The anti-privatisation campaign
Socialist Party of Australia General Secretary Peter Symon and Central Committee Executive members Eddie Clynes and David Matters gathered for the Australian Marxist Review to informally discuss the development of the movement against privatisation and to defend public ownership.
David Matters: The privatisation movement or the committees that have developed started I think from the initiatives of the maritime unions or comrades associated with the maritime unions and in particular some of that was in relation to the focus on the Australian National Line.
I think the forces that have come together in Brisbane were some people related to MUSAA, and some forces that related to the Socialist Party and there was Democratic Socialist Party people but also, significantly, there were forces of the left of the ALP.
Some of the anti-privatisation movement was related to the Labor Party conference. I think that one of the factors at the moment that people need to take account of, and the left should take account of, is the fact that there is a limited agenda for a number of the people who are currently involved whilst their intentions and their procedures are of a good and progressive nature,
For instance, the maritime people have primarily focussed on the question of the Australian National Line and its privatisation. They would also of course be naturally focussed on the question of their union's involvement and their union's preservation and the unionisation of the industry and the effects that privatisation would have on that.
The ALP people are focussed on the question of the role of the left within the ALP Conference in Tasmania. They were hoping to use that movement as a bolstering force to improve the situation of the left at that conference.
There are also the forces of the Democratic Socialist Party who I think also see some opportunity for them to recruit from the anti-privatisation struggle and have made that part of their focus.
So these factors have played some kind of limiting role I think. And there have been some difficulties too with the Socialist Party's aim of creating a co-ordinated approach. These arise from the difficulties the party has had in Brisbane in the preceding period with regard to its functioning and the co-ordination of its comrades in a unified direction.
These are things that have been highlighted by the struggle – but at this stage I'll just end with the comment that I've always understood that the anti-privatisation movement would be a long and difficult political issue because it relates fundamentally to one of the core issues of capitalism and that's ownership of the means of production.
We're raising a philosophical issue that's been brought into question by the developments in the Soviet Union and in Eastern Europe. We're asking about whether ownership should be private or public.
The debate at the moment is going all the way with privatisation and we need to start to look at the significance of that in relation to ordinary people and start to develop that.
What we're looking at within this struggle is about four or five different struggles. We should be trying to separate them out to understand where they are, but at the same time keeping a perspective on it and realizing that it's going to be a very long, protracted struggle.
It's a long way back to a position of public ownership and getting that as a generally accepted community norm again, but it's a very essential struggle.
Eddie Clynes: In nearly all centres, the rallies during the week of actions against privatisation were in the low hundreds but the Melbourne rally was several thousands. In Brisbane there were 300 to 400, in Sydney there were 200 to 300, Newcastle was about 300 and Canberra was about 200, but in Melbourne I think between 10,000 and 15,000 people took part in the anti-privatisation rallies.
The difference in Melbourne was that there the Victorian Trades Hall Council took the lead in organising those rallies and called delegates meetings. Many unions had stop works on the day of the rallies and that added to the attendance.
I know from the Melbourne rally that the political focus was not just on the Kennett Government, it was on the Federal Government as well, against the Federal Government's privatisation agenda.
I think that's the first big difference. It's highlighted by looking at Melbourne where the trade unions and the community groups – in Melbourne there's been a lot of unity between them – they've had some experience in mobilising against privatisation, against what the Kennett Government has been doing.
That momentum, I think, and the political forces who've been pushing it have maintained their perspective, maintained their focus and their ability to organise.
With some of the smaller rallies around the place, they've mainly been relying on union leaderships who are not really used to mobilising. Politically, their position is reliance on the ALP, doing things via consultation and round table discussions, the Accord process.
Many union leaderships don't really want to push the anti-privatisation issue via mass struggle and mass mobilisation but rely on the ALP National Conference and putting all their eggs in that arena because that's the extent of their political outlook, their perspective for change.
