Australian Labor and the Iraq war

Ozleft ozleft at
Mon Mar 24 05:18:11 MST 2003

100,000-plus people in Sydney Sunday march against Bush's war

By Bob Gould

Sydney's long, hot summer has come to an end. The weather is suddenly cooler
and it's raining some of the time. I did my usual thing on March 23, found a
strategic spot near the start of the march and made a serious attempt at a

The march was 20 abreast, mostly, and left Belmore Park spot on time at
12.30pm. Once again someone with me spoke on a mobile to someone at the
start of the march when the march began entering the Sydney Domain, and it
took another 20 minutes after that for the march to completely leave Belmore
Park. The march took almost an hour to pass my point.

When the rear end of the march reached the Domain, thousands were already
streaming away because they couldn't fit into the amphitheatre side of the
Domain, which is said to hold up to 80,000 people when packed.

All this adds up to a march of at least 100,000 and probably 120,000 or so,
although the organisers were only claiming 60,000 and the media, as usual,
were writing it down to 30,000.

A feature of this march, called at fairly short notice, and therefore
smaller than the enormous 500,000 turnout on February 16, was its enormous
diversity, in age, social group, ethnicity, etc.

There were very many individual trade union banners and large numbers of
trade unionists throughout the march.

The feature of Thursday's emergency mobilisation, with hundreds of Labor
Against the War T-shirts and placards, was repeated on Sunday.

There were hundreds of Greens placards as well, but the most striking
feature of the placards was the immense ingenuity of the masses, as
thousands of individual, hand-painted placards made thousands of individual

The placard I found most moving was the well-worn, large, red banner, of the
Kurdish Antiwar Committee, with its principled slogan: "No war, No Saddam,
No Other Dictator", which is a very significant statement given the enormous
tripwire presented to Bush's war plans and his arrangements with the
reactionary Turkish state, presented by the long-standing Kurdish struggle
for national self-determination (latter-day Luxembourgists please note).

At this somewhat smaller demonstration, it seemed to me that I knew about
every 10th person who passed me in a crowd of about 100,000, which is a
pretty weird sensation, but it underlines the general point that these
mobilisations against Bush's war have drawn out into the streets, at least
in Sydney, just about everybody who has ever been active in any leftist
movement or cause and still has a radical breath left in their body.

That is one of the important features of these demonstrations against the
Iraq war. One old Stalinst sparring partner/mate of mine from the Vietnam
period, who I marched  along with for a bit, made the perceptive observation
that this agitation is transmitting from the older generation still around,
a fair bit of the experience of the Vietnam War agitation to the younger

The speeches in the Domain were rather routine and dry. Laurie Brereton and
even the bellicose right-winger Mark Latham from the federal Labor caucus
marched at the front, but the coalition had made the narrow decision not to
have any "political party" speakers, so you didn't get the chance to hear
either Brereton or any representatives of the Greens, who are currently on
an electoral roll.

It might have been extremely useful to get a political statement from Laurie
Brereton, given the dramatic and awkward shift of Simon Crean to the
impossible political position of leaving the Australian troops in Iraq after
having opposed their despatch. (The committee also made the politically
sectarian decision not to have John Pilger speak, although he was available.
Pilger is, as we all know, a striking antidote to the fierce boredom that
can set in at big rallies, and certainly did set in towards the end of this

In the event, Andrew Ferguson, the state secretary of the building workers
union and a major leader of the one of the two "Caves" in the ALP left,
fired a shot across Crean's bow by asserting that he would not support any
party that did not demand the immediate withdrawal of Australian troops.

Crean's new position, arrived at without consultation with the ALP federal
caucus, is such an impossibly contradictory position that it's likely to
precipitate an immediate crisis in the federal caucus.

Crean's personal ALP leadership problem is that he is a totally lacklustre
figure, lacking charisma, and can't make any dent at all in the poll-driven
atmosphere of parliamentary politics, and knives are being sharpened against
his leadership, particularly in different "Caves" of the ALP right, his
political base.

His contradictory behaviour on the war may end up being the coup de grace
for his parliamentary leadership.

Harry Quick, the independent-minded Labor parliamentarian from Tasmania, has
already declared his intention of challenging Crean on the war in today's
caucus meeting, and if the left and antiwar elements on the ALP right stand
up to Crean, his new and mistaken line may be defeated in caucus.

