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AUSTRALIAN
MARXIST
REVIEW

Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 52July 2010

Elections and the CPA — getting serious

by Bob Briton

The prospect of an election puts questions before the CPA that we sometimes discuss as if we were facing them for the first time. Should we participate in a game that the major parties, the trusty servants of the bourgeoisie, have got well and truly sewn up? Won’t we simply reveal to the public just how little support there is for our party and socialism by standing candidates? Wouldn’t we be better off committing the funds and the effort to other party-building activities? The response from those favouring participation is usually along the lines that running in elections at least gives us another opportunity to put the working class alternative before the community and rally some supporters to the flag.

The fact that there are different points of view as decision time approaches is not, of itself, a problem. In fact it is inevitable as members assess the current circumstances from the same ideological starting point but taking into account different life experiences. The problems begin when the decision is made to contest an election and the forces behind it perform like an alliance of the sceptical and the faint-hearted. What would happen if a party organisation threw itself into a campaign as if it expected to do well and committed the resources needed to do it?

Earlier this year the CPA’s South Australian State Committee decided to contest the state seat of Lee and, while we could always refine our work and deepen our commitment, the effort and the result gave us a glimpse of the answer to that teaser of a question.

Getting agreement

The decision to contest the seat was made by the State Committee last December. The year 2010 was to be full of opportunities to test our electoral support — the state election in March, the local council elections in November and the federal election sometime in the following twelve months. A joint meeting of Adelaide party branches was called and the pros and cons of the various alternatives — including doing some other sorts of campaigns entirely — were explored. The fact that we would be pinned down by the commitment and that a number of other projects would have to be put on hold was on the table for everybody to discuss.

We already had one member on the local council and may consider standing a candidate when he retires. Contesting the ward might have the effect of splitting the communist vote allowing somebody else to take the spot. We did not know whether we would have the resources to cover the state with our material in a campaign for an upper house spot.

We believed that running in Lee recommended itself for a variety of reasons. It was thought that seeing I was in the best position to be the party’s candidate, that it would be best if I ran in my own electorate. It so happened that the House of Assembly seat was held by Labor’s Michael Wright who had a bad reputation among workers for his role as Minister for Industrial Relations in downgrading the state’s WorkCover scheme two years earlier.

The party had contested the larger federal seat of Port Adelaide (which overlaps the boundaries of the state seat of Lee) in 1998 and 2001. State President Michael Perth headed two solid campaigns and was rewarded with a vote of around one percent. The experience was valuable but we knew we could do better. At our aggregate meeting we appointed a campaign committee with at least one member from all of the branches. Since 2001 we had recruited some members with good media, internet and organisational capabilities and we left it open to the campaign committee to coopt supporters from outside who might bring sought-after skills to the work.

We were determined to do well but we had no illusions. We were not going to win the seat. People in the area are rusted onto the Labor Party and the Libs traditionally come in second by a big margin. The left has still to peg back the ideological advantage that has been strengthened during decades of neo-liberalism. The privatisation of utilities in the state has been unpopular but this should not be interpreted as support for a program of nationalisation and the establishment of new public enterprises. Socialism would not be presented as an immediate prospect or demand in our campaign but somebody should put these questions of ownership and control before the public. We knew it would be left to us.

We wanted to take advantage of the increased interest in political matters and the more extensive media coverage to get our message before a much bigger audience than usual. It would provide an opportunity for making new contacts. We were going after the protest vote, as were the Greens, but we were targeting the more progressive sections who wanted to make a stronger protest. This includes a protest against the system of corporate domination — against capitalism.

Don’t “bob up”

The party and the campaign committee were mindful of advice from the CPA’s electoral glory days. Though we have had and still have local councillors serving their communities, Fred Paterson remains the only communist elected to an Australian parliament. That happened many years ago in Queensland when the popular lawyer won the state seat of Bowen in 1944 and was re-elected in 1947. He was beaten brutally by police while supporting a picket of striking railway workers in 1948. He never fully recovered. His seat was chopped into two unwinnable halves by the gerrymandering Hanlon Government.

Many years later Queensland State Party Secretary Jim Henderson wrote a pamphlet about Fred’s career and electoral successes. The reminiscing is studded with lessons for those wanting to learn them. For example:

… the strength of the party in the electorate must be taken into full consideration as the most important factor in the successful outcome. For years the strength of branch membership and organisation had been growing and it is true to say that there was not one spot of any significance in the whole area where the party had not been active. The increase in the party vote had been parallel with the increase in the activity of the party.1

The CPA was, indeed, an impressive force in the community and the labour movement in those days. Members had led a successful campaign among cane-cutters to have the crops burned before harvesting to control Weil’s disease, for example, and Jim Henderson and Fred had both served on local town councils.