In Sydney, we had a lot of difficulty trying to get the small union-based committee here to accept the idea that community groups should also be involved in the anti-privatisation struggle.
There are a lot of community groups who are taking up the anti-privatisation struggle in various areas, especially the groups around the various hospitals which are threatened with closure and privatisation.
But there was a lot reluctance, a lack of understanding, a failure to see the importance of that link between the organised trade union movement and the community-based groups.
Peter Symon: The fact is that with the exception of Melbourne, the anti-privatisation rallies in the major cities were quite small and, as far as I am aware, in Adelaide there was no action at all at that time.
Some of the reasons for that have already been mentioned but if we have look back over a longer period of history, and not just the last few months in which anti-privatisation committees have come into existence, we have to admit that there's been a general weakening of the position of the trade union movement which really needs to play a foremost part in this struggle because their members are going to be much affected by the outcome of the struggle.
Trade union membership has declined and there have been very limited activities and struggles by the trade union movement in many cases. In fact the government has been able to boast for the last decade that the level of trade union struggle is the lowest for a long, long time.
This is partly because many unions accepted the idea that the way to get things done these days was by having discussions between the government, the employers and the trade union movement and to do what can rather crudely perhaps but nonetheless accurately be called deals between those three forces.
Sometimes those deals might be quite advantageous but very often they are less than might be obtained because if the trade unions limit their activity to those sort of negotiations and neglect to bring into play the forces of the trade union itself – that is, the members of the trade union in one form or another – then the possibilities of getting the best results are reduced.
I think this situation – and its been developing for a long long time in the trade union movement – is to be seen in what happened this last week as far as these anti-privatisation rallies were concerned.
But its a reflection of the relative, limited activity by the trade union movement as a whole, not only on this question but on many other questions which are seriously facing workers at the present time.
I think there's another angle to it and that is that reactionary political circles and, of course, big business have been waging a many many years-long campaign against public ownership of the means of production, “any” means of production.
We're regularly told that a public institution is by that very criteria inefficient, we're told that it must inevitably be losing money and therefore not economic. This sort of campaigning has had an effect on the thinking and the convictions of many, even those who are employed in the public sector.
The other side of the coin is the propagation of the idea that private ownership is much more economic and much more profitable and much more efficient, that private enterprise provides better services to the people, that it will get things done more quickly, and so on.
All these sorts of arguments are being used and – because they haven't really been countered effectively, even by those unions which cover these enterprises, certainly not by the Labor Party's political leaders who are actually advocating privatisation – because this propaganda hasn't been repudiated in any way, it's inevitable that it would have some effect.
Eddie has already touched on what I think is a main factor, if one is to compare what happened in Melbourne and what happened in the other States.
In Melbourne, the trade union leadership there did enter wholeheartedly into the campaign and it led up to the day of action by having a meeting of the delegates as a point of mobilisation. At that meeting there was a certain amount of conviction achieved as a result of what was said and the delegates became points of organisation for the rally and that had a good response.
Also in Melbourne for some time there have been active attempts to unite the forces of the trade union movement and the various community organisations in the campaign and this is a source of very great strength. As far as I am aware, generally speaking that didn't happen effectively in any of the other cities.
David Matters: I think we're making a mistake in tending to see this movement as something that should have just leapt up and been an automatic winner, that thousands of people should have run out into the streets and said "hey, we support public ownership, hey, we're going to defend it, let's get things rolling here".
That's just not going to happen without proper leadership, its just not going to happen without people actually building a movement and changing the political perspective and convincing people that there is an alternative.
I think its too simplistic to say that it is the Accord and that its people doing deals. Its more important that we look at the fact that we've had a lot of issues that we haven't dealt with over many years, issues relating to how we should have built the movement, how we should have built the Party, how we should have been active in and developed the union movement.
In my own industry, for instance, privatisation is affecting us in South Australia. There, 70 per cent of our buses are going to be privatised according to the Liberal Party proposal – but there wasn't any demonstration in Adelaide.
