Interview: Sue Bolton, Socialist Councillor for Moreland (Australia)

sue bolton

Sue Bolton is a longtime socialist activist and the Victorian convenor of Socialist Alliance. She was elected to the Moreland Council, which covers the inner northern suburbs of Melbourne, in 2012. She will be a featured speaker at the Fightback conference in Wellington in May. She was interviewed for Fightback by Bronwen Beechey.

Fightback:There is a debate in the socialist movement about whether socialists should participate in “bourgeois” elections. Obviously you think they should, why do you think it’s a good idea?

SB: I think it is important for socialists to stand for election for several reasons: it gives you a forum for putting a socialist viewpoint on a wide range of issues, not just issues where there are campaigns. In Australia at the moment, campaigns tend to focus on moral issues such as human rights or environmental issues but there are few campaigns around economic issues. Elections give an opportunity to socialists to put an alternative to neoliberalism.

Elections are also a good discipline for socialists because you have to translate your general socialist slogans into concrete policies

It is a good way of building the party and also a socialist or socialist-leaning milieu or base in an area.

Fightback: Do you think that your election was due to the issues that you campaigned around, or your profile as a long-time activist in the area, or both?

SB: I think it was both. There are people who know me from the union movement, including picket lines, the refugee rights movement, the Middle East Solidarity group and the climate movement.

Some of the residents who didn’t know me or Socialist Alliance voted for me because we campaigned to put community need first, not developer greed.

Fightback: What were the issues you campaigned around?

SB: We took up a mix of local and broader issues. A central issue we campaigned on was opposition to developer greed, for developers to bear the cost of providing amenities, for mandatory height limits and more green spaces.

We called for a campaigning council that would campaign for more public transport, against the sell -off of public housing and for ethical investment.

We campaigned for expanded bike paths, solar power and against gas-fired power generation.

We campaigned for a council that helps its residents with cost of living pressures, including that residents not be pushed out of their home because they can’t afford rates and that rates shouldn’t be increased above the level of inflation. This is because rates are not an equitable means of funding local government services. A pensioner or an unemployed person could be living in a house which has risen in value because of gentrification, but they can’t afford massive rates even though their house has risen in value.

We also campaigned for regular ward accountability meetings.

Fightback: What has been your experience working in the council? Is it a hostile environment, or do you have supporters there? Have you any formal or informal links with other socialist or left councillors?

SB: The council is very conservative with a Liberal Party councillor, a Democratic Labor Party councillor, two Greens councillors, six ALP councillors and me. Then there is the council bureaucracy which is also very conservative.

The council meetings aren’t necessarily hostile. It’s more that the council bureaucracy and the other councillors are trying to take you on the same path as them, which is a neoliberal path. The problem is more one of co-option rather than direct hostility, although that exists as well.

Due to the pressure of campaigns, we haven’t been collaborating as closely as we would like to. I get more opportunities to collaborate with Sam Wainwright [from the Fremantle, WA Council] because he is also a member of Socialist Alliance. I am also involved in a campaign that involves a number of members of [Socialist Party member  and Yarra Council councillor] Steve Jolly’s party, the campaign against the East West Link  [a proposed 18 kilometre tolled freeway system including two 12-metre tunnels, running through Melbourne’s inner suburbs .]

Fightback: How has the Abbott government affected Australian politics at a national and a local level, particularly its impact on working people, the poor and oppressed groups?

SB: The worst aspect is the Abbott government’s use of sharp racism, in particular against refugees, to hide its attacks on working class living standards. The government is appealing to the more conservative section of the working class in order to rule.

At the same time, it is attacking unions by attacking corruption in unions. Unfortunately, a couple of real examples of corruption have been uncovered. These have undermined workers’ confidence in unions, which in turn has made the unions more scared about responding with industrial action. Most industrial action is illegal, so the only way of responding to the attacks is with “illegal” industrial action. It is necessary to take industrial action regardless of whether it is legal or not, but most unions are avoiding taking any industrial action that might be deemed “illegal”. It’s also the case that if unionists or unions refuse to pay fines for taking industrial action, the law allows the government to sequester the fine from individual’s or union’s bank accounts.

The government has succeeded in demoralising people because people can’t see a fightback coming yet.

Fightback: Do you think the recent “Marches in March” against the Abbott government represent a new phase of opposition to neoliberal policies?

