SWP Policy in the 1987 federal elections

by Doug Lorimer

[This article is based on a report presented by DSP (then called SWP) national executive member Doug Lorimer to a meeting of the party's Sydney branch on June 30, 1987.]

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In a June 24, 1987, discussion of the July 11 federal House of Representatives elections, the Socialist Workers Party national executive decided to support a first-preference protest vote for left alternative candidates wherever possible, and a vote for the Australian Democrats where no left alternative candidate was available.

The national executive also decided to urge the allocation of second preferences to the ALP to ensure re-election of the Hawke government. In the Senate, the SWP urged support for left alternative tickets in all states, with preferences flowing first to the Australian Democrats and then to the ALP.

This policy, and particularly the decision to support a vote for the Democrats ahead of the ALP, represented a change from the party's previous approach.

Before looking at the reasons why the national executive made this change, it is useful to review the general political framework in which the SWP decides its its voting policy in any parliamentary election.

As Marxists, we know that parliament is an institution of the bourgeois state. Modern parliamentarism was born some 150 years ago in England as an expression of the right of the capitalist class to control government expenditure, which was financed by taxes they paid. It was an attempt to levy taxation without consulting the English bankers and merchants that had led to the English revolution in the 1640s. The rebels had executed King Charles I and subordinated the monarchy to parliament.

It was the same fundamental issue - taxation without representation that had led the emerging bourgeoisie in the North American colonies to wage the War of Independence from England in the late eighteenth century, and to establish a parliamentary democracy in what became the United States. The Australian parliamentary system is fundamentally modelled on those of Britain and the USA.

Evolution of the parliamentary system

Until the end of the nineteenth century, these parliaments were real centres of power. Eligibility to vote was subject to ownership of a certain amount of property. This effectively restricted the right to vote to the bourgeoisie itself. Parliament was a forum in which representatives of the capitalist class decided how their taxes would be spent.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, the labor movement in Britain and in the Australian colonial-settler states forced a widening of the electoral franchise to include all adult males. and later all adult females. This qualified workers - the great majority of the adult population - to vote. (At the same time the workers were also bestowed with the right to pay the major part of taxation, but that's another story).

With the introduction of universal adult suffrage, the illusion spread that bourgeois parliaments had ceased to be instruments for the defence of capitalist class rule. The ideologists of the ruling class promoted the view that parliament was a non-class institution representing the will of the majority of voters.

Acceptance of this view became widespread within the labor movement. The reformist leaders of the Australian Labor Party actively fostered the idea that putting a majority of their own representatives into parliament would enable workers to legislate reforms to their advantage - and even achieve socialism.

Developments since then have confirmed that it is impossible to use parliament against the capitalists in any significant way. Parliament is not the real centre of power in capitalist society. In fact, it has little real power at all.

Real power rests with the owners of the banks and the big, monopoly corporations. It is in the corporate boardrooms that the really important decisions are taken. Since the late nineteenth century, and the emergence of monopoly corporations with interlocking boards of directors. It has been unnecessary for the decisive sectors of the capitalist class to have a representative institution such as parliament to regulate their common affairs.

It had been necessary for parliament to play that role only when the bourgeoisie consisted of tens of thousands of medium and small company owners. In a capitalist society dominated by a hundred or fewer large companies owned by a tiny minority of super-rich families, the most influential capitalists can use corporate boardrooms, associations such as the Business Council of Australia, and bodies such as the Melbourne Club as forums in which to work out joint policies that suit their common interests.

Within the capitalist state itself, most of the real decision-making power has shifted from parliament to the permanent state apparatus - to the permanent secretaries of the government bureaucracy, to the heads of the armed forces and the police. These people continue to run the state regardless of which parliamentary party sits on the treasury benches. Ministers come and go, but the bureaucracy and police remain.

The outlook and interests of this permanent apparatus harmonise closely with those of the big capitalists because of the way it is recruited (largely from bourgeois families), its selectivity and career structure, and the enormous incomes paid to the top officials. John Stone's quick transition from Treasury secretary to PekoWallsend board member illustrates the symbiosis between the state bureaucracy and the owners of capital.

While parliament has no real power, it does perform some useful functions for the corporate rulers. Above all, it helps to maintain the illusion that the great majority have a say in how the country is run. It reinforces the idea that working people should remain passive and rely on a handful of parliamentarians to defend their interests. And it helps the ruling class to gauge "public opinion," ie the success of their propaganda in convincing the majority to accept ruling class policies.

Choice of two evils

In 1871, Karl Marx summed up the real nature of parliamentary elections, describing them as an exercise in which the people are allowed once every three years to decide which representatives of the ruling class were going to preside over their oppression. A look at the real governmental choices in the Julv 11 elections confirms the accuracy of this view.

