As lefty Australians observed from across the seas with wonderment and joy the Sanders campaign in the United States, and the rise to the Labour leadership of Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, they increasingly asked in frustration; where are the Australian versions of Corbyn and Sanders?
Both Corbyn and Sanders hail from one of the established parties of what are essentially two party electoral systems.
It must be said that neoliberalism has bit much harder in the UK and the US, mainly because the post 1990s mining boom has shielded Australia from its more egregious consequences. During the neoliberal induced “recession we had to have,” which was deep, that was by no means the case.
In Australia many of a progressive bent are members of the Greens or vote for them in state and parliamentary elections. The Greens are now an entrenched feature of Australian electoral politics, in a way not adequately reflected by their numbers in state and federal parliaments, and they have become so as progressives have looked for alternatives to Labor.
The slow but steady rise of the Greens is one means by which the Corbyn and Sanders phenomena have taken form in Australian electoral politics.
This is similar to, say, the advent of new leftist parties in places like Spain. Countries which in whole or in part have proportional representation voting are more amenable to this type of leftist revolt as alternative parties are more readily able to gain a presence in parliament. Proportional representation also makes it easier to gain an influential position within the balance of parliamentary power, so supporting minor parties can have real affects.
Proportional representation, in whole or in part, means that consumers can have shelves stocked with a greater variety of goods than otherwise. However, the danger exists that this variety reflects variety of packaging rather than content.
Many who would naturally be the shock troops of a Sanders or Corbyn type rebellion in the mainstream Labor Party are not in the Labor Party; they, rather, have joined the Greens. Ironically, it is widely interpreted among political analysts that the current leader of the Greens, Richard Di Natalie, has taken the party to the right as a means to increase its electoral appeal.
Much, but by no means all, of the Australian Greens would not declare themselves to be “socialists” in the manner that Corbyn, Sanders and other leaders of neoliberalism’s “indignados” have.
Perhaps we might narrow our question; why hasn’t there emerged an Australian Corbyn or Sanders within the Australian Labor Party?
The natural place from which such a figure would arise is the so called “socialist” left faction of the Labor Party. Both Corbyn and Sanders have been rebels within their own respective parties over many years. They have always stood by, indeed participated, in grass roots social, community and union struggles throughout the neoliberal era. They never sought political power at the expense of support and participation in those struggles. They have used their role as elected representatives to take these struggles into their respective legislatures and parties.
They are not just legislators. They were activists, internal party dissidents, and legislators all rolled into one. As neoliberalism cut into the fabric of society they became natural figures behind which a grass roots revolt against the neoliberal establishment of the Democrats and Labour could coalesce behind.
In the Australian Labor Party, following its defeat at the 1984 National Conference, the “socialist” left decided it would not be a combined force on the streets, in the unions, in the party, and in parliament in struggle against the neoliberal order. Instead the “socialist” left allowed itself to be coopted into government, and so they themselves inevitably became an instrument of the neoliberal restructuring of Australian society. There could no longer emerge a Jim Cairns or a Tom Uren that acted as much without as within the party so much had the political culture of Labor changed.
First, the “socialist” left entered the outer ministry. Later, it entered cabinet. Then, it became a part of the exclusive expenditure review committee of cabinet. It even had a “socialist,” Lindsay Tanner, minister for financial market deregulation.
The “socialist” left became a political machine based on patron-client networks dedicated toward political careerism and the exercise of political power, in essence a vehicle for apparatchiks. That meant actively preventing the emergence of an anti-neoliberal insurgency within the party and the trade union movement, as part of a tacit alliance with the right faction which the ritualised combat at national conferences served only to obscure. It was understood that this was a political requirement of having senior representatives of the faction in cabinet.
There is no Corby or Sanders in Australia because there hasn’t been a Labor MP that has consistently stood by and participated in social movement activism outside parliament, that has sought to take that activism into the Labor Party as part of a democratic revolt against its oligarchic structures, that has spoken up in parliament and voted in parliament consistently for progressive causes even if it required voting against the party line.
The main role of the Australian Labor Party in the neoliberal era has been to prevent a revolt from those sectors of society that would normally oppose the restructuring of society at the behest of, and in the interests of, corporate power. The “socialist” left after 1984 decided it too would play its part in this so that it too could share in the spoils of power and privilege.
So we have no Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders in Australia.