In the event, the main task now, in the antiwar movement, is to maintain the
nationwide agitation, maintain the diversity and unity of the antiwar
committees across the whole spectrum of the left side of society, and focus
the whole movement on continuing demonstrations for the core demand, which
is turning out to be what it was for the whole period of the Vietnam War:
"Withdraw Australian Troops Now. End the War."


The NSW elections on Saturday took place two days after the commencement of
the war, and were swamped by the war.

At the Newtown booth, where I've worked on election day for the ALP for the
past 10 years or so, which covers an area of Sydney close to the University,
inhabited largely by students and relatively affluent tertiary educated
workers, located in what I call in shorthand, "the new social layers", there
was a dramatic swing to the Greens.

The Greens beat Labor on the primary vote at that booth by 1000 to 700,
making that booth one of the five in the Marrickville seat out of about 30,
that the Greens won. (All five of those booths were in similar "new social
layer" areas.

At the Newtown booth, the Labor booth workers, including myself, and the
single Socialist Alliance/DSP booth were giving out how to votes and
leaflets for Sunday's rally.

The Greens booth workers, younger and newer to politics, were simply fixated
on the election and were only giving out the Greens how to vote.

Nevertheless, the Greens, throughout the state, were the beneficiaries of
the generally forthright and courageous antiwar stand of Bob Brown and other
Green leaders. Politics is full of small contradictions and ironies.

The statewide result was a dramatic win for Labor. Quite unprecedentedly for
a third-term government with a large majority, there was actually a 1 per
cent swing to Labor. If you take the Upper House vote as a simple guide to
the broad electoral sentiment in the state, what happened was the following:
The Greens went up dramatically from about 2 per cent to about 8 per cent,
and as far as it's possible to see, about half the increase was a swing was
a swing from Labor and the half came from the Democrats, a left-centre
party, which can now be considered an extinct force in Australian politics.

This previous location of the Green vote is confirmed by the regional
pattern of the Green vote. It was very high both in the generally
Labor-voting "new social layer" areas of the inner city, and in conservative
strongholds such as the northern beaches, Vaucluse and country areas such as
the north coast, where many "alternative" kind of people live. These are
also areas where the Democrat vote used to be high.

The Liberals benefited from the complete collapse of the populist right-wing
vote around the Pauline Hanson movement, which went from about 8 per cent to
about 2 per cent, and clearly most of those votes went back to the Liberals.

Labor replaced the votes it lost to the Greens by an even bigger swing from
the Liberals and Nationals.

The Labor vote actually went up 1 per cent, and this was reflected
particularly in dramatically increased Labor majorities in some of the
safest working class Labor seats, such as Paul Lynch's seat around
Liverpool, a blue-collar, non-English-speaking seat of the classic sort.
Lynch got 73 per cent of the vote.

Labor won all the seats in the Newcastle and South Coast industrial regions
and a scattering of seats in rural areas. George Souris, the state leader of
the National Party, the rural conservative party, blamed the loss of votes
by his party in rural in NSW on popular opposition to the Iraq war. He
particularly ascribe the loss of the seat of Monaro, bordering Canberra, to
the Labor Party to votes that swung to Labor in opposition to the Iraq war.

The electoral map of the Sydney region, is as it has always been, a dramatic
map of class.

The south and west of the city is totally Labor, and the ultra-rich North
Shore is Liberal, with the little Liberal enclaves of Vaucluse and Cronulla,
ultra-affluent Tory islands.

The electoral political map of NSW now is about 43 per cent ALP, the vote
composed of the overwhelming majority of the industrial working class, trade
unionists, NESB migrants and a section of the middle class and the tertiary
educated workers "the new social layers" and the 8 per cent Greens vote,
composed mainly of the "new social layers", with however, a significant
component of youth and some migrants, and these two groups will occupy the
electoral space on the left for the foreseeable future.

The Socialist Alliance/DSP electoral grouping, having performed the
creditable effort of getting the 750 names necessary for electoral
registration, achieved an Upper House vote of .21 per cent, which is in fact
a lower vote than that of the Democratic Socialist Electoral League some
years ago, and is so low as to be almost off the electoral dial.

The delusions of socialist cadre groups and propaganda groups that they are
in some sense parties comparable to the Labor Party and the Greens runs hard
up against electoral realities, which are an important register of the
influence of organisations.

Marxist grouping with half a brain ought to adopt a united front strategy of
a serious and ongoing sort towards both the mass formations that exist on
the left: the ALP-trade union continuum and the Greens.

