WeeklyWorker

08.10.1998
John Howard: a victory, but as big as last time

Australian left fails challenge

One Nation unable to break into mainstream

The BBC World Service reported the outcome of the October 3 Australian federal election as a defeat for Pauline Hanson’s racist One Nation party. And that was pretty much all they said.

The front page of The Observer carried not a picture of the victor, John Howard, but of the vanquished, Pauline Hanson. And while distance can distort the focus of any political situation, it can also bring into stark relief the central issues as opposed to the ephemeral fluff which so often our rulers regard as all that is fit for the consumption of the masses.

And so it has been in these elections. Just a few months ago, it seemed this election could have been dominated by major political issues around trade union rights, racism and immigration policy, the republican debate and the struggle around the Aboriginal land question. Instead, the major parties ran dull scare campaigns around taxation, employment and track records on economic management.

One Nation was not the opposition party. But Hanson did attempt to define herself against the dull routine of mainstream politics. Among those parties receiving widespread media attention only Pauline Hanson, in her own reactionary-populist and amateur manner, attempted to run any sort of political campaign. No wonder the international media only concentrated on her rise and subsequent fall. Hanson’s prediction of 12 lower house seats was shattered, with Hanson losing her own seat and One Nation only managing one upper house Senate position from Queensland.

Labor under the rightwinger Kim Beazley has successfully reduced the ruling Coalition’s parliamentary majority from 27 to six. This slim majority may yet undermine central elements of the Liberal Party’s election campaign - the introduction of a goods and services tax and the full privatisation of the national telecommunications company, Telstra. The Liberals’ rural-based coalition partner, the National Party, is divided over support for both policy planks and may split in parliament, denying the government its majority.

While Labor failed to reassert its claim to be the natural party of government, it was not too disappointed with the result. While missing out on the required 27 seats for government, it gained a majority of overall preferences in Australia’s voting system.

Shying away from a ‘divisive’ campaign over the republic, the wharfies’ struggle, racism and land rights, Labor instead promised a five percent unemployment rate - and that was meant to be a good thing. They also promised to close down the controversial Jabiluka uranium mine, opened by the Liberals on land claimed as sacred by Aborigines. No doubt there were some who remembered the failure of the previous Labor government to carry out a promise to close down all uranium mines after Bob Hawke was elected in 1983.

Unfortunately the elections did not see a breakthrough for the left. While the Democratic Socialist Party may have hoped to have capitalised on the media coverage its youth section, Resistance, received over its anti-racism campaign, only the widely optimistic would have expected this to be translated into big votes. The revolutionary left remains marginal. In all, the five socialist and two left reformist groups standing received a total of 30,836 votes - under one percent. The other socialist groups were: Militant, the rump ‘official’ Communist Party of Australia, the Northite Socialist Equality Party and the US SWP-aligned Communist League. The left reformists were the Progressive Labor Party and Broad Alliance.

Only the DSP mounted any sort of national campaign from the left, standing in every state for the Senate and in 12 House of Representative seats. However, while gaining 21,129 votes in all, it failed to gain an electoral hegemony on the left. This political space to the left of Labor remains open.

However, the forces from the revolutionary left that stood showed far greater courage than the craven Laborites from Workers Power and the International Socialists who called for a vote for an avowedly pro-capitalist, imperialist, anti-worker Labor Party. Displaying all the political hallmarks of the British sects which spawned them, they put into stark relief the traditional auto-Labourism of the British left, as compared to most of an Australian left which has tended to show more political independence.

Yet it is not immune to one malady which afflicts the British left - sectarianism. The election fell in the midst of the DSP’s spat with Militant over the running of the school students’ anti-Hanson campaign and the DSP paper, Green Left Weekly, failed to mention the fact that Militant was also standing.

However, underlining the crisis for the fight for a genuine workers’ party is the crisis of programme. While presenting themselves as the genuine fighters against racism and Hanson’s One Nation, the left in general failed to come to terms with the political tensions at the heart of the bourgeois state. Both main bourgeois parties managed to sufficiently distance themselves from Hanson to neutralise or capture much of the left’s anti-racism.

There was one concrete issue with serious programmatic implications which failed to excite the political campaigners from either the main parties or the left. Coinciding with the election was a referendum in the Northern Territory over its constitutional status. Being a territory, as opposed to a state, it has more limited powers, with direct rule from the federal government. The least populated part of Australia, the Northern Territory is an area around half the size of Western Europe populated by under 250,000 people. One quarter of the population are Aboriginal.

The referendum asked: “Now that a constitution for a State of the Northern Territory has been recommended by the Statehood Convention and endorsed by the Northern Territory parliament: do you agree that we should become a state?” There were 47.2% ‘yes’ votes with 52.8% voting ‘no’.

How does such a seemingly innocuous issue open up many of the questions of political rule in the Australian context? Contained in this result are the central programmatic issues undeveloped by the Australian revolutionary left: a revolutionary minimum programme which forms the basis of a generalised political challenge to the existing bourgeois state. Of necessity this must at least encompass: republicanism; the issue of a democratic/centralised state; a bill of rights, which would centrally include a programme of Aboriginal right to land and comprehensive workers’ rights to independent and strong trade unions.

The Northern Territory referendum touched upon the land issue, the federal/state issue and to some extent the republic issue. The overwhelming majority of Aborigines who voted in this ballot said ‘no’. Most progressive minded non-Aborigines would have voted similarly. Why?

The politically powerful in the Northern Territory are based around mining, extensive cattle grazing and tourism. All three industries compete for land access with Aboriginal people who suffer greatly from the ongoing process of colonisation and undemocratic assimilation. Through being a territory, the laws to land access are determined by the federal government’s Aboriginal Land Rights Act, which is far more democratic than any other state-based land rights legislation. The redneck Country Liberal Party government in Darwin - which has been in power ever since the Northern Territory was given a parliament - is bitterly opposed to the Land Rights Act and the extremely limited forms of control it gives to Aboriginal communities. In supporting a ‘yes’ vote for statehood, the Northern Territory government was hoping to gain the powers of a state for its reactionary political aims.

Such a seemingly minor issue is regarded by the economistic left as of no concern to the working class. Communists however need to develop a democratic programme which would unite the working class and, under its hegemony, progressive allies in the Aboriginal community against the interests not only of the Hansons - who are merely fly-by-nights - but against the real political power of the state and the reactionary bourgeoisie.

Aborigines must have the right to democratic assimilation with a culture and economy which, while far in advance of their former social base, has dominated them in a most brutal, not to say genocidal, manner. The states and territories must be abolished and the working class must lead the rest of society in the call for a centralised republic on the ashes of the monarchist-federal constitution.

In failing to develop a coherent minimum programme around these central issues of how we are actually ruled, the revolutionary left is in danger of remaining isolated, beholden to ecleticism in programme and economism in politics.

Marcus Larsen