Friday, 28 March 2008

WorkChoices and Neoliberalism by any other name...

Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard donned the dark frocks for a funeral today - the (hopefully) final laying to rest of the Bad Boy of WorkChoices: Australian Workplace Agreements (AWAs). The Governor-General gave the things their lethal injection la night, and they were put to sleep, and then - on the second anniversary of WorkChoices - they were finally relegated to the dustbin of history.

Well, new ones, that is. There are still apparently upward of 1 million of the little bastards floating around, and many may not end until 2013. Worse yet, the ALP's "Forward With Fairness" policy replacement isn't really so different to WorkChoices itself, leading many unionists and those on the left to call it "WorkChoices Lite" - and with good reason. The wombats are waiting for many a bubble to burst on that front. Hopefully it won't take too long (although it could be helped along in a couple of ways).

The ALP is making no immediately obvious moves to get rid of the ABCC either - the star-chamber empowered secret police for the building industry, which has already been responsible for gross violations of civil liberties, not to mention being a centrepiece in the ongoing attacks on workers' rights in general. It won't be scrapped until 2010. And even if they remove it, they are likely to replace it with something not too dissimilar (if a little cuddlier).

You might be forgiven for thinking that, what with the ALP in power in all states and federally, we might be set for some meaningful changes. Well, maybe there'll be some changes, but it depends what kind of changes you are looking for. And with NSW Labor's heart set on privatising the state's energy supply (soon to be followed by the ferries, the lottery, perhaps the oxygen?) the true stripes of Labor can be seen.

Against around 80 percent public opposition to the sell-off, against their own party platform, and against the rebellion of the unions and over a dozen of the Government's own MPs, Iemma and Costa insist that come hell or high-water (and let's not get started with the idiocy of a desalination plant, and all the back-room deals involved in that one) they will follow through with the sell-off.

Fortunately, we have a new federal Labor government, which can remind the state government what the "party of labour" should be all about. Right? Well, apparently not. Rudd has also come out in support of Iemma and Co, which must feel relieved to get some kind of support after all the sex-scandals and exposure of dodgy developer deals in Wollongong, and pedophile ministers, and collapsible tunnels, and so on and so forth, which have plagued Premier Iemma since he was handed the poisoned chalice by Bob Carr as the latter trundled off to his retirement job of running NSW from Macquarie Bank proper (instead of just its political wing - the NSW ALP).

So ok. Maybe Rudd isn't the white knight some might have hoped for (even if he is going to inject money into the Murray). But Labor got in on the back of a genuine tidal wave of support, not a small part of which was around the opposition to WorkChoices, organised by the ACTU and others in the form of the "Your Rights At Work" campaign. So surely the hero of the labour movement, the real "people's champion" of the election - former ACTU Secretary Greg Combet - can be relied upon to see what's right and what's not, and stick up for the people, for common sense and for the planet (given the likely need for government control of energy production in order to prevent runaway Climate Change).

Ummm. No, actually. As even Bob Gould points out, Combet has counted his cards, and is relying - along with the rest of the Labor Left - upon a friendly deal from Poker-face Rudd to land the right bums on seats in cabinet. So, not a lot has changed in the "bump-me-into-parliament" world of the ALP's stranglehold on the unions and labour bureacracy. And not even the fact that his own electorate will be hard-hit by the sell-off can make him budge. "Angry voters" about as non-metaphysical as it gets for politicians, yet even that apparently wasn't enough of a carrot.

The shining light - if it can be called that - is the staunch opposition of the Unions NSW leadership to the coming privatisation, to the point of taking it to the floor of the NSW ALP state conference in early May, where they are planning to win. What is less clear, however, is what they plan to do if they win on the conference floor, and Costa then goes ahead with the sale. Gould has been railing of late against the demons he sees lurking in every left-wing critique of the ALP of calls for the expulsion of Iemma and Costa from the ALP.

Now, the wombats have no illusion that that will happen, but
we wonder, then, what will happen when (if?) the vote goes against the government, and they still go ahead. It certainly challenges the logic of those (such as Gould, who certainly sees this fight as important, vital even, in the fight for the ALP) on the left in the ALP - and who see it as a vehicle for socialists - if even when the party conference, the party platform, AND the unions are on your side, you can't make the bastards budge.

Over a hundred years ago, the Australian Socialist League (ASL), and other socialists, put their hopes in elected representatives of the labour movement to bring about socialism in short order. Time and again they were disappointed by their elected Labor MPs, who took any and every opportunity to sell out - fast. Against all reason, however, they maintained a faith that it was a matter of individuals, not of the larger socialist strategy of the day, that was at fault, and that if only the "right people" were elected, all would be fine. And it got worse once the ALP-proper was set up.

Little appears to have changed in the interim, and socialists in Australia are faced with an unpleasant choice of working within the ALP - the perceived "real party of labour" - and having your efforts marginalised and your representatives bought off, or working outside Labor, in a party or a manner that doesn't mean apologism for neoliberal governments, but with the popular, and well-funded, monolith of the ALP to contend with.

And for those of us outside Labor - in the Socialist Alliance, in other socialist groups, in the Greens, the unions and elsewhere - we are faced with the equally daunting task. The task of overcoming a neoliberal ALP's hegemony over the Australian working class, of acheiving the kind of political and organisational unity necessary to
create a viable alternative political vehicle of the working class in Australia. A vehicle which will be capable of bringing about something which has seldom - in the century since the ASL, SDF, ASB, VSP and other early socialists thought it so inevitable - seemed so far away as it does today: "socialism in our time".

This challenge is one which requires us all to rise above sectarianism and personal spite, and honestly appraise the situations before us when searching for answers - the right-wing nature of the new federal ALP government, the very real success of the Your Rights At Work campaign (and the expectations this has sown in many people), the limited but still tangible success of the Socialist Alliance,
and the rise and rise (and worrying contradictions) of the Greens coupled with the importance and surging vitality of the struggle to prevent runaway climate change.

One good place for us all to start would be the Climate Change | Social Change Conference in Sydney on April 11-13, which will feature many of the key players in the various struggles mentioned above - both from Australia and from around the world. But the question of revolutionary strategy, of how to go beyond the limitations of the current juncture, is an ongong one. It is one which the Socialist Alliance was formed to help answer, but we certainly can't (and certainly don't intend to) answer it alone. We need your assistance in that, dear reader.

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