Australian left unites

Good ideas are catching. On February 17 this year, eight revolutionary organisations in Australia launched a Socialist Alliance to contest the forthcoming federal election, which is expected within the next 12 months. Given the low level of working class combativity and the crippling division of the left into sects, this is a welcome step forward. To be able to unite to undertake the lowest form of activity for revolutionaries - electoral propaganda - points the way forward.

While the economic resistance of the working class in Australia is at a generally higher level than in Britain (and seems to be increasing), this should not be exaggerated. Workers in Australia are by no means on the offensive. Decades of collaboration between the trade unions and the ruling class (particularly through the years of the previous Labor government) have taken their toll. More to the point, there is a complete absence of independent working class politics. In such a period electoral work comes to the fore.

The launch of the Socialist Alliance in Australia is an extremely positive move. Initiated by the Democratic Socialist Party, the largest left group, the call was quickly taken up by International Socialist Organisation, reflecting the turn of its sister organisation, the Socialist Workers Party in Britain.

The eight organisations founding the SA in Australia are the DSP, the ISO, Workers' Liberty, Workers Power, the Workers League, the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq, Socialist Democracy and the Freedom Socialist Party. At present, the 'official' Communist Party of Australia is considering invitations to join the alliance. The left-reformist Progressive Labor Party seems divided between its Victorian branch (more in favour) and the New South Wales branch (more sceptical). Revealingly, the Committee for a Workers International's Socialist Party (mainly based in Melbourne) has turned down the offer to join.

Despite the name of the DSP's newspaper, Green Left Weekly, the initial invitation to form the alliance was issued to organisations and individuals "to the left of the Greens". The Spartacist League and the Northite Socialist Equality Party did not receive invites.

The DSP has for many years recognised the necessity of electoral work, albeit on the basis of sub-reformist wish lists rather than a fighting democratic programme for the working class. However, the DSP (a former section of the Trotskyite Fourth International) has had very modest electoral results despite (or perhaps because of) its electoral economism. The DSP's initiative is a recognition of its inability to make an impact on its own, coupled with an attempt to gain hegemony over the left.

Such a move points to the glaring absence of a working class party in Australia. The formation of such a democratic party, centralised around a revolutionary programme, remains the burning issue for class activists. While at present none of the constituent organisations is at the forefront of championing the Socialist Alliance to fight to become a revolutionary party, that has to be the logic of its formation. The agreed initial statement of the alliance describes the bloc as "an alliance of socialist parties and socialist individuals supporting a common action platform for the next federal elections and also around which we seek to build campaigns involving trade unions and communities to fight for the resources and services that workers, unemployed, women, pensioners, Aborigines and migrants really need".

Although formally an 'autonomous' organisation within the International Socialist Tendency, the ISO generally thinks through London. Aping the 'theory' of the SWP, the ISO no doubt regards the SA in Australia as a special type of 'united front'. The other organisations will have their own versions of what the SA is. But such an alliance is born of necessity and born from weakness, as was the SA in Britain.

Like the alliance process in Britain, the SA in Australia is dominated by economism and its twin, Laborism. While some formulations in the draft platform of the SA in Australia seem to the left of those in Britain, these are born of spontaneity, not theory. Where the SA in Britain amazingly refused to specify in its election manifesto the call for a democratic republic, this sits happily in the draft platform in Australia. Where the policy conference of the SA (England) watered down the demand to disarm the police, this formulation is included in the Australian platform. However, in Australia, the issue of the republic is more to the fore in the public's eye, and Australian police on the street carry side-arms.

Yet the rest of the draft platform, while most of it is supportable, is the usual gruel of economism. Democratic demands are put on the backburner. Where they are taken up this is done in an eclectic manner. Economic demands are to the fore. The fight for a republic is downplayed by the main SA constituents. Such matters are the concern of the bourgeoisie; after all, it's only bourgeois democracy, isn't it? This pseudo-leftist rejection of consistent democracy in all spheres goes hand in hand with workaday calls for the expansion of public services and higher pay.

