The Victorian state election next month will see the newly composed Victorian Socialists make a bid for an upper house seat representing the Northern Metropolitan Region. Formed in early 2018 from an alliance of socialist groups, as well as community and labour activists, the Victorian Socialists have garnered significant union backing and financial support, and endorsements from significant figures, including Noam Chomsky.
The Victorian Socialists launched their election manifesto towards the end of August to a capacity crowd in Brunswick Town Hall. A fighting manifesto outlined an ambitious program that includes bringing services and utilities back into public hands, the expansion of public housing, the redistribution of wealth and enhancing the powers of unions. It resonated in part with programs that are attracting significant support overseas, including those proposed by Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, Bernie Sanders in the US and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France.
The contours of our present moment have been set by a general crisis of legitimacy among state and corporate rulers, in the wake of the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2007-08. Governments that had previously maintained that it was impossible to fund health, housing and education suddenly found rivers of money to pump-prime a failing economic system. Trickle-down economics revealed itself as a class project facilitating an upward redistribution of wealth, resulting in the current situation in Australia, where the top 1 per cent owns more than the bottom 70 per cent.
In retrospect, there really was no more radical project than that of neoliberalism, which effectively ripped up the hard-won social contract that, in the postwar period, provided for some of the health, education and financial security needs of working people. The small state rhetoric of neoliberalism was always belied by its use of the state apparatus to serve corporate and financial interests, along with the expansion of police powers, border security and prisons. One consequence has been the hollowing out of democratic institutions, and an increasing alienation between people and the governments that are meant to represent them.
If anything, the situation since the GFC has become worse and more urgent. According to Oxfam, Australia’s billionaires have increased their wealth by 140 per cent over the last decade. As the recent report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made stark, we are nowhere near even beginning to address the climate challenges we now face. Increasingly, free market advocates, in the face of the current crisis of legitimacy, have turned to insidious authoritarianism in the form of ethno-nationalism to maintain power.
It is a dire situation, but it is also a challenge and a responsibility for the left to offer a comprehensive, alternative program around which people can organise and fight back. An indication that something has gone awry for our rulers is the resurgence of interest in socialism, particularly among young people, that neoliberals worked so hard to make anathema. As with different leftist formations overseas, the Victorian Socialists are one attempt to respond to the world we now find ourselves in.
In Australia we haven’t seen anything like the interest people have expressed in the Corbyn Labour Party, or which was ignited by Bernie Sanders’ bid for the Democratic nomination. The Australian Greens, as acknowledged recently in these pages, have been limited by much of the party’s own neoliberal terms. In the Batman by-election in Melbourne, they were prepared to shift to the right of the ALP on policy, where it suited their interests.
Bereft of vision from the Labor Party, it has been up to community activists in this country to organise and lead the fight for issues like marriage equality and refugee rights. More locally, it was only a community campaign against Melbourne’s East West toll road that forced the State ALP to finally oppose the road and make it an election issue. It is this type of activist perspective and vision that has underpinned the formation of the Victorian Socialists.
This is reflected in the background of the three lead candidates for the election. Steve Jolly has been a Yarra councillor for fourteen years, where he has used his office to support the organisation of public housing tenants, see the establishment of safe injecting rooms, oppose the East West Link, cease having citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day and support workers’ rights. Steve and fellow Victorian Socialist candidates, Moreland Councillor Sue Bolton and lawyer Colleen Bolger, have been tireless in their work in a range of community, environmental, health and workplace struggles.
There is a good deal of ambition in this project but also a realistic assessment of what can be won. The Northern Metropolitan Region extends from the CBD to South Morang and Craigieburn in the north and returns five elected representatives: the first four held currently by Labor, Liberals and the Greens and the last one very much in the balance. Labor’s strong presence at all levels of government has lead it to take the area for granted, reflected, for example, in an unemployment level of 25 per cent in Broadmeadows, the highest in the state.
