By Rebecca Broad, National Organiser of the Workers Party
On the weekend of the 6th-8th of May this writer attended the national conference of the Socialist Party Australia (SPA), in Melbourne. This facilitated face to face discussion of experiences around organising and promoting socialist ideas in Australia and New Zealand.
Both similarities and differences exist in terms of the economic, social and political conditions of the two countries. The policy of mandatory detention of refugee and asylum seekers is currently at the forefront of Australian politics (See The Spark May issue). On Friday afternoon a demonstration was organised at the offices of CIRCO, a company contracted to run detention centres. The entries to the building were blocked by lines of protesters for an hour, preventing access in and out. Around 100 people supported the protest, and despite pressure from the heavy police presence there were no arrests and the picket line was not breached.
The conference consisted of three public sessions: the international situation, perspectives for class struggle in Australia, and the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. The SPA is an affiliate to the Committee for a Workers International (CWI), which is an international body consisting of socialist organisations in many countries across the world. Kevin McLoughlin, a leading member of the CWI Ireland affiliate, presented on the international situation. He discussed the economic tumult occurring in Europe and the USA and how the consequent political programs of cuts against working people are opening up opportunities to win a hearing for socialist ideas.
Stephen Jolly presented on the economic and political situation in Australia. That country is unique in that its economy has not entered recession. Jolly discussed reasons for this, whether it could continue, and the outlook for an up-turn in the level of class consciousness and struggle. A central point touched on was the China Factor. A significant portion of the Australian economy is made up of raw-material exports to China. As such the construction and mining industries in Australia are experiencing a boom period. However, as the current mushroom of expansion occurring in China is significantly fuelled by direct foreign investment, the Australian economy too will not be protected from future downturn and recession. Additionally a finance sector and housing bubble currently still exists. Having its foundation on financial and speculative transactions and not real value growth means the laws and tendencies of capitalism will ultimately end growth in this sector, as has occurred already in many other countries internationally, including New Zealand and the USA.
The SPA is engaged in building a new trade union in Melbourne. UNITE union is based on class-struggle principles and organising previously unorganised and poorly organised sections, such as areas of the youth-dominated service sector. Australian industrial law means that there are different conditions for trade unions compared to New Zealand. For instance, state awards still exist, as do penalty rates for overtime and weekend work, and the federal minimum wage is $15/hour. However Youth Rates exist for workers under 21, and unions have no guaranteed right of access to the workplace. Unite has been running a campaign on Brunswick St, an important cafe and restaurant street in central Melbourne. Through this several new workplaces have become unionised and the workers have been able to win back- pay for being paid under the award rate.
The SPA has contested the council elections in Melbourne on an openly socialist slate, using this as a forum to carve out a hearing for socialist ideas. Currently they have two elected socialist councillors.
That their organisation has been successful in beginning to forge real links with the working class is reflected in the growth of the organisation and its capabilities. Seeing this first hand is among the main benefits to be taken from attending the conference from New Zealand, where the revolutionary left is still small and dealing with important organisational tasks.