Editorial: A union fightback can stop the rot

The Liberals’ win in the Victorian elections is another warning that Labor’s right-wing policies are paving the way for the Liberals. Federally, too, Labor has fallen behind the Liberals.
While The Greens won a small increase in their vote in inner city Melbourne, the swing to The Greens is not compensating for the way politics is being dragged to the right.

Greens leader Bob Brown’s response to the Victorian result was to announce that The Greens will no longer direct preferences to Labor but will only issue “open tickets”. This move, a sop to Liberal voters, is a move precisely in the wrong direction.

Until The Greens show clearly that they are consistently looking to the left of Labor, they will quickly reach the limit of their vote. More importantly they will cut themselves off from influence in the social movements and the unions, which has so far been pushing them forward.

The Liberals’ move to preference The Greens last in Victoria will spread to other elections. The Liberals have worked out who is their worst enemy. So should The Greens.

Labor’s crisis
But Labor’s loss is one more sign of a serious malaise in Labor politics, revealed in the “more-of-the-same” that Gillard has pursued since forming minority government. As interest rates and the cost of living rises and workers struggle to make ends meet, she talks about “Australia emerging strongly from the financial crisis.”

She is a hawk on the war in Afghanistan; has agreed to a massive expansion of the US military presence in the country and she continues to stonewall on same-sex marriage. She relentlessly pushes an anti-refugee agenda.

Labor’s crisis has seen a number of party insiders speaking out. Climate Change Minister Greg Combet acknowledged that the electorate has no idea “what our values are”.

He also admitted that Labor’s bleeding support to The Greens at the federal election, “has caused a significant amount of soul-searching—and it should.”

But the concern to identifying a handful of issues to win back Greens voters seems to have been reduced to the question of same-sex marriage. Labor Left Senator Doug Cameron says the party should support it outright. Even former right faction leader Senator Mark Arbib is backing a conscience vote. Labor’s national conference, brought forward to the end of 2011, is now certain to support same-sex marriage.

As welcome as the shift might be, it looks token and unconvincing. Openly gay Finance Minister Penny Wong’s new found enthusiasm for same-sex marriage looks completely hollow given her strident support for Labor policy only weeks ago.

Labor can adopt a carbon price, introduce a National Broadband Network and support same-sex marriage, but it won’t inspire anyone.

Until Labor breaks from the neo-liberal agenda it embraced in the 1980s and puts health and education before the interests of the banks and mining companies, the rot will go on and on.

Union fight
We need a fight over climate, same-sex marriage, US bases, refugees, anti-union laws, education funding, MySchool, hospitals and all the rest.

Before the federal election, the ASU believed it had an agreement with Gillard to support its equal pay test case for the seriously underpaid community sector workers. It was not a lot to ask. But now the government has reneged, saying that the budget surplus is their priority. Yet the banks are recording billion dollar super-profits.

A fight by the unions could significantly shift the political climate. There are some encouraging signs. In November, aviation workers set an important precedent winning between 4.5 and 11 per cent wage increases with no trade-offs, using strike action against airline companies. Visy carboard manufacturing workers are taking strike action over a nation-wide agreement for a 5 per cent pay increase. The CEPU is pushing for 5 per cent for workers building the National Broadband Network.

There have been angry protests against the South Australian Labor government’s budget cuts. New South Wales nurses are striking for day shift staffing guarantees of one nurse for every four patients. Tens of thousands of Queensland health workers are striking over pay.

The health worker strikes will do more for properly funded hospitals that all the talk of national market driven hospital reform by the federal government.

This is the power to win real social change and stop the rot. National strike action could win the pay rises for the community sector.

If the Visy workers’ strike stops production of beer cartons and causes a beer shortage at Christmas, it will be a gift to the class struggle that we can all celebrate.


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