Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.


Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 68September 2018

Taking the Party to the People: The 13th National Congress of the Communist Party of Australia


The 13th National Congress of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), held in December of 2017, provided a golden opportunity for international observers to know more about the struggle of the working class in Australia and what direction it will take in the next few years. This article will briefly introduce the circumstances leading up to the 13th National Congress, how the Party prepared to host the Congress, how the Congress was carried out and the important lessons that members and observers alike can draw from this experience. Ultimately, the 13th National Congress represents the end of a long phase of retreat and consolidation following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the beginning of a new period where members turn the slogan, “Taking the Party to the People”, into reality.

Background to Congress

The 13th National Congress took place at a time of unprecedented attacks on the Australian working class. These attacks are the culmination of three decades of retreat as the weakening of the Communist movement in Australia, due to splits, opportunism and the damage caused by the fall of the Soviet Union, gave the capitalist class a chance to go onto the offensive. The current offensive is characterised by growing attacks on workers’ rights and unions; slashing of social services such as education, health and welfare; burgeoning corporate welfare and tax evasion. These elements are part of an overall process of wealth redistribution from the poor to the rich

The 1980s marked the beginning of the capitalist offensive against organised labour in the imperialist countries. The Thatcher and Reagan governments of the UK and the US forced neo-liberalism onto their populations with brutally direct methods. By contrast, the Hawke Labor Government introduced all of the important elements of neo-liberalism over a ten year period by stealth.

The Prices and Incomes Accord of 1983, a social compact between the Australian Labour Party (ALP) and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), was offered under the false pretence that high unemployment and inflation during the 1970s and early 1980s was largely the result of wage rises – rises that workers had won through bitter struggles. Lacking the strong, class-conscious leadership previously exerted by the CPA, the ACTU agreed to participate in wage restraint in return for the promise of automatic quarterly wage indexation in line with prices, which fell by the wayside after a couple of years. The Accord also promised Medicare, which was already Labor policy, tax cuts for workers, and improvements in the social wage including education.

It was claimed that “wage restraint” would lead to higher profits which, in turn, would be invested creating more jobs and improved economic conditions – the so-called “trickle-down” effect. The stated aim being full employment which of course never materialised, needless to say the higher profits did.

The Accord was based on the class collaborationist concept of “co-operation with employers” or “class peace” in the place of class struggle. The unions co-operated with employers, but employers far from co-operating in return, heightened their attack on wages and working conditions.

Thus the Accord proved to be disastrous for workers and the union movement as real wages and union memberships fell. “Union density” – the percentage of workers who are members of their relevant trade union – fell from 62 percent in 1954 to 15.6 percent in 2016 (Bowden 2017). Wages growth is currently at record lows, barely above the level of inflation and corresponds in part to a lowering of expectations on the part of Australian workers. Worse still, more than a decade of class collaboration meant that workers and unions lost the ability to organise and fight for their members’ interests. Former ACTU president, Ged Kearney stated: “Wage restraint from 1983 to 1990 meant unions held back from doing their core work of bargaining with employers for better wages and conditions, and some forgot how to organise and are still paying the price.” (Kearney 2013)

The election of a Liberal/National Coalition government in 1996 under Prime Minister John Howard began an era of heightened attack on trade union and other democratic rights of the working people of Australia. The scope for gains under the new bargaining system (“enterprise bargaining”) became more and more restricted. Union preference and compulsory union membership (the “closed shop”) became illegal. Government and employer confrontation over pay and conditions became the order of the day.

Changes to the Workplace Relations Act in 2005 – the so-called “WorkChoices” legislation – rapidly escalated the war on workers’ rights. Unions’ status as the natural representative of labour was scrapped. Individual contracts between workers and employers (Australian Workplace Agreements) were encouraged in the name of “flexibility”. The Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) was established to hound construction unions and prevent them carrying out their legitimate activities. The measures were blatantly hostile to workers and the ACTU mounted a very effective campaign against them. This assisted greatly in the election of a Labor government with Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister in 2007.

