Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.


Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 51March 2010

Communist Party of Australia

Contribution by Bob Briton

The Political Resolution adopted at our party’s recent congress concludes that the crisis afflicting capitalism is multi-faceted.

The people of the world are not just facing global financial and economic crises and the resultant social consequences, but a food crisis threatening the lives and health of hundreds of millions of people, an environmental crisis threatening the future of life on our planet and the possibility of new wars (including nuclear) and fascism.

This is a sobering assessment. We believe that our conclusions are no exaggeration because capitalism and imperialism ultimately have no solutions to the various crises this system have generated.

Throughout its turbulent history, capitalism has resorted to violence and oppression to restore profitability to the capitalist ruling class. The current global situation presents another of these impasses for imperialism and its responses over the past decades display a growing desperation to secure its own future.

At the same time, all over the world people are resisting the impacts of neo-liberalism. Capitalism itself is being questioned. People have struggled for change and voted for it in unprecedented numbers. In our country of Australia in 2007, people resoundingly defeated the openly neo-liberal government of Prime Minister John Howard and voted for the social-democratic Labor Party led by Kevin Rudd. The trade unions were key to this victory through their leadership of what was called the “Your Rights at Work” campaign.

In the US we have witnessed the historic election of a black man to the office of President. In both cases, a change from the neo-liberal past was promised. Prime Minister Rudd has been quick to demonstrate through his actions that the neo-liberal agenda has not been rejected or fundamentally revised. It is also apparent that little has changed as far as the global military and economic ambitions of US imperialism are concerned.

People have been encouraged by the thoroughgoing change being consolidated in Latin America. Progressive governments in the region are having success after success in rebuilding their countries after decades of neo-liberal economic and social devastation. Challenges remain, but progress has been impressive. Movements have been brought together and a powerful alternative to neo-liberalism has been forged. Gains in the battle of ideas, the ideological struggle against capitalism, have also been impressive. The achievements of the socialist countries continue to inspire.

Communists are unifiers. We must learn from these experiences and, where we have lagged behind, resume our role of bringing together the many anti-capitalist struggles, pointing out the real enemy of humanity and leading the way to the socialist alternative.

The global economic crisis from an Australian perspective

Supporters of capitalism are striving to portray the current economic crisis as the result of a series of blunders within the financial system and excessive greed on the part of some individuals. They say it occurred due to a simple lapse in judgement on the part of governments. Stability in future can be assured by restoring some of the regulation over the financial sector that had been abandoned during the era of neo-liberalism. They insist on calling it the Global Financial Crisis — GFC for short. Some of these apologists go as far as to say that the era of unquestioned and unrestrained market forces is at an end or, at least, should be brought to an end. Australia’s Prime Minister Rudd is typical of this type of reaction. He has said that the practices that led to the crisis have brought us to the edge of an abyss. “Capitalism must be saved from itself,” he said.

Rudd’s statements could lead one to believe that the parliamentary Labor Party is keen to bring about the sort of progressive reforms many people expect from a social-democratic government. This is not correct. The complete dismantling of public enterprise and the complete privatisation of public services remain the ultimate objectives of this government and others like it across the globe. A debate is being encouraged to generate support for a voucher system for schools. Public schools have been starved of funds and growing numbers of parents have responded by removing their children from local public schools and placing them in private schools which charge high fees and receive substantial funding from federal and state governments. Parents do not do this out of choice but out of fear that their children will be disadvantaged in an increasingly competitive job market or when seeking to enter higher education.

A voucher system would involve granting parents an amount of money to spend at the school of their choosing. Any difference between the value of the voucher and the fees charged by the school would be met by the parents. A number of variants have been proposed but this is the essence of the scheme. The Rudd Government is imposing tests for measuring outcomes in reading, writing and other abilities across all schools. It has just launched a website that has enabled the compiling of lists of the achievement of every school in the country against their narrow benchmarks.

Pressure will grow for parents to desert “failing” schools in poorer areas and pay more to attend a private one. Public education will wither and die if these plans are not defeated.

There are similar ideas being advanced for health care. Australia has an internationally acclaimed universally accessible public health insurance system — Medicare. The rising cost of hospital care — due chiefly to price gouging monopolies and overpaid private specialists — was used as a pretext for the previous government to introduce a rebate for people taking out private health insurance. Fear, the tool of choice of neo-liberals everywhere, was heightened by the threat to reduce the rebate for people over the age of 30 not taking out one of the prohibitively expensive policies by a certain date.

The current government is taking the next step. If their plans come to fruition, Australians will be given an amount (a “voucher”) to spend to get health cover from a private health insurer. The number of procedures considered “basic” would be reduced. Those wanting cover for a wider range of benefits would have to pay extra. At the same time, the Federal Government is threatening to take over control of hospitals from the states. There will be nowhere to hide from this next wave of privatisation. The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, which subsidises the cost to patients of a range of more commonly needed medicines, is also under a cloud.