In the western suburbs of Adelaide we have one member on town council. We have members who have worked well on various trade union, environmental and Aboriginal rights issues over the years. The local branch had made a valuable contribution to the campaign for land justice for the local descendents of Lartelare — the last Aboriginal woman to live the traditional way in Glanville before her people were moved off the land to make way for the CSR sugar refinery. The site is now being redeveloped for luxury apartments and marinas.

Much of this work is hidden from the public in the sense that we do not take up these questions as public party campaigns. Aside from the very visible election campaigns of a decade ago, most people’s acquaintance with the party is via the Semaphore Workers’ Club (known locally as “the commo”) where members of the CPA make up a majority on the committee. Concerts and meetings are held in rooms decorated with union and party flags and banners and portraits of the greats of the communist movement such as Marx, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Big Jim Healey and Elliot V Elliott look down from the walls. Deceased branch stalwarts such as Ron Connolly and Jim Mitchell are memorialised. The very popular weekly blues nights always end with the playing of The Internationale.

So while we were not as visible or active as those Queensland comrades of yesteryear, we had some profile in the community and were keen to test our electoral support. We knew that Fred Paterson’s comrades had tried “unsuccessfully” numerous times before cracking the electoral nut in 1944 and we were sure they did not wait until they had covered all the issues in the district before moving on to the campaign for the seat of Bowen. Activity in unions and in the community in defence of working people’s interests outside parliament will always be primary but elections are seen in Australia as an important test for a party that takes itself seriously.

Coming ready or not

Elections are good for discipline. There is no flexibility whatsoever about the big dates along the campaign timeline. The campaign will officially start when the Premier requests the Governor to “issue the writs” for the election to happen. The candidate’s nomination has to be with the Electoral Commission on a certain date, as does the list of preferences. The latter has to be in a predetermined format. Your printing has to ready by certain stages in the campaign or the effort required to produce them will be wasted. Before you can produce the leaflets, you have to have sorted out the policies you wish to highlight and even the “look” you want for the materials.

We thought we would group the issues under four main headings to deal with our opposition to privatisation, the attacks on workers’ rights, environmental issues and the growing militarisation of the state. We thought we would couch these in positive terms and along with our main slogan of “Another SA is possible”, we put forward “sub-slogans” of “Return it to the Public”, “Restore Workers’ Rights”, “Paint the Town Green” and “Create Peaceful Jobs”.

Deciding on policy for an election campaign forces a party organisation to get down to specifics. After all, you could be called on at any time to outline and defend your position. What was our attitude to the various (and radically different) schemes set out by the major parties and environmental groups for ensuring our state‚Äôs water supply? Do we support the Rann Government’s proposal to build an expensive new Royal Adelaide Hospital or the Liberals’ commitment to renovate and expand on the existing site?

We proposed a range of measures to tackle the water shortage but opposed Rann’s hugely expensive, electricity-guzzling desalination plant. Whatever solution was found to extricate the hospital from its current predicament, we insisted that it be kept in public hands and not given away piecemeal through Public Private Partnerships.

Pre-election media coverage focussed heavily on these issues, especially water. Candidates went to extraordinary lengths to establish their “water” credentials.2 On the question of workers’ rights we were pretty much a lone voice calling for the restoration of compensation entitlements stripped from workers in 2008 and for tougher measures to ensure workplace safety including the right of unions to organise. We were absolutely on our own in calling for public enterprises to be established to build the sustainable energy and transport infrastructure we need. Same, too, with the call to de-militarise the SA economy and to cancel plans for the establishment of a special curriculum to feed high school graduates into weapons-related tertiary studies.

The response to our campaign was remarkable from the outset. Our first “begging bowl” letter was met with generous donations from all over the country. Comrades from the other side of the historic CPA splits were very supportive. Some of them were impressed that we were putting socialism plainly in our platform. Our campaign launch attracted around 100 well-wishers and supporters. We held it in the main bar of a popular local hotel with the intention of attracting the curiosity of onlookers. It was a big, well-run meeting and it had the desired effect. People were very interested that the CPA was making such a splash.

The campaign attracted a lot of media attention though that statement does not tell the whole story. The week of our campaign launch we produced a media kit with hard copies of our first leaflet introducing the candidate along with a media release. We included a CD with portraits of the candidate and electronic versions of our material. A member of our campaign committee then rang the newsrooms that we had physically delivered the kit to and asked if the relevant journalist had received it. That small, crucial detail of the campaign involved hours and hours of work but got results.

I was photographed by Murdoch’s Adelaide Advertiser and a good-sized and helpful piece appeared prominently in its pages. I was interviewed by ABC News Radio and the segment was played once on a late night bulletin. Three young presenters on WOW FM Community Radio invited me onto their program and asked the common questions about communism — “Why has communism got such a bad reputation? Why are you pushing communism when it has failed wherever it has been tried?” and so on. The opportunity was priceless.

The Fairfax-owned Independent Weekly picked up some of our media releases and its on-line version, InDaily, put nearly all of them up on the page devoted to election stories. Early in the coverage independents and candidates from smaller parties were given the chance to record a two-minute YouTube piece about themselves that would be embedded and later available via a link to the InDaily site.