Unfortunately and predictably, while Labor softened some of the worst aspects of “WorkChoices”, the new “Fair Work” framework brought forward much of the anti-union agenda inherited from the Coalition. The election of another Coalition government in 2013 took up where Howard left off and the consequences in terms of loss of effectiveness of union activity have been devastating. Legislation combined with the drift to precarious, casualised and contract labour have left many workers in a terrible state and taken its toll on trade unionism in Australia.

Today, union membership is at an all-time low of 11 percent in the private sector (Toscano 2015) and vicious industrial relations instruments of the Howard-era such as the ABCC, rebadged with slightly limited powers and smaller penalties under Labor, have been fully revived and strengthened. Strikes are effectively illegal with “protected action” at best available during specified bargaining periods. Other essential workers’ rights, including right of entry for union officials, have been curtailed to the extent that unions are less and less able to perform their duties. The Australian Government’s tactic is to attempt to bankrupt unions by imposing enormous fines on union activity. In September of last year, the Construction, Forestry, Energy and Mining Union (CFMEU) was fined $2.4 million dollars for conducting a 48-hour blockade of a building site (Marin-Guzman 2017). A three day strike at a paper mill cost unions $101,500 in fines (Guardian (Workers’ Weekly) “Unions Fined”, 2017) while unionists were fined roughly $50,000 for a strike provoked by a company firing a union delegate.

Members of particularly militant unions, such as the CFMEU, are singled out for special draconian treatment. Construction workers and union officials carrying out necessary union activity can be summoned to secret interrogations where they are forced to give testimony or face six months in prison. Workers who fail to attend and give evidence, or tell anyone they were summoned, also face imprisonment or massive fines on trade unions and individual members and officials.

Not content to harass union members with secret police, jail-time and huge fines, the Australian Government spent $46 million on a Royal Commission into trade union “corruption”. The media, loyal to their class masters, broadcast story after story about supposed cases of union corruption, spreading the myth that unions are composed of corrupt thugs who serve only their own interests, while completely ignoring how pathetic the evidence against unions was and the obviously political aims of the proceedings (Long 2015). Despite sitting for 189 days, hearing 512 witnesses, charging 40 officials and workers organisations with crimes and claiming that union misconduct was “widespread and deep-seated” (Doyle & Conifer 2015), only a single official was actually convicted of wrong-doing (Karp 2016). In its final report, the Commission recommended that courts, and in the case of the CFMEU, parliament, have the right to dismiss any official of a union from their position and proposed much harsher penalties, controls and accounting requirements on already overburdened unions (Jackson 2016).

As unions reel from these constant attacks, workers’ wages continue to stagnate, working conditions worsen and work itself becomes more and more precarious. As of 2017, annual wage growth was 1.9 percent, the lowest figure since the Australian Bureau of Statistics starting measurements in the 1990s (Janda 2017, Hutchens 2017), the median household income in 2015 was roughly $1000 less than in 2009 (Wilkins 2017 p.29) and inflation outpaced wage growth at 2.1 percent (Hutchens 2017). In a recent controversial move, the penalty rates of the most vulnerable workers were cut, potentially costing those workers up to $6000 a year in lost wages (Younger 2017). Professor John Buchanan, from the University of Sydney business school, stated: “None of this stuff is an accident; we have had a 30-year attack on labour standards. Workers’ wages have only ever kept up with productivity when they have strong collective voices.” (Patty 2017). Attacks on unions and workers’ rights don’t just cost workers financially, it also costs lives. Statistics from SafeWork Australia, a government body that monitors workplace safety, showed that the number of deaths on construction sites spiked dramatically with the original introduction of the anti-union ABCC in 2005 and fell after its provisions were weakened in 2012 (Keane 2016). This was because unions and safety reps were better able to do their job.

Construction unions do not need special laws or body such as the ABCC to curb their ability to ensure workplace safety or enforcement of workers’ rights and entitlements. The ABCC in effect not only hounds workers and their unions, but protects employers who neglect safety regulations, put lives at risk and do not pay workers’ their full entitlements.

Ever-decreasing real living and working conditions are only the most obvious manifestation of capitalism’s war on working people in Australia. The other major trait is the blatant transfer of wealth from workers to capitalists. Public education, health and welfare are being undermined to provide tax cuts and welfare for rich individuals and corporations.

