Ready to stand up for reforms

Submitted by Matthew on 25 October, 2014 - 12:56 Author: Janet Burstall

Gough Whitlam has died. He led Australia’s reforming Labor government of 1972-5, which was sacked by the Governor-General (as representative of the Queen) following a budget crisis.

I feel frustration at the lack of Labor leaders who are forthright in speaking and acting for broad ranging equality and reform as Gough Whitlam did.

Labor after Gough chose Hawke and Keating as leaders. They proved, with tripartism, that the Australian Labor Party (ALP) had rejected Gough’s failures as seen by the ruling class.

As [Australia’s current right-wing prime minister Tony] Abbott and his dinosaur government are doing their best to dismantle the last of Gough’s reforms, the breaks and continuities in the ALP illuminate the challenge of achieving reforms as significant as those of the Whitlam government.

The opponents of the mining tax and the price on carbon brought in during the Rudd and Gillard governments were rabidly mad. Even Labor’s recent reforms to education and disability support are firmly rooted in competition and outsourcing, giving to some working-class people at the expense of others.

Never since Gough has there been an ALP leader who will assert even basic social democratic reformism, let alone propose the policies and organising needed to prepare the labour movement to withstand and turn back the attacks the Australian ruling class launches to protect their privileges from the most minor threats.

Gough didn’t claim that his project was for a socialist Australia. He had faith in the processes of parliamentary democracy to resolve political differences fairly. After The Dismissal and the election of [Tory] Malcolm Fraser [to replace Whitlam] many of us concluded that the ruling class exercised power in ways that the working class did not, and could not under capitalism. But Labor leaders concluded from The Dismissal that Labor needed to seek election on terms acceptable to the ruling class, and not on a platform to resume and extend the Whitlam reforms that Labor supporters find inspiring. The latter would have meant Labor seeking office on terms that would require an accompanying strategy of opposition to the capitalist class. It would require political leaders seeking the support of the labour movement to challenge both in and out of parliament, the power of the whole ruling class not just the parliamentary Tories.

Gough had in common with his successors in the ALP a faith in national unity and parliamentary politics as a classless level playing field. He attempted to even-handedly balance competing interests e.g. the wage-price freeze, which really affected wages not prices. In the weeks after The Dismissal, Gough as Labor leader, and Hawke as ACTU [Australian TUC] leader moderated their initial language of rage, and opposed moves for industrial action against Fraser.

Where Gough differed from the current crop was that he had an intellectual commitment to a set of reforms and values, and enough self-confidence to continue to press them despite opposition. And in 2014 the ruling class is much more on the front foot, the labour movement is weaker in many ways, and it takes a lot more guts and persistence to stick to principles and not dissolve into the soggy “pragmatism” as Labor leaders have done since Howard won government. That “pragmatism” clearly is delivering neither political office to the ALP, nor sinecures to Labor careerists, nor effective and durable reforms much needed by the working majority.

It is especially in contrast to this state of affairs that Gough Whitlam is inspiring to radical reformists now.

Mealy-mouthed and uninspiring leaders who drop any positive sentiments and policies when they come under pressure from the powerful will continue to be thrown up by the labour movement, until radical reformists and socialists develop a positive program of reforms, a grass roots democratic strategy against the ruling class, organisational coherence and effective spokespeople.

The enthusiasm that people are showing for Gough’s reforms four decades on suggests that a program of radical reforms could shift the terms of Australian politics for the better.

When the Queen's man sacked Labor

The following article (first published 1996, abridged here) analyses the left’s response to the Kerr coup.

On 2 December 1972 the Australian Labor Party won office after 25 years of unbroken, stifling conservative rule.

Labor’s leader was Gough Whitlam, and his government took Australian troops out of Vietnam, introduced a publicly-funded health service, opened higher education to those who could not afford fees, repealed the “White Australia” immigration policy, and made a start on redress for Australia’s Aboriginal people.

It was a reformist regime: when hit by the world capitalist downturn of 1974-5 it floundered and started to turn against its working-class base.

On 11 November 1975 John Kerr, Governor-General of Australia, acting under the Queen’s authority, sacked the government after the Upper House of Parliament blocked Whitlam’s budget. The widespread working-class gut reaction to the dismissal was that “our government” had been struck down by the ruling class.

The early 1970s in Australia were a time of radicalism and spontaneous mass working-class outrage. Intellectuals had been writing and talking freely about socialism and revolution. The movement against the Vietnam War had brought tens of thousands on to the streets. There was a large and hungry audience for left-wing ideas.

To the left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) had a few thousand members and, allied with ALP left-wingers, sizeable influence in the trade unions. It had loosened up, breaking with both Moscow and Beijing, and was under the pressure of an organised Left Tendency.

