor Party rules don’t mention cabinet or caucus solidarity relating to struggles in the party. They’re concepts that have been introduced to facilitate Labor politicians doing pretty well what they like on the basis of arrangements and deals.)

Happily, the battle-scarred Labor ranks and the majority of unions that want to defeat the sell-off are alert to these devices because anyone who has been around the movement for more than five minutes tends to become aware of them.

The rank and file left branch members are increasingly reluctant to accept the cabinet or caucus solidarity story from their factional leaders, even leaders they’ve supported for a very long time. Because of that, the outcome of this battle is by no means pre-ordained.

I know I’ve moved a fair bit away from the practice of the DSP majority, but I regard an understanding of how these things tend to work, in far left groups and in the broader labour movement, as basic equipment for anyone who intends to spend much of their life in left and labour movement politics.

You can lead a horse to water …

February 20, 2008

You can drag a horse, in this case John Tognolini, to water, but it’s hard to make it drink.

Reverting to an ignorant, point-scoring form of argument, Tognolini relates alleged errors in Jenny Haines’s comment to her membership of the Labor Party. That in itself is pretty dopey. Jenny’s attitude to the current crisis in indigenous affairs, and my stance, are not primarily based on ALP membership, but on careful attention to developments in the indigenous movement.

Tognolini demonstrates in spades the political perils of trying in an extremely ignorant way to impose one’s own prejudices on the indigenous movement.

Take the question of the restoration and improvement of the CDEP scheme. While the scheme has some obvious weaknesses and should be replaced by a scheme providing better jobs, the overwhelming majority of the left of the indigenous movement is demanding the immediate restoration of CDEP, despite all its weaknesses pending its improvement, in the absence of better job opportunities in indigenous communities.

Every indigenous leader I’ve spoken to about this, and I’ve spoken to quite a few, is hopping mad about the abolition of CDEP and they are demanding its immediate restoration, and hoping for improvements to it.

Tognolini rushes in with his schema, which has no bearing on immediate tasks, and implies that these leaders of the broad left in the indigenous community are wrong on this question. By Tognolini’s implication they should be marching up and down the country supporting the abolition of CDEP.

Proceeding from insulting stupidity to insulting stupidity, Tognolini makes some throwaway remark about Haines and Gould being like Keith Windschuttle, a point he doesn’t develop because he can’t. It’s just slander.

But it’s not a slander of Tognolini to say he has the same position as Windschuttle, because both he and Windschuttle, along with Howard’s favourite indigenous conservatives and Mal Brough, all strongly support abolishing CDEP without any adequate replacement.

This political clown is in fact attacking the Labor government from the right for restoring CDEP, pending its improvement.

Tognolini should consult both his indigenous comrades and people like Wombo, who went to the convergence in Canberra, about the attitude of indigenous militants to CDEP. This just might persuade him, if he can be persuaded of anything, that it’s unsound to attack the Labor government from the right on this question.

Tognolini also attacks Jenny Haines for neglecting the role played by the Communist Party and Frank Hardy in the Gurindji land rights struggle.

I knew Frank Hardy and other white activists involved in that struggle, and they didn’t see any conflict at all with the Labor Party. They worked flat-out to get support for land rights from the incoming Labor government, and that government went a considerable distance towards satisfying the demands of indigenous communities for land rights.

So much so that Tognolini’s fellow advocates of abolishing CDEP, the neocon journalists, Howard, Brough and co, have in recent years constantly attacked the Whitlam government for requiring full wages for indigenous people, along with land rights and other matters.

Tognolini is trying to manufacture a conflict between Hardy and Whitlam where no conflict existed. He’s rewriting history to justify his crackpot total hostility to Labor in every sphere.

I attended the very moving funeral for Frank Hardy in Melbourne some years ago because I knew him pretty well, and I vividly remember the speech of Vincent Lingiari, one of the main Gurindji leaders, in which he associated Hardy and Whitlam in almost the same breath as friends of indigenous people.

On this kind of historical question Tognolini is ignorant and boorish.

Concerning the present struggle in indigenous affairs, my approach is to give a great deal of weight to the views of the leaders of the broad left in the indigenous community. They are quite clearly taking advantage of the negotiating process established by the Labor government, and they are quite clearly avoiding Tognolini-style sweeping abuse of the Labor government.

They are calling for an immediate review of the Howard government’s intervention in Northern Territory indigenous communities, rather than using more inflammatory language.