The trend of redistribution to the rich continues with the current government’s long-term tax plan that seeks to introduce a “flat-tax” instead of a progressive tax (Pha “Budget 2018-19” 2018). The result would be a $7,225 a year tax cut for the rich and a $200 a year cut for those in the lowest tax bracket (Pha “Budget 2018-19” 2018). The Coalition government is seeking a five percent reduction of the corporate tax rate to 25 percent (Coorey 2018), but has so far failed to get it through the Senate. The plan to reduce the corporate tax rate would have cost the federal budget -0$65 billion over 10 years (Goethe-Snape 2018) while the “flat tax” plan is expected to cost $140 billion over the same period (Irvine 2018). The poorest workers will be expected to shoulder a greater proportion of the tax burden while the rich avoid their responsibilities.

The advertised tax rates don’t tell the full story since both corporations and rich individuals take advantage of a range of concessions to further reduce their contributions. According to research conducted by the Per Capita think tank, “the cost of foregone tax revenue from the richest 20 percent of Australians is over AU$68 billion per annum. That’s around $37 a week from every worker in the country” (Pha “Budget 2018-19” 2018). Meanwhile, according to Australian Taxation Office data, 36 percent of the 2000 largest corporations operating in Australia paid zero corporate income tax (ATO 2018). Among this list are many subsidiaries of major Chinese state owned enterprises (SoEs) such as Sinopec, CITIC, CNOOC and Sinosteel (ATO 2018). While corporations enjoy Australian government generosity, benefits for the poor are slashed.

Although funding for welfare, public education and health are occasionally increased by token amounts in specific sectors to win votes during an election cycle, overall they are gradually being defunded. According to Anna Pha: “Over the past four budgets, the government has cut $15 billion from social security and community services” (Pha “Budget 2018-19”). Applicants for social insurance are subjected to increasingly punishing requirements to receive support that is increasingly inadequate. For example, new “waiting periods” have been introduced to force applicants for welfare to drain their savings before receiving help. Applicants are also punished for moving to a location with less employment prospects or for receiving a redundancy payment. In the 2018 Federal Budget, the government announced it would embark on another round of “robodebt” collection with the aim of extracting $300 million in alleged over-payments from welfare recipients (Guardian (Workers’ Weekly) “Coalition Launches ...” 2018). The last round was extremely controversial for its false positive rate, the climate of fear it generated and the people it intimidated into paying debts they didn’t owe (Towell 2017). This is a visceral example of extracting money from the desperate poor through brutal means to “balance the budget” after generously gifting billions to the rich. Another example of this process is the plunder of public schools to fund private schools.

According to the Australian Education Union’s Federal President, Correna Haythorpe, $1.9 billion was stripped from public schools for the 2018-2019 period and they will receive zero federal capital funds for class room upgrades or construction (N/A “Budget fails” 2018). Suspiciously, the federal government allocated $1.9 billion to private schools for capital funds! In 2017 alone, $177 million was cut from vocational education while public school students with disabilities in the Northern Territory and Tasmania will receive 35 and 45 percent less respectively (N/A “Budget fails” 2018). Now, 60 percent of all federal school funding supports private schools (Ed. 2018). Rich private schools are receiving millions of dollars of federal and state funding to build extravagant facilities while the federal government’s current plan will, as Haythorpe stated: “… leave 87 percent of public schools below the national Schooling Resource Standard by 2023” (N/A “Budget fails” 2018). A similar process of undermining public provision in favour of the private sector is occurring in health.

Healthcare is another area where the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich is plain to see. Dr Woodruff of the Doctors Reform Society described the government’s intentions well when he stated: “Whilst busy giving tax cuts to millionaires and tax evading corporations, the Federal Government underfunds public hospitals and primary, dental, and mental health care in its continuing ideological plan to increase private health care.” (Woodruff & Costa 2018). The public system is increasingly becoming “user pays” as patient contributions for prescription medicines rise and the rebate on doctors’ fees fell from 85 percent of the recommended fee when Medicare was first introduced to the current 50 percent (Pha “Election 2018 Medicare” 2018).