The party put up a website devoted to the election campaign. We had enough money in the budget to pay a designer to build the site, which ended up carrying a lot of content including YouTubes, our media releases, policies and a general introduction to the party. We put a high priority on the internet because we need to recruit younger members. The net really is their medium. The feedback vindicated our gut feeling — young people would see one of our 200 candidate posters on an electricity pole, Google the party and find out more.

We produced two full-colour leaflets — one introducing the candidate and the broad outline of our policies and the other going into the issues in more depth. These were delivered commercially to all 15,000 households. We had a quarter-page ad in the Messenger Press in the week leading up to the poll. We held a street corner meeting on the Semaphore shopping strip about the conversion of the local public Le Fevre High School into the state’s first Naval High School with close links to the nearby Techport Defence Industry Precinct. About thirty people showed up but plenty of others were interested to see what we were doing.

Lessons and aftermath

We threw everything into the Lee campaign. On the day of the election we had red-shirted volunteers (party members and non-members) on all the booths in the electorate all day. In the evening good numbers came back to the Doghouse Club, where we have our office, to share a drink and a curry and to watch the election broadcast. We polled three percent, which is modest by the standards of the ALP and the Libs but a great result for us. We were not the only ones to think so. In the days and weeks following the election we received sincere congratulations from many quarters.

Progressive trade unionists and local Greens members were among those who were favourably impressed. So was the city mayor. At the Workers’ Memorial dedication ceremony held the morning after May Day he told the gathering that he was privileged to attend our campaign launch and saw us an important group in the local community that, among other things, defended small business against the interests of the monopolies. The crowd was stunned. Mayor Gary Johanson is a Liberal.

We achieved the objectives we set for ourselves at the beginning of the campaign to a significant degree. We wanted to build our profile in the community, make a positive contribution to our reputation and the reputation of communism and to recruit new members. Our campaign was widely regarded as very professional and we did manage to recruit a handful of new members in the course of it.

What about building alliances with left and progressive forces? We did receive a lot of help from non-party individuals who were pleased to support our platform. The local Greens were open and friendly to us but it is noteworthy that they left their how-to-vote card blank from squares two through seven. They did not do that in other electorates and I suspect part of the difficulty in allocating preferences would have arisen from the question of where to put the CPA candidate. The ALP put us stone motherless last, as did most other candidates.

It is interesting to note that together the CPA and Greens took 15 percent of the vote; a nice fat chunk out of the ALP’s altogether too comfortable margin. Would the campaign have gathered more support if it had been an effort from an alliance of left and progressive forces? Wouldn’t that have been more in keeping with the spirit of our program? The fact is that in our area there are not many groups active around progressive causes and fewer still that are ready to make common cause with the CPA at this stage. I am not sure a “community alliance” would have attracted more votes than our own campaign in any case.

The point is that our party is still controversial and misunderstood. We have to be able to step outside of ourselves for a moment and see ourselves as others might see us. Some would have the prejudice that we are small, unenergetic and with a wildly unrealistic political approach.

The campaign in Lee went some way to dispelling those myths in Adelaide but we also have to ask what benefit would there be to the Greens or sections of the Greens, for example, to ally themselves with us or to look to us for leadership on issues at this stage? To put it bluntly, we have to have something to bring to the table and to do that we have to lift our performance in all aspects of our work including electioneering. We need to reach the standards achieved in the Lee campaign (or better!) and do it consistently on a nationwide basis to ensure that we are significant member of a future left and progressive alliance.

That will be hard. In SA recently another aggregate meeting was called to consider what to do in the forthcoming federal elections. It was decided not to contest them in SA but to consolidate what we have achieved and focus on other local campaigns. A number of factors led to the decision including the assessment that we would not get the same level of financial support for another campaign so soon after the last one. Another important (but unstated) reason is that we need to recharge the batteries after the considerable exertion of the state election campaign. To carry out these tasks one after the other we need more people to share the load and a greater depth of the sorts of skills that election campaigning demands.

The frustrating thing is that we know we will recruit these members, lift our skills level and become that well-oiled machine precisely through activities like the Lee election campaign. The problem is that we are just short of the organisational size and capacity to do it with the necessary regularity. I have no doubt we will get there. Capitalism is helping our recruiting efforts by being its essential nasty self with worse set to come.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from the campaign for Lee is that we can work out more attractive ways to present our ideas to large numbers and people and that, even at this stage of Australia’s political development, good numbers will respond positively.

References

  1. The Election of Fred Paterson to Queensland Parliament, Jim Henderson, James Cook University Students Union, 1986.
  2. For the record, the ultimate SA election result was a win for the incumbents with a solid swing away from the ALP. It did not end up being a referendum on the burning issues of water and hospital spending but on the more vague question of the relative ability of the Rann Labor and Redmond Liberal teams to govern, in my opinion.

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