Both the major parliamentary parties - the ALP and the Liberals - are committed to cutting our wages, to slashing government spending on health, education and social welfare, to using the courts - both industrial and civil - to repress unions that take industrial action in defence of their members' living standards. Both are committed to serving the interests of the corporate rich. The only real difference is over how, and at what pace, to reduce working people's real incomes and thus increase the amount of socially produced wealth that the capitalists will appropriate.

Faced with this limited electoral choice, the SWP urges workers to choose the lesser evil. While Labor would continue to attack working people's living standards and democratic rights. a Liberal-National government would undoubtedly carry out such attacks more rapidly and to a greater extent. In July 1987, the return of the Hawke government was thus a lesser evil than the election of a Howard government.

But simply advocating the return of capitalism's soft cop doesn't really get us very far. Socialists must exploit the opportunities that elections present to help workers understand that neither Labor nor the conservative parties represent their interests. The whole parliamentary system is rigged against them, and the real need is for a party that challenges the entire capitalist framework of parliamentary politics.

Such a party would actively encourage and build extraparliamentary struggles of workers and the oppressed, and would use the electoral arena to win a wider hearing and to promote support for grassroots struggles for progressive change.

Alternative candidates

In the 1987 federal elections, the most effective way to assist the process of building such a party was to maximise support for, and encourage links between, a range of progressive alternative candidates. These candidates reflected the progressive demands of the peace, environmental, student, feminist, Aboriginal and labor movements. Moreover, most were activists in one or another of these movements and were seeking to use their campaigns to promote support for extraparliamentary movements.

As well as presenting one SWP candidate - Jamie Doughney for the Victorian seat of Gellibrand - the SWP called for a vote for a number of alternative candidates, including:

  • The student anti-fees Senate campaign of Kevin O'Connell and Lisa King in Victoria, and the independent campaign of Georgina Motion for the seat of Swan in Western Australia.
  • The campaign for re-election of Senator George Georges in Queensland.
  • The Nuclear Disarmament Party campaigns in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory.
  • The Peace, Environment and Social Justice campaign of John McGlynn for the NSW seat of Eden-Monaro, and the progressive independent campaign of Jack Mundey for the seat of Sydney.
  • The independent environmentalist Senate ticket of Lyn Allen and Catherin Paul in the Northern Territory.
  • The independent welfare and social justice campaigns of Lyn Teather and Danielle Dixon in Victoria.
  • The independent Aboriginal campaigns of Michael Mansell in Tasmania and Alan Brown and Thomas Walsh in Victoria.
  • The Greens Senate teams of Ian Cohen and Daphne Gollan in NSW, and Ally Fricker and Jules Davison in South Australia.
  • The Vallentine Peace Group campaign of Senator Jo Vallentine and Louise Duxbury in Western Australia.
  • The Independent Labor Party and Socialist Party of Australia candidates in several states, and the Communist Party of Australia candidates in South Australia.

Voting for these candidates offered an opportunity to record opposition to the business dominated parliamentary parties. A strong performance in the elections by these candidates could encourage the process of building a political alternative to the capitalist pnrtics.

Political vacuum

The fact that there was such a range of alternative candidates in 1987 reflects the persistence of a phenomenon that began to emerge in the 1984 elections with the appearance of the NDP. The rightward shift of the ALP has dramatically increased the political space to the left of Labor, opening up new opportunities to win the support of former Labor supporters for the construction of a new left party. It has also left a political vacuum within the existing parliamentary framework.

Labor has vacated its traditional political role as the reforming, liberal capitalist alternative to the conservatives. This is a result of important changes in the fortunes of the capitalist system since the mid 1970s.

Capitalism in Australia and internationally has entered a long-term economic depression, which has reduced its ability to buy social peace with the coinage of steadily improving wages and conditions. Capitalists are driven to seek to reduce workers' wages in order to boost declining rates of profit.

In this new economic climate. the ruling class will not tolerate governments that fail to meet their demands for savage reductions in working people's living standards. In this context, there is simply no role for liberal, reforming capitalist governments (or even for liberal reformers within governments). This is convincingly demonstrated by the complete capitulation of the ALP's federal parliamentary left to the Labor right.

Nevertheless, there is electoral space for a liberal capitalist party, even if it can have no role in government.

The deepening crisis of capitalism is radicalising growing numbers of people, who have not yet concluded that a decent standard of living, social justice, peace and a livable environment cannot be had under the present economic and political system. These people, particularly former Labor supporters, will inevitably look for an alternative within the existing parliamentary framework.

Desperate to hold onto their parliamentary representation, the Australian Democrats have recognised this and have moved into some of the space abandoned by Labor.

In the June 16 Australian Financial Review, Jenni Hewett commented on this shift in the parliamentary spectrum. The Democrats, "who originally had the image of a middle-of-the-road party, are now far more radical and left-wing in many policies than the ALP left," she wrote.

"This is less because the Democrats have changed than that the Labor Party in office adopted foreign and economic policies it considered much too conservative in opposition."