However rather than just defunding public healthcare, the Australian Government also uses public money to subsidise private healthcare despite the fact that private healthcare delivers fewer health benefits to the population at a greater cost. The Federal Government spends $11 billion a year subsidising private health insurance (Menadue 2017). Meanwhile, administration of the private system costs three times more than the public system (Menadue 2017). Premiums on policies have increased 150 percent since 1999 even though the consumer price index (CPI) only increased 60 percent (Menadue 2017). Before tax, private health insurance companies made a profit of $1.8 billion after costing Australians $4 billion in excess costs over the benefits provided by their insurance policies (Jericho 2018). 2018’s predicted average premium increase of 3.95 percent is still higher than CPI and wages growth (Jericho 2018). In a submission to a 2017 senate inquiry, the Australian Medical Association stated: “The shift to a full-profit industry has created the need to ensure that there are sufficient profits to allow a return to shareholders. This is driving much of the growth in increased premiums.” (Jericho 2018). In search of increased profits, insurance companies have been offering increasingly complicated insurance products that include more “out of pocket” expenses and co-payments. Australians are paying higher premiums for less cover and are paying outrageously inflated treatment costs to doctors and surgeons enjoying the privileges of an increasingly privatised healthcare system. The Australian Government supports these practices by pushing the population, through carrot and stick methods, to buy private health insurance.

Beginning in the year 2000, the Federal Government, regardless of the party in power, has threatened residents into purchasing public health insurance at an earlier age. The “Lifetime Health Cover” initiative requires people to take out private hospital cover by the age of 31 otherwise they will be charged an additional two percent for their future private health insurance for every year past the deadline. For example, if one buys private health insurance when they are fifty, they will need to pay 40 percent more as a penalty. This move stopped the decline in private health cover caused by the creation of the public health system and boosted profits for private health companies as young people who don’t make claims are much better customers than older people who are more likely to require treatment (Jericho 2018).

The 13th National Congress was held while this offensive against the working people and their conditions was taking place. Delegates were keenly aware of the problems facing the Australian working class and viewed the Congress as an opportunity to rally the Party for the struggle against the ruling class’ assault.

The availability of public data regarding the Communist Party of Australia

When trying to discuss the internal life of the Communist Party of Australia, it is important for readers to understand the Party’s attitude to security. Although the CPA is currently able to operate openly in Australian society with minimal official harassment or interference, this hasn’t always been the case. The current conventions regarding security were established by a generation of members who lived through a time when the Party was threatened with illegality. The Liberal Party government of Robert Menzies banned the CPA in 1940 and again in 1950, although both bans were short-lived due to constitutional challenges in the High Court. In response, Menzies called a national referendum to alter the constitution so that banning the Communist Party would be legal. Tireless campaigning by the CPA, unions and some social democrats narrowly defeated the proposed amendment, with a total “No” vote of 50.56 percent! This was achieved at a time when popular support for the Party was at a high point, partly as a result of the sacrifices of the Soviet Union in defeating fascism. If such a referendum was to be held today, the chances of a positive outcome are much less certain.

The CPA’s brushes with illegality, combined with regular police harassment, infiltration and constant surveillance bred a healthy concern for the security of Party organisations and the safety of members. Comrades who lived through the bans and subsequent harassment later shaped the security culture of the Party and influenced following generations of Party leaders. As a result, the CPA has maintained relatively strict conventions regarding communications and membership information. However, as these are conventions rather than strictly defined policies, individual members adhere to them in varying degrees depending on their own self-discipline.

Bearing this in mind, it is understandable why so many basic details about the CPA such as the number of Party members, information about these members and their specific contributions to Congress are considered Party secrets.

Preparation for Congress

The 13th National Congress was the culmination of a one and a half year long democratic centralist process where Party organisations from the grassroots level up participated. Although the Central Committee and the Preparatory Committee played the leading roles in organising the Congress, the entire membership of the Party participated through branch discussions, submission of amendments to Congress documents and in internal discussion journals.

The journey to Congress began in April of 2016 when the Central Committee Executive (CCE) met and developed a timeline for Congress preparations and considered areas of the Constitution, Program and Political Resolutions that required changing. Between then and May of 2017, the CCE and the broader Central Committee drafted, discussed and redrafted potential changes to these documents. Party members with expertise in specific fields were also invited to assist in the initial drafting period. With the appointment of the Preparatory Committee, the Central Committee’s proposed Congress documents were sent to all Party organisations and branches for consideration.

