Since the GFC and subsequent stagnation obliterated the established orthodoxies, we’ve seen a re-emergence of radicals on both the left and right worldwide. From Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump, Syriza to Golden Dawn and Jean-Luc Melechon to Marine Le Pen, the Overton Window has been blown out by charismatic firebrands on both sides of centre. If we are to build a better society, we need these folks for their ability to think outside the square and imagine alternatives to the status quo. Australia has the re-invigorated Pauline Hanson, onion-infused Tony Abbott and pure reactionary Cory Bernardi providing right wing alternatives, but where is our left?
The present Australian environment isn’t so conducive to radicals as that which prevails in much of the rest of the world. Thanks to the Rudd government’s well timed stimulus and China’s continuing demand for our shiny rocks, the GFC did not plunge Australia into a recession like much of the rest of the developed world and so one would expect a weaker political response. We also have an entrenched culture of political apathy, with all politicans deeply distrusted across party lines. But given that the emergence of right wing radicals, these attributes alone do not justify the absence of genuinely left wing alternatives. Let’s look at the institutions we do have and examine the possibilities inherent within them.
The UK Labour example shows that there is potential for new alternative left voices to emerge from within existing centre-left structures. Lets look at the existing structures in Australia.
Australian Labor Party (ALP)
Left wing alternatives have appeared through existing mainstream centre-left parties internationally, notably Jeremy Corbyn within the UK Labour Party. The ALP’s constitution even states that “The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange”. In our case however, there are a number of roadblocks to an Aussie Jezza. The ALP has long been willing to embrace the neoliberal free market, with the Hawke and Keating governments embracing deregulation and privatisation while UK Labour was standing behind the left positions of Michael Foot. The ALP also firmly enforces whip discipline, preventing any MPs from rebelling and crossing the floor. Corbyn voted against the UK Labour party on 428 occasions while they were in government, while nobody from the ALP has since 1988. These positions have combined to root out the left from the parliamentary party, as there is no possibility for a left MP to exercise their conscience.
The ALP is also firmly controlled by factions and associated unions, to a much greater extent than their UK counterparts. Of the 32 members of the Shadow Cabinet, only Andrew Leigh is unaligned. Although the union involvement may in theory provide possibilities for the left, in practice this has led to a great deal of power being wielded by the ghoulsh SDA, a conservative Catholic union founded to counter more radical communist alternatives. The SDA not only betrays its members through complicity with their employers, but builds its membership base through this cozy relationship, with employers encouraging workers to join the union. The resultant numbers ‘represented’ by the SDA allow them to deploy hefty power within the ALP against any left or progressive alternatives. The Rudd reforms provided for a little democratisation of the party, but the 50% power given to members to select their leader is offset by 50% of the power remaining with the parliamentary members, unlike the complete member power within the UK Labour party. At the last leadership election, Bill Shorten’s base within the factional structure of parliamentary members overpowered the democratically preferred Anthony Albanese. These factors have combined to produce a Labour Party where even the most left wing MPs will happily invoke McCarthy at the spectre of a challenge to their left. The present leadership still wants to cut company tax, but just not as far as the Liberals, so there’s hope for the left there.
So while there may be lefties within the membership of the ALP willing to countenance alternatives, we can’t expect a Jeremy Corbyn to emerge from within the parliamentary wing in the near future.
The Greens emerged from an amalgam of local environmentalist groups during the 80s and have developed into Australia’s third largest party, forming part of coalition governments and holding substantial cross bench power in the Senate. The environmentalism of the party is good and something which needs to be a core part of any left alternatives, but in the wrangling between the left and centrist elements of the party, the centrist tree tories appear to have won the war. The party has swept towards the centre under Richard Di Natale’s leadership, which has seemed an odd decision in a time when radical alternatives are gaining sway internationally. The politics of Leninist watermelon Lee Rhiannon have their own issues with democratic centralism, but her exclusion from the party room demonstrates the Greens’ rightward pivot.
The recent constitutional crisis over international citizens was kicked off by the resignation of Greens MPs Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters, not only two of their best campaigners but two who were able to step into the wider policy debate beyond the pure environmentalism. The remaining party room looks bare at federal level outside of Adam Bandt, who completed a doctorate on post-Marxism. Siewert, Rice and McKim are pure environmentalists, Whish-Wilson is a neoliberal former stockbroker and Hanson-Young is poison to the mainstream, having courageously advocated against our offshore gulags for the past decade.
