People power beats ALP politics

August 5, 2011
Equal marriage rally, Sydney, May 21. Photo: Peter Boyle

The ALP is the party for ordinary Australians, right?

Resistance members will often talk about the importance of political movements being independent of political parties, but what does this mean for the ALP?

Isn’t the ALP Australia’s party of progress? And surely they are better then the Tories? Isn’t it our party?

Well, it is a party that’s designed for progressives, unionists and activists, but that doesn’t mean that it's ours. If you look at its history, the ALP has attracted progressive people but rarely helped create change.

The problem is the ALP takes good activists and ties them to a thoroughly corrupt organisation.

From the beginning, the ALP has been dominated by careerists who put themselves (and their wallets) before the people they represent.

This was shown in recent years with scandals such as Wollongong city council’s corruption, but is also true of the past — just read Frank Hardy’s classic novel Power Without Glory that portrays the influence of gangsters and thugs in the ALP from as early as the late 1890s.

On top of its own internal corruption, the ALP plays a key role in underpinning the Australian political establishment.

Militant activists who work through the ALP are then tied to the very structures that create and perpetuate the problems they fight against. How can you realistically fight against systematic injustice while you are tied to the interests of those you are trying to oppose?

When progressives have built a voice within the party, they have been expelled (for instance, with the proscription clause against “communists”) or the party has been undermined from within, (as happened with the conservative Democratic Labor Party split from the ALP in the 1950’s).

Overall, the ALP’s role in Australian politics has been to stifle and coopt dissent.

Time and again, the ALP has proven not to be a tool for progressive change. It has consistently failed working people and progressives.

Former Labor prime minister Billy Hughes aggressively supported conscription during World War I, and eventually split from the ALP to form government with the conservatives.

A later ALP prime minister, Ben Chifley, sent soldiers to break the 1949 coal miners strike.

In 1989, ALP prime minister Bob Hawke, also a former head of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, ordered the air force to break the pilots strike.

In government, Labor has not only failed to defend working people, but has even led attacks on their rights at work and the union movement.

So as activists how do we relate to the Labor Party? It’s pretty clear the ALP isn’t as bad at the Liberals, who are ideologically opposed to a progressive Australia. Most radicals naturally recognise that.

But, when we take part in political movements to change society, we need to make sure that these movements stay politically independent of the ALP, and do not merely push to change the minds of ALP politicians.

Fundamentally, our goal is to reach the general public with our ideas and opinions.

This doesn’t mean we ignore the ALP. If there are ALP members — and even politicians — who can help the movement, then that’s great.

Everyone who agrees on the need for change should be involved, as long as their actions are democratically accountable to the movement as a whole.

However, no social movement can afford to put its energies into influencing the internal party machine politics of the ALP.

This has best been shown by the equal love campaign for equal marriage rights. From the outset, this movement, which is led by campus and citywide equal love groups, focused on a public campaign for marriage equality.

The success of the campaign has been its independence, and its ability to articulate a progressive and alternative voice to the broader community. This has helped convince more people, many of who have become involved in the movement.

Campaigning like this has led to a real shift in public opinion. The vast majority of Australians now support the right of lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual and intersex people to marry if they choose to.

The real power exerted here is the power of people themselves taking up the issues and the debates. And now we see the major parties running to catch up as they see which way the wind is blowing.

If the campaign had focused mostly on the Labor Party, the movement’s energy would have gone into talking to politicians, not ordinary people.

Politicians would have had more leeway to pressure the movement, and urge people to compromise, “be reasonable” and accept more moderate demands.

Instead, the pressure has flowed from the streets to the politicians. When our efforts are focused on mobilising ordinary people, we make movements that don’t just change government policies but change society.

Movements that energise public sentiment can win regardless of whether the ALP or the Coalition is in government.

So this is what Resistance means by supporting independent movements. The focus has to be outward, looking to ordinary people to create change.

Movements have to be democratic so everyone can be a part of decision making and proposing the direction of the movement, not just leaders, whether they be in parliament or otherwise. They have to be accountable to the ideals we fight for.

The fundamental power we have to create social change is the power we have ourselves. That power is undermined if we don’t wield it in our own names but put it at the disposal of unaccountable politicians.


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