Bob Gould & the ALP

Steve Painter and Rose McCann spainter at optushome.com.au
Wed Sep 25 07:04:50 MDT 2002


A pleasant Sunday afternoon in the life of an old crank

Alexandria Town Hall, Sunday September 22, 3pm. Warm spring Sunday afternoon
during the AFL and Rugby League football semi-finals season. A meeting is
held as part of the official policy review process for Julia Gillard,
federal ALP shadow minister for immigration, to hear the views of ALP rank
and file members in the electorate of Sydney on the asylum seekers questions
(there are 14 ALP branches in the seat of Sydney).

Meeting starts a little late, at 3pm there aren't many present, but by 3.15
about 70 have trickled into the hall. They are a representative
cross-section of ALP members in the local area, they include a couple of
pensioners, a large number of public servants and health workers, some union
officials, a few shop stewards, the mayor of South Sydney, the president of
the NSW Upper House of Parliament, some students including a couple of minor
student association functionaries, a couple of lawyers, and about half a
dozen visitors from other areas in including the convenors of Labor for
Refugees from the ACT and Queensland who are in Sydney for the Social Forum.

The Queenslander is a young official of the Australian Services Union and
the ACT bloke is a student leader. The seat of Sydney is a seat, which along
with four or five others in the country has a high concentration of tertiary
educated people who vote Labor or Green.

The member for Sydney is a youngish woman, tertiary educated, of migrant
background, Tanya Plibersek. She chairs the meeting. She rules that people
from the floor will be allowed to speak in groups of five or six, with Julia
Gillard responding after each bracket of speakers. Members queue at the
microphone.

>From the first speaker the rank and filers blast Julia Gillard for the
supine attitude of the ALP leadership during the last elections on the
asylum seeker issue. One speaker points out the moral dimension of the
betrayal. Another adds to this the anger and bitterness of ALP members at
the attempt of Gillard and the ALP leaders to avoid discussion of this
question at the coming ALP federal conference.

Another speaker points out that a number of people have left the ALP because
of bitterness over the issue, and so it goes on.

I'm number five. I start by taking up the moral nature of the question and
how, even if it were to have bad electoral results we should take a stand
anyway, but I go on to point out the facts of political life.

I make a joke about how close was the internal ALP preselection ballot in
which Tanya was elected and I make the assertion, which those present know
is true, that I supported Tanya in that ballot and probably influenced half
a dozen people, which was the size of her margin. Everyone laughs, and Tanya
makes a joke of it and says everyone says that.

I make the point strongly to the meeting that I don't want to see Tanya
defeated in the next federal elections but there are five seats in the
country, which due to their demographic makeup with large numbers of
Labor/Green voters may well fall to the Greens unless there's a turnabout by
Labor on major policy questions.

These seats are, in order of vulnerability, Lindsay Tanner's seat in
Melbourne, Cunningham in the northern suburbs of Wollongong, where there is
currently a by-election, Sydney is the third, and there are the two ACT
seats.

I say that in these seats a comparatively small further drop in the Labor
vote and a comparatively small increase in the Green vote will lead to the
election of the Greens over Labor in those seats. I get a very large clap
from the crowd for this assertion of electoral realities.

I go on to say we're all pretty hard-headed Laborites, we all worked on the
booths for Tanya on election day and we all went through the experience of
people we've known all our lives giving us a bad time for sticking to Labor
in these conditions.

The booth I work on, in the Newtown North subdivision, gave the highest
Green vote in the country, more than 40 per cent. Probably a large
proportion of us here in this room, while we worked loyally for Labor, gave
our vote to the Greens, I says. I get an enormous clap for these assertions
and a lot of laughter.

I then have a go at Gillard for resisting the demand for discussion of the
refugee policy at the coming federal rules conference. I point out that five
state and territory ALP branches have demanded that the mandatory detention
policy be got rid of and we have the right to demand that this be discussed
quickly at a federal conference. The rank and file have rights too. I get an
enormous clap for this, too, probably the biggest of the day.