From May to June, branches held meetings to discuss the proposed Congress documents and to suggest additions, alterations and deletions. Every member was involved in this process and was able to voice their opinions. Following frank discussions, members voted on the proposals made in their branches and then submitted them to the next highest Party body. Higher Party bodies then reviewed changes and either accepted or rejected them. This process culminated in August with the holding of State and District Conferences where such higher bodies exist. At the conferences, the relevant Committees submitted all the proposed changes to Congress documents indicating which ones they recommended for adoption by the delegates.

Upon conclusion of the various State Conferences and branches in other areas, the results were sent to the Central Committee for consideration. In this final phase, the Central Committee exercised its right to accept or reject the proposed amendments, additions and deletions from lower bodies. A final version of the Congress documents was then compiled from all of the accepted changes. This is the version that delegates to the Congress would receive. Of course, during the whole amendment process, the Preparatory Committee was busy dealing with all of the practical organisational issues for Congress while the Central Committee compiled a report on its work since the last Congress.

The participation of the general membership wasn’t limited to the discussion and suggestion of amendments to Congress documents. Members were also invited to contribute to discussion journals. Discussion journals are a special opportunity for individual members to write and share substantive articles regarding any element of Party policy or work with the rest of the membership. The content of these articles is not bound by Party policy. The only requirement is that authors do not engage in personal attacks. Because of the sensitive nature of the articles, discussion journals are strictly internal documents, however it can be revealed that the topics discussed cover a wide variety of interests ranging from the theoretical to the tactical and policy-focused to practice-focused. In the lead up to the 13th National Congress, a higher number of discussion journals than usual were produced, demonstrating the growing engagement of members in the internal life of the Party.

Specifics of Congress

After a year and a half of Party-wide democratic participation and preparation, the 13th National Congress of the Communist Party of Australia opened. Delegates and observers from all over Australia travelled to Sydney for the three-day event where the new Central Committee was elected; changes to the Constitution, Program and Political Resolutions were accepted; important issues for the Party’s future were debated; and numerous reports were delivered.

The meetings that made up the National Congress were held at the New South Wales headquarters of the CFMEU in Sydney. This choice of location was a fitting tribute to the close historical relationship between the Party and the militant trade union movement as it is communists who lead these unions during their greatest struggles. Congress delegates and observers would have recognised the portraits of great CFMEU union activists hanging in the corridors of the venue – because those figures were CPA members! The connection between unions and the Party is not merely historical, as the CPA is endeavouring to build an ever-strengthening alliance with unions, to restore and build more ties, to fight back against the current onslaught by capital against the rights and conditions of workers. Today, the bond must become stronger than ever before.

To attend the Congress, participants had to be either elected delegates or approved observers. According to Rule 11 (b) of the CPA’s Constitution: “Delegates to the Party National Congress shall consist of members of the outgoing Central Committee and of delegates elected by State or District Conferences, or where decided by the Central Committee, directly by Branches.” (N/A “Constitution” 2017 p.9). The Constitution also requires that members seeking to be elected as delegates can prove that they have been members for 12 consecutive months and have paid all party dues (N/A “Constitution” 2017 p.17). Although not directly stated in the Constitution, the CPA convention is that delegates should not see themselves as representatives of their state or their specific branch. In the spirit of democratic centralism and Leninist norms, delegates should be chosen because they are considered to be the most capable members who can be trusted to make the best decisions for the benefit of the whole Party and the working class. Party members who do not meet the above requirements and were not elected to be delegates were still able to attend as observers. However, the Central Committee decided that in order to be eligible as an observer, members must have no outstanding debts to the Party. Non-CPA members were not allowed to attend, even as observers, except for the special public function held on the first evening of Congress.

The first order of business for the opening day of the National Congress was the election of the Presiding Committee and the various cadres necessary to ensure the smooth running of Congress affairs. The outgoing CCE was duly elected as the Presiding Committee, however much debate took place regarding the selection of the nominations committee. The nominations committee plays an important role in the selection process for a new Central Committee and, if insufficient attention is paid to the dangers, can be a target for opportunists seeking to undermine democratic centralist principles. With all positions filled, the next task of Congress was to hear the outgoing Central Committee’s report.