SB: The marches were fantastic, especially given that the union movement hasn’t mobilised its members against the Abbott government yet. The size and number of marches undercuts the government’s argument that it has a mandate for its cuts. Around 100,000 people marched against the government at March in March. The dominant issue that people brought homemade placards about was the government’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, followed by climate/environment issues, then many other issues.

Fightback: Some on the left argue that the best strategy to beat right-wing governments is to vote for Labour parties as the “lesser evil,” or that Labour can be transformed from within. What is your response to those arguments?

SB: The left has tried to reform Labor from within ever since the ALP was formed. It’s never worked. The only times that Labor governments have ever carried out any progressive reforms are when there has been a strong communist/left movement outside the ALP. In fact, I would argue that the ALP doesn’t just play a reactionary role when in government; it also has a damaging effect on unions. The ALP is always influencing unions to not put forward their interests strongly; it is influencing unions not to take industrial action. Unions’ affiliation with the ALP is a vehicle for the capitalists to influence the unions. Unions have very little ability to influence the ALP to adopt pro-worker policies, despite their affiliation.

Fightback: As a member of Socialist Alliance, what is your perception of the recent breakdown of unity talks between SA and Socialist Alternative? Do you think there are still possibilities for greater unity on the Left?

SB: I think there were different conceptions of what sort of organisation we each wanted to build. There were some differences which would have needed to be explored before unity could have been possible, but there was never an opportunity to do that before the unity talks broke down.

However, there’s always another struggle and another day. There will be opportunities in the future for left unity but these opportunities will probably arise as a result of new political developments.

Fightback: As a long-time feminist, do you think that there are still difficulties for women participating in mainstream political bodies such as councils? Have you experienced sexism from other council members, or from the community?

SB: There have definitely been sexist attitudes exhibited by a couple of male councillors. On Moreland council six of the eleven councillors are women. I might have experienced more sexist attitudes if the numbers were different. The problem is more that the council and councillors are good on women’s rights issues on paper but in practice they only pay lip-service.

The real issues of sexism come about at a much earlier stage and are more to do with women’s ability to participate in society because they face family violence, are living in poverty on single parents pension or a low paid job as a single parent, don’t have the money to access expensive childcare or other services, or have low self-esteem.

You can also see a certain sexist approach with the murder of a local Brunswick woman by a male stranger on the street towards the end of 2012, which resulted in a big Reclaim the Night march of several thousand people. The council turned this issue into a law and order issue, rather than dealing with it as an issue of violence against women. The biggest source of violence against women is from intimate partners in the home.

Fightback: Some left-wing councillors and former councillors have commented that the relatively privileged role of a councillor (getting free passes to events, socialising with business people, etc) can influence progressive councillors and distance them from their constituents. How do you stay accountable to the community?

SB: That can certainly happen. You have to be very conscious about what you’re on the council for. Unlike state and federal government, councils are portrayed as being a “team” where party politics and an oppositional approach don’t apply. This is all part of trying to recruit all councillors to “respectable” neoliberal politics.

It’s important to be aware of the fact that many of the councillors and council officers regard residents as pests, and use language to cover up the pro-business outlook such as talking about all the “stakeholders” as having equal interests. This is a way of legitimising giving more say to businesses and developers than to residents.

The accountability is mainly via reportbacks on council activities on Facebook and the blog site (http://www.suesmorelandreport.org). In addition to this, I report back to Socialist Alliance meetings and we initiated Moreland Socialists for anyone who is left-wing and wants to support our council position. We have organised some ward meetings, but we want to get more regular with these.

Australia’s refugee ‘solution’

by Byron Clark, Fightback

Refugees are beginning to arrive in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG) after Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his PNG counterpart, Peter O’Neill, agreed to expand asylum-seeker processing. The new arrangement, called the Regional Resettlement Arrangement (RRA), was secured when Australia offered an unspecified amount of aid for roads, naval bases and universities. It goes further than the “Pacific Solution Mark II” introduced by former Prime Minister Julia Gillard last year, in that refugees who have already arrived in Australia can be sent to PNG for processing.