Something of value may yet emerge from the Greens, but at present they seem to be doing everything possible to avoid it.
Trade union membership is at record lows in Australia, coloured by the aforementioned Shoppies and others of their ilk. General perceptions of distance from workers and corruption will be hard to shift before any neo-syndicalism could even be considered. But I mention unions for one reason – Sally McManus. The new ACTU secretary has made waves with a fresh, passionate, confrontational voice which may serve to re-invigorate the union movement. However, one Queen at the top can’t make up for a rusty, decayed structure underneath and so the unions will need to get back to being strong representatives for workers before they can consider anything larger. It is probably most likely that Sally becomes an ally for the left within the ALP in a decades time.
First As Tragedy, Then As Farce
Syriza and Jean-Luc Melechon show the potential for formerly marginal groups to burst into mainstream consciousness when provided with an opportunity like the times in which we live to articulate an attractive alternative vision. But those on Australia’s margins are more focused on relitigating old Soviet battles than on building any new ideas. It would be the height of optimism to hope for something new from those who haven’t got past 1940 yet, but they are on the left, so it’s not impossible, I guess.
SAlt are probably the most visible socialist grouping in Australia, with their posters ever-present in our universities. Unfortunately, that is about as far as they go, being a heavily student-based organisation. They faul afoul of both the Trotskyist tendency to obsess over newspapers (in their case, Red Flag) and the zeal of the fresh convert, entirely rejecting electoral politics in favour of preparing themselves theoretically for the next revolution. They got 1200 to their annual Marxism conference, but estimations of their membership run closer to 300. There have also been allegations that they are a cult. Rejecting the electoral path and instead taking more direct action together with aggressive recruitment tactics has made them pariahs among the public.
We won’t find a new left here.
The other contender for primacy amongst the deeply fragmented Leninist left, the Socialist Alliance is, as the name might suggest the result of union between smaller organisations, but primarily influenced by the old Democratic Socialist Party. SAll do campaign electorally and have a couple of councillors in office, but at the last election they got less than 10,000 Senate votes nationally, being outpolled by the likes of the Seniors United Party, the Australian Cyclists Party and the Marijuana (HEMP) Party. This is pretty typical, and reflects both their small membership base of around 600 (self-reported) and the confusion between themselves and SAlt among the general public. SAll follow the classical Trotskyist obsession with newspapers, selling the Green Left Weekly. Their policy actually seems pretty solid though not straying far from the classic Marxist and Trotskyist prescriptions, but like all these groupsicles, infighting is rampant.
They seem destined to remain an irrelevance.
Communist Party Of Australia
The Communist Party of Australia are our foremost examples of Marxism-Leninism, aka Stalinism. The current CPA is actually a grouping of M-L hardliners which split off from the original CPA in the 1960s then reclaimed the name when the original party dissolved. The original party got Fred Patterson elected to the Queensland Parliament in the 1940s (for an interesting telling of this, try The People’s Champion by Ross Fitzgerald), but this rump failed to get the 500 members required to run candidates at the last election.
I don’t think we’ll get a new alternative left vision from anyone who unironically espouses Marxism-Leninism in 2017.
Other Marxists and/or Leninists
There are too many tiny irrelevent groups who obsess over the minutia of Soviet derived policy to list here. Slack Bastard has a good list of the rest.
Odds and ends, individuals on the edges of the margins and groups which don’t fit into neat categories.
Boonta Vista Socialist Club
Boonta Vista are trying very hard to be the Australian Chapo Trap House, the podcast which has become synonymous with the US left. While it is enjoyable to listen to them ragging on Caleb Bond, they are very much a comedy podcast rather than anything actually political. But with 155 paying subscribers on Patreon so far, they may soon have a following larger than the moribund Leninists.
Probably the most prominent media figure who is explicitly on the radical left. Has a regular column at The Guardian Australia.
First Dog On The Moon
So in all, the main obstacles to a new left in Australia are the structure of the ALP, Richard Di Natale’s leadership and the Leninist obsession with dogmatic ideological purity. All hail our radical new coalition containing the handful of good Greens, Sally McManus and a cartoon dog!