It may well be asked what difference one elected representative can make here, but this would be missing the point. A crucial part of the strategy is not to seek to represent a largely passive constituency, but to fight alongside different communities. In their short existence, the Victorian Socialists have involved themselves in and organised protests opposing wage theft, public housing sell-offs, and in defence of African communities.
If Jolly is elected, the Victorian Socialists will use their platform to further organise with communities across a range of issues. Jolly’s use of his position on Yarra Council to support and pursue progressive change will continue but at the more high-profile state level. Crucially, if Jolly is elected, he promises to take the wage of a skilled worker and put the rest back into community struggles.
By contrast to the ever-diminishing returns of lesser evilism, the Victorian Socialists have chosen to stake out an alternative and fight its corner. The focus here is more about mobilising a movement, changing the terms of the debate, and creating a constituency around a program, as outlined in its manifesto. Ultimately it is about building and pushing forward a movement in support of socialist change.
Victorian Socialist program initiatives include reversing disinvestment in public institutions across a range of areas. As opposed to the current Labor State Government’s selling off of public housing, for example, the Victorian Socialists point to the urgent need for at least 50,000 new dwellings. They are also targeting the rapacious nature of apartment development, insisting on the need for 20 per cent low-cost, inclusionary housing in each new development. They are further calling for a five-year rent freeze to address the current rental crisis, and a pegging of rent increases to CPI thereafter.
Back in July, the Victorian Socialists launched its ‘We Are Not Sardines’ public transport campaign. Metro trains are currently receiving $900 million a year from the state government with undisclosed profits. This and Transurban’s superprofits are a failure of priorities around transport planning. The Victorian Socialists want to see transport brought back into public hands, the scrapping of the failed Myki ticketing system, the replacing of the Protective Service Officers with enhanced levels of customer service staff, a program of train line extensions and an urgent boosting of the frequency of services.
The Victorian Socialists also stand for a transfer of power back to the working class. Australian workers have largely lost the right to strike, except typically for a very small window every few years during enterprise bargaining, and then only after jumping through numerous legal hoops and under onerous conditions and restrictions. This current situation has resulted in wage stagnation for working-class people. The Victorian Socialists stand for the return of the right of working people to withdraw their labour.
They have also proposed the development of a major public corporation dedicated to the development of renewable energy capacity based in Melbourne’s north and Latrobe Valley. It further advocates for a publicly owned recycling hub as a means of revitalising manufacturing in the northern region. The manifesto outlines further policy initiatives around childcare, bringing utilities back into public hands, the reform of planning processes and more.
The lack of real alternatives among the major parties will be evidenced in the upcoming election in their usual round of victim blaming. The Victorian Socialists will be opposing the kind of scare campaigns and demonisation we’ve seen directed at African, Muslim and refugee communities. Such demonisation only encourages far-right bigots everywhere. They also oppose diversionary law and order campaigns that somehow overlook wage theft, tax evasion and workplace safety breaches but do target, for example, Indigenous people, and the mentally ill.
The feeling at the overflowing Brunswick Town Hall meeting was that here and in other places around the world people are at last registering the end of the idea that ‘There Is No Alternative.’ Running a candidate in the Northern Metropolitan region is a small but important first step, but will be done only through the work of a large group of like-minded people who recognise the need to start gathering our collective resources of hope. Steve Jolly himself perhaps provided us with some of the best reasons to get involved with the closing lines of his speech to the assembled crowd:
We in the Victorian Socialists unashamedly stand for a society of love, of compassion and a sharing of the wealth that we as workers create, so that we can move as rapidly as possible close the gap between the rich and poor, so we no longer have a situation where some own and some don’t, where some eat and some don’t. That’s the policy that this manifesto is based on. And the good news is that after forty years of this putrid neoliberalism, we’re seeing here and overseas movements of change…
You can also get involved with the Victorian Socialists. There are many different activities happening in the lead-up to next month’s election, including letterboxing, doorknocking and staffing polling booths. For more information, visit the Victorian Socialists website.