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 ( 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.

Video: Relevance of Socialism in Seattle, Kshama Sawant

Presentation by Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative Candidate for Seattle City Council.

See also:

USA: Election breakthrough for a Seattle socialist

kshama sawant

Chris Mobley reports from Seattle where a revolutionary socialist challenger for a seat on the City Council has surged into a narrow lead. Reprinted from

SOCIALIST ALTERNATIVE candidate Kshama Sawant had a narrow lead over four-term incumbent Democrat Richard Conlin in an election for a seat on the Seattle City Council, as of November 13–a stunning result for a revolutionary socialist and a powerful symbol of the discontent with the political status quo.

Washington state votes by mail, and a majority of ballots typically come in after Election Day, since votes are accepted as long as they were postmarked by that day. As of the end of Wednesday, Sawant was ahead by 402 votes, with some 13,000 ballots still to be counted, according to the latest announcement from election officials.

The results could still turn against Sawant, but momentum is on her side–she has had the edge in each round of counting in the days since Election Day on November 5, helping her to overcome what appeared to be a narrow defeat based on where the vote count stood on election night.

Even while trailing on election night, however, it was clear that Sawant and Socialist Alternative candidate Ty Moore, who lost by just 229 votes in an election for city council in Minneapolis, have scored breakthroughs. Well before Election Day, Danny Westneat, a columnist for the mainstream Seattle Times daily newspaper, summed up the electrifying impact of these campaigns: “The election isn’t for 10 days, but we can already declare the big winner in Seattle. It’s the socialist.”

Westneat pointed out that Sawant was responsible for Democrats like Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and his victorious challenger in last week’s election, Ed Murray, suddenly declaring their support for left-wing initiatives such as the Fight for 15 organizing drive for low-wage workers. As Westneat concluded:

You can’t look at the stagnant pay, declining benefits and third-world levels of income disparity in recent years and conclude this system is working. For Millennials as a group, it has been a disaster. Out of the wreckage, left-wing or socialist economic ideas, such as the “livable wage” movement in which government would seek to mandate a form of economic security, are flowering.

Sawant’s edge in the late-arriving ballots is another indicator of the grassroots energy that made her campaign stand out, as David Goldstein, writing in The Stranger, an alternative weekly newspaper, explained:

Part of [the reason Sawant is winning in each day of counting after Election Day has] to do with demographics; younger voters tend to vote late and more lefty. Part of it has to do with hard work; Sawant’s impressive grassroots campaign had a couple hundred volunteers calling voters and knocking on doors to get out her vote, while Conlin had little ground game at all. And part of it has to do with momentum; voter preferences shift over time, and her surprisingly strong campaign clearly moved support in Sawant’s favor.

The final vote totals are scheduled to be certified on November 26, but the uncertainty could go on longer with the possibility of a recount if the margin of victory remains closer than 0.5 percent and 2,000 votes.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

THE SUCCESS of the Socialist Alternative campaigns is directly connected to their roots in grassroots struggles.

In Minneapolis, Ty Moore made the Occupy MN Homes movement–with its call for a moratorium on foreclosures and a ban on police carrying out evictions–central to his campaign for a city council seat representing an area under assault by gentrification.

In Seattle, Sawant, an economics professor and respected activist, focused on several key issues to galvanize support from working people and the left. Building on the energy of the national Fight for 15 campaign to organize low-wage workers in restaurant and retail, Sawant positioned herself as the candidate who supported a living wage for all.

The popularity of the Fight for 15 demand was dramatized in SeaTac, a Seattle suburb where the regional airport is located. A union-backed ballot measure–bitterly opposed by business interests–that would mandate a $15-an-hour minimum wage for airport and hotel workers was winning as of November 13, though by only 19 votes at the latest count.

Sawant also focused on proposals for rent control in a city where rents have risen by 6 percent in just the last year alone, on top of increases year after year, according to Reis, which compiles and sells data to the commercial real-estate industry.

She also advocated for a tax on millionaires, in a state with no income tax, to fund mass transit and other infrastructure improvements. This call is especially timely with the local public transit agency, King County Metro, planning to cut bus service by as much as 20 percent next year.