Rudd has stated that all genuine refugees will be resettled in PNG, though recently O’Neill has contradicted him, saying some will be resettled in Australia. O’Neill told media that PNG would work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to engage with other countries willing to take part in resettlement. ”That includes Australia, New Zealand and all the other countries who are signatories to the UN conventions on refugees,’

PNG is in much worse shape than Australia to resettle refugees, current facilities can only house around 300 people, yet 3,500 asylum seekers have been arriving in Australia each month this year, even a dramatic slowdown would still result in an unmanageable amount of asylum seekers (at least, an amount impossible to manage humanely). While Australia is expected to spend $600 million upgrading facilities on Manus Island, PNG as a whole is in a weak position to resettle people.

Over 50% of the population live under $2 a day, 61% of them without access to clean water. The country is 156th in the UN’s human development index- compared to Australia, which is second. There is widespread opposition to the policy in PNG resting on two main themes; the lack of development of PNG and its lack of sovereignty in its neo-colonial relationship with Australia.

This sentiment could turn into a misplaced hostility against refugees, the governor of Oro province, Gary Zuffa, told ABC Sydney that the decision to settle refugees in Papua New Guinea could be very divisive, and former opposition leader Dame Carol Kidu has noted that the country already has many displaced people. While a PNG immigration department plan to direct resettled asylum seekers into available jobs is admirable, it could be met with resentment from poorer Papua New Guinean’s.

Concern has also been raised about the possible treatment of gay asylum seekers fleeing persecution; homosexuality is illegal in PNG and carries a penalty of fourteen years in prison.

Neighbouring Solomon Islands did not want to be part of the plan, “We have to respect the choice of asylum seekers, and the choices that these people have made is that they want to come to Australia.” President Gordon Lilo told Radio Australia’s Pacific Beat.

There is currently a legal challenge on behalf of one of the asylum seekers at Manus Island, an Iranian man who can currently only be identified as as S156 of 2013, the High Court number given to him when proceedings commenced. He is challenging the declaration of PNG as a suitable offshore processing country, and claiming his removal from Australia was invalid.

The Australian government is continuing with transfers and expects to prevail in court, despite a High Court decision that struck down Julia Gillard’s Malaysia Solution in 2011, saying that a “third country” must be able to guarantee certain freedoms and rights, which PNG cannot do. A separate legal challenge is being mounted in PNG by the main opposition party.
Rallies against the PNG solution have been held in several Australian cities.

Bush fires and climate change

Grant BrookesBush fire

The bush fires ravaging Australia this summer could turn out to be the worst on record.
Public reaction on both sides of the Tasman has been full of humanitarian concern for the victims. Meanwhile, our leaders plough on with policies which will spread more disasters like these globally – including here in Aotearoa.

The fires have been sparked by record-breaking temperatures. “The current heatwave – in terms of its duration, its intensity and its extent – is unprecedented,” said David Jones from the Australian Bureau of Meteorology. Temperatures at Sydney’s Observatory Hill have hit 45.8 oC – shattering the 1939 record by half a degree. In the South Australian town of Oodnadatta, it has been so hot that petrol evaporated at the pump, making it impossible for people to refill their cars.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said she felt “overwhelmed by the bravery and stoicism that people are showing in such difficult circumstances” and promised disaster relief payments for the victims, even acknowledging that “as a result of climate change, we are going to see more extreme weather events”.  But she added only, “We live in a country that is hot and dry… so we live with this risk”.
There was no mention of climate policy. Under her government, Australia remains the highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.

The story of the fires does not just concern Australia, however. The disasters also came less than two months after our own prime minister, John Key, announced that New Zealand would be pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change from the end of 2012.  [Read more...]

Interview: Socialist Party candidate re-elected in Yarra, Melbourne

In the recent local elections of Victoria, Australia, socialist candidates won seats in Yarra and Moreland (covered by Grant Brookes here: http://tinyurl.com/a7gbcxl.) Yarra Socialist Party councillor Stephen Jolly won his seat for the third time.  Writer for The Spark Ian Anderson interviewed Socialist Party member Mel Gregson.

The Spark: So the Socialist Party retained its council seat for Stephen Jolly, and lost its council seat for Anthony Main. Can you break that down a bit more?

MG: The campaign in Yarra was very successful with almost 1 in 5 voters across the city voting for us. We stood a team of five candidates, including current councillors Stephen Jolly and Anthony Main.

Our vote increased across all three wards, with Stephen Jolly topping the polls with 34.24% (the quota to be elected outright is 25%). Anthony Main stood in a different ward to which he was a councillor, where residents are being overrun by inappropriate development. There we increased our vote from 2.13% to 11.74%, with Anthony just missing out on re-election by a very small margin. In the other ward we almost doubled our vote to 10.81%.