The battle about Bush's imperialist war, from one end of Australia to the
other, underlines this general point. The decisive mass forces in this
agitation have been the Greens, leftists and even antiwar right-wingers in
the ALP and the unions, and the masses.

The socialist cadre groups have played a creditable role, but the main
division in Australian society over the war has been between the Green/Labor
segment on one sides, and Tory Liberal-National coalition on the other.

That has been the sociological division. Peter Boyle's specially interested
equals sign between Labor and the Liberals is a piece of sectarian
obtuseness, which runs sharply up against the palpably obvious real lines of
class division in Australian society.

Tonight's Green Left Weekly deepens the unscientific confusion and sectarian
spin of the DSP's coverage of the crisis in the Labor Party and also of the
NSW elections. GLW repeatedly treats the action of Crean as some kind of
definitive action by the Labor Party as a whole, when in reality it's the
action of a powerful parliamentary leader, but an action bound to be
contested by a large part of the ALP and the trade union movement.

Just tonight, at a meeting of the Walk Against the War Coalition, the ALP
members there all accepted without argument the proposition put up
forcefully by myself, Pip Hinman from the DSP, and a number of others from
different sections from the movement that the central slogan for the next
big rally, on Palm Sunday in three weeks time, be the immediate withdrawal
of all Australian troops.

It's sectarian stupidity of GLW to treat the shift by Crean as the last
word, when really, the struggle on this question in the ALP and the trade
unions has just begun, and not on terrain particularly favourable to Crean.

The malevolent and slightly disinformative tone of Lisa McDonald's article
about the NSW election in this issue of GLW sharpens this tone. Her account
of the electoral results says: "In the lower house, the Socialist Alliance
won 2948 primary votes in the seven seats it contested, averaging 1.3%. The
results were: 2.92% in Marrickville (Sue Johnson); 0.45% in Illawarra (Chris
Williams); 0.65% in Charlestown (Kathy Newnam); 0.68% in Lismore (Nick
Fredman); 2.58% in Bankstown (Sam Wainwright); 0.44% in Auburn (Roberto
Jorquera); and 1.3% in Port Jackson (Paul Benedek). With less than half of
the upper house vote counted, Socialist Alliance had received 4650 primary

What this imperishable little gem of electoral disinformation does, of
course, is fail to mention that the 2.92 per cent in Marrickville and the
2.58 per cent in Bankstown were achieved with the aid of the donkey vote,
and that it would be infinitely more realistic to take the real average as
the average of the other votes, which would be about 0.65 per cent.

Lisa coyly give the 4650 total Upper House vote for the state of NSW, but
she shyly omits to quantify that in percentage terms, which of course is
0.21 per cent, and a far worse result than that achieved by the Democratic
Socialist Electoral Alliance eight years ago.

I suppose a bit of optimistic electoral spin is to be expected from the DSP,
but it's hardly a scientific way to educate cadres. What is really
dangerous, however, from a strategic point of view, is the last paragraph:
"The divisions within the ALP on the issue of the war were stark clear on
polling day. In some electorates, particularly those - like Port Jackson and
Marrickville - where Labor was under threat from the Greens, ALP canvassers
displayed "Labor against the war" posters and helped hand out anti-war rally
leaflets. In most others, however, Labor staffers followed Carr's lead,
supporting "our troops" (i.e., the war) in Iraq and condemning anti-war
protesters as traitors."

Well, politically speaking, Bob Carr is not my mate, but it's very dangerous
politically to "verbal" even Bob Carr. I'm not aware of even Carr
condemning, or even more so any ALP staffers or booth workers condemning
antiwar protesters as "traitors". I am aware of Carr shyly asserting on
several occasions during the campaign his opposition to the Iraq war, and I'
m even more aware of literally hundreds of members of the ALP, of my
acquaintance, including many members of the right faction, marching in all
the recent demonstrations against the war.

In my view, Lesa McDonald and Green Left make up this insulting rubbish as
they go along. They hear an anecdote, possibly, about one individual
somewhere, that suits their theory, and they then turn that in their own
minds into a widespread phenomenon, because it suits them.

Unfortunately, the DSP leadership is, in this situation, like the old
Bourbon kings, who learned nothing and forgot nothing, and they're
obsessively wedded to the notion of treating the broad ranks of Laborites
and the broad of trade union activists who are tied in with the Laborites as
one reactionary mass.

What a caricature of a serious, Marxist approach to important questions this

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