Grant Brookes, in Melbourne
Elections for local councils across the Australian state of Victoria took place on October 27. Socialist candidates scored major gains.
The Socialist Party, standing in all three wards in the inner-Melbourne City of Yarra, won its highest ever vote – up 58 percent on 2008. SP councillor Stephen Jolly was re-elected under the Single-Transferrable Vote (STV) system, topping the poll with more first preference votes than any other candidate.
Socialist Alliance candidates, running in the northern Melbourne suburbs of Moreland and in the regional city of Geelong, scored the party’s best results in Victoria. Sue Bolton came third highest in the tally of first preference votes, out of 24 candidates. And under STV she was elected to Moreland City Council as the most preferred candidate overall for her ward. In Geelong, Sue Bull won over 10,000 first preference votes (8 percent of the total) in the mayoral election.
Yet in a country where voting is compulsory, around a quarter of registered electors didn’t cast a vote. Commenting on the low turnout, Monash senior politics lecturer Nick Economou observed, “If people do not believe the system is relevant to them, they won’t turn up, even if there is a threat of a fine”.
Institute of Public Affairs spokesperson James Paterson called for voluntary voting, adding, “We don’t believe people should be compelled to cast a vote for a party they don’t agree with”.
The largest socialist group in Melbourne maintains that elections shouldn’t be a focus for activists, and may even be a distraction from the “real” struggle. Sadly, their abstention meant that voters only had the option of supporting socialist candidates, campaigning to radically transform the system, in three out of Victoria’s 79 council areas.
But the strong results for the SP and SA show the opportunity – and the need – for activists to connect with community members through elections.
The Australian Greens were hoping for major gains to flow from voter disillusionment with the two-party system, dominated by Labor and Liberal Party members standing as “independents”.
But the Green Party failed to connect with working class voters and fill the political vacuum. Coupled with growing experience of Greens in office, and their patchy record at providing an alternative to “business as usual”, the party came out of the Victorian elections with 20 councillors – up by just one on 2008.
Sitting Green councillors were dumped in areas ranging from inner-city Port Phillip to outer suburban Casey City. In Yarra, the former Green Party mayor was not returned to council, after repeatedly bowing to developers, leaning on protesters to abandon an offshoot from Occupy Melbourne, and supporting above-inflation rate rises for residents while cutting services and trumpeting Yarra’s debt-free balance sheet.
By contrast, both the Socialist Party and Socialist Alliance stood on a platforms of turning city councils into “campaigning councils”. Their vision was not to administer in accordance with the neoliberal framework set by state and federal governments, but to challenge higher authorities to give residents more control over issues – like transport – which impact on them.
“We pledge to offer people the type of fighting representation that they need to take on a hostile State Government, cashed up developers and an unhelpful bureaucracy”, said the SP election leaflet.
“We need a council that stands up for residents against greedy developers and the anti-people policies of the state and federal governments”, said the Socialist Alliance.
And both parties were clear that voting was not enough. As SP candidate Mel Gregson told an election fundraiser on October 21, “We don’t say one thing at election time, and another thing after. We need to elect socialist councillors, but they have to be backed up with a movement of people from below.”
Socialist Party member Simon explained to The Spark that the party and councillor Stephen Jolly first gained a public profile in the area through their lead role in saving Richmond Secondary College in the 1990s. For almost a year, community activists occupied the school to stop its demolition. Volunteer qualified teachers kept the school open for students after it was “closed”, until the state government relented and re-opened it.
“If you want people to support you, you have to get wins on the board”, said Simon. “Another socialist group came along, but they just sold papers and argued for the most militant tactics. They had no understanding that many of these people were taking action for the first time. That group was told to leave after two weeks.”
Since then, the small Socialist Party has concentrated much of its activity in Yarra neighbourhoods. Represented on council since 2004, the SP has recently organised successful community campaigns to save two community centres, to defend green space in public housing estates from private developers and to reverse a decision to close council-run childcare services.
It has led community protests against a proposed new motorway tunnel into Yarra and won support for a council-funded public transport campaign. It has also worked to unionise the staff in the many small bars and cafes in the suburb of Fitzroy and supported other union struggles.
The SP has built a mighty reputation and huge networks locally, so that it was able to mobilise over 150 members and supporters for its council election campaign. 90,000 leaflets were distributed to homes. 15,000 doors – around a third of the electorate – were visited. Socialist Party posters were everywhere.
As well as proposing policies like planning which puts residents before developers, real action on climate change, defending and extending council services, support for public housing and understanding cost of living pressures, the party was also able to campaign on its long record of successfully defending residents at neighbourhood level.
As Jolly tweeted after his re-election, “A red-blooded socialist party has now entrenched itself electorally in parts of Melbourne. This is very significant from many levels.”
The Socialist Alliance took a different approach in Moreland City. As a party which campaigns more around national and international issues and which stands in general elections across Australia, its local knowledge and links were not as strong.
As a prominent social movement campaigner in Victoria, candidate Sue Bolton did have a profile in parts of the Moreland community. She was known to local union activists through her role in the Northern Communities Union Solidarity Group, while work in solidarity with Palestine and the Arab Spring uprisings had forged connections with Muslim community members.
Refugee rights campaigning centred on the detention centre in Broadmeadows brought her contacts in new migrant communities, adding to long-standing links with the Kurdish and Turkish groups. 40 percent of Moreland City’s population were born outside Australia.
The Socialist Alliance had also stood in previous elections for council and for state and federal government.
“But it wasn’t just me, or the party”, Sue told The Spark. “Our election leaflet hit the mark. The extra vote we got from beyond the ‘lefties’ was from our message – against developers’ greed, people before profit, and highlighting the cost of living. People are feeling more insecure.”
The Socialist Alliance letterboxed every house in the ward with their first leaflet, and around 25% received a second “how to vote” leaflet. There were weekly stalls in two shopping areas and a small amount of door-knocking. Train stations were leafleted at morning rush hour.
“There was also a backlash against Labor and the Greens”, explained Sue. “The sitting Green councillor, who didn’t seek re-election, was responsible for a string of pro-development decisions against the wishes of the community”.
A veteran Labor Party councillor in the ward lost his seat. The first preference vote for the lead Green candidate dropped from 18 to 14 percent, mirroring falls across Moreland.
“We criticised some Green policies, but we didn’t attack the Green Party”, Sue added. “Some greens have a lot of sympathy for us. Attacking the Greens cuts you off from dialogue with left greens and get people’s backs up. It makes them feel they have to defend the party, even if they have misgivings.”
On election day, there were Greens and Socialist Alliance supporters cooperating at some polling booths, jointly handing out both parties’ “how to vote” cards.
“This result lifts the morale of people who identify with socialist and left progressive politics”, said Sue. “The capitalist class socks it to people relentlessly. They can lose confidence in struggle. They don’t see the potential for a left alternative to Labor and the Greens.
“We now expect SA to grow, but we regard this council position as something not just for us, but for the wider left. We are determined to use it to instigate campaigns around issues important to local people, and bring new working class people into political activity so they’re part of changing things themselves.”
Sue’s first act as elected councillor was to call on supporters to join her at a successful protest against the deportation of a Tamil asylum seeker back to probable torture in Sri Lanka.