In Western Australia, there's a proposal been put by our union – that's been rejected by the members – for an aggregate wage to solve the industry's efficiency problems and to prevent it from being privatised.
A lot of workers are going through this procedure at the present moment in their industries. They're being told that we're going to get these issues resolved, we're going to make our industry more efficient and then privatisation won't happen to you, you won't lose your job.
We're in the process of trying to get Party comrades to think more about how they get involved in the struggle and how they develop people from where they are now. I think we've got to get to a point where people understand that you develop a movement and that we're trying to develop the movement. What we have to try to develop is a movement across the board against privatisation. The rallies were one step in it, and I don't think we should get too excited or disappointed at this stage.
Eddie Clynes: Just on that point of trying to develop a movement across the board, I think one of the misconceptions around the place is that privatisation is just an issue for public sector workers.
It isn't just an issue for them. Of course, they're in the direct firing line, in the sense that in a public enterprise that's privatised, there'll be a loss of conditions, a loss of jobs and so on, the services will deteriorate as we've seen in a number of areas. But to understand privatisation in a broader sense, in a more political sense, privatisation undermines the government's ability to provide services to everybody.
For instance, the simple idea of profitable enterprises subsidising services like health, education, transport ....
David Matters: It gets down to the question of whether you've got a right to live on this earth ....
Eddie Clynes: Well, in a sense ....
David Matters: It does, because they're privatising the very land that you live on. That's the basic issue – do you have a right to live on this earth? If you have a right to live on this earth, what do we produce things for?
Do we produce a bar of soap to sell or do we produce a bar of soap because someone needs a bar of soap to wash? Do we produce an orange because somebody needs an orange to eat or do we produce an orange because the orange is for profit?
If you listen to the logic that's going on in current society, we produce an orange because an orange sells and its a commodity. That's the current logic and we haven't been able to turn that around.
Eddie Clynes: Well, we also want the government to be involved in running enterprises, in running profitable government businesses so that they can then properly fund the non-profit making areas like health, like transport, like education. So we are interested in government businesses making a profit.
David Matters: But we have to admit though that in regard to the running of the government enterprises, we did allow inefficient practices, practices that didn't deliver the services the people wanted, to creep into public enterprise and that's a reality.
Peter Symon: What we're talking about really is winning the understanding and the conviction among a lot of people, whether they're employed in the public institutions or not, that public enterprise is a worthwhile form of ownership of the means of production.
This shouldn't be or needn't be limited to merely the provision of what have been regarded as government services but also should be extended and can be extended into other areas. There's been quite a few enterprises in the course of Australian history which have been government owned that have been both efficient and profitable and that continues to be the situation.
But many people have been persuaded that public enterprise isn't really anything worthwhile fighting about or fighting for – providing its possible for people to get a job and to get a reasonable wage, then it doesn't matter very much whether its public or whether its private enterprise.
But it seems to me that out of this principle not only the maintenance but also the extension of public ownership is a good economic way to go for the Australian people.
David Matters: One of the problems has been the Federal Government promoting an ideological shift in the public service management philosophy where we have public sector management shifting their position to a view that public enterprise needs to run along commercial lines and needs to have other objectives other than the service of the people. That's a real difficulty.
Eddie Clynes: And at the same time the government, when it criticises anyone on the left, is saying we shouldn't really have any ideological commitment to public enterprise. But they have certainly got an ideological commitment to private enterprise which they try to present as the "natural" state of things.
But talking about the left and the anti-privatisation struggle, I think the left has been absent to a large extent, especially in initiating anti-privatisation struggles.
If you think of the anti-privatisation struggles around the place – the big ones, the struggles against hospitals closing and being privatised, the anti-freeway struggles that have been going on, public education, the NRMA – it hasn't been the left political forces who initiated these struggles, its been ordinary people who've been affected, other political forces such as left Labor people, the pensioners who have been active in defending public health.
