Socialist Alliance councillor Sue Bolton spoke to Dave Holmes about her work as an elected socialist local councillor in Moreland, a municipality in Melbourne.
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You were elected to the Moreland City Council for Socialist Alliance in October 2012. Many of the themes and issues raised in your campaign struck a chord with a wide range of people. There was also a fair bit of accident and luck: you headed up a ballot with 24 names on it and the ALP ticket was split.
There were two main reasons why I was elected. One was that our campaign theme, “community need not developer greed”, struck a chord with residents who didn’t know either Socialist Alliance or me because many residents are directly affected by developer greed.
The second reason we got elected is that a lot of people know us from various campaigns: trade union campaigns and picket lines; from the climate movement where I helped organise the first climate emergency rally in 2004 along with other members of Socialist Alliance; from the campaign in support of refugees; and some sections of the Muslim and Middle-Eastern communities who know us because of our work in support of Palestine and in support of the uprising in Egypt against Mubarak in early 2011.
All these issues contributed to our election victory because it meant there were quite a lot of progressive-minded people who knew us. Being on the top of the ballot assisted but if those other two factors had not existed we would not have been elected.
Your election win generated a lot of enthusiasm from a wide range of people. Did that surprise you?
It didn’t surprise me that there was a lot of enthusiasm. What was interesting was the range of people who were so enthused about our election victory. There were quite a few anarchists who object to voting who were extremely enthusiastic about our win. And there were a lot of people who we hadn’t had contact with who were coming up to me at rallies to congratulate me. They saw our election as a validation of their left-wing views, that it is possible for left-wing, progressive views to get a hearing from a broad range of people.
I remember your acceptance speech at the Coburg Town Hall. It was very different from the others that were made. The others were generally bland; you raised some serious issues but in a non-confrontational way. What themes did you raise there?
I raised the themes of “community need not developer greed” and “people before profit” as the guiding principle of our approach to council issues and also our opposition to outsourcing and privatisation.
What is the political makeup of the current council?
There are 11 councillors. In addition to me, there are two Greens, one Liberal Party, one Democratic Labor Party-aligned independent, a Labor Party-leaning independent, and then the rest are Labor Party. Of the five Labor all but one are from the right faction, mostly former student politicians.
The biggest thing for you so far would seem to have been the anti-East West Link campaign. Let’s discuss the campaign against the East West Link. What role did you play in this? Socialist councillors played a key role in this. What does this say?
We would not have won the East West Link campaign if it wasn’t for the role of the two elected socialist councillors in the area. That’s not just blowing our own trumpet. It’s to do with how socialists see social change coming about, not from treating elected parliamentarians as gods to vote on our behalf but from ordinary people in grassroots campaigns and how we see the intersection between elected representatives and the community.
We don’t see social change as just coming from a discussion between elected representatives and taking a vote. We see our role as helping to foment and organise community resistance against various anti-social and environmentally destructive projects.
The campaign started in Yarra, which was an area which was very badly impacted by the East West Link. Socialist Party councillor Steve Jolly had moved motions for a budget allocation to fund signage and to support a trains-not-toll-roads campaign and Yarra Campaign for Action on Transport.
Steve then used his position to organise a residents’ meeting with local ALP MP Richard Wynne, Greens MP Adam Bandt and Steve speaking. The Socialist Party used that meeting and Steve’s speech to win support for civil disobedience to stop the East West Link and they started collecting pledges for this (“I pledge to stop the tunnel and take whatever action is necessary”). That was a very important step in the campaign.
Then they initiated the Tunnel Pickets. The pickets were important because they made the public opposition to the East West Link very visible.
Socialist Alliance then opened a second front in the campaign against the East West Link. A lot of Moreland residents were active in supporting the pickets against the East West Link . I won Moreland council support for a public meeting about the East-West Link rather than just sending a letter to the minister.
At the public meeting, we advertised a meeting to set up a grassroots community group in Moreland to campaign against the East-West Link. The group was called MCAT.
The public meeting was so well-attended that that it demonstrated strong community opposition to the East West Link. I put to council a series of resolutions from the public meeting and won council support for a budget allocation of $40,000 to campaign against the East-West Link. This allowed the council to print 50,000 flyers for MCAT to letterbox for a very successful rally in Brunswick.
MCAT then received council support to print leaflets for letterboxing for a citywide rally on June 12, 2014, organised by a coalition of community groups.
The council printed some signs — mind you the signs were never much to write home about: they didn't produce big yard signs like in Yarra, but much smaller A4 ones. There was also a full-page advertisement in the local Moreland Leader before the March 30 rally. We invited the mayor to welcome the marchers on March 30, which he did.
The March 30 rally was much bigger than people anticipated — there were 1000-1500 people and it was extremely vibrant. The fact that it was such a success was very important. This indicated that the concern about this project went far beyond the immediate impact area.
The widespread support for the grassroots campaign kept the councillors supporting it, even though reluctantly, and some of my motions only just scraped through.
That all laid the basis for me to move a motion that included investigating legal action against the government after the state government ignored the community consultation and gave the East-West Link the go-ahead.
Yarra Council had legal advice prepared for them but then they rejected taking any action. The legal advice for Moreland Council was pretty much identical to what was prepared for Yarra but the Labor councillors in Moreland saw an opportunity to try to save the seat of Brunswick for the ALP and they supported taking legal action.
Moreland taking legal action put pressure on Yarra Council to join the action and having two councils take legal action forced the Labor Party to come out against the contracts.
From the very beginning the socialist wing of the campaign had argued that one of the key demands needed to be to rip up the contracts so that the Labor Party couldn’t get away with just saying that they were against the tunnel but couldn’t do anything about it if the contracts were signed before the election.
In my opinion we did a good job of winning the campaign to this demand.
There were other wings of the campaign that wanted to do other things, such as either just vote Green or concentrate on marginal seats campaigning. Greens MP Adam Bandt’s office and some of his volunteer base did give some practical support to the tunnel picket campaign and the grassroots campaign by producing an email newsletter; they also organised a couple of rallies but these were heavily Greens-branded affairs. By and large, the Greens as an organisation didn’t build a grassroots campaign.
If it hadn’t been for the socialist organisations using their local council positions, combined with helping to build grassroots opposition, the tunnel pickets, the demand of ripping up the contracts, and getting legal action taken up by the two councils, we would not have defeated the East-West Link.
All of that together, especially the two councils taking legal action, put pressure on other inner-city councils, like Moonee Valley and Darebin. It delegitimised the East-West Link and took it out of being a "nimby" issue for the Collingwood-Clifton Hill residents. It was seen as a bad project for all of Melbourne.
The socialist role was absolutely critical in all that.
[This is the first of a series of interviews with Sue Bolton. You can find the whole interview at Links: Online Journal of Socialist Renewal.]