By Dave Riley
Over the weekend of 5-7 December, more than 150 people attended the Sixth Socialist Alliance national conference, held in the Geelong Trades Hall. The conference opened against the backdrop of the Alliance’s promising results in the November 29 Victorian local government elections, in which its candidates scored up to 18.9%.
The conference also saw the broadening of the Socialist Alliance as a coalition of socialist organisations and individuals in Australia. This was evidenced by the affiliation of the Sudanese Australian Human Rights Association, the participation of keynote speakers from Turkish and Salvadoran socialist organisations and the intervention of Dr Brian Senewiratne, internationally known fighter for the rights of Sri Lanka’s oppressed Tamil community.
The conference registered the Socialist Alliance’s successful work in building alliances with a broad range of socialist and progressive activists and organisations around Australia and abroad over the past few years. This is a new phenomenon on the Australian left which has tended to be ideologically packaged and separated, like elsewhere, into competing small socialist groups.
While the Socialist Alliance began life in 2001 as a electoral coalition between six founding socialist organisations, by 2007 most of these had withdrawn from the project. At its 2003 national conference the Alliance had decided by an overwhelming majority to proceed toward becoming a broad left, anti-capitalist political party — and as part of that process, the largest SA affiliate, the Democratic Socialist Perspective resolved to become ” a Marxist tendency in the Socialist Alliance” as a step toward consolidating the SA as a future “Multi-Tendency Socialist Party.”
With the re-election of the conservative Howard government in 2004 the Alliance project lost some momentum and the integration of the DSP and its assets stalled. But as the political climate improved during 2006/2007– especially with the broad based Your Rights at Work Campaign — which the Alliance was heavily involved in trying to sponsor mobilisations and an industrial campaign — the Alliance’s fortunes began to pick up.
The December 2008 conference was very useful in registering that change. This was indicated by the broad range of participants from among the SA membership and from sectors the Alliance had been working closely with. As well as leading Indigenous and Climate Change activists, the conference was also addressed by key trade union figures such as Noel Washington. One week before the conference thousands of building workers had downed tools in support of Washington’s refusal to cooperate with the building industry watch dog — the ABCC.
Refusal to cooperate with the ABCC meant a jail term. But because the building unions were determined to back him, the Labor Party government of Kevin Rudd , which had been elected in 2007 primarily because Your Rights at Work campaign supported Labor’s election, backed down and charges against Washington were withdrawn.
The Alliance is therefore in a very interesting situation. Having survived some rough times over the past four years, the political partnerships that make it up have held. As well as this the SA has been able to forge and deepen ongoing alliances that extend into the Greens (the local Green Party) and the Labor Party itself, at the same time as standing candidates in federal, state and local elections.
The Alliance’s electoral returns, however, have not been very exciting — until recently. This is because the Greens had soaked up most of the vote left of the Labor Party, especially in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq which the Australian government backed. Since the Greens are overwhelmingly an electoral formation, the key role that the SA is playing in the movements — especially in regard to Indigenous rights, LBGTI, anti war,and solidarity — is often over looked. On top of that the Alliance is very active in regard environment politics and has articulated an important green left stance with its Climate Change Charter ( go here for original).
The working relationship the SA has been able to forge with some key Indigenous activists — especially given that the Aboriginal community is now under savage racist attack — is now being enriched with developing partnerships between the SA and left migrant sectors, who in some cases have come out of the experience of working inside the Labor Party.
According to the 2006 census, the most commonly spoken language in Sydney households, after English, is Arabic. In Australia as a whole, Arabic is the fifth most commonly spoken language. So now, because of the SA’s engagement with the Sudanese comrades, Green Left Weekly now publishes a regular supplement in Arabic, The Flame.
How is this done?
While the Alliance’s achievements are modest they nonetheless register a qualitative advance for the Australian far left. The SA as a ‘unity’ project was not able to aggregate the small left groups who in the main did not want to merge into the project as the DSP has done, preferring instead to view the Alliance as another outfit competing for political real estate. So the SA is marked down by these Marxist orgs as a “DSP front”.
While it’s true that the DSP carries the organisational weight of the Alliance, the underlying partnership that sustains the enterprise is between SA members who are aligned to the DSP, and SA members who are not. (And the vast majority of the SA membership is outside the DSP.) That’s the Alliance’s main strength: that people from different traditions and seemingly different political cultures can work together on a day to day basis, finding common ground in the joint activity so long as they share a common goal. As the conference suggests, this meeting of intent is working.
The Alliance tends to be ruled, day to day, by consensus formatted by key debates had out where they are necessary. The SA is about activity and not about being caught up in creating the best of all possible political programs on paper. What you learn, and I’ve served on the SA National Executive for five years, is that everyone respects the partnerships that exist and tries to engage with alternative points of view in order to find common ground. In my experience the decisions made are always richer as a consequence.
We’re an anti-capitalist party which promotes itself as socialist. What kind of socialism is something we haven’t addressed.We see that as something that isn’t an urgent imperative. When it comes to policy development we open up our deliberations to all comers. We even use wikis and try to engage with the broadest input we can manage — both within the party and beyond it. So we try to make our socialist advocacy very concrete.
While we are the biggest grouping on the Australian socialist left, the real test of our politics has to be how well we can transcend the constraints if the circle spirit milieu of far left politics and then how effectively we can become the alternative political voice for Australian working people and all these sectors we engage with.
En route the Socialist Alliance may be one stage of a much longer process.
is a member of the Australian Socialist Alliance and has served on its National Executive since 2003. In late 2006 he rejoined the DSP. Dave Riley blogs at LeftClick.]