Cheryl Kernot and the two-party system
by Peter Symon
The defection of Cheryl Kernot from the Australian Democrats to the Labor Party (ALP) again throws into discussion the roles played by Australia’s political parties and the limitations of the two-party system.
In joining the Labor Party, Cheryl Kernot has abandoned many of the things she has said in the past about the two-party system and the many policies issues on which she has criticised the ALP.
Here are just a few statements:
It’s pretty hard to sound credible on the partial sale of Telstra when you sold the Commonwealth Bank … the policy convergence between the Government and the Opposition makes it much more difficult for the ALP to carve out a positive reason for people to vote for them.
I am proud to stand here and say that we (the Democrats) are the only political party in the Federal Parliament which can and will … stand up for free public education.
Debating media ownership she said:
I reserve my condemnation for successive Australian governments for not having the guts, the integrity and the fundamental respect for democracy to stop playing payback and suck-up politics and to draw a line in the sand somewhere.
On the work for the dole scheme she accused the Labor Party of “dishonest politics” when it abandoned support for a Democrat amendment and allowed the scheme to pass the Senate without a vote.
In announcing her decision, Cheryl Kernot said:
I have reached the conclusion that, for me, the imperative at the next Federal election lies not in battling to extract a share of the third party vote to keep balance of power in the Senate. It is to play a more direct role in the removal of the Coalition Government.
She went on to give good reasons with which many people would agree.
I have watched as the Government stepped up the process of dismantling the State, throwing thousands of people onto the scrapheap, abolishing job creation and training programs. … I watched them maniacally cutting back programs ranging from industry R&D to family planning to dental hospital services for the poor.
I watched this Government create a crisis of confidence in the higher education sector and attack our public school system.
Australia cannot afford to flounder for six years. I believe it is now very important who wins the next election. Our destiny in the 21st Century is at stake. We don’t have the luxury of a vision vacuum.
An implication of Cheryl Kernot’s move is that the Liberal-National Coalition can only be defeated by the Labor Party. She has thus reinforced the stranglehold on Australian political life of the two-party system.
To justify her switch, she made some bold claims for the ALP:
The world is moving on. And Labor in Australia is moving with it. I believe the ALP is working on a road map for the new millennium for Australia. Labor is reaching a position where it will be best placed to meet the economic challenge of the future and … rebuild a sense of community, make society fairer, restore tolerance — in short, advance the great founding tradition of caring egalitarianism.
In effect, Cheryl Kernot is declaring that one of the two parties making up the two-party system, and a party that has been in and out of government a number of times during the last 100 years, is transforming itself to the point where it is now going to do the things that it never did in the past (with the possible limited exception of the Whitlam years).
This is another form of the great illusion which has nurtured the hopes of many people in the past: if only the Labor Party would become a genuine workers’ party, if only it would stand up to big business, if only it would fulfill its declared policies for social betterment!
In 1996, the Labor Party Government was thrown out because it had let the people of Australia down. Unemployment remained high, living standards went down, the process of massive privatisation was unleashed, the award system was undermined, welfare services were being cut, monopolies became stronger, media concentration increased, the ABC was being strangled. Labor Prime Ministers rubbed shoulders with Packer, Murdoch, Abeles and their kind rather than with the working people.
Has this lesson been learnt by the Labor Party leaders? Cheryl Kernot wants us to believe that it has.
All that has really happened, however, is that the Labor Party is now in opposition. In that position, the ALP finds it easy to vote against some Howard Government measures, and to talk about “new Labor” as though there has been a resurrection.
The Labor Party is one of the social democratic parties of the world and such parties (which have often been in Government) have invariably ended up in disappointing and disillusioning their supporters.
Writing about social democratic parties, and about the Australian Labor Party in particular, the Political Resolution adopted by the 1996 Communist Party Congress says:
Social democratic parties, such as the ALP, have moved substantially to the right in recent years. Many of the policies adopted in earlier times are now being thrown out …
Social democratic governments are implementing economic rationalist policies, have deregulated the economies of their countries, are attacking the conditions and rights of the working class, privatising public enterprises and adopting other policies very similar to those pursued by the conservative parties. They are assisting the growth of the TNCs and their domination of all important aspects of the economy … Social democracy is incapable of leading the working class in an organised, consistent struggle against economic rationalist policies.
The Political Resolution points out:
The Labor Party’s platform called for the public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange and many publicly-owned enterprises and services were established by Labor governments in the 1920s and 30s.
However, although public ownership remains in the ALP’s platform and it even declares for a “democratic socialist objective”, these are no more than paper aims.
We are now in a period in which the big corporations have become even bigger. The largest of them straddle the world and command huge resources.
They are conducting a vicious attack against the working people of all countries. It is a period of great take-back. All the economic and democratic political gains made in the last century are being destroyed to make way for the open and dictatorial rule of the transnational corporations (TNCs).
If economic, political and social progress is to be made in the future, it can only be successful if a conscious and tenacious struggle is waged against the TNCs.
While many Labor Party members have been active in fighting privatisation, in battles for the environment and Aboriginal land rights, and so forth, they do not always understand that the source of all these problems is the TNCs. And there is nothing in the statements of the ALP’s leading right-wing personalities which suggest that they even recognise this.
While Cheryl Kernot’s statements as leader of the Democrats are a rejection of some of the consequences of TNC demands, she does not recognise that both the Howard Government and the Labor Government before it were implementing policies expressing the deliberate objectives of the big corporations. To change the direction of Australian politics in any real way necessitates a struggle against the big corporations.
