The rise of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders in the US has led many to ask where is our Corbyn or our Sanders and to question whether conditions in Australia are ripe for a similar break to the left.
Because Australia was buffered from the worst of the GFC, due mainly to the mining boom, some argue that conditions here may need to get a lot worse before people are prepared to get behind a left platform.
Let’s look at some social indicators in Australia today.
More than 13% of Australians are now living below the poverty line — set at 50% of median income — but that figure rises to 17.4% for children, 29% for single parents and 60% for the unemployed. The rate of poverty is also higher if you live outside a metropolitan city: rural and regional poverty is a reality overlooked at the left’s peril.
Underemployment — where people want to work more hours than are available — is getting worse. By next year 12% of women, 7% of men and 18% of young workers will be struggling to find enough paid work hours to make ends meet.
Housing has never been so unaffordable. Tenants experience high rates of rental stress, spending more than one-third of their income on rent. Three-quarters of a million households are in mortgage stress and the number is rising dramatically. About 52,000 households are at risk of defaulting on their mortgage within the next 12 months. There is a crisis in housing availability and the waiting list for public housing in NSW alone is 60,000.
Add to this the attacks on education, on welfare entitlements, the cuts to penalty rates and the slowest wage growth since the last recession and you can understand why young people are more and more distrustful of politicians and politics as usual.
Neoliberal capitalism is creating the preconditions for resistance, and while we have yet to see mass popular outbreaks, that is not to say that people are not resisting — look at the response across regional Australia to the threat of coal and unconventional gas mining, or the resistance by Aboriginal communities to state violence, stolen generations and land theft. Witness the resistance on Nauru and Manus Island by some of the most vulnerable people to the government’s cruel policy of mandatory detention.
Ordinary people do extraordinary things in time of struggle and new leaders are continuously emerging from every struggle.
Bill McKibben, the international head of the climate change campaign group 350.org wrote in 2013 on Huffington Post’s blog: “We may not need capital-L Leaders, but we certainly need small-l leaders by the tens of thousands. You could say that, instead of a leaderless movement, we need a leader-full one.”
McKibbon is partly right. We do need to build movements that enable people to realise that not only can they beat back a mining company or a greedy boss, they can also change the system and run society.
Leadership is important. However, the fundamental challenge for movements cannot be isolated to the question of leadership, because it is connected with other essential components, like grassroots democracy in decision making and organisation, and political independence.
This is especially true in the trade union movement, where workers’ interests have been subordinated time and again to Labor’s electoral and parliamentary interests. In the social and environmental movements, NGOs with top-down, undemocratic structures have dominated public discourse and determined strategy and tactics.
Today, the movement for refugees has brought about a shift in public opinion around offshore detention and needs to keep the pressure on the government to close the camps and bring those within them to the mainland.
The Stop Adani campaign is emerging as a potentially powerful people’s movement to challenge fossil fuel interests and the governments that support them.
There is a need for combined union action against the government’s anti-worker laws and wage theft, but the ACTU will have to be pressured from below to turn the fighting words of its secretary, Sally McManus, into action.
Corbyn and Sanders have shown that socialist ideas can win popular support in an advanced capitalist country today, particularly among young people. So it is incumbent on the left to seek to build the movements today and engage in what Chilean socialist Marta Harnecker describes as “the art of making the impossible possible by building a social and political force capable of changing reality”.