And I think its high time that the left political forces accepted that they have to be right there in the thick of these struggles, that we can't stand back with good theories about the direction that we want to go in and expect people to see us there and say, oh yes, that's a good direction.
The only way we're going to convince people of our direction of change is by working with them, struggling with them, being really involved in these struggles that are going on.
Peter Symon: I want to respond to what Eddie had to say which has both its good and its bad side. The bad side is that the left has still by and large stood aloof from the struggles.
But the good side is that many people in the community, who do not regard themselves as left politically and maybe haven't been involved in any particular campaigns in the past, have now become involved in the hospital campaign or defending public education or opposing the sell off and privatisation of the NRMA and various other campaigns.
This shows that there is a considerable residue of people who do – not only for reasons of self-interest but for reasons of deeper convictions about the value of public enterprise and the services it provides – believe its worthwhile defending.
David Matters: I would like to add that the development of the struggle within the trade union movement has been impeded to some extent because of the period of history we have come through.
In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, there were only a few significant struggles within the working class movement. One of them was a struggle around trams in Brisbane where our union was on strike for about five weeks over the issue of trams being removed and the effect that would have on public transport in Brisbane.
But the people who led and were involved in that strike struggle are no longer in the trade union movement. They've retired, they've moved away and the experience that was in them and was cultivated with those people has passed by.
The period that followed was an easy period of being able to accept gains in relation to wages and being able to accept the struggle for wages and so forth as being relatively guaranteed. That led to a lack of development of the leadership, of experience within the leadership, of being able to organise these sorts of struggles.
Peter Symon: And among the rank and file too.
David Matters: Yes, among the rank and file too. I recall something that was said to me by a delegate the other day when I was in Sydney. He asked me: Are your younger members not very streetwise like ours in that they don't see a distinction between the boss and the union and they don't see a distinction between their interests and the employer's interests?
They do stupid things like they do something wrong and instead of doing what in past periods most workers would have done and say that's the boss and I'm not going to tell him something about myself, they go and own up to something and they end up getting sacked and they scratch their head and wonder why.
There's an atmosphere in the community, an unreal belief that there isn't a difference between the boss and themselves ....
Peter Symon: And that he's not such a bad guy after all and that somehow he's going to listen to reason.
Eddie Clynes: Its the success of the Accord mentality.
David Matters: Its partly the success of the Accord mentality but its also a development that's been occurring for about 20 or 30 years, not just the eight or nine years the Accord has been in.
Eddie Clynes: Yes, its a decline of class consciousness because of the lack of struggles and the relatively easy times that we've been in.
David Matters: And the sophisticated approach to handling the struggles by the ruling apparatus. The Labor Party is more seen as the party of government because of their ability to handle things. For instance in the recent maritime dispute, they absorbed that struggle, they didn't take it on and exacerbate it, they didn't make it worse.
They didn't do what the Liberal Party alternative philosophy said – go in and try and take the unions on and bait them up which would have awakened a bit more class consciousness. Instead they said, let's absorb it, let's go and sit down and talk and they were able to take the force of it.
One of the difficulties we're facing within the trade union movement is developing the struggle because a lot of new members and a lot of people in the trade union movement don't see the need to fight the boss. They think you can sit down and reach a reasonable compromise on most issues.
If you're not trying to do that, they want to get rid of you because you're causing trouble and you're not taking things in the direction they're going. Its a very difficult position for people with a left philosophy to try to generate and to get that understanding of the need to struggle, the need to change things.
Peter Symon: And that can't be achieved by any wave of some magic wand. Its going to be a long time and its going to take a lot of hard work and very capable political leadership which deals with the issues and sets out to win understanding and conviction about them.
David Matters: We should consciously set it as a goal for our Party at a national level to see a movement develop in this country in opposition to privatisation and that the Party should develop an active role and a leading role in it.