Australia: preparing for the next turn

Submitted by martin on 16 March, 2010 - 7:37 Author: Martin Thomas

Australian capitalism got through the 2007-9 economic crisis with less damage than any other rich capitalist country. Output never actually fell. All the banks got through without nationalisation or government bail-outs.

The Liberal [Tory] opposition is making an attempt to stir up a panic about government debt, but it's desperate stuff. In fact Australia, unlike almost all other rich capitalist countries, has no problem of spiralling government debt, and the international financiers know it.

To our surprise, and others', the housing market in Australia - which is similar to those in the USA, Britain, Ireland, and Spain, and had recently seen a "bubble" of spiralling prices - sagged only briefly, rather than plunging.

All this is thanks not to any special sagacity of the Australian government, but rather to what the Chinese government has done, responding to the crisis with gigantic public spending on industrial and infrastructural investment. Australia, heavily dependent on raw-materials exports to China, has benefited.

Politically, the effect has, perhaps paradoxically, been a double blow to the combativity of the workers' movement. The general crisis pushed much of the workers' movement in Australia, as in other countries, into a hunkered-down, holding-tight-while-the-storm-passes, posture. The relatively slight impact in Australia has meant that there have been fewer explosions at points where workers - whatever general preference they might have for "hunkering down" - feel no choice but to fight back; and it has boosted the political credit of a right-wing Labor government.

Industrial action is at a low level. Striker-days are down to about 30,000 a quarter, compared to about 100,000 in 2004, and about 200,000 at the turn of the century.

The unions ran a big campaign against the previous Liberal government over its anti-union legislation, and promised to press Labor vigorously for union rights. Labor has repealed the Liberals' attacks only in a very limited way, but the unions they have toned down their demands enormously since Labor took office in November 2007. Now the union leaders drown almost all other considerations under cries about preventing a return to office of the Liberals, who have an aggressively right-wing new leader, Tony Abbott.

In New South Wales a strong union campaign against electricity privatisation forced right-wing Labor premier Morris Iemma to resign in favour of a Labor "leftist", Nathan Rees, in September 2008. Rees then introduced a revised version of privatisation, and the unions subsided. Now Rees has been ousted by another Labor right-winger, Kristina Keneally, and she looks like to be ousted by the Liberals soon.

In Queensland, too, most of the unions, and the official Labor left, have gone along with privatisations pushed through by the nominally Labor-left state premier, Anna Bligh. (Although the Australian Labor Party is structurally similar to the pre-Blair British Labour Party, one difference is that openly proclaimed "left" and "right" factions play a big role, and are usually run mainly by "left" and "right" unions. But the "left" is... not very left).

The lull will not last for ever, and maybe even will not last long. Two obvious possible triggers for a turnaround are a future rise in inflation, and a crisis in China in the fall-out from its hectic and unbalanced growth. But for now - so a conference of the Australian Workers' Liberty group in Melbourne on 27 February resolved - the emphasis for socialists must be on education, patient explanation, consolidation, and preparation.

Number 42 of the Australian Workers' Liberty newsletter came out soon after the conference. The conference resolved to continue the newsletter - in a modest format - on a regular monthly schedule. Of late it had become irregular.

Activists from Sydney reported on the reading group about the economic crisis which they had run there, and their plans to launch a new study group, probably around David Harvey's The Enigma of Capital, in cooperation with left-wing academics at the University of Sydney.

In Brisbane, a reading group launched by Workers' Liberty on Gramsci's Prison Notebooks has acquired its own autonomy, and is still going strong after nearly two years of weekly meetings.

Activists in Melbourne plan to start a study group there within the coming months.

Workers' Liberty activists are also active, sometimes very active, in their unions. The meeting discussed the campaign against the victimisation of Workers' Liberty activist Bob Carnegie from an offshore gas rig. The rank-and-file Vigilance Bulletin circulated among Sydney port workers has taken up the campaign, and we talked about ways of helping and developing collaboration with the Vigilance Bulletin.

Workers' Liberty has been central to the AusIraq group, a solidarity campaign for Iraqi workers and unions based in Sydney. Through AusIraq's work, one of Australia's biggest unions, the CFMEU, sent an official delegate to the Iraqi workers' conference in Erbil in early 2009.

AusIraq is now trying to develop direct links - regular phone or webchat conversations - between Iraqi trade unionists and Australian trade unionists. Lynn Smith reported that US unionists active in US Labor Against the War are keen to make such links three-way if they can be set up, and there should be possibilities for getting British trade unionists involved too.

Whether Workers' Liberty members should reinvest more effort into exploring and intervening into the Australian Labor Party was left as an item for further discussion.

Arenas to the left of the ALP do not look promising. Workers' Liberty was active in the Australian Socialist Alliance when it was set up in 2001, but after a while it dwindled. When the "Castroite" DSP "dissolved itself" into the SA last year, it was actually a rationalisation of the fact that the SA had shrunk to nothing much but the DSP.

In mid 2008 the DSP suffered a split of a minority around those who had been its long-time leaders, John Percy, Doug Lorimer, and others, now reorganised as the RSP. Also in 2008 three splinter groups in Australia linked to the SWP (Britain) came back together to form a new "official" SWP group, Solidarity, but it is still very weak compared to the "official" SWP group of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the ISO. A "dissident" SWP group, Socialist Alternative, dating back to a split from the ISO in 1995, is doing better for itself, but by a tactic focused ruthlessly on propaganda and recruitment to the exclusion of broader initiatives.

The most serious activists of the Australian workers' movement will be reassessing, taking stock, and striving to educate themselves.

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