Report of the outgoing Central Committee

The Central Committee’s report, given by General Secretary Bob Briton, outlined the key features of the domestic and global political situation relevant to the Party’s work as well as identified the general direction of the CPA’s political work and where attention should be paid in future. The overall position of the report was that the CPA is entering a qualitatively new phase. The previous phase of recovery and reconstruction marked by the last two Congresses is coming to an end and a new phase of public engagement and emergence is beginning. Therefore, the Central Committee decided on the Congress slogan: “Taking the Party to the People”.

The text of the Central Committee’s report will not be published publicly. It is considered an internal document and mainly focuses on the internal work of the Party. However, the author of this paper can describe in broad terms the content of the report that relates to the international and domestic situations and the Central Committee’s analysis of which trends are the most important.

In regard to the international situation, the report identified three major issues. In the spirit of the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution, the General Secretary emphasised the effect that the demise of the Soviet Union has had on the international situation. Without the Socialist World, U.S imperialism has pillaged the globe almost unchecked. This has culminated in the international situation we see today. As U.S hegemony is being challenged in various quarters, U.S imperialism is growing ever more reckless and aggressive. This can be seen in its attacks on Syria, constant warmongering against Russia and its intensifying attacks on the Left internationally, including the coup in Brazil, constant sabotage in Venezuela and provocations against the DPRK. Political forces on the Right, previously considered too extreme or unpalatable, are experiencing a major resurgence within countries around the world. These three issues combined define the international situation that Communists in individual countries must face. In the face of these challenges, the Central Committee stated that the immediate task of the international communist movement is to rebuild an international mass peace movement to oppose the growing drive to war.

The Central Committee’s report noted that the domestic situation in Australia reflects the international scene as workers’ conditions and rights deteriorate while right-wing populist parties gain in power on the back of a growing tide of racism.

The General Secretary emphasised the deteriorating working conditions of Australians. He stated: “Precarious jobs are predominant in the limited number of jobs being created in the troubled economy. Zero-hour contracts are common as are underpayment and non-payment of wages – wage theft.” Although workers’ are resisting, the ability to do so is constantly being undermined.

The report identified different mechanisms that are being used in this capacity. The most obvious means are the increasingly draconian anti-union laws, especially in the construction industry, that have now made strike action illegal in virtually all cases. The media and politicized courts cooperate to smear unions with specious claims of corruption. Aside from the obvious legal and ideological assaults, General Secretary Briton also identified other threats to the conditions of working people including the use of overseas labour on temporary visas to undercut local wages, and automation leading to greater unemployment and a higher rate of exploitation for the remaining workers.

The Central Committee noted that workers’ frustration at their worsening situation is being channelled into racism and xenophobia, which racist, right populist parties such as “Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party” have used to win seats in state and federal parliaments. Although Australia has a long and dark history of systemic racism, there have been a growing number of attacks, with the report noting that Muslims and recently-arrived migrants are now targeted by racist groups. The report also mentioned the Australian Government’s captivity to the fossil fuel lobby and its continued resistance to international efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions. To this end, anti-science attitudes, particularly climate change scepticism, have been encouraged.

Although there are many other specific issues facing the Australian people, the Central Committee identified the “…ruling class’ war on workers and their trade unions” as “The most pressing direct challenge to the working class…”. It is this threat domestically, and the threat of war internationally, that the Communist Party of Australia will attempt to unite the working class around in their struggles over the coming five years.

Following Bob Briton’s speech, reports were delivered regarding amendments to the three central documents of the Party; the Constitution, the Program and the Political Resolution. The Party Program was updated to include a more thorough analysis of the role of emerging powers like China, Russia and India. Up-to-date information about domestic political and economic circumstances was added. However, the Party’s basic position and core principles have not changed.

