Article by Bronwen Beechey.
Local body politics has been traditionally regarded as being about roads, rubbish and rates. However, empowering communities is an important factor in building resistance to neo-liberal capitalism. In Australia, a number of socialist councillors have been standing up for the rights of those usually ignored by local bodies.
In Victoria, recent local council elections saw two socialists re-elected. The Socialist Alliance’s candidate Sue Bolton, standing in the North-East Ward of Moreland City Council, was re-elected with the second-highest primary vote in the ward. In Yarra City Council, socialist Stephen Jolly came first in the Landridge Ward and was re-elected to a fourth term on council.
Bolton faced a tough battle, with 20 candidates (seven Labor, three Greens and four right-wing independents) standing for four positions. The elections were based on compulsory preferential voting, with other candidates swapping preferences and none directing preferences to Bolton. In the end, second preferences from mostly Green and Labor voters were the deciding factor in Bolton’s re-election. Her primary vote was 13.3 per cent, compared to the 9.5 per cent she won when first elected in 2012.
Bolton also faced a campaign against her by the conservative right, local traders and the Herald-Sun newspaper over her opposition to racism. In May this year, she initiated a rally against racism in the ethnically diverse suburb of Coburg, calling for an end to the closure of aboriginal communities, a treaty between the government and aboriginal people, allowing refugees held in detention to settle in Australia and an end to Islamophobia. While the rally successfully attracted several hundred people, media attention focused on a smaller confrontation between racist groups and anti-racist activists which occurred nearby. The Murdoch-owned Herald Sun took the lead in blaming Bolton for the violence, although she had neither organised nor endorsed the action. A number of local traders also blamed her for loss of business due to the police closing off the Coburg mall. During the election campaign, a number of Bolton’s election posters were defaced.
On her Facebook page, following her victory, Bolton commented:
“The racists and the Herald Sun don’t win all of the time. The racists wanted to make me pay for organising a rally against racism by campaigning to vote me off council. They systematically defaced and ripped down my posters around the centre of Coburg. But they didn’t win. I make no apology for standing up against racism. We need to make a stand against racism wherever we are.”
Bolton’s election campaign was run on a tiny budget and relied on street stalls and door-knocking to get the message out. She commented:
“There were so many different parts of the community who were involved in helping my re-election campaign – Socialist Alliance members, independent socialists, trade unionists, anti-development activists, residents networks, First Nations activists, the Muslim community, Urdu communities, the Nepalese community, the Kurdish community, environmentalists, pensioner groups, parents of children with disabilities, the Itiki sports club and many others.”
As well as her stand against racism, Bolton’s achievements on council include reinstatement of after-hours respite care for parents of children with disabilities which the council had cut, reinstatement of the council’s climate budget, preventing the sale of a significant Aboriginal site, and opposing the sale of land to private developers rather than being used for public housing. She also helped found a local campaign against the East-West link, a proposed freeway with tunnels that would have cut through parkland and caused increased traffic congestion in Moreland and surrounding areas. Along with other public transport groups, the campaign was successful in stopping the proposed link. Bolton also held regular ward meetings and gained a reputation as an honest councilor who “got things done”.
In a video for her campaign, Bolton said that the best part of her role on council was “being able to work with residents to create community campaigns, so that residents get treated seriously by council. People get bureaucratically dismissed as not having genuine or realistic concerns, so people often feel very powerless or disenchanted. As an activist councilor you can help people get organized, and also raise residents’ issues within the council, and often get victories, which actually helps the residents’ campaign to move forward and win their demand.”
Stephen Jolly was first elected to the Yarra Council in 2008, and has been re-elected twice. He has stated that he wants the area to be a community ““where families and those on low incomes can afford to live and more easily access services, like child care”. Like Bolton, Jolly has been active in campaigning against the East-West Link, against the privatisation of services like rubbish collection, and for more public housing . He has also been active in campaigning against racism, and has been subjected to harassment and death threats by racist organizations. Jolly was a long-time member of the Socialist Party (a Trotskyist group affiliated to the Committee for a Workers International) but resigned earlier this year along with a number of other members, over allegations that the organisation had covered up allegations of abuse of a female member.
The six other socialist candidates who ran on the same ticket as Jolly also received a high level of support, although not enough to be elected to council. Four Green members were also elected, meaning that with Jolly’s support they could form a majority on the 9-person council. Jolly told Green Left Weekly that he is keen to work with the Greens and called for public discussions on a common program.
Socialist Alliance also has another local councillor, Sam Wainwright, who was elected to the Fremantle City Council in Western Australia in 2009, and re-elected in 2013 with an outright majority of 58.33% in his Hilton ward. Wainwright has been involved in campaigning against a number of proposed freeway projects and for expanded public transport services, telling Green Left Weekly in 2014: “What is called transport planning in this country is mostly endless subsidies to the road transport, road construction and fossil fuel industries – at literally any cost to the public purse, environment, urban form and human health. Stopping endless freeway construction is not some NIMBY thing, it’s about creating people-friendly cities.”
Wainwright also campaigned for better conditions for council workers, and was successful in getting the council to adopt a policy that recognised union rights and permanent work instead of contracts.
Earlier this year, Wainwright successfully moved that Fremantle council support protests for refugee rights, call for the end of the offshore mandatory detention regime and boat “turnbacks”, and boycott any companies who are contracted to run detention centres.
The success of the socialist councillors is due to a number of factors. All are long-time activists with a history of living in and involvement in their local communities. They have all been uncompromising in defending those communities from cuts to services, inappropriate developments, gentrification and racism, and in standing up to attacks from right wing groups and media. At a time when many on the left are feeling demoralised and isolated, their success shows that it is possible to gain support for openly socialist politics among ordinary working people and in diverse communities.
For more information on the socialist councillors:
Sue Bolton: https://www.facebook.com/SueBoltonForMoreland/
Stephen Jolly: https://www.facebook.com/stephen.jolly1
Sam Wainwright: https://www.facebook.com/FreoReport/?fref=ts