No significant change will come from the leaderships of the two main political parties. In government they have and will both continue to put forward essentially similar policies. In the case of the Labor Party, as the Political Resolution says, this is because “the party’s basic political and ideological position is one of a non-socialist party committed to the maintenance and continuation of capitalism”.
In a similar position in the United States, the Democrat and Republican parties are both parties of big business.
For the capitalist ruling class of Australia, the ALP is now and always has been an acceptable alternative in circumstances when the Coalition parties have been discredited.
At present there is a growing chorus of discontent coming from big business circles about the Howard Government. It is getting into trouble because it is not pushing its anti-worker and anti-trade union agenda hard and fast enough.
Cheryl Kernot’s reputation was built as the leader of the Australian Democrats, not as a member of the Labor Party. While she may carry some voters with her into the ALP, her move will not change the fundamentals of the Labor Party, nor will it change the need to provide a left and progressive alternative to the two-party system.
The vote in the recent South Australian election confirms the reality that a sizable and growing percentage of Australians are disillusioned with both main parties.
The CPA’s Political Resolution says:
The failure of the main political parties over a long period of time to look after the interests and needs of the majority of the working people and the similarity of their policies and programs makes it more imperative than ever to build in Australia an alternative political force which will be capable of establishing a new type of government and implementing policies in the interests of the people.
Even though both major parties always claim that they are representing the interests of the Australian people as a whole, experience does not bear this out. Their first commitment is to the needs and demands of the big corporations. This is so obvious as to be beyond argument.
Realising this is inducing more and more people to look for other political organisations to support and to vote for.
This tendency has been revealed in one election after another over the last decade or more. Ten, 15, 20 and sometimes up to 25 per cent have bypassed the existing two main parties and voted for Greens, Australian Democrats, the No Aircraft Noise Party and progressive independents.
For the last 100 years, Liberal or Labor has been the only choice. Now another choice is needed.
The Communist Party Resolution calls for
alliance building rather than the creation of a new party …
A strong coalition of left and progressive political organisations and individuals bringing together the working class and other democratic and progressive social forces is essential if the economic, political and social problems which have accumulated are to be tackled.
Such a coalition must set its sights on winning representation at all levels of government, breaking the two-party system. The mass movement must take up the fight for a new type of government which really represents the people.
Alternative policies which bring lasting solutions can only be implemented by establishing people’s power. This means a people’s government backed by a united and militant mass movement. From such a position of strength the Australian people can defeat the power of big business and start to build a new society giving priority to the needs of the people.
In terms of social forces, a left and progressive coalition will include as its core the large and organised working class, teachers, technologists, scientists and other professionals, small businesses and small and working farmers.
It is important to emphasis the key role of the working class. Without the working class there is no social force capable of standing up to the rule of the big corporations. The trade union movement will, therefore, have a most important role to play in the coalition itself and in the active mass movement.
In terms of existing political parties, a left and progressive coalition would include many members of the Labor Party who are against the right-wing policies of the ALP leadership. It would also include Communists, Greens and Democrats. As time goes on, other political parties may come into existence bringing into play other sections of progressive society.
Among people with left opinions two points of view are often found. Some pin their hopes on the renovation of the Labor Party, believing that if it could only be transformed into a left party, it will lead Australia to socialism.
The Labor Party continues to win the support of a large section of the working class and the trade union movement. However, if we limit our perspective merely to returning a Labor government without the development of the mass movement and to the exclusion of other left and progressive forces, little if any progress will be made, as past experience shows. There will continue to be an endless cycle of Liberal and Labor governments.
Another point of view excludes the Labor Party altogether because of its past failures. Parties such as The Greens and the Australian Democrats are also excluded because they draw their support mainly from non-working class sections of society, do not have a socialist perspective, and are not revolutionary.
Both these viewpoints are one-sided and will not succeed in building the sort of alternative which could challenge the control of big business and the conservative political parties.
We can learn much from the coalition which defeated apartheid in South Africa and is now working to implement the many economic, political and social needs of the South Africa people. The South African alliance includes the African National Congress, the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions and the South Africa Communist Party.
The weakness of the present situation in Australia is the weakness of the communist movement and the left generally. Splits and divisions over the last three decades have done a lot of damage and everyone concerned for the future of Australia should work to overcome this legacy. The weakness of the communists also led to a decline of the left in the trade union movement and in the Labor Party.
When a strong communist party existed, the trade union movement was stronger both in the level of organisation of workers and in the capacity of leaderships. This was helped by the co-operation between communists and left labour members in many trade unions in the 1950s and 60s.
When a strong communist party existed, the Labor Party left was also stronger, was more vocal, advanced good policies in a more determined way, and was generally more influential.
The Communist Party’s Political Resolution recognises the need to “build the Communist Party into a really strong and influential organisation whose membership is more active in the life of the Party and in the working class and community organisations and movements.”
Because the working class has the key role to play, priority should be given to building Party organisation in the workplaces.
The defection of Cheryl Kernot will, in the short term, probably channel some votes back to the ALP and will, consequently, strengthen the two-party system. It will delay for a time the growth of the left and progressive political alternative. She has done Australian politics a disservice. Her move is short-sighted and there is probably an element of opportunism.
However, her defection does not remove the necessity to build up the left and progressive alternative in Australia. Every effort must be made to strengthen and unite all the forces in the rising tide of popular resistance to the Liberal-National coalition’s class government.