In August 1855, members of the Sydney Stonemakers’ Society working on the building site of the Holy Trinity church laid down their tools and called for the introduction of an eight-hour working day. The workers celebrated their victory at a dinner on 1 October, now known as Labour Day and recognised by a public holiday. The Stonemason’s victory pre-empted the call for an eight-hour day at the International Labour Congress in Paris in 1888, the outcome of which was May Day. The establishment of the eight hour day in 1855 was followed in other Australian states which now celebrate Labour Day at various times of the year. This weekend, the Labour Day public holiday is upon (some of) us and the people of NSW are out and about trying to make the best of their time off, if they have it, as the rain sweeps through Sydney, dampening barbecues and confining us to the great indoors. I doubt many are reflecting on the history of the labour movement.
In the October edition of The Monthly, political scientist Robert Manne provides a useful analysis of the electoral performance of the Greens. Manne argues that the Greens are the most successful third party in Australian politics since 1955 when the ALP split gave rise to the Democratic Labor Party, which resulted in successive wins to the Menzies government as a result of DLP preference flows. In the August federal election, the Greens won 11.7% of the primary vote – 0.7% higher than the previous benchmark set by the Democrats in 1990. Manne concludes that if the Greens’ 2010 performance were repeated at the next election, they would win 12 of the 80 seats in the Senate. They currently hold 6 Senate seats – the highest number ever won by a third-force party – and one in the House of Representatives, the first third-party seat won at a federal election. (Having been disendorsed by the Liberal Party in the lead up to the 1996 election, Pauline Hanson subsequently sat as an Independent, prior to the formation of One Nation.) Manne reads all this as an unexpected but perceptible shift to the Left in Australian politics. He goes on to make the point that the ALP is now more dependent on the Greens than the Greens are on the ALP and that the success of the Gillard minority government, and indeed the future of the federal Labor Party, is contingent upon the flow of Greens’ preferences.
The Greens have undoubtedly come of age as a political force but the party has been aided by the failure of the ALP under Kevin Rudd to perform as a progressive counterbalance to the deep conservatism of the Howard years. Having reversed his position on the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) after Copenhagen, Rudd lost the faith of progressive ALP voters, and some Liberals, who moved to support the Greens on climate change and refugees. They never came back. But it would be wrong, in my opinion, to equate this with Rudd’s ultimate demise. Having backed himself into a corner on climate change, Rudd parried with the Mining Super Profits Tax (MSPT). It was an ill-planned initiative that gained the support of the Greens but incited a vigorous public relations campaign from the resources lobby, one that the ALP could not withstand. Rudd could not afford to be seen to back down twice and so the ALP Right, at the behest of the mining corporations, moved on him and he was replaced by Gillard. The coup de grace was not poll driven, in my opinion. It was an act of pure political expediency opportunistically orchestrated by the forces of global capital. However, the happy but unexpected outcome for the Greens was to further consolidate their disenchanted progressive vote.
The Murdoch press moved very quickly to denounce the Greens, using the so-called alliance with the ALP as a first strike and following up with a virulent editorial that vowed to destroy the party at the ballot box. Implicit in this statement is Murdoch’s intention to wage a prolonged campaign against the Greens, and latterly the Independents who denied the Coalition government. The rhetoric of any such campaign will doubtless draw on stale Cold War scare tactics and attempts to portray the Greens as dangerous socialist/anarchist wreckers of all things Australian, especially the economy.
Robert Manne makes a good point when he suggests that a careful costing of Greens’ policies will assist in their defence against accusations of ratbaggery, so it is timely that part of the signed agreement with the minority government enables the costing of Greens’ policy initiatives by Treasury. How the Greens cope with their shiny new clout will be a measure of the party’s maturity, talent and resources but it will be in the interests of the ALP, much to its internal consternation, to shield their left of centre partners, at least in the medium term.
