Prospects for change under Labor discussed by unionists, activists

Discussing prospects for change under the new Labor government. Photo: Isaac Nellist

Unionists, activists and others discussed the next steps for climate action, workers’ rights and social justice after the federal election on May 31 at a forum, hosted by Green Left and Socialist Alliance (SA). It was also an opportunity to hear activists’ take on the results.

NSW Senate candidate Rachel Evans said the results were “cause for hope” after almost a decade of right-wing government. She said the election of Greens MPs in three Queensland seats and the rise of the “teal” independents shows people want change.

Evans said the modest rise of the socialist vote in the Far North Queensland seat of Leichhardt, where SA candidate Pat O’Shane received 4.2% of the vote, and in Wills, Victoria, where the combined vote of SA and Victorian Socialists reached almost 7%, shows the hearing for anti-capitalist politics is growing.

Skip Blofield, a member of the NSW Nurses and Midwives Association (NSWNMA) and Industrial Workers of the World Sydney, pointed to the pre-election industrial action in NSW, saying that this was prompted by how even in times of crisis, such as the pandemic, the ruling class continues to undermine workers and the vulnerable.

Blofield agreed the election of the teal independents indicated a mood for change. He said Labor must act if it wants to stay in government. He also criticised NSW Labor’s backsliding on its former support for NSWNMA’s demand for staff-to-patient ratios, and said climate action and fighting the anti-protest laws were critical.

Charlie Murphy, an LGBTI+ rights activist from Pride in Protest and the Scarlet Alliance, said the Coalition’s attempt to use transphobia to win votes in conservative seats had failed.

Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s decision to support anti-trans campaigner Katherine Deves for the seat of Warringah led to a –5.1% swing against the Liberals. Murphy warned the Labor party was wedged on trans rights, saying PM Anthony Albanese had distanced himself from LGBTI+ rights in the election campaign as part of Labor’s “small target” strategy. She said Labor still plans to go ahead with a new religious discrimination bill.

Murphy said the teal independents need to be scrutinised as they “might position themselves as right-wing supporters of trans rights”. She said people see the “clear connection between queer and workers’ struggles”, pointing to the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) strike at the University of Sydney, that included demands for six-weeks transition leave.

Andrew Chuter, a maths teacher, NTEU member and SA candidate for Sydney pointed to the major parties’ vote decline and questioned the electoral system that allows parties that only received one third of the vote to gain a majority of seats. “It’s nowhere near proportional.” Chuter said a multi-party system “more akin to what we see in some European countries” would be more democratic.

The Greens wins in Brisbane was built on engagement with the community, he said, including flood relief and building community gardens. This could be replicated in other campaigns such as the campaign for public housing.

Paul Keating, Maritime Union of Australia Sydney branch secretary, said the Labor government must fix the broken industrial relations system which “stops workers from being able to resist attacks by employers”. The Registered Organisation Commission (ROC), under which workers’ have no right to representation, was designed to “intimidate and terrify the working class”. The ROC, along with the Australian Building and Construction Commission and the Fair Work Commission “must be abolished”, he said.

Keating emphasised that a well organised workers’ movement is critical to achieving a wage rise and that unionists must fight for equal pay for women. He said the recent strikes by the NTEU, Rail, Tram and Bus Union, NSW Teachers Federation and the NSWNMA were encouraging.

Finally, Keating said the MUA was building the anti-war movement, including opposing the AUKUS deal and nuclear submarines, pushing for action on climate change and fighting for First Nations land rights by standing with them against Santos’ Narrabri Gas Plant.

[Watch the Green Left-Socialist Alliance forum here.]