Gaining the endorsements of several unions and social justice organizations, as well support from prominent local activists, the campaign was able to mobilize several hundred volunteers, who covered the city with distinctive “Vote Sawant” posters. Though far outspent by her opponent, Sawant did raise more than $100,000, mainly from small contributions.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

SAWANT AND those who worked for her ran an effective campaign, but her success is the result of tapping into voter discontent with the political status quo, particularly in a liberal city like Seattle.

According a recent Gallup poll, Democrats and Republicans have reached an all-time low in public opinion–only 26 percent of Americans believe the two mainstream parties do “an adequate job of representing the American people.” Some 60 percent said there was a need for a third major party.

In Seattle, where the Democrats predominate, this discontent translated into heavy press interest in Sawant. She won an endorsement from The Stranger before her strong showing in the August primary election–the alt-weekly wrote in an article headlined “The Case for Kshama Sawant”: “Sawant offers voters a detailed policy agenda, backed up by a coherent economic critique and a sound strategy for moving the political debate in a leftward direction.”

After coming in a close second in August, Sawant continued to pick up broad support, including a small group of “Democrats for Sawant”–a stark symbol of the bitterness with the incumbent Conlin, who has a long record of pandering to business interests. Sawant won backing from local hip-hop artists and several prominent local activists, notably left-wing journalist Geov Parrish. Sawant also got support from immigrant political organizations, including the Somali American Public Affairs Council. In the final weeks of the campaign, volunteers made a push to hold “100 rallies for Sawant.”

As a socialist challenger in a liberal city against a Democratic opponent, Sawant was able to avoid one of the key difficulties that third party candidates typically face: the so-called “spoiler effect.” Without a Republican in the election, the Democrat Conlin wasn’t able to browbeat his party’s much more liberal base into supporting him as a “lesser evil.”

Now, Sawant stands a good chance of taking a seat for four years on the nine-member City Council. This will open up a new opportunity for the left–both Sawant and Moore pledged that they would use the resources of their offices to assist grassroots struggles involving workers, the oppressed, immigrants and the community.

There will be more days of vote-counting to come, but the Sawant campaign has already accomplished an enormous amount by proving that there is a thirst for an alternative to the status quo–and that socialists can confidently put forward a different vision for society, knowing it will connect with the aspirations of more and more people.

See also:

The roots of Labour’s leadership crisis

robertson cunliffe jones

This article, by Fightback member Jared Phillips, was originally written for The Socialist, the monthly magazine of The Socialist Party (Australia).

In late August David Shearer resigned as leader of the opposition New Zealand Labour Party. Labour has suffered from poor poll results since it lost the 2008 election. Since then Shearer has been the second opposition leader to resign.

Much of the commentary of late has referred to a leadership crisis in Labour and pointed to this as the main reason for the poor poll results. This is true enough but very few people have explained the roots of this crisis.

Labour’s woes are deeply political. They have besieged the party since the 1980s when it began to carry out sweeping neo-liberal counter reforms. To this day Labour remains deeply wedded to maintaining the capitalist system. This forces the party to adopt policies that are at odds with its working class voter base.

During the post war boom this contradiction was somewhat papered over but now in the era of economic crisis it is much harder hide.

The vote for a new leader is split between Labour’s five affiliated unions (20%), Labour’s MPs (40%) and the party membership (40%). The affiliate unions are using this mechanism to encourage their members to vote for one of the three contenders. They hope that in mobilising members to vote for a candidate it will logically follow that these members will be more encouraged to vote Labour at the election. [Read more…]

Grant Brookes for Capital and Coast DHB

Grant Brookes speaking as an NZNO delegate at Wellington Fairness at Work rally.

Grant Brookes speaking as an NZNO delegate at Wellington Fairness at Work rally.

Grant Brookes, Fightback member, is standing for election to Capital and Coast District Health Board (DHB) at the upcoming 2013 local body elections. Brookes is standing on a Health First ticket, endorsed by the Nurses Organisation (NZNO) and the MANA Movement. Fightback writer Ian Anderson interviewed him.

FB: What are your goals in standing for election to the Capital and Coast District Health Board?

GB: Elections are a difficult arena for activists. They favour candidates with big budgets, high public profiles and easy access to mainstream media, who trade off conventional memes – in other words, the mouthpieces of the rich and powerful.

But contesting elections is an important part of building a mass movement for radical change.

Many goals can be served by standing. For example, standing in elections can help legitimise and popularise radical ideas, raise the profile of socialist groups and recruit new members, put pressure on political parties which claim to represent working class and oppressed groups, and so on.