I conclude my speech because I'm running a bit over time and Tanya's nudging
me, in the usual good-humoured way, with the following anecdote. I recall
the well-known historical story of the ancient Roman politician Cato, who
used to conclude every speech he made in the senate or anywhere else with
the ringing call: "Carthage must be destroyed", and I say we, the assembled
rank and file should end every speech on any topic with the call: "Mandatory
detention must be destroyed." I get a ringing round of applause.

Julia Gillard, who is a confident person, a former lawyer, and cool
customer, looks a little irritated at the emotional impact of the speech, or
maybe at the speech itself, I can't tell really. She tries to reply by
saying in the outer suburbs which she represents in Melbourne, people are
hostile to refugees.

The meeting goes on for about two and a half hours and there are about 25
speakers, young and old, male and female. Amanda Tattersall, convenor of
Labor for Refugees in NSW makes a rousing speech in which she emphasises the
right of the rank and file to have the refugee matter discussed at the
coming federal conference. She has been the main organiser of the agitation
that has led the Queensland ALP executive and the executive in a couple of
other states to demand that refugee question go on the agenda.

The Queensland and ACT Labor for Refugees blokes both speak strongly.
Meredith Burgman, president of the NSW Upper House, makes a strong and
intelligent case from the parliamentary point of view for taking a
courageous leadership stand in favour of getting rid of mandatory detention.

She makes the important point that Peter Andren, the independent federal
member for Calare came out strongly against mandatory detention in the last
federal elections and suffered no obvious electoral penalty from the voters
for his strong stand despite the conservative nature of his rural
electorate.

In response, Gillard rounds on Burgman saying that before NSW gets so
Bolshie about refugees we should put our own house in order about state
government scapegoating of ethnic Arabs, a valid point, but a piece of
demagogy on the refugee question.

Every one of the 25 speakers opposes mandatory detention and Gillard's
policy. About every second speaker after me at the end of their speech,
grins, raises their fist and ends with "mandatory detention must be
destroyed", which becomes the mantra of the meeting.

The next day, Tanya Plibersek, who has been absorbing the mood of her Labor
activists very carefully from the chair, makes a deliberate public statement
completely opposing the Iraq war. To be fair to Tanya, the stand is not
entirely new, but seeking publicity about it is new. And in my mind I can't
help associating Tanya's sharper public stance with the mood of her local
activists and the realities that were presented sharply to her at the
meeting.

The moral of this story is that most of the people at that meeting --
probably a large majority of them -- regard themselves as socialists and
left-wingers in the ALP. To preach to them in a pious way as the DSP does,
that they should forthwith tear up their ALP tickets and join the Socialist
Alliance, is absurd.

For people who have been involved in the ALP for much of their lives that's
their sphere of activity. How much better it would be if those people who
think they're superior Marxists were to adopted a united front strategy
towards them, rather than lecturing them in a superior way.

"AND STILL IT MOVES"

Galileo Galilei, confronted by the pressure of the inquisition to say that
the earth was flat, still doggedly at the end of the day, "and still it
moves" (meaning the earth moves around the sun).

Much the same applies to rebellion inside mass labour parties based on
unions, like those in Australia and Britain. Here in Australia, some
sections of the Labor leadership are trying to soften us up for the imminent
imperialist assault on Iraq, but a number of courageous parliamentarians,
union leaders and others are standing up to that pressure and opposing the
war.

On the mandatory detention question, John Robertson, secretary of the NSW
Labor Council has indicated his intention of moving suspension of standing
orders at the federal conference to enable him to move the motion from the
five states for the removal of mandatory detention from ALP policy.

In Britain, a substantial number of Labour Party affiliated unions have
opposed the imminent war at the TUC Congress and will do so again at the
Labour Party Conference.

George Galloway and a number of other Labour MPs have circulated a very
effective and comprehensive counter-dossier to Blair's dossier, opposing the
Iraq war.

To his credit, Norm Dixon of Green Left drew attention to this dossier a
couple of days ago on the Marxism list. So maybe some glimmerings of common
sense are beginning to dawn on the DSP in these matters.

The general point I would make about all of this is the importance of a
strategic united front towards these people on the left of the ALP-trade
union continuum, who regard themselves as in some way as socialists or
radicals, rather than giving them pompous and ineffective lectures on how
they should immediately tear up their ALP tickets.

Bob Gould


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