Prospects for resistance to the new Howard government



Prospects for resistance to the new Howard government

By Peter Boyle

There will be no shortage of attacks on the working class from the Coalition government in its second term: the GST, further austerity and privatisation and the second wave of anti-union laws. But Howard has no popular mandate for any of these attacks. Further, with the left enjoying a resurgence, particularly among younger activists, there is a good chance of increasing resistance to Howard's agenda.

While the Coalition managed to get through its Workplace Relations Act in its first term of office — with the help of the Democrats — and this has weakened the bargaining position of workers and further restricted the right to organise, the union movement is still very powerful. This was confirmed dramatically in the struggle against the government's attempt to destroy the Maritime Union of Australia.

That struggle showed that a bosses' government making certain fundamental rights "illegal" does not mean that the working class cannot exercise those rights.

But the struggle also confirmed that the great majority of the union leaderships remain unwilling to lead a resolute fight against the attacks from the Howard government.


Problem of union leadership

Many MUA members are deeply unhappy with the deal signed by their union chiefs — a deal which allowed the introduction of 12-hour shifts, a loss of public holidays and the handing over of power to the boss to dictate who was to work for how long. They are now speaking up and resisting attacks on their hard-won working conditions.

The MUA's chief official in Sydney, Jim Donovan, a member of the Communist Party of Australia (until two years ago called the Socialist Party of Australia), claims he didn't know that these things were part of the deal! When the deal was signed, CPA general secretary Peter Symon hailed it as a "political victory for the MUA and the union movement as a whole" and attacked left critics of the deal, in particular militants of the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP).

DSP members and some MUA militants had distributed details of the deal, which included the matters now meeting rank and file resistance, at mass meetings of the MUA convened to ratify the agreement. Details of the major concessions agreed to by MUA chief John Coombs were also available on the internet.

The new attacks of the Howard government won't be stopped if it is left to the Democrats in the Senate. That is one of the big lessons from the first term of the Howard government.

The union movement has the power to stop the introduction of the GST and to defeat the next wave of anti-union laws, but only if its leaders have the political will to organise campaigns of sustained independent mass mobilisation and industrial action. Unfortunately, they haven't.

The union bureaucrats fear any sustained campaign of industrial action because it would force the emergence of class-struggle militants within the union structures — a development that could pose a serious challenge to their control.

Until the class collaborationist leaders of the trade unions are replaced by class-conscious militants, the union movement won't put up a serious fight against the bosses' attack. That's why any assessment of the potential for resistance to the Howard government must take into account the prospects of the militant left.

The left in the movements

The biggest party on the left today is the DSP. None of the other half a dozen groups have an organised presence in all major cities and the number of active members. Its international standing, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, is unmatched even by the total efforts of the rest of the left.

It is also the only group that works in close alliance with a dynamic and increasingly well-known socialist youth organisation, Resistance. In the federal elections, the Democratic Socialists fielded more than twice as many candidates as the rest of the left combined

While the left is still relatively weak in the unions, the DSP has been able to increase its influence in several, in particular the Community and Public Sector Union, where its members are seen by the class-collaborationist Caird leadership as a dangerous opposition. The party also works closely with key militants in several other unions.

However, so far, the biggest breaks for the left have been in social movements where the bureaucratic leaderships are weaker.

The refusal of the labour bureaucracy to mobilise the unions to resist the Howard government's offensive against working people — and the attacks of the Labor government before it — has weakened the ability of other social movements to fight back. But the most serious obstacle to building a fight back is the pervasiveness of bourgeois electoralism among the leaders of these movements.

This was very clear in the response to the elections by the popular movement to stop the uranium mine at Jabiluka. This was the environmental and anti-racist movements' best chance of getting onto the main agenda in the election campaign. There's huge support in the public for this issue, especially among young people, who the polls showed to be extremely unexcited by the election.

If prominent figures in the anti-Jabiluka mine movement, like Jacqui Katona and Peter Garrett, had made a call, hundreds of thousands would have taken to the streets around the country on this issue. This could have been a winning campaign, one that might have helped tip the Coalition out of government and at the same time put massive pressure on the Labor Party to oppose the mine.

Instead, the environmental peak body chiefs decided to call for a vote for Labor and exaggerate Labor's opposition to the mine, so that if it got elected it might find it hard to allow the mine to go ahead.

This strategy was deflated when the chief of ERA (the company trying to mine uranium at Jabiluka)revealed he was not too worried if Labor won the election.

In addition, not many Jabiluka activists could be persuaded to hand out leaflets that were totally uncritical of the ALP, which had not committed itself unconditionally to stopping the mine.

Legitimacy crisis

The lost opportunity is clear when we consider that the Howard government was facing a major crisis of legitimacy over its encouragement of racism. Its conservative stance drew criticism not just from the victims of racism but also from many prominent church leaders, artists, academics, some corporate chiefs, newspaper columnists, former Labor and Liberal PMs and even the governor-general.

Yet the leaders of the social movements rejected organising sustained mass action against the racist policies of the Howard government, including the decision to mine at Jabiluka. They argued that mass rallies and marches are "old hat" and don't work. The real way to change society is to chat up the influential people, they said.

Meanwhile Hanson was saying: I'm not a racist. I don't like it when people call me a racist; in fact, calling me a racist is being racist against white people! This sort of drivel was treated as a real argument in the capitalist media.

But out in the streets, the racist abuse and taunting were growing, in the workplaces, in the schools as well.

Resistance anti-racist walkout

This was the situation in which Resistance called the two successful national high school student walk-outs in July and August.

Resistance received unprecedented media coverage, local and international — scores of front page articles, feature stories, TV current affairs programs. Indeed, Resistance became anti-One Nation personified in the media.

The capitalist media coverage included some vicious red-baiting attacks, but none dented the sharp rise in popularity of this gutsy socialist youth organisation.

Radio shock jock Stan Zamenek's verbal beating up of Resistance high school member Keiran Barley and Channel Seven's Anne Fulwood's more of the same on television became the focus of scathing comment on ABC TV's Media Watch. And the more Resistance was attacked by reactionary media commentators, the more points it scored with the growing numbers of people who thought that Resistance was doing a great job.

Their sentiment was summed up by this public accolade from Sydney satirist Godfrey Bigot: "When Resistance led youth out against racism, it was a moral high point for the forces of tolerance and democracy".

Resistance captured the imagination of the progressive section of the population, tapping memories of the last time youth acted as the "conscience of the nation" on the Vietnam War. It is significant that towards the end of the decade that began with the "collapse of Communism", a socialist group is seen by many as a beacon of hope against the rising tide of racism and reaction.

The abstention from real opposition by the ALP and the bureaucratic leaders of the unions and other social movements has given the left, particularly Resistance and the DSP, a much greater influence among broader layers.

This does not overcome overnight the limitations of size of the left and its weight in the union movement — though it gives the DSP and Resistance more leverage in pushing the labour bureaucracy into taking some action — but it should enhance the left's ability to increase its weight, especially as the class struggle sharpens and the global recession bites.

[Peter Boyle is a national executive member of the DSP. This article is based on a report to the October 17-18 DSP national committee meeting.]