The left and the anti-racism campaign

November 20, 1996

By Chris Spindler and Lisa Macdonald

In the wake of Pauline Hanson's racist outbursts, there has been a flood of organisations and individuals claiming to oppose racism. Virtually everyone, even those who have been and are implementing policies that target migrants of colour and Aboriginal people for particular pain, claims to be anti-racist.

The Labor Party and elements in the Liberal Party are coming under pressure from the strong anti-racist sentiment that exists in the Australia population. Certainly, their declarations of anti-racism have more to do with this — riding the wave of anti-racist sentiment — than with a desire to overturn the policies that are crucifying migrants and Aboriginal communities and scapegoating them for most of society's ills.

Not one of the major party politicians who have condemned Hanson or claimed to be "not racist" has publicly opposed the deportation of East Timorese refugees, the cutting of welfare to migrants, funding cuts to ATSIC or reducing the migrant intake.

Much of the discussion and debate in the anti-racism campaign committees that have formed recently in many cities has focused on this issue and what it means for building an anti-racism movement that can reverse present government policy. Central to the debate are the questions of the political character of the Labor Party in opposition and, flowing from this, its role in the anti-racism campaign.

For example, while the International Socialist Organisation has been appealing to the disillusionment with Labor among those who remember that party's governmental record by criticising it in Socialist Worker, the ISO has been a Labor apologist in this campaign. The ISO's basic argument, as put by its leaders in the Brisbane Anti-Racist Campaign committee, is that the public profile of the campaign should feature ALP politicians because "a vote for Labor is a vote against racism".

In the name of broadening the campaign, the ISO also argues for putting ALP parliamentarians ahead of most others on campaign sponsorship lists and publicity, and adding "small left groups" (including themselves!) only if there is space.

Certainly, the most important task of the anti-racism campaign is to make the committees, rallies and the campaign as a whole as broad and inclusive as possible. The aim should be to unite in action, for as long as necessary, all those individuals and groups who want to turn back the current racist attacks by federal and state governments, and who will build the campaign to that end. This can and should include any member of the ALP (or the Liberal Party for that matter) who is committed, not just in rhetoric but in practice, to reversing the attacks.

In itself, a play towards Labor Party politicians is not necessarily going to attract broader public participation. East Timorese refugees facing deportation, for instance, know the ALP's policy on East Timor; migrant organisations dealing with the problems caused by new immigrants being deprived of social security payments know that this policy was begun by Labor; Aboriginal people in NSW know that it is a Labor state government which is about to destroy their most important heritage site. It must also be remembered that Hanson's support base, (and those whom Howard is wooing), is the white working class hardest hit by the capitalist parties' austerity drive, who deserted the ALP in droves at the last federal election.

It is only by campaigning around immediate and concrete demands that a movement can be built which brings together all those under attack (people who, on other issues, may be divided). It won't broaden the campaign or its activities to swamp their specific demands with general calls "against racism" which anyone can agree with — as the ISO has attempted to do to enable the participation of ALP politicians, none of whom seem prepared to back concrete demands.

Tail-ending the ALP in this fashion can lead to even bigger credibility problems for the campaign. Had it been successful, for example, the ISO's attempt in Sydney to get the Young Liberals, who are organising a "Cultural Diversity" rally on November 24, to broaden its platform to include NSW ALPer Anthony Albanese and the ACTU's Jennie George, would have done nothing to assist campaigning for winnable demands.

The condition on speakers at the Liberals' rally — that they not mention either John Howard or Pauline Hanson — says it all about the breadth of politics currently incorporated under the label "anti-racist". It further underlines the importance of genuine anti-racist campaigners focusing and organising their activities around very clear and specific demands on the government.

Unless this is done, the campaign will remain narrow, in politics and membership. For example, had the ISO understood this and taken seriously the campaign's demand to "Let the East Timor refugees stay", surely its members in Brisbane would not have voted last week against having a refugee speaker at the November 23 rally in Ipswich on the grounds that, according to locals, "Refugees are not really a big issue in Ipswich".

Just as importantly, unless it is recognised that "broadness" does not equate with the ALP and those organisations it controls, the campaign will pose no challenge whatever to the government attacks that are generating the anti-racist sentiment on the streets.

The Labor Party is not going to build the movement and mobilise masses of people against racism. We have seen time and again, at the state and federal levels, in government and in opposition, that Labor will not set anything in motion that it may lose political control of. And given its long record of racism, it could lose control very easily if a strong and active mass movement decided to make both major parties pay for their racist sins.

Thus, the ALP-controlled Victorian Trades and Labour Council initiated a campaign committee in Melbourne last week to organise an anti-racism rally on December 8. Despite this positive step, however, the organisation and decision making about the rally will be strictly controlled. Committee meetings are to be held at 2pm each Friday and, if that doesn't exclude enough ordinary workers and activists, the meetings will also be delegated (only a representative of an organisation can join the committee).

Any progressive movement that is broadly based, open and democratic and politically independent will, in the process of involving more and more people in struggle around concrete demands, raise the level of political consciousness among activists. Under such conditions, a fighting movement, one that is confident, committed, active and uncompromising enough, can actually win its demands, even in the face of apparently insurmountable odds.

The organised left has a central role to play in this regard, one that it has always played in the anti-racism movement and one that it can play again in this campaign — but only to the extent that it puts the demands of the movement first and refuses to cover in any way for the racist parties of government.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.