A great part of being a candidate for the federal elections is that people want to talk to you. They want to tell you what’s happening in their lives and they want to let you know their opinion on lots of different issues.
Recently I was invited to address an Electrical Trades Union branch meeting in Geelong, Victoria. After I’d had my say, some members told me they agreed with me.
But one person thought I put too much emphasis on the rights of refugees and Aboriginals. What about all the white, working class men who are committing suicide now? Or the construction workers who haven’t worked for over six months?
I could have given a glib answer to such comments. But I knew I wouldn’t be doing justice to these workers if I did. After all, construction workers as a group are fantastic and generous union militants.
They understand the need for solidarity in a dispute and can always be relied upon to donate money for campaigns or distressed individuals. During the nurses’ dispute last year, construction workers at the desalination plant in Gippsland raised an impressive $2000 in one afternoon.
So I replied that while the Socialist Alliance will always support the most exploited and disadvantaged in society and protest governments that take inhumane actions, it’s clear that Kevin Rudd is using the issue of refugees to whip up racism.
Racism is useful for the government and big business because if we’re fighting among ourselves then we’re not demanding they do something about the hard issues such as the lack of jobs, the funding cuts in health, education, housing or public transport or the alienation and pressure that workers feel.
Stopping refugees from coming to Australia will not help any of these issues. But this worker was right; there are increasing numbers of suicides among construction workers.
There is a growing feeling of desperation and anger. But tragically it’s taken out on those who are seen as the “other” in our community, and myths are spread that they live on large dole payouts or take “our” jobs.
I’m not sure if I convinced him. The reality is, racist, sexist and homophobic ideas are so pervasive in this society and are promoted by the media, parliament and other institutions.
We have to challenge those ideas and show how they distract workers from the real causes of our problems, which is a capitalist system that is run for the benefit of big business.
We also have to show people that there is an alternative to this system, an alternative that can put people before profits and the environment.
For instance in Geelong, the Ford factory will close in 2016. State and federal governments have spent over a billion dollars in subsidies but Ford is still not making enough money. Thousands of jobs will be lost in a few short years.
Meanwhile Labor and Liberal continue to bail out their mates through subsidies and cheap sell offs of public enterprises. They barely tax the mines, banks or energy companies and individual workers still pay the lion’s share of taxes through incomes, GST and a host of other levies and charges.
So what are our alternatives? Just imagine if Ford was put under public control instead of those billions going into private pockets. We could have re-tooled the company and made products that the community needs rather than cars which don’t sell and put workers out of work.
There are currently ideas being raised about re-tooling the factory with carbon fibre products. Why aren’t politicians talking about that? In fact, why aren’t they talking about suicide, real solutions to the environmental crisis, lack of services, and a thousand other issues that affect the voters of Corio?
Could it be that they can’t think of answers that won’t make big business and the rich pay?
The Socialist Alliance runs in elections because it wants to hear what working-class people are saying — warts and all. It wants to work through the issues with them and put forward alternative explanations.
Change happens when enough people are convinced and motivated to get out there and make a difference. They’re not going to do it through sloganeering and contempt for sometimes regressive ideas but through patient explaining and persistence.
Maybe I won’t win Corio this time, but I know we must have those debates if we’re going to build a better world.
[Sue Bull is the Socialist Alliance candidate for Corio. She is a 56-year-old health and safety teacher in the construction industry and has been a socialist and a unionist all her adult life. She has campaigned against war and racism and for refugees, women’s rights and the environment.]