As the ALP lost sight of its role as the guardian of labour values, no new force emerged to take its place and this remains so today. However, the success of the Greens presents a unique and timely opportunity for progressive political forces in Australia. It is an opportunity to reignite the debate on the merits of the historical legacy of the Left, a legacy that the ALP has been neglectful of in its political campaigning. Since 1983, when Bob Hawke, in a stroke of false consensus politics, formed the Accord between government, business and trade unions, there has been an inexorable decline in the political mojo of what might be called traditional labour values. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the symbolic fall of the Berlin Wall in the Reagan-Gorbachev years heralded the ‘end of history’ pronouncements of American neocon historian, Francis Fukuyama, who claimed that in the absence of a countervailing global enemy the forces of capitalism had triumphed and the era of the doctrine of historical materialism had finally come to a close.
The subsequent years have rendered the Left a largely impotent political force in Australian politics. This is not to suggest that the labour movement in Australia is inactive. The relative successes of the Your Rights at Work campaign during the 2007 election and the legislative changes that followed are indications that trade unions are still capable of effective campaigning. These achievements need to be seen within the historical frame established by the Accord. That is, they are reformist rather than revolutionary. What is missing, it seems to me, is a link between the forces of organised labour, traditionally assembled under the banner of the ALP, and the newly emergent forces represented by the Greens, which could perhaps be described as an urban, professional intelligentsia. If progressive politics in Australia is to advance beyond the current success of the Greens, it is likely that these two forces will need to find more common ground and, in doing so, develop a narrative which embraces both the historical achievements of the labour movement and the more recent achievements of the environmental movement. The meeting point for these two admittedly disparate and often conflicting forces is the gathering debate around climate change.
The corporate media has, until recently, been very effective in silencing progressive voices in Australia. The establishment of the minority government has seen more microphones thrust at Bob Brown during the past month than in his entire political career prior to 28 August. Suddenly the Greens have a voice on the public stage and we can only expect that it will grow stronger as the party’s political fortunes rise. As progressive politics gains momentum, so too will the campaign against it as the corporate media and global business interests align to denigrate and undermine the new found influence of the Greens and advocacy groups like Getup! The imperative for all progressive interests will be to develop a narrative based on the historical achievements of both the labour and the environmental movements. The cultural challenge of this alignment cannot be ignored. These groups do not, at the moment, speak the same language. This must change.
Consider for a moment the track record of the labour movement in Australia dating back to first settlement: Convict rebellions against unfair work conditions, the establishment of trade unions, reduced working hours, women’s voting rights (a world first), basic wage, awards, annual leave, Indigenous labour and voting rights’ advocacy, work-related childcare, universal health cover, industry training schemes, OHS laws, workers’ compensation insurance, universal superannuation, maternity leave, penalty rates and paid public holidays, personal carers’ leave, repeal of Work Choices legislation. Admittedly, there have been setbacks and the union movement today is not as strong or as well organised as it was prior to the Accord. Nevertheless, the record of the Australian labour movement is impressive and its achievements form the cornerstone of the great Australian tradition of the ‘fair go’. The problem is that the ALP is failing to uphold that tradition and has, in fact, presided over a steady decrease in worker participation in trade unionism in deference to the wishes of global business interests. It seems remarkable, for example, that the ALP has lost the allegiance of the vast sections of the aspirational working class who defected first to One Nation and later to the Coalition in seats like Lindsay in Sydney’s outer western suburbs.
There is an opportunity here for the Greens and other progressive interests to move into the narrative space neglected by the ALP and, to a large extent, the ACTU and state labour councils. In NSW, the Sussex Street ALP is widely regarded as a foul ship, an opprobrium that would be very difficult to cast off if there was any desire to do, which there seems not to be. In fact, the NSW ALP appears to be benignly resigned to the approach of its electoral demise. There is a queue to jump ship into safer waters.
The Left should revive the best aspects of the labour movement’s legacy with a narrative that celebrates its achievements and communicates them to disenfranchised workers as part of a strategy to reengage with its historical base. Tentative moves by some unions to support the Greens are a good sign, as was evident in the Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union donation to the Greens federal election campaign. Such alliances need to be strengthened and common ground consolidated and this, in large measure, will require the reclaiming of the labour narrative. The Murdoch media and its fellow travellers will seek to vilify the progressive side of politics during the term of the minority government. It is essential that any counter move should clearly and forcefully articulate the benefits that have accrued to workers, white and blue collar, as a result of centuries of progressive political campaigning.