During the decades of neo-liberalism in Australia, the wages share of national production has fallen to record lows. The share going to profits is at a record high. Unless they are defeated, the global economic crisis will be used by employers to prevent an improvement in the position of workers. The government will use it to defend cuts in social spending. The massive amounts of public money used to prop up the financial system and stimulate the corporate sector will be taken from public services. The Australian Government used a corporations first approach intervention in the economic crisis, not a people first one.

Trade unions will have to fight to restore pay and conditions sacrificed during the worst of the downturn, when inventories were full and order books were empty. This will be difficult. The repressive anti-union legislation passed by former ultra-conservative Howard Government largely remains intact but under a new name. It is true there is now more scope for collective rather than individual labour contracts but the essence of the so-called WorkChoices is still in place. There is still a secret police force — the Australian Building and Construction Commission — monitoring building sites, targeting trade unionists as they go about their work of organising properly paid, safe jobs. An Adelaide building worker is currently facing a charge of refusing to attend an interrogation session about a workplace safety meeting. A conviction would mean six months in prison for this worker. Workers have suffered huge losses in the value of their individual compulsory superannuation (retirement savings) through exposure to the share market and other financial dealings and the international property market.

The Federal Government’s response to the latest economic crisis followed the pattern established worldwide. Banks and other financial institutions were given government guarantees. Short-term programs involving public and private infrastructure were set in motion. Citizens were given cash payments and encouraged to spend them in order to stimulate the economy.

State governments responded by cutting their budgets, increasing charges and fast-tracking the sell-off of public assets. Wages fell in many instances or were frozen. Many workers had their working hours reduced and jobs were lost, particularly in manufacturing. Officially, unemployment has risen to 5.8 percent (although the actual figure is much higher). This figure has been kept relatively low by underemployment and casualisation of the labour force. Some trade unions negotiated shorter hours and wage reductions for workers and in other cases employers have imposed them as a means of reducing sackings.

Most commentators agree that the net effect so far of the stimulus package was to shore up economic activity. The conservative opposition says less should have been spent and that stimulus spending should now stop. It is clear that the government will not be able to go further and further into debt without consequence. Interest rates are on the rise again. Most observers also acknowledge that the greatest advantage currently enjoyed by the Australian economy, the one that has shielded it from far worse consequences is the strong demand for resources from developing countries, China in particular.

Holding fast to failed strategies

In fact, Australia’s foreign policy is now grounded in a bizarre contradiction. Now that our manufacturing base is shrinking and agricultural exports decline in relative importance, the survival of our economy is reliant on continued demand from socialist China. At the same time, through the enduring US alliance, the Australian Government is locked into the global strategy of the US which includes the encircling of China and the undermining of the rising economic power. Australia is taking a more prominent role in imposing free trade agreements and in other ways interfering in the affairs of the island nations of the Pacific. These measures are designed to secure advantages for Australian and US transnational corporations and prevent the growth of relations between these countries and China.

Australia has supported US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. The government plans to massively increase its spending by $300 billion over the next ten years — $104 billion in the next four years — on so-called defence spending. At present it stands at less than $30 billion per year. Orders are in for submarines, warships, Aegis missiles, Joint Strike Fighters — weapons with capabilities far beyond any need to defend our country. They are being bought at great cost in services foregone by the community to assist the US confront a new reality — a multi-polar world with groupings such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, BRIC (the growing economic ties between Brazil, Russia, India and China) and ALBA, for example, choosing to move forward without the involvement or dominance of US imperialism.

The US is unable to prevent the spread of this movement for independence from US imperialism despite its most strenuous efforts but it remains an enormously powerful military force. The instability cause by frustrated ambitions, declining prestige and enormous firepower (including a nuclear arsenal) is clear and frightening.

Environmental dead end

The Australian people are very concerned about the quickening pace of climate change. We are very vulnerable, given the precarious nature of water resources in the southern part of our country and the fact that over 80 percent of our people live in relatively low-lying coastal areas susceptible to rises in sea levels. One of our major food bowls — the Murray-Darling River system and its irrigated farmlands — is under threat from low rainfall, overuse of water resources, diminishing flows and increased salinity.

The Rudd Government signed the Kyoto Protocol but the role of the government since has been driven by the desire to protect powerful economic interests. It has worked with the US and Japan to replace the Kyoto Protocol with a political agreement and has failed to commit to serious reductions in carbon emissions.

Australia’s Parliament is set to vote on an Emissions Trading Scheme shortly so that its representatives can present it to Copenhagen in December and claim our country to be a responsible global citizen. However, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme proposed pays for the worst polluters (like the mostly corporate-owned coal-fired electricity generators) to continue their current practices. Negotiations with the conservative forces in Federal Parliament, will most likely lead to a further weakening of the national response. Huge amounts of public money are being spent on research into “clean coal” even though most experts are pessimistic about its chances of success.

Australians are concerned about the long-term dangers and costs of nuclear power. They do not want a nuclear power industry and are not convinced that it provides part of the solution to the challenge of global warming. They favour increased use of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power but at present there is pressure being built up in the media to consider nuclear power. The government has lifted restrictions on the number of uranium mines and a rapid expansion of mining — mostly on the traditional lands of the Aboriginal people — has begun.