They appear to be concentrating on restoration of the permit system for indigenous communities, restoration and improvement of CDEP, restoration of full land rights, abolition of any military role for troops in the intervention (although they don’t seem to mind the army participating in emergency construction work in indigenous communities), and they appear to be threading their way very carefully through the minefield that is the question of some increased police presence in some remote indigenous communities.

It’s fairly obvious the leaders of the indigenous community left are cautious about this question because there’s a very tangible division in some communities on this question, and some seem to want a modest increase in the police presence because of the problems of alcoholism, violence, etc.

Tognolini is so far removed from these very real problems that he rushes in like a bull at a gate, imposing his own schema when he should be getting a serious sample of the views and proposals of leaders of the left side of the indigenous movement.

Concerning Labor, Tognolini doesn’t seem to realise that many people on the left of the indigenous community are in the Labor Party in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. He also doesn’t seem to have to have noticed the blindingly obvious fact that indigenous Australians are the community that most strongly votes Labor.

One of the more pleasing things about the recent federal election was that in several booths on Cape York, the stamping ground of some of the most prominent indigenous conservatives who supported Howard in the election, the vote was 100 per cent Labor.

So much for supporting the abolition of CDEP. I tend to interpret the massive Labor vote on Cape York as a vote for the prompt restoration of CDEP.

Just in case Tognolini may be inclined to start talking about some of the leaders of the broad left in the indigenous community being some kind of indigenous elite, you should carefully note who your allies are in that kind of analysis.

In one of its pompous editorials, in which it purports to represent the interests of the whole community, The Australian yesterday (Tuesday) launched a full-scale assault on what it calls indigenous elites, naming Tom Calma and Marion Scrymgour, the deputy premier of the NT Labor government, a Tiwi woman, for particular attack because of their critical stance towards the NT intervention.

A while ago, one particularly unpleasant journalistic hack launched an attack on Scrymgour because she got her education at what that journalist termed an elite Catholic school in Melbourne. It’s true that Scrymgour went to that school. She went on a scholarship provided by the school.

I’ve never met Scrymgour, but I heard her speak at the last federal Labor conference, where she made a bold intervention serving notice on the Labor Party that it would have to start listening to indigenous people.

Scrymgour is an articulate woman in her early 40s and she has emerged rapidly as a very powerful advocate of indigenous people operating in the framework of the Labor Party.

The socialist approach to these questions should be to put much greater weight on the strategic decisions of proven indigenous leaders, such as Pat Turner, Naomi Myers, Marion Scrymgour and many others on the left of the indigenous movement.

I give no weight at all to the ignorant left talk of Tognolini and some others.


A healthy development

February 17, 2008

After a week of discussion and argument the issue of the DSP’s Green Left Weekly that went up on the web this evening is a breath of fresh air, up to a point, as is the linked Green Left discussion site.

Firstly, the main line article on the apology to indigenous Australians, written by Peter Robson, provides sensible and comprehensive coverage of the issues without any sanctimonious finger-wagging.

As it’s my impression that Robson was one of the DSP bloggers early in the week who had a fairly negative approach to the then-projected apology, this marks a change for him and the DSP leadership, and I applaud them both for it.

Despite what they may say about their line having not changed (it’s de rigueur for them to continue to say that) this is an entirely healthy development.

The major factor in this change is probably a more sensible appraisal of the response of the vast majority indigenous people and the militants at the indigenous convergence in Canberra. A secondary factor is some sharp commentary in the initial posts on the web early in the week, not just by me, but also by others.

Whatever the reasons, I applaud the currently more sensible approach.

Another change in the DSP’s previous practice is Peter Boyle’s posting of the report of Joe Holder secretary on the Labor Party anti-privatisation meeting, linked to Jenny Haines’s more extensive account of the meeting.

One hopes photos of the meeting taken by the Green Left reporter might be published somewhere.

While discussing the meeting, I’d make the point that Jenny Haines’s estimate of 200 people attending the meeting seems correct, not the smaller number reported in the Sydney Sun-Herald. A meeting of this character is easier to count than a moving protest or a street meeting.

There are 290 seats in the refurbished Trades Hall auditorium and there were about 10 speakers and chairpersons on the platform and maybe 50 empty seats, so an attendance of 200 is a rather conservative estimate.

It’s a pity that there seems to be no provision in the GLW online set-up for last-minute news. As an outsider, I guess GLW is probably laid out on Saturday afternoon and Sunday, so it might be good journalistic practice to leave scope for last-minute news, such as the privatisation meeting on Saturday, which would provide more immediacy. Many protests happen on Saturday, for example.

