ALP is bosses' party; are Greens an alternative?

By Linda Waldron

“What sort of peculiar capitalist country is this, in which the workers’ representatives predominate in the upper house, and until recently did so in the lower house as well, and yet the capitalist system is in no danger?” Lenin’s 1913 question was prompted by the pro-capitalist politics demonstrated by the 1910-13 Fisher Labor government.

Though socialists helped to found the Australian Labor Party and have always been active within it, and though most of the more politically conscious workers have traditionally given it their support, the ALP has never been a working-class party.

From the beginning, the Labor MPs saw themselves as mediators of the conflict between labour and capital, using legislative reform to harmonise class interests. The ALP’s commitment to the defence of the interests of capital as a whole (the “national interest”), and its political hegemony over the trade unions, have led the capitalist class to view it is an alternative governing party for capital.

Since the early 1980s, the ALP has embraced Thatcherite economic neoliberalism (or “economic rationalism”, as the Laborites prefer to call it). The Hawke and Keating Labor governments of 1983 to 1996 imposed real wage cuts through the ALP-ACTU Prices and Incomes Accord and then “enterprise bargaining”, introduced mandatory detention of “illegal” asylum seekers and fees for tertiary students through the Higher Education Contribution Scheme.

As Labor has shifted further to the right of the capitalist political spectrum, becoming “Another Liberal Party” in much of its policies, electoral space has opened up for minor parties beginning with the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the mid 1980s. Currently this “left-of-Labor” electoral space is occupied by the Australian Greens. Formed in the early 1990s, the Greens’ four policy pillars of ecological sustainability, social and economic justice, peace and non-violence and grassroots democracy. These progressive-sounding phrases reflect the Greens more detailed platform, which opposes much of the pro-big business, neoliberal policy agenda of the ALP and the conservative Coalition parties.

However, the Greens seek to reform rather than abolish the capitalist political and economic system. They seek a utopian “green”, “peaceful”, “socially just” capitalism that advances the welfare of working-class people and the prosperity of small- and medium-sized business, rather than the super-rich families that dominate life under post-19th century corporate capitalism.

In order to win concessions from the capitalist ruling class on behalf of working people and small business operators, the Greens have to present themselves to the capitalist establishment as potentially “responsible” managers of the private-profit system. For example, Greens leader Senator Bob Brown, told the National Press Club in 2004 that the “Greens economic policies are coherent and environmentally, socially and fiscally responsible”, adding: “The Business Council should look at the Greens stoic insistence on tough budget measures in Tasmania from 1989-92 to see how sensible we are as managers.”

Brown was directing the Business Council, which represents Australia’s 200 biggest corporations, to the use by the Tasmanian Greens of their parliamentary “balance of power” to enter into a formal accord with the state Labor government. The accord specified that the Labor government would protect Tasmania’s forests in return for Greens support for the government’s budget. The outcome of the accord was a state budget that slashed jobs, cut back on public transport and attacked public education.

Despite their claimed commitment to “grassroots democracy”, the Greens do not seek to promote any organisations of grassroots-based rule by the common people. On the contrary, Greens’ leaders believe that parliament is where real decisions are, and should be, made. They therefore concentrate their efforts on trying to achieve parliamentary representation.

Many Greens members also engage in building grassroots movements, but this activity is rarely organised by the Greens as a party. Because they are oriented to reforming the capitalist system through parliamentary legislation, this prevents the Greens from being able to achieve much progress on policies that express their desire to improve the conditions of life of working people.

On May 15, for example, Greens Senator Kerry Nettle moved a motion in solidarity with the Palestinian people on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the brutal establishment of the Israeli colonial settler-state. Predictably, Labor and Coalition senators voted against the motion and it was lost. Without an orientation to building a mass movement of solidarity with the struggle of the Palestinian people, such parliamentary motions do little to help advance the cause of the oppressed.
Any tactical use of parliament by progressives must aim for the higher goal of aiding and consolidating the self-organising capacity of working people, not substituting for it. Alongside exposing the pro-capitalist politics of Labor and the Coalition parties by introducing progressive legislative proposals, parliamentary tactics should seek to expose the structural impediments that the parliamentary system puts in the way of organising the involvement of ordinary people in politics.

Neither perpetual lobbying of the Labor Party for a few progressive concessions, as the social movement peak bodies do, nor playing the preference game and aspiring to hold the balance of power in parliament will save the world’s climate from catastrophic change or result in a more just society. On the contrary, an important task for a genuinely independent green movement is to expose the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of the parliamentary system and the politicians who live off it. It must concentrate on building the real opposition to pro-capitalist government policies — opposition in workplaces, on campus and in the streets.

[Linda Waldron is a former branch organiser for the Democratic Socialist Party in Melbourne and was convener of the Melbourne and Footscray Socialist Alliance branches. She is a member of the Canberra branch of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]