Howard's gone: Now what?


"Now what?" must be the most commonly asked question among the left these days. Now what for the struggle for Indigenous rights? For the struggle against global warming? For the anti-war movement? For the fight against the Tamar Valley pulp mill? For the Your Rights at Work committees? Local Socialist Alliance branches have already begun a series of forums on this theme.

There isn't a simple answer out there, just waiting to be unwrapped, microwaved and consumed by a grateful movement. Rather, the answer to "Now what?" will only come from trial and error, and from honest judging of the results of many experiments. Here all attempts to honestly confront "Now what?" are welcome, from GetUp's two-day Sydney Refresh forum to Friends of the Earth's Melbourne seminar on alternatives to establishment recipes for countering global warming.

This is an inevitable phase. That's partly because of the unprecedented way the Rudd government came it power. It inherited government more because John Howard was rejected than because of its own program, with its powerful elements of continuity with the Coalition.

As a result, the federal Labor government begins its rule faced with a whole lot of scepticism, cynicism and doubt among those very people whose 10 years of campaigns against Howard's crimes made the ALP's victory possible.

Of course, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard know this. That means that we should not be surprised by a shower of progressive gestures aimed at winning our support. Last week's cabinet decision to have a judicial inquiry into the case of Dr Mahomed Haneef is a case in point.

Our response should be to demand that such a gesture be converted into an independent investigation of all attacks on people's democratic rights made under the "anti-terrorism" legislation. Yes, clear Haneef's name and nail the guilty parties, but let's also have an independent inquiry into ASIO's role in the treatment of Mamdouh Habib and into the Howard government's deal with the US over David Hicks, which made silence the price of his return to Australia.

So now what? For the Socialist Alliance the main point is to keep the movements for peace, workers' rights, civil liberties and environmental sustainability as independent of the Rudd government and the Labor Party as possible. We shouldn't forget the sad fate of the movements that brought down Malcolm Fraser in 1983 — they were split, bought off, neutralised into pure lobbying outfits and, if they wouldn't fit in with the Australian Council of Trade Unions-ALP Accord, vilified and marginalised.

This time round it must be different. From refugees' rights to global warming, the movements have campaigned for demands that the Rudd government, for all the gestures it may attempt, is light years from implementing. The best chance of forcing it to do a bit more than it has actually planned or wants to do is to maintain the movements' real strength, their capacity to increase the political price for Rudd of a refusal to listen.

A very good starting point would be to force Labor to reverse its endorsement of Gunns' poisonous Tamar Valley pulp mill. The movements, especially the wonderful, many-sided campaign against Work Choices, ended the miserable and unlamented rule of the lying rodent and created heartfelt celebration across the land.

The Socialist Alliance will be doing everything in its power to help the movements build on that great victory. In that way we shall be trying to change not just a government, but Australian society itself.

[Dick Nichols is the national coordinator of the Socialist Alliance (written in a personal capacity).]