I don’t mean any disrespect to the GLW staff in making these observations, but these days weekly publications have a great deal of difficulty retaining immediacy and some sort of arrangement for last-minute news could be useful.

In addition to this, once more, unless I’m a hopeless dummkopf, GLW still doesn’t seem to have solved the technical problems in putting the coming events listings online. As an assiduous reader of GLW who did and would use the coming events list extensively if it was on the web, I hope those technical difficulties are solved soon. (I’m told by someone more technically au fait than myself that there might be a real difficulty in doing this because there’s a lot a more work in a list of coming events, than in straight journalism.)

The bottom line of all the above comments is that this week’s GLW and postings on the GLW discussion site represent a political improvement in the approach of the DSP majority and I hope it continues.


Ongoing discussion

February 19, 2008

I don’t doubt that what Mattie says about the ongoing negotiations between the indigenous movement and the government is true, and you get a flavour of that from another angle, in the post by Wombo on another thread, and I hope the discussion continues.

When I made the the point that Peter Robson’s article was useful, I wasn’t so much concerned with every detail and I don’t think it’s entirely reasonable to expect every serious commentator to cover every detail anyway. I think it’s counter-productive for outside commentators to try to dot every i and cross every t from the point of view of their fixed position on indigenous affairs.

I choose to follow in detail the proposals of the broad left in the indigenous community and support them in campaigning for dropping the bad aspects of the Northern Territory intervention.

Incidentally, the diehard reactionaries of the Murdoch press this morning are trying to invent a new category of so-called indigenous elites to slander Tom Calma and Marion Scrymgour, the Labor Party deputy premier of the NT. These people are campaigning to have the bad aspects of the intervention replaced by better practices quickly.

In my view, Robson’s, Wombo’s and Mattie’s contributions are useful parts of this discussion and my purpose was to note the fact that Green Left had avoided sterile anti-Labor rhetoric on this occasion.

This discussion will obviously continue, and it should. Socialists should participate in it in an objective spirit, giving great weight to the views of the broad left in the indigenous community, which includes the organisers of the Canberra convergence, Tom Carma, and Marion Scrimgeour.

On the other question raised by Rohan, who I don’t know, I have very strong views. If Norm Dixon makes a little jibe at me that I should make a donation to Green Left Weekly, I shrug it off. I have plenty of socialist political projects of my own that I support, and Dixon’s remark is just a bit of jocular demagogy, which is very mild compared with the abuse that sometimes comes from him.

Rohan’s other point, trying to paint the DSP as a wealthy organisation, is a very nasty line of argument, which I reject. It’s a bit like the Murdoch press attacking Marion Scrymgour for being some kind of elite.

It also resembles the really bizarre obsessions of the strange man Ferguson on the SWP USA discussion list about who owns the property of the US SWP.

What smallish and other rather beleaguered socialist groups do with their modest accumulated resources is their own business. Obviously some problems arise when there are splits and opposing factions feel they have some stake in those resources, but that’s still basically their business, not mine or Rohan’s.

Despite my well-known, very sharp political differences with the DSP majority, and significant differences with the DSP minority, on the basis of my own experience of socialist groups I don’t believe for a moment that the DSP bunch is rolling in money.

Like any other socialist group, or even any voluntary group in society, it functions on money raised from members and supporters and in practice their activities are sustained by a very large amount of voluntary effort. Supporters of these organisations contribute time and money, and the money is usually a kind of distilled time unless someone has come into an inheritance, won a lottery or even struck it rich gambling, on sport or the stockmarket. Even in cases like that, people who sling to causes they support usually do so for reasons of commitment.

That’s how the rather proletarian Catholic church has functioned in Australia for about 200 years.

Ozleft aims to promote critical and intelligent discussion among socialists, not abuse of people for their voluntary political activity, even those who have sharp political differences.

I know quite a number of people who’ve devoted a big part of their lives to entirely voluntary activity without stint, for small socialist groups, who’ve subsequently developed disagreements with those groups. The saner and better people in that situation reorganise their lives to suit their new situation and put down their previous devotion to the struggle to experience. They may have hard feelings on this or that matter here or there, but they have a clear understanding of the workings of constant activity dedicated to a common cause.

The alternative approach that some adopt is to carry on about how to carry on about how they were deceived and robbed, which is usually hard to believe, because they were usually adults when they started to contribute to this or that group or cause.

That way of handling disagreement or disillusionment has always struck me as pretty useless.