"We talked about the real issues that the ALP couldn't face up to and received a good hearing from local people," Steve O'Brien, Socialist Alliance candidate for the Newcastle byelection on October 25, told Green Left Weekly.
The byelection followed the forced resignation of Liberal MPs for the state seats of Newcastle and Charlestown, who were implicated in corruption scandals.
In Newcastle, ALP candidate Tim Crakanthorp won with 37% of the first preference vote; Liberal-leaning independent Karen Howard received 26%; and Greens candidate Michael Osborne had 20%. Newcastle used to be a safe ALP seat.
O'Brien gained 2.6% or 1086 votes. In five booths he received more than 4%, and in five others he received more than 3%, to come sixth out of eight candidates.
About 80 people supported O'Brien's campaign during the month-long build up to the election and on polling day.
“Our three main issues in the campaign were: a future beyond coal, anti-privatisation and saving the Newcastle rail line,” O'Brien said. “The Socialist Alliance campaign helped to force these issues to the forefront at candidates' forums and in the local media.
“These are all issues we are involved in on a daily basis and by linking them we were able to make a case for socialism. The feedback we received was that our ideas made a lot of sense.
“We tied the question of jobs, for example, to the need to plan for a future beyond coal and the fight against privatisation.
“We met with activists campaigning against the closure of Stockton Hospital. This closure is mooted as part of the privatisation agenda being implemented as part of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
“Our support for maintaining the inner city rail line, which is to be ripped up on Boxing Day, was linked to the community call for honest and democratic planning and disgust with corruption.”
In a feature article in the Newcastle Herald on October 12, under the heading, “What a socialist member could do”, O'Brien wrote: “It was a Labor government that privatised the state dockyards, started to privatise electricity, began the talk about closing the Newcastle rail line, increased TAFE fees, ran down our public transport and sold off the state lotteries.
“The conservatives — whether 'independent' or Liberal — are no better. There is no mandate to close the rail line, privatise the port, run down TAFE, sack public servants or reduce public services.
"Life after coal — the source of much of the recent corruption — will come sooner, rather than later. I believe we need to start the shift towards renewable technologies now. New sustainable industries and green jobs are urgently needed in order to prepare for the post-coal economy.
"The Hunter could become a manufacturing hub for wind turbines and solar power technologies, rail carriages and ferries. A rebirth of local manufacturing would also create a need, leading to expansion of the region's vocational training and higher education sector.
"An example of a practical measure I would take as the member for Newcastle would be to support the work of the Earthworker Cooperative, a community-led initiative that aims to create green jobs that empower local communities through the manufacture of solar hot water systems.
"Experience shows that socialists elected to public office can and do deliver. In Fremantle, Western Australia, thanks to an initiative of Sam Wainwright, a twice-elected Socialist Alliance city councillor, housing development in that city now includes a mandated provision for affordable housing. In Moreland, Victoria, thanks to an amendment by Sue Bolton, another elected Socialist Alliance city councillor, this city will be the first to move towards divestment from fossil fuel projects.
"I have lived in Latin America and been inspired by the ways in which progressive governments promote development through community and cooperative based structures. These measures show that there are real, workable and just alternatives to privatisation and corruption.
"The people of Newcastle want elected leaders they can trust, who are accountable, who reject bribes and put people and the planet before profits".
One issue that was much discussed during the campaign was the fact that the Socialist Alliance was the only party to allocate preferences on its how to vote card.
It numbered all the squares, giving second preference to the Greens, third to the ALP and putting the Christian Democrats/Fred Nile group last.
Many people supported the Socialist Alliance’s decision to defend Australia's unique preferential voting system, which is under increasing threat from the optional preferential system used in Newcastle by all other candidates, including the Greens.
Optional preferential, or Just Vote 1, in practice means a return to the undemocratic first-past-the-post system operating in Britain and the US.
[For further information on Steve O'Brien's campaign, visit steve4newcastle on Facebook.]