Off the northwest coast of Western Australia there has been a boom in oil and gas exploitation which has now shown itself to be a threat to the marine environment and the livelihoods of fishermen in the region. The leak from the West Atlas rig has only just been capped. It had been spewing out the equivalent of at least 400 barrels of crude oil every day since early August. The Australian Government has done its best to minimise concern so that exploration and production will continue at the same frantic pace.

Developing the political alternative

The government is determined to pursue neo-liberal policies and is resisting demands from the people for responsible, sustainable alternatives that preserve peace, provide jobs and a liveable environment. The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) foresees real change will come with the advent of a government of a new type made up of an alliance of left and progressive forces including the CPA. The party is seeking to lead the forces for change inside and, most crucially, outside the parliament. Necessary anti-monopoly policies include:

  • Nationalisation of key industries privatised during recent decades — electricity, the national airline, telecommunications and so on.
  • The establishment of a publicly owned people’s bank and the creation of a national superannuation (retirement) fund. Funds invested should be used to advance socially needed projects.
  • An end to the massive state subsidies to wealthy private schools and private health insurance companies. Investment in public services.
  • An independent foreign policy.
  • Increased spending on public housing and public transport.
  • An immediate cut of 10 percent in military spending.
  • Tough limits on carbon emissions and much increased spending on alternative, renewable energy sources.
  • The restoration of democratic rights including trade union rights removed in recent times and real progress towards land rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Many of these demands are already popular but, it must be pointed out, expectation of their achievement is low. The Australian working class has been subjected to decades of an ideological onslaught that attacks collectivism, promotes hedonistic self-interest and instils fear of others. Left forces are now small and disunited. The left forces within the Australian Labor Party are weak. Under the present two-party system, the conservative Coalition is the only likely alternative to take over government at present. The Greens have been enjoying growing support but increasingly are viewing themselves as a third parliamentary force with no need to form alliances with other left or progressive forces. They do work with other organisations at the grass roots on community and environmental issues and have given support to the trade union movement.

The trade union movement has been beaten down ideologically following a decline in the influence of our party in trade union affairs and has had its ability to resist employer pressures curtailed by successive layers of restrictive legislation. Racism towards Aboriginal people and to refugees has been fanned. The elected national Aboriginal representative body was abolished. The Federal Government has intervened to limit critical voices in academia and on the national broadcaster. This is our current challenging reality.

For all that, hope for change among workers and other exploited people persists. And in case it should ever be mobilised by more intolerable conditions and an effective leadership, the ruling class is ready. Even before the events of September 11, 2001 in the US, the Australian Government was restricting the rights of people using pretexts such as security at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. The military was empowered to intervene in civilian matters and authorised to shoot to kill.

In the wake of 9/11, the pace of this sort of change quickened. Our internal security organisation ASIO was transformed into a fully-fledged secret police force with the power to detain people not even suspected of being involved in a terrorist act without charge and potentially for long periods. They can be interviewed without access to a lawyer of their choosing. Membership lists, diaries, mobile phones and other material can be demanded with non-compliance punishable by up to five years in prison. ASIO can legally hack into computers and tap phones. All this was justified by the “war on terror” and outrages like the September 11 and the Bali bombing of October 2002, which claimed 88 Australian lives.

Criminality in motorcycle gangs is a new pretext for a further erosion of people’s civil rights. Organisations and not the specific criminal activity are targeted by these new laws being imposed by state after state throughout Australia. Members of named gangs are prevented from associating with one another or face lengthy jail terms. The potential for future abuse of this type of legislation is plain and adds to an already formidable assault on long-held democratic rights of our people.

The role of Communists and the workers’ movement in Australia

I have mentioned previously the effects of the decades-long ideological struggle on attitudes in the labour movement. Some of this arisen from direct financial measures imposed by the government. Workers’ compulsory retirement savings are invested in shares. Australia now has the highest rate of share ownership in the world and workers now must worry about the state of the share market. This strengthens the influence of the employers’ thinking in the mind of the worker. Workers, particularly young workers, are less interested in joining unions or working class parties in order to protect their interests. This is the practical side of the ideological challenge facing our party and it is on these sorts of questions that we can inject a working class perspective.

I expect many participants will have similar accounts of conditions in their respective countries. I look forward to hearing of parties’ experience and achievements in resisting the forces oppressing the people of our countries. I must be frank and explain that, while our party is the object of increased public attention since the onset of the economic crisis and has enjoyed a modest increase in our membership, we are still a small party. We have some influence in a narrow range of trade unions and in the peace movement. This influence is growing but remains small. We have a weekly newspaper which is respected and has a large number of online readers but its circulation in hard copy is still far too small. Our presence in local government is minimal and we have no parliamentary representatives.

Our most pressing task is to restore our party to its former influence but in the course of doing that we must refine our ability to work with others, to unite around the many issues confronting workers and other exploited people in the community. Our most valuable contribution at this stage will be to bring our ideological perspective to these struggles — a perspective flowing from our analysis and activity. Our recent 11th Party Congress stressed the need for greater professionalism in the campaigning we undertake and to redouble our efforts in the area of political education.

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