Left parties stand in NSW election
By Sam Wainwright
SYDNEY — As Labor and the Coalition engage in a cynical law-and-order auction for the March 27 NSW poll, the biggest talking point has been the record 80 parties (264 candidates) contesting the elections for the Legislative Council.
Big party and media protests at this have been accompanied by talk about the "need" to tighten electoral regulations so as to make it harder for new and small organisations to be registered, lumping them all together as pranksters and weird single-issue parties.
They do not want to face the fact that the emergence of new parties reflects anger and disenchantment with the two party system. They are even more keen to avoid reference to the progressive parties among them.
The Greens are standing more than 80 candidates, and there is a good chance that their lead Legislative Council candidate, Lee Rhiannon, will join Ian Cohen in the Legislative Council.
The Democratic Socialists are running a Legislative Council ticket and nine lower house candidates. Well-known anti-nuclear campaigner Helen Caldicott is a candidate for Our Common Future, and the Progressive Labour Party and Communist Party of Australia are also standing. These parties recently discussed their platforms with Green Left Weekly.
Education and youth
The parties are committed to increasing funding for both teachers' salaries and resources for schools, which Labor and the Coalition always try to counterpose. Since teachers took to the streets in early February, those two parties have refused to reveal policy details.
The PLP and the Greens are both raising support for public education as one of their priorities. Klaas Woldring, the PLP's lead Legislative Council candidate, stressed the need to reverse the "creeping privatisation of education", including subsidies of wealthy private schools with public funds.
Lee Rhiannon said that the Greens will also be taking up this issue, "something that has not been [done] by a party represented in the NSW parliament for over 25 years".
Five Democratic Socialist candidates are members of the socialist youth organisation Resistance. They are determined to confront the anti-youth hysteria of Labor and the Coalition. Stephanie Roper, a youth worker and candidate for Strathfield, commented, "Labor and Liberal scapegoat young people and poor minorities while the corporate crooks go free. In NSW, the prison population grew by 75% over the last decade, and the Aboriginal proportion doubled to about 12%."
Resistance members have organised protests against Premier Carr's proposed truancy laws, which would empower police to round up students outside school without special passes. In one school-time action, they symbolically burned "school passes" in front of parliament's gates.
The policies of Our Common Future emphasise environmental concerns, such as stopping the logging of old-growth forests. Like the other four parties, it opposes privatisation of the NSW electricity grid.
Before elections, Labor Party politicians often make "noises" on selected issues, only to forget those issues once installed in parliament. A prime example is Labor's commitment before the last election to decriminalise abortion.
At this year's International Women's Day rally, the Democratic Socialist candidate for Marrickville, Dr Tuntuni Bhattacharyya, slammed Labor's failure to act in the face of a growing offensive by the religious right.
Lee Rhiannon stressed that the Greens also give absolute support to a woman's right to choose and that their MPs (like Democratic Socialist ones) would have no option to hide behind a "conscience vote" as Labor politicians do.
While the parties are all committed to stopping "economic rationalism", they have different conceptions of the way forward. Woldring explained that the PLP drew its inspiration from the New Zealand Alliance, which brings together a number of progressive parties. The PLP would like to see a similar process in Australia, and this objective is enshrined in its constitution.
Rhiannon explained that the Greens are distinguished by a "track record of being able to deliver" both in parliament and in organising community action. She said that the Greens do not see the elections as their only activity: "We seek to combine an electoral approach with organising community action. This is what we see as key to bringing about change."
For the Democratic Socialists, the elections are an opportunity to promote and involve people in grassroots campaigns around social and environmental issues and efforts to rebuild militant and democratic trade unions. Roper said, "We think it's not just a question of opposing the 'economic rationalist' agenda. We put forward socialist solutions that directly address the fact that without community control of the economy, there can't really be political democracy or an end to environmental degradation."
The Democratic Socialists say that BHP, the banks and any companies that threaten lay-offs should be nationalised. They also propose reducing the working week with no loss in pay to reduce unemployment and increasing taxes on the rich and big business to pay for expanded social services and environmental repair.
Dennis Doherty is the CPA candidate for Port Jackson. He believes that people should consider the CPA because of its long history and association with workers' struggles. He concluded, "The Communist name defines who we are and what we stand for".
These progressive parties share some common ground, raising possibilities for cooperation and common action. Rhiannon pointed out that the parties already cooperate in various campaigns. However, at this stage she does not envisage more than this.
Woldring elaborated the PLP's concept of a formal alliance: "We feel that it is necessary for progressive forces to come together in an alliance ... which does not necessarily do away with the autonomy of the individual parties but which will nevertheless create a new overarching party".
He said this has proved extremely difficult to make progress on; after the election progressive parties should try to come together on a common platform for the next federal election.
Dick Nichols, the Democratic Socialists' lead Legislative Council candidate, said, "We would seriously consider any proposals for cooperation that would help expand the influence of the left. We enthusiastically participated in the Brisbane Green Alliance, some of our members were candidates and founders of the NSW Greens before they became consolidated into a national party, and we are the main backers of Australia's leading progressive newspaper, Green Left Weekly.
"We don't have a formula about how increased cooperation might come about, and it can only happen if other groups also have the will."
An immediate avenue for cooperation among the parties will be in their distribution of preferences. All have affirmed that they will preference other progressive parties before Labor and the Coalition.
Where the Democrats fit is more contentious. The Democratic Socialists will place the Democrats after Labor because of their increasingly conservative policies, typified by their support for the federal government's Workplace Relations Act and for a GST.
The Greens will put the Democrats ahead of Labor, but Rhiannon stressed that the Democrats' positions on the WRA and GST were "absolutely outrageous" and that the Greens would preference other progressive parties ahead of the Democrats.
The PLP has decided to put the Democrats ahead of Labor because they had backtracked on some aspects of support for the WRA. Doherty was unsure what position the CPA would take.
All the progressive parties must brace themselves for the Labor-Liberal crackdown. Opposition Leader Kerry Chikarovski has suggested that parties without parliamentary representation should have to submit 500 names and addresses, up from the 200 currently required.
This is surely only the tip of the iceberg — last year, in Tasmania, Labor and Liberal combined to push through changes to that state's electoral system to make it less representative. In the election that followed, the number of Green MPs was slashed from five to one.