The main task of the second day of the National Congress was the election of the new Central Committee. A special closed session, which only delegates to the Congress and members of the outgoing Central Committee were allowed to attend, was held to explain the voting process and to allow for additional nominations and endorsement of candidates. At this session, the nominations committee presented a list of 19 candidates for election to the 19 positions on the new Central Committee. Following the report by the nominations committee, delegates were able to suggest new names to be added to the ballot. After intense discussion, three new names were added. Once preparations were completed, delegates cast their votes in a secret ballot to determine the composition of the new Central Committee. The ballots presented to delegates included all of the names provided by the nominations committee and then, below a line, the extra names endorsed by the Congress. Delegates cast their votes in a secret ballot by crossing out the names of the nominees they did not want until only 19 names were left on the ballot paper. Delegates could cross out more names and add additional names if they so wished. Once the voting finished, observers were allowed to return and discussions resumed until the results were announced and members of the incoming Central Committee left for their first meeting.

The final day of the Congress focused on considering and adopting the three core documents of the Party, a meeting for young delegates and observers, and discussion and adoption of special resolutions. Six special resolutions were raised at the Congress and all five were adopted. The first two demonstrated the Party’s commitment to supporting struggles of the working class in Australia while the other four showed an internationalist spirit in supporting fraternal parties.

The first of the domestic resolutions encouraged Party members to support the First Nations Workers Alliance, an organisation which is struggling to ensure that aboriginal workers in a federal government-run employment project receive the same rights other Australians receive. The second resolution supported coal miners who have been locked out for over six months because they refused to accept new contracts that stripped away their rights and the ability of unions to maintain safe working conditions. The four international resolutions expressed solidarity with Cuba, the working people of Honduras, the Communist Party of Poland and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea who are all facing their own difficult struggles.

A feature of the Congresses held by the Communist Party of Australia is the speeches and discussions of delegates. During the three day event, delegate speeches allowed comrades the chance to share issues that were important to themselves and their branch members. Since it was an excellent opportunity for members from across the nation to meet, comrades were eager to share their experiences and learn from the work of other branches. The 13th National Congress was no exception to this tradition as delegate speeches and discussions made up the majority of the agenda outside of electing the incoming Central Committee and adoption of main documents. No official written record exists of what delegates said or how others reacted. This privacy allows delegates to speak their minds and for those in attendance to benefit from the frank discussion that follows. While there is no formal record, there is also no prohibition on recounting, in general terms, what was discussed or publishing a contribution where the comrade is in agreement.

Although delegates spoke on a wide-range of issues, the two overwhelming foci of speeches were the topics of trade unions and Party work. These two topics were likely so popular for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the focus of the previous and new periods of Party work; secondly the significant numbers of union delegates, organisers and officials in attendance at the Congress; and thirdly the importance of workers’ rights and the role of unions in the new period.

The slogan of the 12th National Congress of the CPA was: “United and Active for a Socialist Australia”. It represented a period of internal reorganization, re-training and reorienting of the Party and its membership. This process, although achieved unevenly within the organisation, was largely successful. The 13th Congress officially recognised these achievements and turned the Party’s attention outward with the new slogan “Taking the Party to the people”. In this context, it is no wonder that delegates to the 13th Congress paid close attention to questions of inner-Party work, achievements in localities and how to reorient towards accomplishing new goals.

The Communist Party of Australia maintains a high proportion of members hailing from the industrial working class. This is especially significant considering the de-industrialisation of the Australian economy beginning with the Hawke Labor government. These members join relevant unions and, through their consistent class conscious stand and tireless work for the proletariat, are often chosen by fellow workers as union representatives. Whether as shop stewards, delegates or direct employees of trade unions, Communist Party members work to raise the class consciousness of workers and better serve workers’ interests. With a high proportion of delegates coming from this background, it should come as no surprise that unions and the work of CPA members within them were a key topic of discussion.

Finally, the importance of trade unions and their role in defending the rights of workers, especially in the current context of the ruling class’ increasing attacks, can account for the popularity of this topic at the most recent Congress. There is a keen awareness among the members of the CPA that the current downward trend in the levels of membership and action on the part of trade unions poses a grave threat to the future wellbeing and organisational capacity of the Australian working class. CPA members must be in the forefront of turning this trend around.