Excellent demands for radical reform in several key areas are not linked to the central issue of the nature of the state. The call for a republic must sit at the centre of any political programme of the working class. Left to the ruling class, some anti-democratic republic, with the president acting as an elected monarch, will eventually find its way into the constitution. On present form, the left will vote for the least worst version of whatever the bourgeoisie cooks up. As usual, economism ends up tailing the ruling class on democratic issues.

Instead, the Socialist Alliance should be campaigning for the working class to put its stamp on the struggle for a fully democratic republic in Australia. Our job as communists is to fight for such matters to become central for our class: they go to the heart of how we are ruled and therefore how we stop being ruled.

The republic in Australia is not a peripheral concern, even empirically. How can you explain the massive 'no' vote from republican workers in the referendum in 1999? In that vote an estimated 25% to 33% of republican workers voted 'no' to the stitch-up republic on offer in the referendum. This layer should be seen as the key political core of working class support for a militant republicanism.

Of course republicanism, either here or in Australia, is not just about 'getting rid of the queen'. This is how the timid bourgeois republicans would have it. Our republicanism is broader, more all-encompassing. It should not be viewed as a 'minor matter to be dealt with by a revolutionary government in Australia', as some put it. It should be seen as part of a package - at the heart of the revolutionary minimum programme - breaking through the shell of bourgeois society. Our republicanism includes the abolition of the states in Australia, the right to strike, civil liberties, freedom of information, indigenous rights, environmental protection, workplace committees and so on. An entire approach to the question of the state that empowers those below.

At present, the Socialist Alliance leaves such issues to spontaneity and empiricism - 'We will support a movement for a republic when one turns up.' Do the comrades have this attitude to the minimum wage, or the right to strike? There is no mass movement for these (either in Britain or Australia), yet they are given prominence in preference to political issues.

The ruling class in Australia is at sixes and sevens over the issue of the constitution. There are plans by the official republican movement to revive its tame proposals for minimalist reform in November. A conference is planned in Corowa, a sleepy rural town in New South Wales near the Victorian border.

Corowa has been chosen for two reasons. The first historical. More than 100 years ago, when the six British colonies in Australia were moving towards federation, and the powers-that-be were dragging their heels, an unofficial conference in Corowa re-invigorated the federation debate. The second reason is a contemporary one. Opinion polls in the town during the debate leading up to the referendum in 1999 put republican sentiment at more than 85%. Yet only 36% of voters in the three Corowa polling stations voted 'yes' to the republic on offer. Bourgeois republicans see this gap and seek to exploit it. On the other hand the main organisations in the Socialist Alliance seem blind.

Left to its own devices, the Australian bourgeoisie will introduce a republic with a monarchical presidency. Yet, if the (politicised) working class took the lead and fought for hegemony on the issue, you would quickly see the likes of the bourgeois Australian Republican Movement defending the status quo and no longer setting the agenda.

Another worrying feature of the Australian alliance is its active call for a vote to the Labor Party where it (or other progressive candidates) are not standing. In fact, it goes further and actively endorses the formation of a Labor Party government.

"The Socialist Alliance will preference Labor candidates where we stand candidates and will call for supporters to 'vote Labor' where there is not an alliance or pro-working class green or progressive candidate (determined on a seat-by-seat basis). Where the alliance preferences another candidate, it will urge that next preferences go to the ALP. We will put One Nation last." Laborism lives on.

So socialist strategy must centre on getting rid of Howard's Liberal government and substituting it with a Labor one. But Labor is an out-and-out pro-capitalist party, a bourgeois workers' party - we are under no programmatic obligation to lend it our support. Where Thatcher smashed the unions in the 1980s, the Labor government in Australia hobbled the union movement through the class collaborationist prices-and-incomes accord. Both Thatcher in Britain and the Hawke-Keating Labor government in Australia saw through the same OECD monetarist, neo-liberal agenda.

The Labor Party deserves no working class support. Of course, passive abstentionism is no alternative either. An active approach to Labor candidates in areas where there are no Socialist Alliance candidates needs to be fought for. Socialists should not give ALP candidates a blank cheque. Whether or not individual Labor candidates receive endorsement from the Socialist Alliance is a tactical question. However, the key to everything is transforming the Socialist Alliance into a revolutionary party.

Marcus Larsen