Principles should determine preferences

August 23, 2013

At every election since its founding in 2001, the Socialist Alliance has decided preferences on a principled basis, by giving preferences to other parties based on how closely their policies and actions align with its own.

This federal election, the Socialist Alliance is running two candidates in the NSW Senate and six candidates in lower house seats around the country.

In the NSW Senate, the Socialist Alliance has preferenced Ron Poulsen of the Communist League second, followed by candidates from the Greens and then the WikiLeaks Party and other small progressive parties.

Of the major parties, Labor is preferenced before the Liberal/Nationals. Katter's Australia Party, the Palmer United Party, Shooters and Fishers, and other far-right and Christian-right parties are preferenced after the major parties. One Nation is placed last.

The way a party preferences matters because most Australians vote “above the line” in the Senate. This means that if the party they vote for does not get enough votes to be elected, the party chooses where the vote will end up.

The Australian Electoral Commission released information about Senate preference flows for each party on August 18. It appears a preference deal has been done among many small parties, including some progressive parties. But in their desperation to raise their vote, these unprincipled preference deals raise the risk that right-wing candidates could be elected, even if they have a low primary vote.

In Western Australia, the WikiLeaks Party has preferenced the Nationals before the pro-WikiLeaks Greens. This could mean the difference between a National and a Green winning the last Senate seat.

In NSW, the WikiLeaks Party preferenced neo-fascist Australia First, anti-feminist Non-Custodial Parents Party, and the far-right Shooters and Fishers ahead of actively pro-WikiLeaks parties including the Greens and the Socialist Alliance.

In Victoria the WikiLeaks Party also preferenced right-wing parties such as the Fishing and Lifestyle Party, Smokers Rights and the pro-business lobby Building Australia Party, ahead of the Greens.

The Stop CSG [coal seam gas] Party gave preferences to the neo-fascist Australian Protectionist Party and Australia First, and to Family First in NSW and Queensland.

The Stop CSG Party had already angered many in the movement by using the “Stop CSG” name but not being answerable to the grassroots movement against CSG.

The Australian Sex Party has preferenced One Nation and other parties that oppose same-sex marriage, before the Greens, which supports it.

The Greens have agreed to preference the right-wing Palmer United Party in return for preferences for South Australian Senator Sarah Hanson-Young. The Greens justification — that Liberal and Labor are just as pro-mining as Palmer, and worse on refugees — is naive.

Palmer is a billionaire mine-owner and those are the interests he will seek to protect. There is no reason to think his platform would be any better than fellow mining magnate Gina Rinehart, who has advocated $2-a-day wages, opening up a tax-free Northern Economic Development zone to pillage resources and exploit cheap labour, and has backed the climate change views of denialist Lord Christopher Monkton while buying into media ownership.

These deals are justified by the argument that a party has to “do the deals” to get anywhere in politics.

It is precisely this sort of dirty dealing that has turned so many people off politics. Parties such as the Greens and WikiLeaks Party are supported because they are seen to be an alternative to the dirty deals of most politicians.

When they take part in the same deal-making, it undermines their cause, and leaves people disheartened that these progressive parties are “just like the rest”.

If a party is prepared to sacrifice principle to get elected the question must be asked: What will it sacrifice to stay elected?

Another rotten aspect of these deals is they help normalise far-right and neo-fascist organisations. When progressive parties preference neo-fascists relatively high, they are tacitly saying that progressive people need not be worried by these organisations.

As indicated both by recent history with Pauline Hanson, and now by the growth of the fascist Golden Dawn in Greece, complacency about far-right and fascist forces is very dangerous. Any progressive organisation should put such far-right forces last in any preference flow.

So what should progressive people do when it comes to preference deals? Many activists have a tendency to think that “politics” is something that should be left to professionals or party officials who “understand” it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If we are to build a progressive movement that has the capacity to actually change society (as opposed to just getting a few people elected), we need to have a truly democratic movement in which the grassroots activists and supporters are fully part of the decision-making process. Leaders and officials should be accountable to the grassroots members.

It is understandable that many people — looking at the utter rottenness of the Labor and Coalition politicians — believe that we should grit our teeth and do “whatever it takes” to ensure that progressive politicians are elected.

The problem is that the kind of opportunism that leads the Greens to seek a preference deal with Clive Palmer is exactly the same kind of opportunism politicians use to justify betraying their core principles once elected.

It is the same opportunism that gave us a dodgy carbon price and Greens' opposition to the campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions against apartheid Israel.

This principled approach of the Socialist Alliance is simply an extension of a principled approach to politics more broadly. For the Socialist Alliance, running in elections is an opportunity to build the social movements and promote socialist ideas, not as a desperate scramble to get elected at any cost.

We have to think long term if we are to make a progressive change in politics and the only way to win in the long term is to put principles first.

While a lot of people are tempted to look for get-rich-quick schemes in politics, these will not work to achieve genuine progressive change.

There is no alternative to the patient work of building our organisations and campaigning in such a way as to win over support for our ideas among the people.

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