Green Left Weekly spoke to Peter Boyle, the national convener of the Socialist Alliance, about the political climate of the 2010 federal elections.
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Many progressive people are feeling depressed about the federal election. How do you see it?
Labor and the Liberal-National Coalition are in a “race to the bottom”, as Socialist Alliance lead Queensland Senate candidate and Murri community leader Sam Watson aptly put it.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard's leadership coup against Kevin Rudd has accelerated this ugly race. But it is also a race that Labor cannot win. Every step to the right by the Gillard government is matched by a further step to the right by the Tony Abbott-led Coalition opposition.
On top of this, the major parties are increasingly adopting identical positions on other issues. And the convergence is even greater if you look at their real policies and not just the manipulative spin they are using to win the elections.
Fundamentally, both the ALP and the Coalition are committed to the corporate neoliberal agenda and they have found ways to signal this to the big end of town.
On climate change, although Labor says it may introduce an emissions trading scheme sometime after 2012, both parties basically stand for doing nothing. Under either the ALP or the Coalition, it is business as usual for the coal, oil and gas corporations.
Abbott says Work Choices is “dead, buried and cremated” and promises it won't be resurrected for 100 years. I don't think anyone believes him.
But a large part of the former Howard government's Work Choices is alive and kicking under the Labor government. For example, Ark Tribe, an Adelaide building worker, faces a possible jail sentence for refusing to be interrogated by the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) industrial police.
Thousands of workers marched last week in solidarity with Tribe. But unfortunately most trade union leaderships are muffling any public criticism of the Labor government.
There are some exceptions — notably the Victorian Electrical Trade Union (ETU) leadership, which has just ended its affiliation to the ALP after 86% of its members voted for making the break. This might seem like a small motion against the mainly rightward flow of politics, but it is a very important one.
It is a ground-breaking step to liberate the still powerful trade union movement in this country from the ALP, which has consistently served the interests of big business in government.
The Victorian ETU members’ vote is not unique. We've seen the mood of workers at many mass rallies, especially over the past few months, at the rallies in solidarity with Tribe. We've seen them cheer union leaders who announce support for the Greens.
These rallies were attended mainly by the militant construction and manufacturing workers’ unions. I have no doubt that if the ranks of other unions were given the choice to vote on breaking free from the ALP, they would vote the same way as the Victorian ETU members.
Would more trade union disaffiliations from the ALP help Tony Abbott's Coalition?
No. In fact by freeing themselves from the dead hand of the dominant ALP right (which now runs the government), the union movement can win its political independence and the means to rebuild and strengthen itself.
Unions can express themselves in the elections by supporting the Socialist Alliance, the Greens and other progressive candidates. Or they can field their own candidates on progressive platforms. This way they won't be silenced by the conservative ALP of Gillard.
Our slogan “Vote Socialist and Greens — Put Abbott last” sums up the best fighting stance for the labour movement and progressives. The alternative stance, still backed by most trade union leaderships, is “Vote Labor because we cannot let Abbott win”.
But a consequence of this stance is that Abbott wins anyway — either by having his policies implemented by a conservative ALP government, or — worse — by large numbers of workers voting for the Coalition because their leaders are not prepared to lead an independent fightback.
A strong and politically independent working-class movement is essential to stop the swing to the right. It is also the only way the climate change movement can go forward.
Recent events have shown the reality of class in our society. We saw big business smash an attempt to even begin to address the climate change emergency. We saw the big mining companies smash any attempt to make them pay a bigger share of their monster profits in taxes.
But we've also seen the potential of the working class. Abbott's nervous and desperate attempts to assure voters that Work Choices was “dead, buried and cremated” for “100 years” — small print conditions applying, of course — revealed the Coalition's real fear of the mass mobilisations against Work Choices that ultimately brought down the hated Howard Coalition government.
Abbott is fumbling on industrial relations because he is terrified of the working class being remobilised.
This should be a lesson for the climate change movement as well. No amount of persuading well-meaning professionals and less-shortsighted corporate CEOs is ever going to break the determination of Big Coal and Big Oil to make the most profits they can and to ruthlessly use class power to get their way. The movement needs to turn to the working class.
If the climate change movement is to go forward there needs to be a hugve change of mindset and tactics in its activists and in the leadership of the progressive trade unions in this country.
This is very clear to us in the Socialist Alliance and it shapes our election campaign. It is also why we are organising the Climate Change Social Change in Melbourne this November
Do you support the Greens' push to win the balance of power in the Senate?
I hope the Socialist Alliance, the Greens and other progressive candidates get the biggest vote possible and that the Greens win as many Senate seats as possible and hopefully their first House of Representatives seat in Melbourne. Socialist Alliance members are campaigning not only for our own candidates but also for the Greens and other progressive candidates.
The Greens have made big electoral gains. The polls suggest they now have between 13% and 16% of the vote. This has forced the ALP to deal with the Greens on preferences. If ALP preferences don't give us another Stephen Fielding in this election that would be progress!
Such a progressive vote will be more than sending a protest to the Coalition and the ALP. If the Greens have greater numbers in the Senate, they may be able to slow down some of the bad laws the next government, ALP or Coalition, will introduce.
But any real step forward for the progressive side of politics has to be made beyond such gains in parliament. We have to build an ongoing people's power movement in the streets, in the trade unions and in the communities, not just cast a vote once in three years and leave it to the professional politicians.
Building such a movement requires the Greens, the socialists, the progressive trade unionists and community activists to commit to building greater political unity on many levels.
The Socialist Alliance was born out of the difficult — and still unfinished — struggle to unite the left in this country. We know how hard building unity is, but we are committed to it. Furthermore, we are committed to building more than left unity. The struggle for survival and justice requires us to build a broad left-green unity, one that will one day transcend the existing political organisations and alliances.