I have stood in elections in the past in pursuit of some of these goals.

But I am standing for election to the Capital and Coast District Health Board this October with the aim of winning a seat. This different goal colours all aspects of my campaign. [Read more…]

John Minto for Mayor: “We need a Kiwi socialism”

minto for mayor

The latest opinion polls put John Minto – teacher, veteran activist and MANA movement candidate – in third place in the race for Mayor of Tamaki Makaurau/Auckland. Fightback writer Daphne Lawless caught up with him at his campaign headquarters.

Why has John Minto decided to run for the most powerful urban office in Aotearoa/New Zealand? He hesitates for quite a long time before answering – he calls it “the hardest question”.

It’s certainly not a question of seeking the limelight. A recent interview in the NZ Herald by Michelle Hewitson focussed relentlessly on delving Minto’s personality – and bringing up what John calls “the wallpaper of history” about his 30-year activist career. So he seems quite relieved that Fightback is interested in his campaign’s politics.

“I wouldn’t have stood as an independent”, he tells us. ‘The MANA Movement is “keen to raise its profile in the community,” he explains, as a “building-block” for the general election next year.

A major goal of the Minto for Mayor campaign, John explains, is to change the perception of MANA as simply a Maori Party split, with Pakeha (European-ethnicity) leftists merely being supporters of Maori aspirations. John gives this as the reason why, in the last general election in 2011, “all of the MANA candidates in general seats bombed”, and only their main Maori spokesperson, Hone Harawira, was elected to Parliament.

Building “a broader base for MANA in Tamaki” is thus a crucial goal of the campaign. To this end, John mentions the role of revolutionary leftists – in particular the Socialist Aotearoa group – in his campaign, alongside single-issue activists such as the Tamaki Housing Group and some individual Green Party members. [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…]

2011 General Election Analysis

From the December-January issue of The Spark.For a longer piece on the Mana Party in the election, see this article.

The Key Factor: PR and The National Party

Novembers’ election saw a narrow victory for the National Party and its allies. Compared to their 2008 result, National saw their vote drop by about 10%- over 95,000 votes. They only received such a large share of the vote because Labours dropped even more- an enormous 255,000. ACT went from 5 MPs to 1, who would have been gone too if not for winning Epsom- the country’s richest electorate with the lowest Maori population. The Greens and NZ First were the only parties in parliament that grew their vote from 20081. 1 in 4 people did not vote. [Read more…]

Mana in the election

Mana held Tai Tokerau for Hone Harawira and achieved 1% of the party vote, a respectable outcome, considering that the movement was launched just seven months ago, with bugger all money, and that the Labour and Māori Parties colluded to try and strangle it at birth. Mana won 12.7% of the Māori votes, and gained more votes than the ACT Party. The campaign that we ran was a refreshing display of left wing unity between Tino Rangatiritanga activists, Workers Party, Socialist Aotearoa, Socialist Worker, ISO and others. Mana is on the map.

But Mana was unlikely to repeat the success of the Māori Party when it was launched in 2004. For a start, there was no hikoi this time, and of course, Mana did not have the backing of the Brown Table. Mana also failed to make a real breakthrough into the Pasefika and working class Pākehā communities, perhaps because it was perceived to be a party exclusively for tangata whenua, like the Māori Party.
[Read more…]

Defend MMP in the 2011 referendum

This article by Jared Phillips will appear in the June 2011 issue of The Spark

This year New Zealand electors will vote in a national referendum, held as part of the general elections, asking them firstly to indicate whether they want to change from MMP, and secondly to indicate their preferred electoral system. The other options are First Past the Post (FPP), Preferential Voting (PV), Single Transferable Vote (STV), and Supplementary Member (SM). If a majority votes in favour of retaining MMP that decision will be binding. However, if a majority votes against retaining MMP, there will be a further referendum in 2014 whereby electors will decide between MMP and whichever alternative procedure gains the most support in the 2011 referendum. If a new system is selected in 2014 it will come into effect at the 2017 election.

Real advanced democracy can only be imposed and administered by the majority of working people through a workers‘ government. In the current period though, in which the working class has clearly not yet recovered organisationally or politically from the onslaught of neo-liberalism, it is important to ensure that the electoral system offering the most democratic electoral procedure prevails. From this point of view it is in the best interests of the working people and oppressed groups to retain MMP.

[Read more…]