The Socialist Workers’ Action Group, forerunner of today’s Solidarity and Socialist Alternative groups in Australia, had about 20 members in Melbourne. On 14 November it managed to lead some 15,000 workers to the Stock Exchange, from an official labour demonstration 50,000 strong. Also very new, but a bit larger and more “orthodox Trotskyist”, was the Socialist Workers’ League, based in Sydney (and forerunner of today’s Socialist Alliance).

These left groups united with broad sections of the working class and social movements to agitate for the reinstatement of Labor and the defeat of Malcolm Fraser, leader of the Liberal [Conservative] opposition.

Whitlam and the ALP, however, saw this as a matter of re-electing Labor to show Fraser that the Australian peopie would not stand for the constitution being undermined. The ALP did not use its majority in the House of Representatives to defy Governor-General John Kerr. It accepted Kerr’s election schedule — and Fraser won the election on 13 December.

The CPA responded to the crisis with energy, publishing their paper Tribune daily. On 12 November Tribune argued: “The Communist Party calls for action to continue and rise still higher. A national stoppage should be called, and united action committees set up in factories, offices and localities to resist Fraser and campaign against him.”

However, the powerful Amalgamated Metal Workers’ Union (AMWU), led by CPA and left ALP officials, did not attempt to override the inertia of the ACTU (Austraiian TUC) by starting a strike movement on its own and even put the brakes on the movement for a general strike.

ACTU [Australian TUC] leader Bob Hawke argued Labor was in bother for being too radical, and excessive militancy would scare the electorate.

The CPA, like the ALP, made “democracy” the key focus. A vote for Labor, in their view, would be a vote for parliamentary democracy and a rejection of the undemocratic actions of Kerr and Fraser. This approach required only the mildest criticisms of Labor.

Workers felt a mixture of class sentiment about “our government” and outrage at “unfair play” by the rules of parliamentary democracy; but the CPA’s activity was all based on “defence of limited capitalist democracy.”

The CPA had been arguing for the election of Labor, and for the strengthening of the official left factions in the ALP, as the way to social progress ever since the 1930s. The Left Tendency of the CPA had begun to criticise this approach, analysing the ALP as an obstacle to socialism and anti-working class in government. Its views tended more to sectarianism than to an appreciation of the contradictory role of the ALP, but in any case were too abstract to equip it to publish any practically useful proposals during the political crisis.

A united front of the Marxists could have threatened to win over sections of the CPA, and pressured the CPA leaders into taking the initiative, defying the ACTU, and setting up the “united action committees” called for in Tribune. The combined strength of this left would have been quite formidable. Instead, the rest of the left didn’t even seem to notice that the CPA was in a position to influence industrial action. The CPA got away with its left rhetoric and inaction unchallenged. General strike agitation was popular, but remained vague.

The left doubted the opinion polls which showed Fraser in the lead, seeing them as part of the conspiracy to defeat Labor. They thought a vote for Fraser was a vote for dictatorship, a vote for Whitlam a vote for democracy, and obviously most people would not want to vote for dictatorship.

The fact, however, is that parliamentary democracy continued in Australia after the coup much as it had done before.

Direct Action [published by SWL] (27 November) argued that “The offensive of the coalition [conservative] parties can only be effectively countered and the living standard of the working class maintained and extended by fighting for socialist policies. This is why the Socialist Workers League is standing candidates in the coming election.” The SWL election platform was a catalogue of reform demands on wages, education, women’s rights, Aboriginal land rights, etc. — not an outline of a policy for workers’ action in the crisis to attack the power of the ruling class.

The SWAG concentrated on warning how vicious Fraser’s attacks on workers would be: vote Labor, they said, but rank and file action was what we really needed. In the context, they were saying that the working class could not aspire to government even when highly mobilised in a great political crisis. They left out politics.

The new groups of Marxists in Australia in 1975 had little experience of their own to draw on. Neither Rosa Luxemburg’s writings on the mass strike, nor the Communist International’s discussion in 1922 on the united front and the “workers” government”, was ever a reference point during the crisis. The crisis focused attention on the sources of bourgeois power. Agitation for a workers’ government could have concretised that focus, on the role of the Senate (the Upper House), the Governor General, the law, the media, and repressive methods. As it was, the Marxists floundered as they tried to express simultaneous support and criticism for Labor (“critical support”).

The time for general strike agitation which could perhaps have shattered the strong hold of the union bureaucracy was from about mid-October to late November — about five weeks. Maybe the revolutionary left was too weak to win whatever it said and did.

The terrible shame is that despite the mass upheavals and the heady days of working-class fightback in 1975, the story that took hold in the following years was that a radical Labor Government could not survive.

This history, told and sold, lent momentum to the drive of Bob Hawke and the right in the labour movement, to reshape the ALP as the solid reliable party of capitalist stability.

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