Qld Labor wipeout means left must unite, organise

The Australian Labor Party (ALP) in Queensland is in its deepest crisis in its 120-year history following the disastrous defeat in the state elections on March 24. A swing of more than 15% to the Liberal-National Party (LNP) has resulted in the Queensland ALP's record lowest primary vote of 26.5%.

Labor is likely to win seven, or at most eight, seats in Queensland’s parliament of 89. The LNP will take 77 or 78. This is a worse position for the ALP than the Joh Bjelke-Petersen regime's high point in 1974, when Queensland Labor was reduced to 11 seats.

There is no doubt that the “Time for Change” theme of the LNP was a factor in the ALP’s defeat. Queensland Labor had been in office for 20 of the past 22 years, interrupted only by a 1996-98 National-Liberal government.

Some Labor figures have said Premier Anna Bligh’s narrow election win in 2009, when the ALP came from behind in the last couple of weeks of the campaign to snatch victory, probably produced a term too far for Labor.

That win was largely based on leadership disunity among the conservatives. The LNP dealt with this problem with the unprecedented step of choosing former Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman to run as LNP leader even though he was not a sitting member of parliament.

But the crucial factor in Labor’s collapse was the betrayal of the party’s union and working-class base. Immediately after the 2009 election, the Bligh government moved to sell off a huge section of the state’s public assets: Queensland Rail freight, major ports, motorways and forest plantations.

This move, a neoliberal declaration of war on the Queensland people, led to major divisions in the union movement and plummeting support for the Bligh government.

Despite a strong campaign against the privatisations led by the Electrical Trades Union and other unions, the popular resistance was defeated and Bligh rammed the sell-offs through.

Now, privatised rail freight company QR National is making a substantial profit for private investors and the public are losing out on precious revenue that could be used to fund state education, health, housing, social services and renewable energy programs.

Despite a temporary revival in the polls during Queensland’s flood and cyclone emergencies early last year, Bligh’s support never recovered. By December, Labor’s support was at 28%.

The ALP’s weak election campaign also played a role in the size of the swing against it. Having no positive record to stand on, its campaign focused mostly on Newman’s personal and family finances.

Labor could not even effectively attack the real political scandals of the former Brisbane mayor, such as the bankruptcy of the Clem 7 river tunnel, the mass layoffs of council staff, huge rates hikes and cuts to council environmental programs.

New Queensland ALP leader Annastacia Palasczuk admitted on March 28 that the asset sales represented “a fundamental breach of trust” between Labor and the people of Queensland.

Palasczuk apologised for the sell-offs but still could not admit that the decision was fundamentally wrong. Instead, she said: “We should have communicated our message much sooner, much earlier.”

Even though voters punished it for its anti-people policies, the rump of the ALP is still a capitalist party committed to governing in the interests of big business.

Labor’s Queensland debacle reflects the collapse in popular support for the party around the country. In last year’s NSW election, Labor won only 25.55% of the vote. Newspoll said on March 27 that federal Labor’s support had dropped to 28%.

Most of all, the ALP’s unpopularity is due to the anti-people policies it has carried out in government on behalf of the giant corporations and the richest 1%.

But the problem in Queensland is that the people may be stuck with a conservative LNP regime for a decade, with all the ensuing disastrous consequences.

The trade union movement must now regroup to fight back. But it must also take a deep look at its relationship with the Labor Party. This turning point is a crisis, but also could be an opportunity for a strategic rethink.

At one stage of the struggle against the asset sales, the Electrical Trades Union seriously considered breaking away from the ALP and helping to form an Independent Labor Party or similar organisation.

Now is the time to raise this project again and investigate possible moves to disaffiliate from the ALP and form a new progressive workers’ party, which will really represent the interests of unions and working people instead of the demands of the mining companies and big business.

For the environment and other social movements, it is time to marshal resources and prepare to step up the struggle to defend our democratic rights, social gains and the environment in the face of the escalating attacks sure to come from a reactionary Campbell Newman LNP government.

And for the left, the election outcome is a chance to take the initiative. Now is a crucial time to push forward the project of left and socialist unity. Socialist Alliance supports all further steps toward united action and organisational unity between groups and individuals in the socialist movement.

The crisis of the ALP in Queensland demands united action by all popular organisations to defend the rights and interests of the people. This must include building a genuine, alternative organisation to represent the working people in their hour of need.

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