Happier after Howard? Kicking Howard out, and saying "Not Happy, John" are words on many lips, placards, T-shirts and stickers.
Howard has undermined working class consciousness and working class solidarity, on many fronts - by legal penalties against unionism, by policies to promote profit-making and more intense competition, putting health and education squarely into the market, tax breaks for property owners, reducing taxes for the better off and reducing government spending, privatisations, etc.
This is in a global context with specific intense manifestations in Australia, of reduced levels of unionisation, increased casualisation and job insecurity, high underemployment, and longer working hours for full-time employed, combined with a reduction in "housewifery", and more intense time pressures on women providing care and domestic labour. Lamentations of the loss of "social capital" actually should be expressed for the loss of working class solidarity and communities - the collective identity on which community and trust was largely built.
Howard has used other weapons for good measure - wedge politics, and politics of fear and insecurity. His election campaign peddles fear of interest rate rises and economic turmoil.
If Howard loses, his opponents will feel very happy for a while. But for how long?
Labor under Latham is promising some small improvements. But Labor will retain the private health insurance rebate, labor will maintain federal funding to private schools - just not give so mush to the really rich private schools, Labor will cut back the 25% rise in university fees, but not make university free. Labor will build 10,000 new public housing units with over 200, 000 on the waiting list. Labor will not touch the negative gearing regime or increase tax rates.
Essentially Labor has no policies for wealth redistribution, and it is not possible to leave the rich just as rich and powerful as they are and still provide free and universal health and education, secure housing and employment. Labor's jam was shown by the cave in to Howard's increase in prices on the Pharmaceutical Benefits scheme.
The taken-for-granted public policies of today represent an erosion of public provision, equality and freedoms that Australian workers expected 20 or 30 years ago. The challenge for socialists is to not just stand up for restoration of past gains and freedoms, but to help rebuild a sense of working class identity and solidarity that can win them back, and more.
Speaking out for these demands - as the SA election manifesto does, is an important element. It encourages more people to challenge the taken for granted ideas of Liberal and Labor simply when they hear the SA challenging those ideas.
Harder though is to make the concrete links between these demands, the struggle necessary to achieve them, and existing working class consciousness and organisation.
Every hopeful sign should be identified and incorporated into the SA election campaign. The CFMEU has a new policy on housing affordability. The NSW TF is challenging the right of the federal government to fund religious education. Socialist candidates should take up union policies such as these, and the SA should endorse their intent (if not necessarily all the details) and offer to speak with both ranks and officials about helping to take them up more widely.
"Kick Howard Out" plus "Vote Socialist Alliance" are election slogans with a huge gap in the middle. The reality is that it is Labor who can form an alternative Government, and that the unions are in a serious position to place demands and expectations on the Labor Party. The Socialist Alliance should be more up front about this reality, not only be preferencing Labor, but explicitly saying that we are for the election of Labor. This will make unionists more receptive to our urging that they not wait and rely on Latham to do the right thing, but prepare to campaign for implementation of policies such as repeal of the WRA, AND to demand more. We especially urge unions to be willing to build membership based campaigns for Labor's better policies.
These are the key issues we should be fighting the election on. Calling for an end to the occupation of Iraq, and for openness to refugees are important, but secondary to taking up the bread and butter issues of working class self-interest, and the redistribution necessary to achieve it.