Australian Labor Party and Iraq war

Ozleft ozleft at
Thu Mar 27 18:49:27 MST 2003

Turmoil in the Australian Labor Party over the Iraq war. The overwhelming
majority of ALP members and affiliates oppose the war, while the
parliamentary leadership vacillates

By Bob Gould

Phil Ferguson (Oz students appeal for help), who has been silent about the
very substantial opposition to the Iraq war in the Australian Labor Party
and trade unions that has unfolded over the past month or two, sees fit to
post a stupid little piece about Bob Gould being in the same political party
as NSW Premier Bob Carr.

I plead guilty, as charged. I have committed political crimes in this arena
even more extensive than Philip Ferguson could ever comprehend. I've
actually held an ALP ticket continuously for 48 years. I joined the
organisation in 1954 as a foot-soldier on the left side in the Labor Party's
civil war against the Cold Warring right-wing Groupers, who were an
important force in the 1950s, and we on the left ultimately won that civil
war, more or less.

As convenor of the Vietnam Action Committee/Campaign between 1965 and 1972 I
was a loyal lieutenant of Labor leader Arthur Calwell in his determined
policy of demanding withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam, and the
fact that the Labor leader drew a grudging parliamentary Labor Party into
that position was of very considerable aid to us, particularly in the early
stages of building a mass movement against that war. (I was expelled from
the official left grouping in the NSW ALP, the Steering Committee, for my
"indiscipline" in getting 40 per cent of the delegates to reaffirm support
for Calwell's immediate withdrawal policy when the official left was
supporting E.G. Whitlam's more moderate policy.)

As a Socialist Left delegate from NSW at the 1971 ALP federal conference I
almost succeeded in getting an amendment carried for the abolition of ASIO,
the Australian political police. I've been a delegate and local leftist at
many ALP conferences and public gatherings over that 48 years, etc, etc,

More recently, in the past two years, I was one of the initiators of the
Labor for Refugees organisation, which rallied the majority of delegates at
five of the six ALP state conferences in support of refugees.

I might point out to Philip Ferguson that in the struggle against Bush's
imperialist war against the people of Iraq the overwhelming majority of ALP
members and affiliates across the country in all states and territories have
opposed the war, and that the participation of the Labor Party, by far the
largest political force on the left of Australian society, has been the
practical precondition for the enormous size of the mobilisations in
Australia against the war.

On February 16, when about 1 million Australians marched against the war, a
decisive component in big cities and smaller centres were the, perhaps in
Phil Ferguson's view, rather pedestrian social democrats who make up the ALP
and the trade union movement everywhere.

Without those forces involved it's impossible to have a mass movement on the
left in Australia. Every feature that has emerged in the mass movement in
Australia against Bush's war has contradicted the Phil Ferguson-Peter Boyle
thesis that there's no essential difference between the Labor and Liberal
mass parties.

The presence of the Labor Party-trade union continuum in opposition to the
war has in fact been the decisive factor in the breadth of the mobilisation.

In the Commonwealth parliament, the whole of the parliamentary Labor Party
voted against the war, and not one Liberal or National parliamentarian did

The opinion polls, which often break down their results between Liberal and
Labor voters, have consistently showed a vast difference in the attitude of
Labor and Liberal voters to the war.

At the moments when the war was distinctly unpopular, 80 per cent of Labor
voters were against it, and only 52 per cent of Liberal voters opposed it.

When the shift in public opinion, which will be temporary, took place a week
or so ago, with the onset of the patriotic euphoria that's common at the
start of a war, the 42 per cent still opposed to the war, according to the
polls, included 56 per cent of Labor voters but only 20 per cent of Tory

Premier Carr, despite his bellicose and unjustified attack on the student
demonstrators, is only on record as opposing the Iraq war, and his deputy
premier, Andrew Refshauge, spoke at the emergency mobilisation the day war
was declared and said he opposed the war regardless of whether the UN backed

It would be stupid and unnecessarily optimistic to blind oneself to the
forces in the Labor movement that would like to retreat from forthright
opposition to the war, but the presumption that they will automatically
succeed, made by Ferguson and to some extent Peter Boyle, is unfounded.

As recently as yesterday (March 27) the Labor-Green-Democrat majority in the
Australian Senate carried a motion, framed in a moderate way, for the
withdrawal of Australian troops from the Iraq war, and the battle is
proceeding on this question in the Australian labour movement at all levels,
with the overwhelming majority of Labor Party members and trade union
activists supporting withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq, and many of
the Labor Party and trade union activists around the country are an
important part of the forces demonstrating against the war.