Results and Lessons

At the Congress, the incoming Central Committee was expanded significantly; representatives of the youth within the Party were subsequently elected; the Program and Constitution were updated and a Political Resolution was adopted. The Party’s focus on workers’ rights and the trade union movement were emphasised. However, the Congress didn’t establish much in the way of new policy, but rather reinforced the strategy and focuses that members had already identified as necessary through the course of their own struggles. This Congress is notable not for its policy documents but because of recent changes in the Party that were made clear during proceedings. It laid bare the central contradiction between new and old methods, and showed the major growth and improvements that took place since the 12th National Congress.

To understand the significance of the new trends, it is necessary to comprehend the serious historic difficulties of CPA inner-party life. These realities include the harmful effects of deeply-ingrained bourgeois liberalism in the psyche of many members; new online habits; intergenerational changes; and the difficulty of reaching a critical mass of members and finances to achieve political projects. Out of this list, bourgeois liberalism is the most damaging trend.

No one should be surprised that in an imperialist country with an extremely well developed and sophisticated propaganda system like Australia, Communist Party members are still afflicted with elements of bourgeois thought. In the case of these members, it isn’t the political positions of the bourgeoisie that cloud their minds but rather their prejudices and personal attitudes. The behaviour criticised by Mao Zedong, in “Combat Liberalism” was unfortunately all too common, especially the unprincipled elevation of one’s own desires over the collective need of the Party.

However, since the 12th National Congress, this situation has already begun to change. Initiatives at the grass roots level in numerous branches have drastically reduced the stranglehold of liberal habits on inner-party life. Where rectification has taken place, members now demonstrate much greater discipline and engage in inner-party life in a truly Leninist way. Their initiative has been awoken and branch life thrives. Examples of this revival can be seen in the states of Western and South Australia, where, after successful rectification efforts, membership numbers are growing rapidly. Two Sydney Branches have also recruited significant numbers of younger members who have been very active in Party work. In Adelaide alone, the active membership of the largest branch doubled in a year and tripled over two years. These branches are recruiting young, dedicated, highly skilled and politically conscious people rather than politically unsuitable misfits too often accepted out of desperation in the past. The social influence of these branches is also growing as comrades join social organisations and win members over to the Party’s policies. They are now also establishing their own organisations, such as community union defence leagues and university clubs to improve the Party’s ability to lead the masses. The political quality of members in these branches, especially their ability to apply Marxism-Leninism critically to Australian reality, has improved considerably.

Unfortunately, this trend has yet to reveal itself across the country. Some members’ behaviour accords with Mao’s eleven point list of liberalism and, so far, they steadfastly refuse to change their opportunist behaviour. Aside from liberalism, the other key opportunist trend among these comrades is the narrow-trade union outlook and the dragging of bad habits from the trade union movement into the party.

The 13th National Congress demonstrated to all participants the existence and relative strength of two competing trends within the CPA – a dynamic, growing membership of Marxist-Leninists and a declining group of opportunists.


The 13th National Congress of the Communist Party of Australia took place in the midst of a prolonged assault by the ruling class on the working class. A major redistribution of wealth is occurring from working people to the rich and the working class’ conditions and ability to organise are being undermined. Unions and other organisations of the working class are weaker than at any other period in living memory. The situation shows that what is needed is a strong communist party.

The Congress showed that, after almost two decades of limited success, the CPA is finally emerging as a fighting organisation with a chance at providing leadership to unions and other left-wing forces. The Party, the incoming Central Committee and the membership are aware of their historic tasks and have identified the key issues facing the Australian working class in the current period. The fullest discussion has taken place internally and the membership is united around the need to “take the Party to the people”.

The Congress was successful in demonstrating the bankruptcy of certain opportunist trends in the Party. These trends include a liberal one that shies away from activity in the workplace and the community and another importing social democrat-style politicking into the Party. Indications are that healthy new forces recently recruited to the Party and the expected influx of younger members will be imbued with proper Marxist-Leninist methods of work. Enthusiasm for greater professionalism in every aspect of the Party’s work would have received encouragement from the work and outcomes of the Congress. The task before the new Central Committee in the current period is to harness the results of recent years of Party building to take the Party to the people and rally the working class to fight back against the ruling class’ offensive.

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