What role for socialists?


In the two years that have passed since the Socialist Alliance's fifth national conference, the Australian political terrain has shifted a lot.

That shift is dramatised by this list of yesterday's politicians, Labor and Liberal: Kim Beazley, John Howard, Mal Brough, Morris Iemma, Michael Costa, John Watkin and Alan Carpenter. All in their own way were victims of the broad sentiment felt by millions in Australia, of rejection of economic rationalism, of concern over the climate crisis and of hatred of official attacks on our democratic rights.

Kevin Rudd's Labor government surfed into office in November 2007 on a wave of rejection of the Coalition version of such policies rather than an enthusiastic wave of support for its own proposals. Indeed, Rudd's tactic was to ride the waves of protest against Work Choices, the NT intervention and the ban on same-sex marriage while sharing substantive agreement with Howard's actual policy on these issues. Labor's commitment to pull Australian troops out of Iraq was partial, its promise to "tear up" Work Choices a plain lie.

Because of the thinness of Labor's project and its marked dependence on imagery politics, the core similarity between Rudd and Howard is already becoming clear to many workers and unionists and to many in the environmental and social movements. While Labor is still able to retain the support of the most conservative and institutional sections of the trade union movement and interest groups, even these are having to pretend to campaign for goals abandoned or ignored by federal Labor.

Most clearly, the grotesquely inadequate greenhouse gas reduction targets proposed by the supplementary Garnaut report leave the institutional parts of the environment movement with nowhere to turn. The fight for immediate abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission is also another campaign that could further expose Rudd-Gillard Labor, while the ongoing struggle against the NT intervention could also blow up in the government's face.

The Rudd administration already seems to lack an overall purpose.

How should socialists and progressive people act in this new political phase? That's what our sixth national conference, to be held in Geelong from December 5-7, will be discussing.

In one way the answer seems obvious: strengthen our existing work in the trade unions and the climate change, Indigenous rights, anti-war and civil liberties movements.

That's necessary, and the conference will take extensive discussion on these and other campaign areas. However, even more urgent in the face of the galloping many-sided crisis of society and environment is the struggle to elaborate and popularise convincing socialist solutions. What content, exactly and in each area of concern to millions of people, must we give to the Socialist Alliance slogan: "People before profits, planet before profits"?

The conference will consider updates to our Climate Change and Workers' Rights Charters, a detailed energy policy, a new Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Charter as well as an "action package" that addresses the most urgent issues facing working people. To launch the discussion and spur debate, a draft perspectives document has already been written.

Ours is a discussion that isn't just needed by the Socialist Alliance, but by everyone concerned about the alternative to the policies of the pro-corporate "parties of government". It's a discussion that people concerned about the fate of our society and environment can't avoid.

All Socialist Alliance members and supporters are urged to make their contribution over the next two months of pre-conference discussion: the bigger that contribution, the greater the chance that our sixth national conference will mark a step forward not just for the Socialist Alliance, but for the broader movement for social justice, environmental sustainability, peace and democratic rights.

Drafts of proposals and resolutions will soon begin to be published in the Socialist Alliance's newsletter and discussion bulletin, Alliance Voices. Green Left Weekly readers will be kept fully informed about them as they appear.

Dick Nichols

[Dick Nichols is the national coordinator of the Socialist Alliance.]