The Spark: What is your political purpose in running electoral campaigns?

MG: The primary reason the Socialist Party stand in elections is to raise socialist ideas as an alternative to the pro-capitalist, neo-liberal policies of the main political parties. With class struggle at historic lows in Australia the level of political debate is also at a low, we believe that engaging with people at election time through standing candidates, debating the other parties and distributing political material can play a role in developing the level of political discussion.

In Yarra we have been able to take this to the next level by having some of our candidates elected to council. Through our work in Yarra over the last eight years we’ve been able to demonstrate socialist ideas in action. In this area we have been able to redefine the term ‘socialist’ from what many believed to be a stale, failed ideology into a positive term that people associate with the best class fighters and community campaigners in the area. [Read more...]

Socialists gain in Melbourne elections

Socialist Party candidate Anthony Main speaks at an election night party.

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. [Read more...]

Australia: Hundreds rally for refugees outside detention centre gates

Demonstration in MelbourneBy Chris Peterson, Melbourne
First published in Green Left Weekly

About 200 people rallied at Melbourne’s Maribyrnong Detention Centre on September 22, against deporting refugees to danger and mandatory detention. Dayan Anthony, a Tamil refugee, was deported to Sri Lanka in July against his will from Maribyrnong.

Antony’s Lawyer Sanmati Verma said: “Each and every professional and all community members in contact with Dayan Anthony attested that he was a torture survivor. And yet he was put on a plane and yet he was sent back to Sri Lanka.

“He was interrogated there for 16 hours by the notorious Criminal Investigation Department in the presence of Australian personnel. This deportation is the talk of law over the spirit of justice. “Regimes that commit war crimes are not magically transformed thee years later. We live in an age where the language of care has been hijacked from us. We are either on the side of Nauru or the side of people dying in the sea. This false discourse created by the expert panel [on asylum seekers] needs to be changed abolished.” [Read more...]

Solidarity with Coles workers (Australia)

Resistance comrades in Adelaide support Melbourne Coles Workers.

More information on Coles dispute:

Crucified on Christmas Island

The death of 30 asylum seekers, whose overloaded wooden boat crashed on the rocks of Christmas Island and sank, speaks volumes about immigration controls. This 21st century barbarism needs to be abolished, just as the slave trade was.

In the past year 5000 people made their way to Australia in flimsy boats via Indonesia. Most were from Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka fleeing war and genocide. Australia, as a key player in the US-led wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, is directly responsible for the desperate plight of those who turn to people-smugglers.

The journey to Australia invariably ends in prison or death. [Read more...]

Showing the way forward:Australian union disaffiliates from Labor Party

The Spark October 2010
Philip Ferguson

In July this year, the Victorian branch of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) took an important step forward and disaffiliated from the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Over 85% of those who took part in the vote voted to disaffiliate. Dean Mighell, the secretary of the Victorian union, told the paper Green Left Weekly, “Our members have watched over a long period of time as the ALP has attacked their union. . . They like the idea of their union being politically independent and putting their interest first and not the interests of any one party. We didn’t get any sense that members don’t want us campaigning on political issues that affect them. But they don’t see themselves as wedded naturally to the Labor Party.”

Affiliation hinders workers

Mighell noted the affect that being affiliated to the ALP has on unions campaigning for their members, saying, “What I’m bitterly disappointed about is that the union movement only seriously campaigns when the conservatives are in power. In reality, we’ve got conservatives in power now.” The union “looked at how we achieve political change for our members and what the most effective way was to do it”. They decided that they would be much more effective politically by ending their affiliation to Labor. [Read more...]

Free the Tamil asylum seekers

People protested outside the Australian consulate in Auckland, on 18 January, as part of an international day of action to support the Tamil Asylum Seekers who have spent 100 days on a boat in Indonesia in appalling conditions.

A protest organiser  spoke of how 254 Tamil Asylum Seekers refused to leave the boat for fear of being locked up in an Indonesian detention centre or being deported back to Sri Lanka.

Returning to Sri Lanka is not an option, as one man who had returned to see his ill mother had been thrown in prison, without charges being laid, and is still locked up.

“The refugees are rightly demanding that they be given basic human rights and that Australia, as a signatory of the UN Refugee Convention, adhere to its international responsibilities” Priyaksha said. [Read more...]

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