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Does the Labor Party offer a viable path to change?

There’s much disagreement on the significance of the Labor Party as a vehicle for progressive policy. So, where does it stand in 2022?

Art by Sam Randle

Aware that inviting an anarchist, a Greenie and a Labor student to a pub tends invariably to lead to shouting, I decided instead to run separate zoom calls with each. What came out of these calls was a series of surprisingly honest discussions about the nature of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and its viability as a path to change. With the intention of problematising this idea, I conducted three interviews that catch a broad cross-section of ideological belief, experience and parliamentary engagement: Mikaela Stella Pappou, a USyd student and member of National Labor Students (Labor Left); Tim Livingstone, a USyd student and member of the anarchist communist organisation Black Flag; and Jim Casey, a firefighter, socialist and member of the Greens who ran against Anthony Albanese in Grayndler in 2016 and 2019.

Ideological introductions and theories of change

Livingstone summarised ‘free socialism’, the core idea of anarcho-communism, as the removal of the upper echelon of socio-economic class in society, and then a reversal of society’s power structures. This entails the absence of an organised state as it currently exists, in contrast to the socialist model of broad centralised government and economic planning. We can imagine the class structure of society as a simplified triangle: constituting a broad base of workers at the bottom; small business owners and others who have a socio-financial stake in the continuation of capitalism in the middle; and the rich or ruling class at the top. Anti-capitalist ideologies such as anarchism and socialism would have us remove the latter two and then flip the triangle so that workers run society, because it is “workers who make society run”, Livingstone notes. This looks like profits going back to workers (rather than being directed to CEOs and shareholders) and these groups having full, democratic control over the direction that their institutions take. Central to this redistribution of wealth and power are ideas of social justice, the elimination of hierarchy, climate action, and workers’ rights.

In terms of how we would get there, otherwise known as a ‘theory of change’, Casey agreed that the main focus should be on community organising through unions and other movements for workers’ rights, like we have seen with the recent NTEU staff strikes. Pappou also agreed with the importance of union power when it comes to making change, citing the ALP’s historical affiliation to the unions and basis in the labour movement. She stressed that if the unions tomorrow decided that they would rather affiliate wholly with the Greens instead of their current affiliation to the Labor Party, she too would do so. She sees her ALP membership less as that of a political party and more as taking her cues from the unions, who still make up 50% (down from 60% in 2003) of the delegates at state party conferences, which decide policy. Some suggest however, that the relationship between the ALP and the unions is overstated in the modern day. Since 1901, the number of federal ALP members who are former union officials has fallen by 35%. The number of these officials who have come up through the ranks of their respective unions has also greatly declined. On top of this, almost 20% of these former union members now in federal parliament come from the Shop, Distributive and Allied Industries Union (SDA), which has a reputation of being strike-averse, apolitical and boss-friendly.

Labor Party Policy

Tim Livingstone described Labor’s approach to change as “sluggish”, with the goal of winning Government and enacting limited, unambitious legislation. However, it cannot be denied that they have implemented many great policies over the years. Universal healthcare was consolidated by the ALP Hawke government through Medicare in 1984, as it was expanded and renamed from the original Medibank. Disability support was also legislated by the ALP in 2013 under the The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), to name a couple. Greater childcare subsidies and an overhaul of the aged care system are some of the stronger current policies. Livingstone agreed with this but noted that the growth of working class power and the radical changes he would like to see in society are not part of the program of today’s increasingly conservative ALP.

Jim Casey, a former state secretary and current station delegate of the Fire Brigade Employees Union (FBEU), suggested that his membership of the Greens was due in part to better pro-worker policies, despite less historical affiliation to the unions. The Greens have stronger wealth redistribution policies through a billionaire wealth tax and corporate superprofits tax. They support free childcare in comparison to the increased subsidisation proposed by the ALP, and they plan to build one million, publicly-owned affordable homes to end homelessness and make housing more affordable. Unlike the ALP who supported the Liberals’ recent amendments to the Roads and Crimes Legislation Act (RCLA) that introduced maximum penalties of 2 years in jail and/or a $22,000 fine for an unregistered disruption of a road or major facility, the Greens condemned it as an “anti-protest bill”. Although Pappou didn’t support this policy as “any regulation of activism is reprehensible”, she noted that Labor had passed amendments to enshrine protected union action.

However, Pappou, Casey and Livingstone were all in agreement that Labor has shifted distinctly to the right in recent years, most drastically in the lead up to this year’s Federal election. They have introduced and supported a number of policies to this effect. They have voiced support for the construction of 114 new coal and gas projects and have weak emissions reductions targets of 43% by 2030. In comparison, the Greens propose a more ambitious phase out of coal and gas, and an emissions reduction target of 75% over the same period. 

The ALP will also retain Morrison’s stage three tax cuts, which would see everyone earning between $45,000 and $200,000/year paying the same marginal tax rate, disproportionately benefiting the wealthy. Because higher income earners more commonly have capital gains-yielding assets (taxed at half the normal rate, e.g. an investment property), high income earners are even more likely to have lower effective tax rates than lower income earners. 

Alongside a long list of other controversies is their support of Operation Sovereign Borders pertaining to refugees and asylum seekers, with shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally commenting that Labor “completely supports…offshore processing, regional resettlement and boat turnbacks” alongside her tweet that read “Labor supports cost recovery from people in immigration detention.” 

“For years I voted Labor with no illusions,” Casey noted, “but I started voting Green because it was too hard to stomach supporting a party that was prepared to be a part of torturing refugees and still doesn’t support the right to strike.” 

Disagreeing with all of the above policies, Pappou reiterated that one can engage in ’critical support’ of the ALP. She suggested that she sees her role as growing the size and the power of left factions within the party to influence policy, as “everyone who is a member has a voice”, referring to the party’s democratic structure, and that it is simply “the best vehicle for change on offer.” Pappou however, could not point to the proverbial line she would draw in the sand with regards to something that the ALP could do policy-wise that would render them unsupportable. Livingstone and Casey were able to draw clearer political lines, the former mentioning anti-capitalism as well as a broader disbelief in parliamentary politics to effect socially necessary change. Casey represents in some ways the combination of the two, noting that he was very sympathetic to extra-parliamentary struggle. Within the context of low union density and class consciousness, however, he would describe parliament as an important secondary battleground and “site of struggle”, the power and profile of which one could wield to champion workers’ rights as well as return power to union and social movements. 

Voting and the Election

Questioned on the concept of lesser evilism – the idea that when faced with two bad choices, we should opt for the less bad one, rather than opt out – Livingstone noted that he did in fact draw important distinctions between the ALP and the Liberals and would be voting to kick the Liberals out. The latter, he argued, are “the party of the capitalists and the bourgeoisie.” Casey noted also that some of his staunchest comrades were members of the ALP, something that could absolutely not be said of the Liberal party. He stressed the importance of understanding the preferential voting system we have that sees votes flow to your next preference if your first preference is not elected, meaning that you don’t have to vote strategically in order not to waste votes, as you do in other countries. 

When asked the ultimatum of whether the Australian Labor Party did in fact provide a viable path to change, there were various answers. Very simply, Pappou answered “yes” and Livingstone “no”. Casey argued that, throughout history, Labor had proven capable of enacting change but we had to question what that change might look like. Irrespective of parliamentary engagement and the outcome of the coming election, democratic and extra-parliamentary union organising remains key to implementing change, they all agreed. 

Ultimately, each voter must make up their own mind as to whether Labor provides a path to change but also ask themselves the question – is it the change that we want?