NSW Labor will pay the price

August 14, 2002


SYDNEY — In NSW in the 2001 federal election the swing against the ALP was twice the national average. Federal Labor's posture as pro-worker and a defender of public services such as schools and hospitals could not hold up against the education and other public sector cutbacks, and the attack on workers' compensation undertaken by Premier Bob Carr's state ALP government.

While the Carr government hardly appears under serious threat in the March 2003 state election — like other Australian governments, NSW Labor's chief strength is the weakness of its “Opposition” party — Labor will undoubtedly be punished by voters.

Historically, NSW has led the way when it comes to disillusionment and electoral breaks with the two-party system. In the 1980s, NSW had the highest Nuclear Disarmament Party vote. In the 1999 state election, 35% of votes did not go to the ALP or Coalition parties. Independents currently hold lower house seats representing Tamworth, Dubbo, the Northern Tablelands, Sydney's eastern suburbs and Manly. The Greens' NSW vote doubled in the last federal election.

In the NSW upper house, the Legislative Council, there are 16 ALP, 13 Coalition, and 13 “other” members. The proportional election system requires less than 5% to obtain a seat in the LC. Its non-major party members are varied: Christian fundamentalists Fred and Elaine Nile eye off (and sometimes agree with) two Greens, a couple of Democrats and ex-Democrats co-exist. Among the others are a Shooters Party representative and a Better Future for Our Children representative. Usually, enough of them can be cobbled together to form a majority in support of government legislation.

But even so, the major parties united after the last election to make it much more difficult for parties to get electoral registration if they don't already have parliamentarians.

But while this will make it harder for progressive organisations to contest elections, the NSW ALP's extremely conservative politics will continue to propel people towards alternatives.

The Carr government's main policy thrust is support for business: reducing business taxes and charges and shifting the burden onto workers. Carr's strong support for WorkCover cuts showed this clearly to many unionists. Public services in NSW have declined, especially the quality of public education and transport.

The decline of the public transport network has been widely condemned, particularly since during the 2000 Olympics resources were (briefly) provided to make it much better. Even the Sydney Morning Herald has had prominent coverage of proposals to radically upgrade the urban train system.

Carr advocates a very conservative form of “environmentalism”. While declaring many, mostly small, national parks, the state government has ensured that most of corporations' hunger for natural resources, such as forests for woodchips and charcoal, is satisfied.

The most popular part of the government's right-wing agenda, appealing to fear and racist stereotypes, is its “toughness” on crime and on young people. Carr backs this up with anti-migrant policies and rhetoric. Like Howard's attacks on refugees, this appeals to basic xenophobia, setting up an all-encompassing and unquestionable “us” against a “criminal” or “foreign” other.

By linking crime to social rebellion, however, Carr puts the ALP in a position where it cannot win back those who already reject neo-liberal capitalism. This is similar to ALP Premier Steve Bracks' experience in Victoria. He could attack, but not co-opt, those who supported the S11 2000 demonstration against the World Economic Forum in Melbourne.

There are early signs of union breaks with Labor. The firefighters' union disaffiliated from Labor earlier this year. Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union leaders and activists, along with some union leaders in the Illawarra, are approaching left alliances more favourably. Opposition to the ALP's anti-refugee policies, which are fully supported by Carr, will also cause more friction.

While independent social movements are relatively weak in NSW — a result of the Carr government's systematic drawing of union and community activists into policy making and implementation — anger at more than seven years of broken promises, privatisation, racist scapegoating, erosion of civil liberties and cuts to public services — and Carr literally giving the finger to workers' rights — will be expressed in the ballot box next March.

From Green Left Weekly, August 14, 2002.
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