Does Labor offer a viable path to change?


Aware that inviting an anarchist, environmentalist and Labor student to a pub invariably leads to shouting, I instead decided to make separate zoom calls with each. These calls resulted in a series of surprisingly honest discussions about the nature of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and its viability as a path to change. With the intention of problematizing this idea, I conducted three interviews that capture a wide range of ideological convictions, experiences and parliamentary commitment: Mikaela Stella Pappou, student at USyd and member of National Labor Students (Labour Left); Tim Livingstone, a USyd student and member of the anarchist communist organization Black Flag; and Jim Casey, a firefighter, socialist and Greens member who ran against Anthony Albanese at Grayndler in 2016 and 2019.

Ideological introductions and theories of change

Livingstone summarized “free socialism”, the central idea of ​​anarcho-communism, as the removal of the upper echelon of socio-economic class in society and then an overthrow of the power structures of society. This implies the absence of an organized state as it currently exists, unlike the socialist model of large centralized government and economic planning. One can imagine the class structure of society as a simplified triangle: constituting a broad base of workers at the base; small business owners and others who have a socio-financial interest in pursuing middle capitalism; and the wealthy or ruling class at the top. Anti-capitalist ideologies such as anarchism and socialism would have us remove the latter two and then flip the triangle over so that workers run society, because “workers make society work,” Livingstone notes. It looks like benefits going to workers (rather than CEOs and shareholders) and those groups having full democratic control over the direction their institutions take. At the heart of this redistribution of wealth and power are ideas of social justice, the elimination of hierarchy, climate action and workers’ rights.

In terms of how we would get there, otherwise known as the “theory of change,” Casey agreed that the focus should be on community organizing through unions and other movements for people. workers’ rights, as we have seen with the recent NTEU staff strikes. . Pappou also agreed on the importance of union power when it comes to bringing about change, citing the PLA’s historical affiliation with unions and its base in the labor movement. She stressed that if the unions decided tomorrow that they would prefer to fully affiliate with the Greens instead of their current Labor affiliation, she would do so as well. She sees her membership of the PLA less as that of a political party than as drawing inspiration from the unions, which still represent 50% (compared to 60% in 2003) of delegates to state party conferences, which decide on the Politics. Some suggest, however, that the relationship between the PLA and the unions is overrated these days. Since 1901, the number of federal members of the PLA who are former union officials has declined by 35%. The number of such officials who have risen through the ranks of their respective unions has also fallen sharply. Moreover, nearly 20% of these former union members today in the Federal Parliament come from the Stores, Distribution and Allied Industries Union (SDA), which has a reputation for being anti-strike, apolitical and supportive. to bosses.

Labor Party politics

Tim Livingstone described Labour’s approach to change as “lethargic”, aiming to win over government and enact limited, unambitious legislation. However, there is no denying that they have implemented many great policies over the years. Universal health care was consolidated by the ALP Hawke government through Medicare in 1984, as it was expanded and renamed from the original Medibank. Disability support was also legislated by the ALP in 2013 as part of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), to name a few. Bigger subsidies for childcare and an overhaul of the aged care system are some of the strongest current policies. Livingstone agreed with this but noted that growing working class power and sweeping changes he would like to see in society are not part of the agenda of today’s increasingly conservative PLA. today.

Jim Casey, former secretary of state and current station steward of the Fire Department Employees Union (FBEU), suggested that his joining the Greens was partly due to better pro-worker policies, despite having less historical union affiliation. The Greens have stronger policies of redistributing wealth through a wealth tax on billionaires and a tax on corporate superprofits. They support free childcare over the ALP’s proposed increase in subsidies, and they plan to build one million affordable public homes to end homelessness and make housing more affordable. Unlike the ALP who supported recent Liberal amendments to the Roads and Crimes Legislation Act (RCLA) which introduced maximum penalties of 2 years in prison and/or a $22,000 fine for unregistered disturbance of a road or a major installation, the Greens condemned it. as an “anti-protest bill”. Although Pappou did not support the policy because “any regulation of activism is wrong”, she noted that Labor had passed amendments to enshrine protected union action.

However, Pappou, Casey and Livingstone all agreed that Labor has shifted markedly to the right in recent years, most dramatically ahead of this year’s federal election. They have introduced and supported a number of policies to this effect. They have expressed support for the construction of 114 new coal and gas projects and have weak emissions reduction targets of 43% by 2030. In comparison, the Greens propose a more ambitious exit from coal and gas, and an emissions reduction target of 75% over the same period.

The ALP will also retain Morrison’s Stage Three tax cuts, which would see everyone earning between $45,000 and $200,000/year pay the same marginal tax rate, disproportionately benefiting the wealthy. Since high income earners typically own assets that generate capital gains (taxed at half the normal rate, e.g. investment property), high income earners are even more likely to have capital gains rates. effective taxation lower than those of low-income people.

Along with a long list of other controversies is their support for Operation Sovereign Borders regarding refugees and asylum seekers, with Shadow Home Secretary Kristina Keneally commenting that the work “completely supports… the offshore processing, regional relocation and boat pushbacks” alongside his tweet which read “Labour supports cost recovery from those in immigration detention.

“For years I voted Labor with no illusions,” Casey noted, “but I started voting Green because it was too hard to support a party that was prepared to participate in the torture of refugees and that still does not support the right to strike.”

Disagreeing with all of the above policies, Pappou reiterated that one can engage in “critical support” of the PLA. She suggested that she saw her role as increasing the size and power of left-wing factions within the party to influence policy, as “all members have a voice”, referring to the party’s democratic structure, and that it is simply “the best proposed vehicle for change. Pappou however, could not point to the proverbial line she would draw in the sand in regards to anything the PLA might do politically that would make them unbearable. Both Livingstone and Casey were able to draw clearer policy lines, with the former mentioning anti-capitalism as well as a broader disbelief in parliamentary politics to effect socially necessary change Casey in some ways represents the combination of the two, noting that he was very sympathetic to the extra-parliamentary struggle. In the context of low union density and class consciousness, however, he would describe parliament as c as an important secondary battleground and ‘site of struggle’, whose power and profile could be used to defend workers’ rights and return power to the unions. and social movements.

Voting and election

Asked about the concept of the lesser evil—the idea that when faced with two bad choices, we should opt for the less bad, rather than retreat—Livingstone noted that he actually drew important distinctions between ALP and the liberals and vote to kick the liberals out. The latter, according to him, are “the party of the capitalists and the bourgeoisie”. Casey also noted that some of his most loyal comrades were members of the ALP, which absolutely could not be said of the Liberal Party. He highlighted the importance of understanding the preferential voting system we have, which sees the votes go to your next preference if your first preference is not elected, meaning you don’t have to vote strategically so as not to waste votes, as you do in other countries.

When asked for the ultimatum of whether the Australian Labor Party had in fact provided a viable path to change, there were varying responses. Very simply, Pappou answered “yes” and Livingstone “no”. Casey argued that throughout history the Labor Party had proven capable of enacting change, but we had to ask ourselves what that change might look like. Irrespective of parliamentary engagement and the outcome of the upcoming elections, democratic and extra-parliamentary trade union organizing remains key to implementing change, they all agreed.

Ultimately, every voter must decide for themselves whether Labor is leading the way for change, but also ask themselves the question: is this the change we want?


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