Democrat leader Senator Janine Haines presented a similar analysis: "We have stayed in the same place but the road has moved."

While Haines's explanation is substantially true, there is also an element of deliberate calculation in the Democrats' move into traditional Labor territory. This is particularly so since the departure of Sidchrome boss John Siddons, with his supporters, to form the Unite Australia Party.

"The Democrats' stance is far more clearly delineated from the conservative direction of all major parties, and their focus on these issues has been emphasised accordingly," notes Hewett.

The Democrats have sought to broaden their previous support, based largely on environmental and peace questions, by emphasising social welfare issues and softening their industrial policy.

This shift was also reflected in Democrat decisions, at least in Tasmania and Victoria, to call for preferences to Labor ahead of the Liberals. The Democrats sought to present themselves as the only progressive parliamentary party, branding all the others conservative.

Haines, for example, argued that "people and organisations concerned about social justice, civil liberties, peace and environmental issues are beginning to realise that the Democrats are the only effective lever they have, whichever conservative government is in power."

In the past, the Democrats stood to the right of Labor on industrial issues, particularly on union rights. For example, they opposed the repeal of Sections 45D and 45E of the Trade Practices Act and supported extending the ALP's legislative assault on the Builders Labourers Federation.

Today, however, their industrial policies are either the same as Labor's (eg support for its Industrial Relations Bill) or even to the left of Labor's (support for restoration of wage indexation), and (according to Victorian Senate ticket leader Janet Powell) opposition to the use of sections 45D and 45E in disputes on environmental questions.

The Democrats' positions are to the left of Labor's on social welfare, health and education spending. They oppose the Hawke government's spending cutbacks and the even more draconian cuts proposed by the Liberals.

In the federal elections, the Democrats actively went after the votes of those disenchanted with the big-business policies of the two major parties. They described Labor and the Liberals as parties of big business opposed to the interests of small businesspeople, farmers, workers, pensioners and students. They even raised the slogan "people before big business."

Capitalist party

Of course, these positions don't make the Democrats a genuine alternative to Labor. Like the ALP, they are committed to supporting the private profit system, albeit tempered by a desire for liberal reform to make capitalism more tolerable to those it exploits and oppresses.

The Democrats advocate a thoroughly utopian program - the creation of a "humane, caring" capitalism. This liberal capitalist fantasy is summed up in their electoral platform, which declares support for "measures to develop entrepreneurial opportunities within a conserving, non-exploitative and ecologically balanced society."

Moreover, like the ALP leaders, the Democrats also reflect the disdain of all bourgeois politicians for extraparliamentary struggles. Regarding their electoral platform, for example, Janine Haines argues that "people and organisations concerned about social justice, civil liberties, peace and environmental issues are beginning to realise that the Democrats are the only effective lever they have, whichever conservative government is in power."

The Democrats believe that extraparliamentary struggle is ineffective. They relate to progressive social movements only in order to capture parliamentary votes. They believe that those seeking progressive social change should rely on parliamentarians to act for them, rather than acting for themselves. Their contempt for mass struggle is summed up in their slogan: "You can depend on us."

Nevertheless, because the Democrats were less reactionary than Labor on a range of questions, a protest vote for them was a legitimate tactic.

The big-business media is certainly conscious of the fact that a sizable vote for the Democrats would represent an expression of opposition to their austerity drive. Where they haven't ignored the Democrats, the media have sought to paint them as part of the "loony left."

"Compared with the gulf that once divided them," noted an editorial in the June 30 Australian, "the major parties now agree in essence on what is wrong with the economy. . . Both government and opposition accept the need for reduced public spending and encouragement of business, although they disagree on the means whereby these policies should be put into effect."

The editorial then went on to attack the Democrats for making "a deliberate appeal to those voters who do not accept the general consensus that, one way or another, public spending should be cut."

The Australian's editors clearly recognised that the return of the Democrats' senators on the platform they advocated would be an expression of popular protest against the Liberal-Labor austerity "consensus." That was clearly a lesser evil than a vote that didn't register a protest and thus helped to preserve the illusion of consensus.

Prior to the 1987 elections, the Democrats used their balance of power in the Senate to block some of the Hawke government's most anti-democratic measures - particularly the Australia Card. For that reason, it was important to support the re-election of the Democrat senators. We shouldn't throw away any lever, even if it is only as marginally effective as the Democrats.

The SWP called for a vote to the Democrats for the same basic reason that it called for the return of the Hawke government. When faced with a choice of a number of bourgeois parties, we advocate voting for the least reactionary.

Of course, in the 1987 election that option formed only one part of a more comprehensive policy. Voting for the range of progressive alternative candidates offered a far more effective method of protesting against the consensus among all the capitalist parties, including the Democrats, that the main need is for "entrepreneurial opportunities."

More importantly, efforts to forge links between the various alternative campaigns helped to lay the basis for a united left party that can pose a genuine challenge to capitalist politics as a whole.

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