In these circumstances it does not seem to me that a dopey debating point
from Phil Ferguson is sufficient reason for me to desist from the habit of a
lifetime of agitating in the broad labour movement, including the ALP, for a
civilised leftist position against the current war.

On a historical note, I'd also observe to Phil Ferguson that opinion in the
ALP (the courageous leader Arthur Calwell aside) was much more muted
initially in opposition to the Vietnam War than antiwar opinion in the ALP
and trade union movement is now, at the start of the Iraq war.

Over a couple of years of agitation, we hardened up opinion in the labour
movement against the Vietnam intervention, and in my view it won't be too
difficult to do the same in the labour movement in Australia in relation to
the Iraq war.

The Australian media in the past couple of days have reported on the
contradictions opened up in all factions of the federal parliamentary ALP
caucus by the Iraq war.

On Wednesday (March 26), The Australian reported:  "Deep divisions have
emerged within Labor ranks over Simon Crean's latest policy 'wobble' on the
Iraq war after two shadow cabinet disputes.

"The Opposition Leader's attempts to reform Labor's stand on recalling
Australian troops once the war had begun came under pressure from senior
colleagues, including his deputy, Jenny Macklin, during a spirited shadow
cabinet meeting on Monday.

"The meeting was the second example of an alliance between Ms Macklin and
potential leadership candidates Craig Emerson and Mark Latham, from the
Queensland and NSW Right factions, over Iraq, even before the latest
Newspoll showed 50 per cent support for the war and record low ratings for
Mr Crean personally.

"Last week, the group successfully pushed through a hardline shadow cabinet
resolution, which said that 'Australian military forces should be withdrawn

"The ALP caucus later changed the resolution after the intervention of
former leader Kim Beazley -- as John Howard committed Australian troops --
to opposing 'the use of military forces and urges their withdrawal'.

"Fallout from the meetings last week, Monday's shadow cabinet meeting and
public criticism of Mr Crean's weekend comments on recalling the troops
spilled over to heated meetings of Labor MPs from both Right and Left

 "In the shadow cabinet meeting, Ms Macklin and other left-wing
frontbenchers Lindsay Tanner and Julia Gillard -- as well as Dr Emerson and
Mr Latham, argued for a stronger ALP line on recalling Australian troops.

"In the extended discussion, Mr Crean was supported by foreign affairs
spokesman Kevin Rudd and defence spokesman Chris Evans. Labor's position now
is that the troops should be withdrawn as soon as is practicable, and

"At factional meetings, Mr Latham and Dr Emerson were criticised by their
right-wing colleagues for adopting too much of a 'Left position' on
recalling the troops.

"Backbencher Harry Quick, of the Tasmanian seat of Franklin, who publicly
criticised Mr Crean, escaped an 'admonishment' from his left-wing colleagues
after discussion."

And on Thursday (March 27), the same paper reported:

"Labor's stance on supporting Australian troops in Iraq was further tested
yesterday, after the Senate endorsed a motion demanding their 'safe

"The Senate vote came as Labor's leadership team attempted to paper over
divisions on the Opposition's Iraqi stance following a robust discussion at
a Labor frontbench meeting on Monday.

"The Australian reported yesterday Mr Crean's latest position on the Iraqi
situation -- which he describes as ``realistic'' -- had caused divisions
involving his deputy, the Left's Jenny Macklin, and several right-wing MPs.

"The divisions were eventually resolved, according to Labor MPs. But in
federal parliament yesterday the Greens deliberately put forward a
resolution to test the Opposition's stance.

"The Greens originally wanted their motion to demand the 'immediate'
withdrawal of troops, a stance supported by many in Labor's caucus.

"But in talks with the Greens, Labor Senate leader John Faulkner negotiated
a different form of words acceptable to the Opposition.

"The final motion called for the 'safe withdrawal' of troops. The motion
also called for Australia to support the troops 'during and after the
current deployment'.

"On Sunday, Mr Crean announced Labor's 'realistic' position, recognising the
troops had to complete their mission while still calling for their return
home 'as soon as possible'.

" 'The Labor Party's position is that while we support the troops, and the
fact that they are at risk, the best way that we can support them is to
bring them out of harm's way, to bring them back home, to take them out of
this unjust and immoral war,' prominent antiwar MP Carmen Lawrence told
reporters yesterday.

"Greens senator Kerry Nettle admitted the motion was a test of Labor's
commitment. 'That will test the Labor Party to see what their real position
on this finally is, or what it is today,' she said.

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