As we walk into a cafe in the Sydney suburb of Newington, a young Afghan barista greets Communist Party of Australia (CPA) activist Tony Oldfield by name and asks how the recent local Auburn council elections went. After talking for a few minutes about which councillors were re-elected and which were not, the young man asks: “And how about you Tony?”
Only then does Tony point out that he too was elected.
In doing so, Oldfield became one of only four socialist local councillors in Australia.
Oldfield told Green Left Weekly that the origins of his election date back to the early 2000s, when “local Turkish community activists, leftists and some small business owners”, came together to form a community group opposed to the proposed Collex waste transfer station.
Their legal challenge against the waste dump was successful in the Land and Environment Court, but “the Carr Labor government brought in an act to parliament that overturned the court decision”.
So in 2004, the community group decided to run in their first local council election as the “No Dump Group” and succeeded in having a councillor elected in first ward.
Oldfield also contested those elections, running in second ward where he “got a small vote”. He said the ticket “ran again in 2008 and more than doubled our vote”, this time winning 7%.
In the September 8 NSW local council elections Oldfield ran as part of “The Battler” group. It won almost 10% of the vote and secured the fifth and last councillor spot for Auburn’s Ward 2.
Oldfield told GLW: “We are still part of a loose coalition that calls itself the No Dump Residents Association, but the issue of the dump was never as big an issue in second ward as it was in first ward.
“That’s why a group of us decided to start producing The Battler as a local bulletin that could take up local issues, particularly in the second ward, starting with the suburbs of Berala and Regents Park.”
Working class perspective on local issues
One such issue was that of a high-rise development project in Berala that turned sour when the developer went bankrupt.
For the past six years, local residents have been “fuming” about the fact they have been left without any local shops in the area, as they were demolished to make way for the new development that never got off the ground.
“By campaigning on this issue,” said Oldfield, “we built a strong base in that area and have been able to expand to nearby suburbs. We now have a small support base in Regents Park and also in Lidcombe.
“Our election victory has been a result of that work.”
But it hasn’t just been by campaigning around local issues that Oldfield and the others on “The Battler” ticket have won respect in the community. Putting forward strong working-class politics has also been key.
Attempts by other candidates to run anti-communist campaigns against Oldfield mean many locals know of his party affiliation, but he says his vote wasn’t “because I’m a communist or because they support communism”.
Rather, he said local residents have appreciated that “in all of our campaigning work, we try to give a working class perspective on the issue they are facing. We try to link the local to the bigger picture.”
As an example, Oldfield spoke of the campaign against “the big hole in the ground in Berala”.
He said: “The big developer went bust and left behind an excavation hole where the local shops once use to be.
“In campaigning around this issue we have tried to give people an analysis of why it happened, linking it to the broader picture of the global economic crisis.
“While they may not call themselves leftists or socialists or communists, these people have appreciated the analysis we provide, particularly when all the other councillors — Greens, Liberals and Labor — have tried to cover the issues up and pretend they don’t exist.”
An alternative to Labor
Oldfield’s election coincided with the election of an extra Liberal councillor. Labor’s support in the area declined and the Greens lost their only sitting councillor in Auburn.
However, Oldfield said: “I don’t detect a mood to the right in the community.”
For one, the changing demographics of the area help explain some of the changing voting patterns.
“When I first moved here in 1985, Auburn was seen as out there somewhere. Now people see it as being close to the city, just half an hour by train.”
“In parts of this area you now have upper middle class people moving into what was traditionally a solid working class area.
“You have a lot of professionals, small business people moving into places like Botanica, where you can’t buy a house for under $750,000, or Wentworth Point and Newington, big growth areas where you don’t buy an apartment for under $550,000 to 600,000.”
At the same time, while some Labor votes have gone to the Liberals or other right-wing candidates, many have done so “out of sheer frustration [with Labor] and because there weren’t any alternative candidates.”
Together with the “mixed record” of the local Greens councillor when it came to voting on some key development issues, Oldfield said another weakness of the Greens is that: “In western Sydney, [they] don’t tend to have any roots in the community; they very much just sit on the surface.
“So for example, here they had a councillor for eight years, but they never really managed to build a local organisation or branch around them.”
In this context, the willingness of those around The Battler to put in the hard yards meant “over a long period of time we have been winning people away from the Labor party.”
“We get support from a whole wide range of people, including even right-wing Labor voters who continue to believe in some of the working class principles that the Labor party has long abandoned.”
Lessons for the left
For Oldfield, “the lesson here is that you have to entrench yourselves in the local community, sink roots into the community.
“One of the big mistakes of the left generally is that we tend to spring up at the last minute, run for elections, wave the flag and think we are going to do well and, of course, we hardly ever do.
“We have to understand that this is a very long, slow process, a grinding process, boring sometimes, but if you’re prepared to do it, to make the sacrifices then you get the dividends over a period of time.”
However, Oldfield is concerned about more than just getting socialists elected to council. He went on to offer some thoughts on more fundamental issues that the left faces today. One of these is how the left can get a wider hearing among workers.
The left has general been good on international solidarity and big picture issues, but Oldfield argued: “Where we are not really doing our job is connecting what is happening globally to local issues that are affecting people at the coalface.
“I think we have to win respect and credibility in our communities before we have the right to be able to stand on our soapbox and talk about these other issues. Otherwise, we often lack the credibility to talk about these important issues.”
Another challenge has to do with how the left can best organise its forces.
“Together with the decline of industrial workplaces we have seen the decline of the trade union movement, which has always been a traditional area of activity and organising for socialists.
“But it’s not because the working class has disappeared: the working class is still all around us. The question is ‘where can we best organise them?’ and I would argue that the best place we can organise them at the moment is where they live."
The left, says Oldfield, has “to take up the challenge to social democracy not only in our workplace but in our communities”.